St Barnabas and St Michael’s, 26th December 2010
How many people here have ever played Chinese whispers?
I was talking to someone a couple of months who, when discussing what I did, quite openly dismissed the whole story of Jesus as rumours, as hearsay, as things that may not or not be true. And isn’t that a popular point of view? That while the Christmas story may very well be a nice comforting story, we have no way of knowing whether there really were shepherds or three wise men or even a baby born in a manger. Sure, it’s a nice tale to tell once a year, but we can’t really believe it, can we? Isn’t it merely a game of Chinese whispers that has been carried on down the centuries to the present day?
So my aim this morning is to show why we can believe the Christmas story and indeed why it is important for each and every one of us to believe in it.
Let’s go back to those shepherds on the hillside. The angel has told them that Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ, the Lord and informed them that they will recognise him by the fact: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. They have seen the choir of angels praising God and singing glory of God. And what is their response? Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.
There is much we can learn from the attitude of the shepherds. First of all, they are prepared to accept the message of the angels as the word of the Lord. They are willing to believe that the message of true. And they agree among themselves to act on what they have received. Now you might say that if you’ve just been visited by an angel, you too might be convinced by what you’ve seen and heard. But that ain’t necessarily so. Remember Zechariah back in chapter 1? He was visited by an angel and he received the wonderful news that he would have a son called John who would prepare the way of the Lord. And what was his response? Disbelief, doubt, uncertainty. He had to learn the hard way that the Lord really does mean what He says.
If we are willing to engage properly with the Christmas story, then we have to be open to the possibility it might be true. It seems to me that increasingly folk write off the Christian faith before they are prepared to look at the evidence. This is a human invention, I don’t need to look at it, there is no reason at all to change my mind. Contrast that attitude with the attitude of the shepherds. They were prepared to go and to see for themselves.
Now we tend to imagine that they went instantly to the right child. But I wonder, with Bethlehem crowded for the census, with no doubt lots of babies crammed into lots of unusual places, maybe they had to do a little searching, a little looking before they found the right child. Be that as it may, they were open to finding out whether or not the word they received really held true. Apart from perhaps the embarrassment of losing face in the village, they didn’t stand to lose much if their quest was in vain. But they were willing to go, to look and explore. I can only wish there were more people like the shepherds today!
But as we all know things were exactly as they were told. Because of course when the Lord gives His word, it is impossible for that word to be false. So amid all the babies in Bethlehem they find just one, wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. And this discovery changes their lives. I love the way Luke writes in verse 20: The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. Yes, they are still shepherds, yes, they still have to care for their sheep, but their lives have been totally and utterly transformed that the God they worship is utterly transformed and can be trusted to keep His promises.
I have this picture of the shepherds emerging from the stable where Jesus lay, all excited, praising God, running up to passers-by, enthusiastically pointing out the exact place where they had found Christ the Lord. And of course the shepherds had no interest in passing on anything other than the exact same word they themselves had received. Anyone who had any understanding of the Jewish law knew that they were expressly forbidden to add to or take away from the word of the Lord (Deuteronomy 12:32). But why would they want to, anyway? When there was such good news, there was little point in changing or altering it.
It’s little wonder that all who heard the shepherd’s story were amazed. They would have been amazed for all kinds of reasons. First of all, that the word of the Lord would have come to, of all people, shepherds. By this time shepherds were looked down upon as they didn’t keep regular hours and couldn’t observe all the religious feasts. Secondly, it had been thought that the age of prophecy had finished. There hadn’t been a genuine word from the Lord for about four hundred years. And thirdly, and most importantly, they would have been amazed because they would have recognised that in the words of the shepherds those great promises of the Old Testament, the promises that they had clung onto for centuries through exile and foreign occupation and national humiliation had been realised. The waiting was over; their hope had been realised; and here, right here in little Bethlehem, the Lord had come!
