St Michael’s and St Barnabas 25th December 2012
Reading – Luke 2:8-20
Who here has a favourite film they watch every Christmas? What do you like about it, and why?
We all love a good story we can enjoy again and again. So the question is: what makes for a good story? Well, if we can tease out some common factors they usually include: ordinary people who triumph against the odds; an element of danger; some villain who poses a real threat; and of course we have to have that all important happy ending.
And if these are ingredients of a good story, then the Christmas story has them in abundance; we have Joseph and the heavily pregnant Mary setting out, no doubt against the advice of friends and neighbours; there is the peril of a long journey; there is wicked King Herod in the background; and of course there is the birth in the manger, and the visit of the shepherds and the wise men. That’s how we normally tell the Christmas story, and it’s no doubt it’s one that provides much comfort at the darkest and most wearisome part of the year.
But is it anything more than a story? I don’t know how many of you listened to an interview on Radio 5 last Thursday with the Professor of Religion and Old Testament history at Exeter University. She basically rubbished any idea there was any truth at all in the gospel accounts, although she did concede Jesus probably existed. We shouldn’t be surprised by such interviews – it’s very fashionable nowadays to knock the idea the Christmas events actually happened. It’s what attracts airtime, and sells newspapers.
So how do we as believers respond? Well, I’m not going to preach a heavy sermon on Christmas Day but in the end the arguments boil down to what kind of God we worship. If you believe in a God who plays games and leaves only teasing hints about His existence, then you will naturally approach the Christmas story with a certain degree of suspicion. But if you believe in a God who loves you deeply and personally, who wants to make Himself known, you can be sure He will have left behind a reliable record of what happened.
Something this professor didn’t mention was that when men and women, old people and young people, approach the Christmas story with faith and trust, lives get changed. We don’t need to have sterile arguments about history and languages, although I can give you plenty of evidence which suggests that everything did happen as Luke records. You don’t have to throw away your faith if you want to be academic, although you probably won’t be invited to give that many interviews.
Let’s not forget – unless you want to dismiss everything he wrote – Luke was a careful historian who wrote his gospel with a clear purpose in mind. As you read the first verses, you find that Luke is writing to a chap named Theophilus (don’t try pronouncing that name after your Christmas tipple!) and he says to him: Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
And in our reading this morning Luke is again careful to stress that what is written is reliable. The angels tell the shepherds: This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. (Luke 2:12). And what do we learn at the end of our reading? The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. (Luke 2:20). But then again, this detail should not surprise us. Luke is telling us that if we approach the Christmas story in faith and humility we too will find it a trustworthy account of what happened.
Don’t get intimidated by people who claim to know more than you, or get swept along by an attitude that you can’t trust anything you read. This is a message you can believe. Read it and treasure it. Learn to value it for what it is – communication from a God you can trust. After all, even as we meet, there are millions of Christians around the world who risking their very lives to celebrate their Saviour’s birth. If I want to know the truth of the Christmas story, I look at their experience, not at what some professor wants to tell me.
But there’s more. For not only is the Christmas story a reliable message, it is also a message that is good news. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. God has mounted a rescue mission. He has seen the state of the world and He knows the mess we have made of it. So what’s He done? He has given us someone who give us hope, to save us from our cynicism and our sin, from our selfishness and our greed. Because this child Jesus is far more than a baby born in a manger. He is certainly far more than a first century Jew who the professor thinks probably existed. He is the Christ, that is, the one anointed by God with the power of the Holy Spirit. He is the Lord, that is, God Himself in human form, His very Son who has taken on our flesh so that we can share in His life.
After all, the wonder and the mystery of Christmas is that in Bethlehem Jesus does not come to judge us as we deserve, but to offer us a renewed relationship with God, to pay the price for all we have done wrong, to make us again children of our Heavenly Father. As Paul writes in his letter to Titus: the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. (Tit 2:11). And just before anyone jumps up and down, let me be politically correct and point out that Paul actually means all people, not just men, not just grown-ups. Here is God’s gift of eternal life given even though we don’t deserve it. Thanks to the baby born in a manger, it is available to you, regardless of your age, your gender, your background.
So have you read the Christmas story in faith and trust? Have you discovered the good news for yourself? If this morning you realise you have never really met with the living God, then today there is an opportunity to receive Him the most wonderful gift of all, Jesus living with you by His Holy Spirit, the knowledge that thanks to His death on the cross you are forgiven and accepted by God your loving Heavenly Father.
And just one more thing I want to draw out from the Christmas story. Because I know there are many people who believe it is true. There are many people who have discovered the good news. But sadly, there are rather fewer people who actually let the Christmas story change the way they think and act. Jesus didn’t come simply to give us a set of private beliefs, or a nice cosy relationship with God our Father. He came so that all who believe and trust in Him might show the difference that faith and trust makes in their daily living.
Listen again to what Paul says in the reading the church sets for Christmas Day, from Titus. For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age. Now again, I could preach a whole sermon on this one verse (let alone the ones that come afterwards), but let me just offer one thought. Generally the world treats Christmas as an excuse for excess and indulgence, and it can be very easy to be swept along by the mood of the occasion. Without wishing to be a killjoy, how does the way we celebrate Christmas reflect the fact we believe and trust in Jesus? I guess you are here on a Christmas morning provides part of the answer. But we must allow ourselves to be constantly challenged by the message of Christmas. If the Christmas story is reliable, if it is good news, we must let our faith and trust in Jesus shape every part of our life. As the Christmas carol says:
What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd,
I would bring a lamb.
If I were a wise man,
I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him –
Give my heart.
So let me finish by suggesting that Luke records Mary’s response as one we should all follow. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. May you treasure the Christmas story for yourself. Ponder it in your heart. And as Jesus meets you there, allow Him to change you for good, so others see His light shine in you and notice the difference – not just at this Christmas time, but always.