St Michael’s and St Barnabas 24th December 2011
Reading – Luke 2:1-14
For the past few years one story has hit the headlines with almost regular monotony around October or November time. A council announces its plans for its seasonal celebrations; some eager young official changes the name of the celebrations to Winterval; a cry goes up from the traditionalists in the city; and a national newspaper uses the whole affair to lament the decline of traditional standards in our society. You may have noticed that even in Plymouth this year we have been celebrating a Winter Festival, although I notice that the word Christmas does appear in rather smaller print underneath. So how should we respond to the renaming of this season?
For my part, if the idea of a Winter Festival comes from a desire for political correctness, to make sure that nobody is offended, then I am certainly not in favour – unless, in the interests of fairness, the council is also planning to rename Diwali, Ramadan and all the other religious festivals in the city. But on the other hand I believe there’s also a certain honesty in giving the celebrations a purely secular title. After all, most of the festivities have very little do with the original message of Christmas and quite a lot have to do with raising money for the city and local businesses and charities – which in these straitened times is no bad thing, but not necessarily linked to the birth of Jesus.
Clearly this is a debate which is not yet settled and I am sure it will rumble on for a few years yet. But it has at least got me thinking about what name we give to our celebrations tonight.
There are, for example, a small but growing number of people who believe that the proper name for the season is Yuletide. The reason why we celebrate Christmas tonight is that the early church took over old pagan customs and renamed the festival. By using the name Yuletide we are in fact recalling the true origins of the season and recognising the roots of our celebrations.
That may be true, but even if we have retained some of the old traditions, what is striking is how completely the Christian faith replaced the old religion. There is a lovely story of how in 627 AD King Edwin of Northumbria met with his counsellors to decide whether to accept the new Christian religion. What tips the balance in favour of him being baptised is a speech by one of his chief advisers who says…
“Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thegns and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a moment of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.”
That adviser, it seems, glimpsed something essential about the Christian faith – that it gives a hope and a certainty that other religions cannot give. And this insight of an unnamed person long ago ties in well with the words the angels spoke to the shepherds in our reading this evening: Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.
Jesus, you see, has the power to turn fear into hope, sadness into joy. Why? Because He is first and foremost a Saviour, someone who can rescue us from the grip of death and sin and evil that so often dominates people’s hearts and minds and souls. And that is as true now as it was when the angels first appeared to the shepherds two thousand years ago, or in the depths of a Northumbrian winter in 627AD. Because what we are celebrating tonight is not a story or some bygone historical event, but the presence of the living Lord Jesus who has broken once and for all into human history and is able to change your life for good. So, yes, the name Yuletide may point us to our ancient roots but as far as I’m concerned, it also reminds me that the story of Jesus’ birth has transformed and is transforming people, societies and even whole nations for good.
What about the name Christmas? I guess this is such a familiar word that we don’t even think about it that much. Yet it struck me recently that if we were going to celebrate the birth of Jesus, shouldn’t we call the event something like “Jesus-tide” or “Jesus-mass”? Why is it that we focus on “Christ” and not “Jesus”? Surely the answer lies in the identity of the child born in a manger in Bethlehem. He is not simply someone special, who will grow into a prophet or a wise man. He is the Christ – or if you prefer the Hebrew term – the Messiah.
And that is important for two reasons. First of all, as the Messiah, He is the one promised by the prophets from long ago. Seven hundred years earlier, for example, the prophet Isaiah had written these words: For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and for ever. And for seven hundred years successive generations had been asking: when will this child be born? Kings had come and kings had gone, but there seemed to be little sign of David’s throne being established forever. Indeed for most of the time the experience of God’s people had been almost anything other than justice and righteousness.
Which is why the message given by the angel to the shepherds comes as such good news. That prophecy of Isaiah – and many, many others more besides – has now at last been finally and fully realised. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.
But there is also a surprising, perhaps even shocking, twist in the angel’s words that we so often fail to recognise, because the story is so familiar: This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. After all, children who are born to take up a throne aren’t usually wrapped in cloths and laid in a manger. They are swaddled in royal robes and placed in the queen’s bedchamber. Every effort is made to ensure that the royal newcomer will grow to enjoy the privileges and honour of his station. Yet here are the angels announcing that all God’s promises will come to fulfilment where? In a cattle feeding trough.
