St Barnabas and St Michael’s, 24th December 2010
So the Christmas rush is nearly over. You have bought your last present. You have no more wrapping left to do. You’ve written all your gift labels so that the right person gets the right gift. All that you have to do now is to wake up tomorrow morning and remember where you left your secret stash of presents. Now in theory that doesn’t sound too difficult, but, I don’t know about you, in our household there’s always one present that seems to mysteriously disappear before we have a chance to give it. And of course there’s nothing worse than having to explain to your nearest and dearest that, yes, you bought them a present, and, yes, you have carefully put it somewhere, it’s just that at the moment you’re not precisely sure where.
Being able to find and retrieve items is a big issue. I don’t know how many of you have a run-in with the Post Office this Christmas over the location of a parcel, or had to ring up an internet retailer to find exactly where your order has got to. I guess most of us have stories of items that ended up on someone else’s doormat or have got lost in a sorting office, miles from home.
Or again, over the last few years my wife has been working in the local libraries. As any librarian will tell you, it’s the bane of their job when books are shelved in the wrong section. And the problem here is that it’s not just that they then become hard to find, it’s that any passing reader may be misled as to what the book is really all about.
Take, for example, our well-known reading from Luke’s gospel this evening. I guess for most, if not all, of us the details are very well-known. We are very familiar with the account of the census, of Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem, of the birth in the manger, of the visit of the angels and the shepherds. But tonight I want to step back from the details and ask a rather wider question: how do we classify this passage? To put it another way, if we were asked to put this reading out onto the shelves of the local library, where would we put it so that others could easily find it and understand what it’s all about it?
Many people would quite readily file it under the category of story. And there’s no doubt, the account of Christmas has all the ingredients of a cracking story: the love of parents for their child, the struggle between ordinary people and their oppressors, mysterious dreams and prophecies, strange, unexplained events and unexpected visitors. It’s little wonder then that every Christmas children – and grown-ups too – like to tell this story in nativity plays and carol services, and even on You-tube videos and internet blogs. There’s something in the Christmas story that connects with the hopes and dreams of people everywhere, and we should never grow tired of hearing it again and again each year.
But if we think of the events of Christmas as simply story, then of course this raises the question: why is it that we celebrate this particular story at this particular time of the year? Over the past few years my family and I have read all the Harry Potter books and seen all the films, and I for one can’t wait for the final episode to come out on screen next summer. There’s something wonderfully engaging about the whole series – and I believe a profoundly Christian message – but I don’t think anyone has yet suggested that we have an annual Harry Potter celebration. These books, however charming and well-written, are just fiction. They create an imaginary world with imaginary characters. And I put it to you that if we see the events of the Christmas story as just as a story, then really we are doing little more than hosting the spiritual equivalent of an annual Star Trek convention, where we get together to remember our favourite characters and our favourite episodes, and then disappear again until the following year’s gathering.
If you look carefully at Luke’s account of the Christmas story, you will see that Luke is adamant he is writing more than just a cracking tale to amuse us, or present us with an ideal world where good always triumphs. Luke’s own claim about the events he portrays is that they are not story, but history. And by this he means two things.
First of all, he makes clear that what he is writing is the work of a historian. Luke didn’t decide one day to write down some nice stories about this man called Jesus of Nazareth he heard some rumours about. He makes it clear in his introduction that he is committing to writing accounts which eye-witnesses have passed down to him. And he hasn’t just taken their word for what they’ve said. Like any good historian, he has investigated carefully. He has taken trouble to write an orderly account. His concern in committing the Christmas story to writing is to produce an authentic, reliable account which can be believed and trusted.
And secondly, that means the events which Luke records are not his own inventions but grounded in the real world of the Roman empire of the time. Caesar Augustus was indeed the Roman emperor, reigning over the entire known world, at the height of his power and dominance. We have independent evidence of Quirinius being governor of Syria. And while we have no other record of this census, it would make perfect sense for one to be undertaken precisely at this time, just as the province of Judea came under Roman rule. Of course if you were so inclined you could discount all these details, but there is weight enough to suggest that what we are dealing with here really happened. So make of this account what you will, but don’t discount it as a story of fiction that can be taken down from the shelf once a year. This one definitely belongs in the non-fiction section.
But Luke’s purpose is more than the recording of history. Indeed, if we see this account merely as a record of events long ago, of providing information about the state of affairs of the Roman empire at this time, then again we have to ask ourselves what is the point of recounting this particular story year after year. There are, after all, plenty of other historical events that can inspire us, plenty of other historical characters that we can admire. What we have to do when we read this particular account is ask ourselves what makes it unique, what is that particular characteristic which makes it something deserving of being read over and over again.
The answer of course lies in the identity of the baby born in the manger. If I may put it this way, Luke is claiming not so much to write history as His story. Here is a child come into the world who will dramatically alter the course of humanity in a far greater way than any head of state, any army commander, any rabble-rousing politician. Indeed so great is this child that even the most powerful person of the day – and one of the most influential people who ever lived – Caesar Augustus is reduced almost to the status of a footnote, and only ever gets one passing mention.
