Vicar's Sermon - Christmas Morning
Luke 2 1-20
When God speaks to people He does so in a language that they can understand. So we can safely assume that when the angel came to the shepherds in the hills outside Bethlehem he spoke to them in either Aramaic…or, at a push in Koine Greek. This is, of course, if you take the story at face value…but stories won’t work if you don’t so we should go with it and see where it takes us.
The shepherds have a remarkable religious experience but it comes to them in a form that they can grasp for there really is no use God speaking if no-one can understand. A vague feeling is not enough, a sense of the Almighty may well be alright as far as it goes but we need more and so we are given words to focus the mind and heart, to make sense of what was going on. The words come from angelic figures whose appearance takes the form of a well-established pattern mirrored in other appearances of angels down the years – at least those that are recorded in the scriptures. Those who meet with angels inn the Old Testament tend to end up lying on the floor, quivering with fear – so our shepherds are true to type in this regard. It’s no accident that angelic messages begin ‘Don’t be afraid’ for the meeting of heaven and earth that they signify can be utterly disturbing.
Do not fear’ says the angel ‘I bring you tidings of great joy. To you, in David’s town, is born a Saviour who is Christ the Lord.’ It’s at this point that things get rather complicated. As birth announcements this trumps even a Royal birth announcement in this country - posted on an easel outside the gates of Buckingham Palace. But it’s the words that are the problem: ‘To you’ there’s the problem…to the shepherds (presumably to Mary and Joseph as well but ‘to you’, to the shepherds) is born a Saviour.
So now we have two lessons from the gospel. God speaks in a language we can understand. And the child born in the stable is in some way ‘for us…our child.’ This child, like any Royal Child is announced as being a representative figure. His job is laid out before Him. This child will grow up with all the freedom of choice that is God’s gift to all people…and yet, and yet, the angel (and presumably God) is clear: he will be the Saviour the shepherds long for.
This is where the other parts of the message help because this Saviour is to be understood through the lens of the story of God’s people Israel and their long-established hope that one day…oh just one day…God would come to His people to make all things right. He will come to put the world to rights. Maybe that’s why God chose the shepherds to be the ones to hear this message. They were near the bottom rung of Jewish society. As those out in the fields they weren’t the wealthy owners of the sheep – they would be tucked up in bed – no, they were the hired hands, the casual workers, those who were (as they say) just about managing but one paycheck away from having nothing to their name whatsoever. These folk are the ones who feel all too keenly the fact that the world is not as it should be that something is needed to put it to rights. So, to our observation that God speaks in ways that we can understand and that he offers to us a child who will represent us, who will be on our side, we add a challenge: have we settled for the world as it is or dare we hope for a better world? This child will comfort the disturbed but disturb the comfortable. The manner of His coming already signals a change in the world’s priorities.
But the message is not just one of hope. That’s there certainly but the shepherds don’t just shrug, say ‘that’s nice’ and settle down by the fire. The shepherds are expected to move, they must investigate whether what the angel has said is true. It’s one thing for us, once a year to hear the Christmas angels but where do they take us, where do they point us…what happens once they’ve retreated back up to heaven? The shepherds were to end up in front of the manger. They find Mary, Joseph …and the baby lying in the straw. At which point they have a decision to make, a faith decision: ‘Is this the Christ?’ The question they must answer is not just ‘can we trust the angel’s message?’ It’s ‘Can we believe in Him?’
The shepherds’ nighttime encounter offers us this morning a path that many others have trod on their way to understanding what Jesus is about. These moments when heaven comes close to earth come in all shapes and sizes for people. For some, God speaks in the exhilaration of them completing a particular project or work of art. For others, heaven comes near in the face of a child or a lover…in their voice on the phone…or the sound of them coming through the front door. Some people find God’s presence through a sense of peace…the view from a window…the sights, sounds and smells of a favourite season. God comes close to us, God speaks to us in a myriad ways. There is a wonder and a glory all around us, not just around the shepherds – surely you know this?
But what do we then do with this sense of wonder, how do we understand it or respond to it? The Christian story points us to a Creator above and beyond creation and yet whose creation resounds with His presence. Our Christian story recognizes a brokenness in things that needs redeeming, that needs a Saviour and it embraces the story of Israel and the birth within it of the Christ-child. There’s a shape here that makes sense of our everyday human experience….a framework for understanding that can hold the beauty of the world (and its fractures) within the story of a Loving God who works to make all things new again. More than this: the God who reaches out to us in the only way we can understand (namely through our experiences of and within His world and through our relationships with one another and with His creation) must, in Time, become part of His Creation – that is, become incarnate. ‘To you,’ here this morning, ‘is born a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.’ Only those with meek souls are in a position to receive Him: those who know that they cannot save themselves those who are prepared to let go of a false sense of self-sufficiency. It is not just that the world needs a Saviour: I do too. Someone who can change and transform me, someone who can raise
So we come to that challenge that faced the shepherds, the challenge to make a step of faith this Christmas and to bring our best (and our worst) within the arc of this story. God speaks to those who have ears to hear. He points us to His Christ. We understand who He is through the story of God’s people down the years but now He asks us to welcome Him. This Christmas God invites us to go further than just seeing the baby in the manger and celebrating His birth. He leaves us with a question and a decision to make: ‘Who, truly, is this child? And- ‘How now shall I live in the light of His birth?’