On one level it just doesn’t make sense. If you were making plans for the salvation of the world, if you had been preparing this event ever since the beginning of time, would you have chosen a rough-hewn box filled with hay to be the centrepiece of the action? There is surely something profoundly mysterious, something profoundly unexpected in the Christmas story and I think it would do us all good to ponder and reflect on the awesome purposes and plans of God tonight.
But on another, this humble birth also points to the second reason why we call our celebrations “Christmas”. Because the kingdom set up by this Messiah is not to be a physical one, where entry is restricted by race, nationality or social standing. It is to be a spiritual one where membership is open to all, even to you and to me. The one qualification for entry is that like the shepherds we respond in faith and humility and accept Jesus the Messiah as our Messiah, that we too bow down and worship Him as King and Lord and Saviour in our lives, and receive His gift of the Holy Spirit.
So Yuletide reminds us of the power of Jesus to change lives. Christmas reminds us that this Jesus is Messiah with a spiritual kingdom. But there are also two further terms which also remind us of the sheer humanity of the occasion.
The first one is Noel, which comes from the Latin word natalis referring to birth. It is an intensely physical kind of word which reminds us that Jesus went through all the processes of becoming fully human. The reason why we recall Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem with Mary, and the birth of Jesus is a manger is to affirm that Jesus belonged to a real place in a real point in history. If you so wish, you can go to Bethlehem today. You can visit the church built on the traditional site where Jesus was born. You can see the exact spot where Mary is said to have been delivered of child. And although you can worship Jesus equally well in any part of the planet, there is something intensely moving and intensely humbly in realising there was a particular place on earth – if not that one, then certainly one nearby – where Jesus the Messiah was born.
Jesus really is Emmanuel – God with us – in the most literal sense of the word. He is a God who knows what it is to be human (though without sin), to be tired, to be angry, to grieve, to grow. So Noel reminds us that we have a God who understands, not simply because He made us, but because He has stood among us and stands with us even today. If that does not act as an incentive to prayer, then I don’t know what does.
But then there is the other term – Xmas – reviled and hated by purists, and probably rightly so – which reminds us of the other end of Jesus’ life. The X comes from the Greek letter chi which is the first letter of Christ, but to me it also reminds me of the end of Jesus’ earthly life, that if Jesus the carpenter took his first breath in a rough wooden box, He took His last crucified to two planks of wood in the shape of a cross. And unless you keep the cross in view, there isn’t much point in celebrating the Christmas story. Yes, we can dress up as a pretty story for children to act out, or turn it into a sentimental tale of God’s love for us, but we will lack a full explanation of why Jesus chose to come into the world.
Take a moment to reflect on those words the heavenly choir sang on the hillside outside Bethlehem: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests. We are probably so familiar with them we haven’t considered what they really saying. They are not simply talking about peace on earth among men. They are talking about peace on earth between God and man, about God showing His favour to us, to you and to me. How, then, can this be possible? After all, if we’re honest with ourselves we know that so often we have ignored God’s will for our lives, set our own agenda and priorities, not loved Him with our whole heart and soul and mind and strength nor our neighbour as ourselves. So how is it possible that God can show us favour?
The answer lies rooted in another one of those ancient prophecies that we find in the book of Isaiah, this time in chapter 53: We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. And let’s not imagine that the cross was an afterthought, a plan B when Jesus’ original mission on earth went a little bit wrong. There is sacrifice right at the heart of the Christmas story. We talk so casually about God becoming man. But ponder, if you can, the mystery of Jesus giving us His position of honour at the right hand of God, of accepting the limitations of a human body, of becoming weak, helpless and utterly dependent on human parents. All the while knowing that one day this flesh would have to be torn and broken in order to bring true lasting peace between God and us. Yes, the Christmas story is about love. But it is not the cloying, sentimental love we so often make it out to be. It is about the firm, unflinching commitment of Jesus to do what we cannot do for ourselves, to rescue from ourselves and pay the ultimate price for our wrongdoing.
So whatever you call this particular season of the year, may I challenge all of you this evening to put the familiar readings and carols we are enjoying tonight into the bigger picture. After all, what is Jesus’ birth all about? It’s about His power to change lives. It’s about the coming of a new kind of kingdom. It’s about Him sharing in our humanity. It’s about Him paying the price for our sins. Those are the essential truths at the heart of Christmas. So, do you know them to be true for yourself? Have you welcomed Jesus as Saviour, Christ and Lord into your life? Or is there a step of faith you need to take tonight to make Jesus alive and real in your heart?
Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.