So who exactly is this child? Well, in many ways His identity is summed up in the well-known words of the angel to the shepherds: Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. Because these take us to the very heart of Luke’s purpose in writing this account. And whether we have heard them a thousand times before, or whether we are hearing them for the very first time, every word of the angel’s message is worth pondering and taking to heart.
First of all, this child has been born in the town of David. David was a king of Ancient Israel, indeed the greatest king of Israel that ever lived. His rule was seen as the standard by which the conduct of his successors was measured. He provided an ideal and an example that those after him struggled to follow. But even as – with a few exceptions – the rulers of Israel grew worse and worse, and the kingdom eventually fell to foreign invasion, there rose up a hope of a king who would be even greater than David, a king who would establish a reign of justice and fairness that would last forever. Isn’t that a bit like the situation we face today? As we have become aware over the past few years of the shortcomings and weaknesses of those who rule over us, don’t we also long for a government that will genuinely exist to serve others and put the interests of the people at their heart? Well, in Israel God made specific promises that this king would come. And Luke here states that this promise has been met in this child called Jesus, born in a manger.
For secondly, this child is a Saviour. Now Saviour is a word we don’t use very much nowadays, but it simply means rescuer or deliverer. Again, as the people of Israel saw their kingdom disappearing, and were eventually carried off into exile, they began to hope for a Saviour who would restore their fortunes and renew their relationship with God. They realised that they had ended up in a bad place through their own sin and rebellion, and that they were justly being punished for the wrong they had done. But at the same time God had made promises that despite everything He would raise up a deliverer who would come and set His people free. And so for hundreds of years the people of God had yearned for this deliverer to come. There had been so many false dawns, so many bitter disappointments. But now at last the waiting was over.
But how could a child born to poor parents in of all things a feeding trough really make difference? The answer comes in the next part of the angels’ message. For thirdly, this child is the Christ or if you prefer the Hebrew version of the same word, the Messiah. And this means quite literally that this child has been anointed by the spirit of God. Right from the very beginning of His life He will be full of the power of the Almighty, and therefore He will possess the ability to make good every promise God has made to His people. Because in the end this child is more than just one more statistic on an official census, another live birth among many in Judea in about 6BC. This child is, fourthly, Lord and by using this term Luke is quite deliberately using the same word that the people of Israel used to describe God Himself. In other words, while Luke is careful to record history as it really happened, His purpose in writing is to show that God Himself has broken into that history and made good His promises to His people. He Himself has come in human form to be king, to bring salvation, to restore the broken relationship between mankind and God.
OK, then, you say, perhaps we better move this account from the history to the theology section of this library. Well, maybe that’s right, but Luke is doing far more than putting forward interesting points of view about Jesus’ identity. Again, if all Luke is doing is providing information, then we have to ask what is the real purpose of remembering this event year after year.
In fact there are couple of little words in the angel’s message that we have skipped over, but make all the difference. They don’t just announce Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born; they actually say Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you and those two extra words make all the difference. Luke isn’t just writing history; nor is he only putting together His story; his aim is show how His story should also be our story. Because if what Luke is saying about Jesus is true, then the events which happened in Bethlehem all those years ago ought to have a direct, practical impact on our lives today. For if God has entered human history through the birth of this baby, and if He has sent His Son to be Saviour, Messiah and Lord, then we cannot treat this account as part of just another book we can pick up and put down as we please. This is an event that demands we make a response, not just on one occasion in the year, or even with a profession of faith, but with the very way that we live our lives.
This was something that the apostle Paul understood very well, as can be seen from that short reading from Titus we heard earlier. When he talks about the grace of God that brings salvation … to all men he is referring to none another than the gift of God’s Son Jesus Christ that we are celebrating tonight: indeed it is interesting that Paul uses almost the same titles to describe Jesus as the angels in the Christmas story, calling him here God, Saviour and Christ. But just like Luke Paul isn’t concerned merely to give information about Jesus, but to talk about the response that we should make. Verse 12: It (that is, the grace of God) teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age. Why? Because if we have properly understood the message of the Christmas story, then we can do no other than surrender our lives to the self-same Jesus as our God, our Saviour, our Messiah. We cannot, so to speak, stay outside the Christmas story looking in. We have to place ourselves at the manger and bow in adoration, wonder and praise. Because God did not come to us because of any merit of our own, or because we were good enough, but simply because He chose to, and He is looking for a people who are willing to respond with lives that reflect His glory.
So in the end the account of that first Christmas is not something that we read. It is something that reads us, that calls us to make a decision as to whether we will make this story our story, and the basis of our lives. And that’s why in the end Luke’s account needs to be placed in a category of its own. Not high up on a shelf, where, if we remember in time, we bring it down each Christmas and blow off the dust. But right out on the counter, so that each day we remind ourselves of the wonderful good news of our great salvation and respond in faith and love and joy to the One who has come among us as a tiny baby, who grew up to die for us, and who, as Paul reminds us, will one day return to rule over us.
So, to finish, let me ask: is that the place that the good news of Jesus, Saviour, Christ and Lord, occupies in your life? And if not, why not? What is that you need to do this Christmas to make Luke’s story your story and claim Jesus as your own?