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14)
But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. (Micah 5:2)
“The time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah” (Jeremiah31:31)
It must have been just so exciting on that night to realise that all these promises and so many more had actually come true in your own home town! And of course today it still remains for those who doubt and disbelieve the Christmas story to explain away these Old Testament references. If they were not fulfilled in the coming of Christ, then what we do make of them? Are we like the Jewish people still waiting for their fulfilment?
Well, that’s all very well you might say, but you still have to explain how this story was recorded and handed down. There might have a miraculous birth in Bethlehem that night, there may have been excited shepherds and astonished onlookers, but how could we really know this happened?
This is where I think verse 19 is just so important: But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. Those who were involved in these events were carefully to preserve and ponder what had happened. They realised that through them God was working out His purposes and they had a duty and a trust to faithfully remember and record what had happened. Our last certain reference to Mary the mother of Jesus is in Acts 1:14 after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and we can be certain that she took care to pass on to the early church her exact recollections and accounts of what actually took place when Jesus was born. She would not have wanted to undermine the witness of the apostles by inventing untruths about Jesus’ birth. Besides which, as we can see from verse 21, where Joseph and Mary bring Jesus for circumcision, her primary concern was to obey God rather to glorify herself.
And Luke himself in his introduction makes it clear that all he has written comes from eye-witness accounts which have been handed and which he has taken care to investigate. Luke too was aware of the great God-given responsibility he had been given to ensure what he wrote was accurate and true. Of course in today’s climate every so often someone makes a programme about a new gospel which, so they claim, radically changes our view of Jesus, the gospel of Thomas, say, or Judas, or Barnabas. But when you look at these so-called new gospels they do nothing of the sort. All of them were written later than the gospels which are preserved in the Bible. They never achieved a wide circulation and the early church knew all about them. It’s just that they decided they didn’t justify inclusion in the writings of Holy Scripture and consigned them to obscurity.
So why is all this so important? Because, if as we say every Sunday, the Bible is the word of the Lord, then it is in the fullest sense trustworthy. So that when, like the shepherds, we listen to, obey and act upon that word, we too will find that we discover Jesus. Not of course lying in a manger, or standing before us in a physical sense, but right with us by His Holy Spirit deep inside us. And maybe this is the real reason why so many people are so reluctant to accept the message of Jesus. For if this Jesus is all that the Bible says He is, if all the promises of God are met in Him, then it changes everything. Just like with the shepherds, we have a new focus, a new centre to our lives and we can never be the same again. And for some people – maybe even for some people here –that is something they cannot accept. Give me a nice, sweet tale once a year of a new-born baby and shepherds and three wise men. But do not give me Jesus who will transform and change me, who will radically turn my ambitions, my priorities, my goals, upside down.
Yet if we really have grasped the full meaning of the Christmas story, then we can do no other than come before Jesus in wonder and adoration and praise. For, as the writer to the Hebrews reminds us in our first reading, this Jesus is none other than our brother who shares in our humanity, who knows what it is to suffer and to be tempted, who is not ashamed to identify with us, weak and sinful though we are. And yet this same Jesus is also our great high priest who faithfully serves God and through His death once for all upon the cross has made atonement for each and every sin we have committed.
This is the real Jesus who became real to the shepherds on that first Christmas night. And the message of the Bible is that He wants to be real to you. He wants you to come just as you are, to turn from the busyness and bustle of the season, and to seek Him as your brother, as your great high priest who alone is able to save you. So what is your response? Are you willing to make that move? To lay aside your fears, your doubts and your questions, and simply come? Please don’t let this be another Christmas where you simply hear the story. Make this the Christmas where you allow Jesus to be real to you. Come to Him, and He will come to you, with mercy and forgiveness and love. And the promise the Bible gives you is that you will discover life in all its fullness and you will be changed forever for good.
So in the silence let’s all of us make our own special prayer to Jesus this Christmas, and let’s be willing to welcome Him into our hearts this day.