Christmas Eve at St Barnabas
Readings – Luke 2:1-14
Although I preach each year on this story, I always find there is something new in the story of Jesus’ birth. This year it was the expression “the glory of the Lord” that caught my eye, as it is such a significant theme in the Old Testament. Although I didn’t have opportunity to develop my thought further, it should be noted that one of the major differences between the Old and the New Testament is that in the latter the glory of the Lord is now located not in a place, but in a person (which is what makes Simeon’s words in the temple so significant, Luke 2:32). In Luke’s gospel, Jesus momentarily reveals His glory at the transfiguration (Luke 9:32), enters into glory through His death and resurrection (Luke 24:26) and assures us of the full and final revelation of that glory when He returns (Luke 21:27).
Christmas presents, it seems to me, fall into a variety of different categories. Some of them, no matter how hard you guess, always turn out to be a complete surprise, and you could never in your wildest dreams have anticipated receiving something like that for Christmas. Others fall into the slightly predictable category – you sort of know what you are getting, but you’re not quite sure until you open the wrapping paper whether it’s going to be a jumper or a cardigan, or indeed what colour it’s going be. And then there are those presents where you already know you are getting. Maybe money is a bit tighter than usual this year, and you’ve agreed with your nearest and dearest what you need, maybe you’ve told an elderly aunt exactly what you want to avoid getting yet another pairs of socks. But whatever the precise circumstances, I can guarantee that tomorrow all the presents that wait to be opened will fall into one of those three categories – the surprising, the slightly predictable, and the completely expected.
Where, I wonder, would you place Jesus? I think one of the issues we face each Christmas is that the story we tell is completely expected – we’ve all heard it many times before. We know that Jesus is God’s gift to the world, we remember how He is born in a stable, and we recall His immense love for all mankind. End of story. And come January 6th, we’ll pack it all away with the crib figures until next Christmas when we tell the same story all over again, with probably exactly the same readings as this year. All very nice, all very reassuring, but hey, we’ve heard it all before.
But have we? I think one of the dangers in hearing the same story all over again is that we stop listening and thinking what it could possibly mean to us. It becomes a habit, a tradition, rather like turkey and all the trimmings, or the Queen’s speech, but if we’re honest, we can’t remember why we have it in the first place. And I think if it was possible to interview the good doctor Luke who wrote our story I think he would have been horrified that we treat his account of Jesus’ birth in this way.
Because the whole point of Luke writing in the way He does is to provide an element of surprise, to show that the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth were precisely not what anyone at that time was actually expecting.
First of all, Jesus was born to surprising parents. After all, who exactly were Mary and Joseph? So many traditions and legends have sprung up around them we can lose sight of what they were really like, and it doesn’t help that over the centuries the holy family has often been portrayed as a kind of special couple who stood out from the other young men and women around them. For if we look at the Biblical account, the few details we do actually have give us quite a different picture. For example, when Joseph and Mary went up to Jerusalem to present Jesus at the temple, Luke tells us that they presented a couple of young pigeons as their offering. That’s significant, because it was the kind of offering only made by the poorest people in the land. Later on, when Jesus starts his public ministry, he is identified as the carpenter’s son, and the word for carpenter refers to someone engaged in manual labour, rather than a master craftsman. Joseph, in other words, was not a rich person. He earned his living by making whatever he could with his hands, and, as we all know with the credit crunch today, that could at times be a precarious existence.
Yet it was to Joseph and Mary that God entrusted the nurture and the upbringing of His Son. Not a politician, not a theologian, not a wealthy aristocrat, but a young couple just starting to make their way in the world. God, you see, has a particular heart for the poor, for the needy for those who simply struggle to make ends meet. And if you can in any way at all identify with Joseph and Mary, then the Christmas story is for you. So let’s not buy into the myth that Christmas is really only for the children, or for religious people who like going to church. The Christmas story is about God identifying with ordinary folk who struggle with the pressures of everyday life and saying, “I want to be there with you”. Just as indeed He wants to part of everyone’s life here tonight.
And secondly, Jesus was born in a surprising place. For again, Jesus was not born in a palace, or the home of a priest, or even in an ordinary home. He was born – well, the Bible doesn’t exactly tell us where, but we do know He was placed in a manger. And let’s not get too sentimental about the ox and the asses, and picture piles of nice, clean straw. Places which have mangers don’t on the whole smell that nice and you have to be careful where you put your feet.
So what on earth (I use that expression deliberately) led God to allow His Son to be born in such unusual circumstances? Well, to start with, once again Jesus’ birth shows God identifying with the vulnerable, the dispossessed and the marginalised, those who have no earthly security to speak of, no place to call their own. And maybe if we are fortunate enough to be spending Christmas in a family with a roof over our head, we ought to let the Christmas story get under our skin and challenge us as just how much we genuinely care for those who have so little. For if God identified with the homeless and the destitute in such a way, what kind of example does that set us?
But I believe the fact Jesus was born in a manger actually goes beyond a political or social message that should prick our conscience. Because on a deeper level the act of Jesus being laid in a manger is something that sends a very important message about the kind of kingdom He came to establish. Usually when you think of the word kingdom you think of power, and money, and having people you can rule over. But, despite some terribly unfortunate events in church history, that was not the kind of kingdom Jesus was born to set up. His kingdom was one that would be established through appearing to be weak and helpless, through being vulnerable and through a willingness to do anything for others.
And in that sense the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life is almost an exact mirror of his end. Because if it starts with him helpless and naked, then that is also how it finishes, as Jesus is nailed to a cross and dies a cruel, painful death, stripped of all dignity and security. Except that when He dies His body is not wrapped and placed in a manger, but in a cold, stone tomb with a huge rock blocking its entrance.
Which, of course, leads on to a hugely important question, and one that’s right at the heart of the Christmas story: how can someone who is born and who is killed in this way possibly set up any kind of kingdom at all?
Well, to answer that we need to go on and think about the angel’s message to the shepherds. Now with 2000 years of telling the story, we don’t find it at all shocking that it was the shepherds who received the good news of Jesus’ birth. But for those who first read and heard Luke’s gospel these would have been surprising people to be witnesses to the greatest event in human history. You see, shepherds were generally as thought of outsiders, and perhaps not particularly respectable kind of people. They worked long hours, in all weathers and at all times of the week, and so their attendance at the synagogue, the Jewish place of worship, was, to put it mildly, a bit hit and miss. And in an age where religious duty was prized so highly, it was little wonder then that they were rather frowned upon and not quite considered, “one of us”.
And I guess that if anyone other than a host of angels had appeared and told them the good news, they would just as likely have said, “Sorry, you’ve got the wrong people. Try the local priest in town, or the teachers of the law in Jerusalem”. After all, the last place where anyone expecting the glory of the Lord to appear was in the fields near Bethlehem. All throughout Jewish history the glory of the Lord was something particularly associated with, first of all, the tabernacle in the desert, and, later on, the temple in Jerusalem. And the whole expectation of the Jewish people was that, when the glory of the Lord once again came among His people, it would be once more in the temple. There was no indication anywhere, no prophecy, no secret message, that the glory of the Lord would appear to a bunch of outsiders almost in the middle of nowhere.
But the fact God’s glory does appear here (and, crucially, only here in the New Testament) helps solve the question of what kind of kingdom Jesus has been born to establish. It’s a kingdom which will break through religious barriers, a kingdom which will include outsiders, and those who don’t quite fit, a kingdom which isn’t just for the respectable and the clever, but which really is open to all.
And that, by the way, is why it’s right to go with the older translations of the angels’ message as being Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. Because in one sense the newer translation on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests undermines the whole point of the story. It suggests there are particular people whom God favours more than others, which is as about far removed from the angels’ message as it is possible to get.
You see, the real surprise at the heart of the Christmas story is that peace with God really is available to all – whether you happen to be male, female, shepherd, carpenter, young or old. And all that you need to have this peace is to believe that the baby who was born naked and helpless in a manger, and who would later die naked and helpless on a cross, is in fact the Son of God, one who died in order to bring us peace with God through the forgiveness of our sins. And if you have that faith, if you believe that Jesus was born, died, and, yes, was raised again for you, then you too can be part of His kingdom.
But unlike any earthly king Jesus does not use power or influence or coercion to recruit you to His cause. It was up to Mary and Joseph to decide whether they would take on the nurture and upbringing of God’s Son. It was up to the shepherds to decide whether they would act on the angels’ message. And it is up to us whether we unwrap the Christmas story and see what’s really at the heart of it.
So my challenge tonight is this: before you pack Christmas away this year, spend some time thinking what peace with God might mean for you. Read and re-read the Christmas story with fresh eyes, and think what it means that a Saviour has been to you; he is Christ the Lord. Because if you do, then I believe you will discover Christ born in you, your Prince of Peace, your Wonderful Saviour, alive and living in your heart, and that surely is the greatest and most surprising gift of all.