St Barnabas and St Michael’s, 25th December 2013
Reading – Luke 2:15-21
Every year the Oxford Dictionaries vote on the word that has attracted most interest or comment over the past 12 months and they then make it their word of the year. So, for example, in 2006, when Catherine Tate was at the height of her fame, the word of the year was – well, can anyone guess? – bovvered (with two vs). Or again in 2009, when every TV advert seemed to feature a meerkat, the word of the year was – well, would you like to guess again? – simples.
So what was the word of the year in 2013? If you saw the recent coverage of President Mandela’s funeral you will have seen President Obama and David Cameron being photographed on someone’s phone. They were helping to create a “selfie” – this year’s number one word. A selfie is a self-portrait which is then posted over the Internet or on social media sites, or indeed any place where you can show what you have been doing where, and with whom. Taking selfies has become a major occupation and indeed during the year, even the Pope featured in an admiring pilgrim’s selfie.
What’s this got to do with Christmas? In our reading from Hebrews 1, chapter 3, Jesus is described as the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being. Those words “exact representation” come from the same Greek word which gives us our term “character”. In other words, Jesus shows us exactly who God is and what He is like. He is, if you like, God’s selfie. So if you want to know what God’s doing in the world, and where He can be found, all you need to do is look at Jesus. You don’t even have to be online to do this. Through prayer, through worship, through reading the Bible, you can find God in Jesus.
And that’s exactly the same good news which the angel announced to the shepherds up in those fields above Bethlehem: Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. Now we might argue exactly how much of the angel’s message the shepherds understood. Maybe they instantly recognised what these terms – Saviour, Christ, Lord – meant. Maybe, and I suspect this is probably nearer the mark, they were so overwhelmed by the experience their understanding only came later.
But the important thing is, however much or little they actually grasped at the time, they recognised the angel’s message demanded a response. They knew that somewhere in the town below them, good news was to be found and so they took action. They didn’t stay up on the hillside arguing what all this might mean. Nor did they decide they would investigate later on when they weren’t quite so busy. If this Saviour – whoever He might be – was there, they wanted to find out more.
And so they went. Sounds “simples”? Maybe, but it seems to me there are plenty of people who hear the Christmas story each year, and yet appear to take no action. They sing wonderful carols all about who Jesus is, and they may even know the angel’s message off by heart, yet come January 6th it’s as if Christmas is simply packed away again for another year, ready to be brought out again the following December.
I would suggest to you that if Jesus really is the exact representation of God, the Saviour who is Christ the Lord, then it falls to each of us to make some kind of response. However much or little we understand, surely the Christmas story is good news that deserves to be investigated. So you will follow the shepherds’ example and take the time and trouble to find out more? Why not make it your resolution in the New Year to investigate the claims of Jesus and to see what relevance they might have to your life?
Now we don’t know exactly how the shepherds felt as they went down the hillside. Maybe they felt slightly afraid – after all, it’s not every day that the heavenly host bursts into your life. Maybe they felt slightly foolish as they began asking the thronging crowds about a baby born in a manger. No doubt there were those who wondered why this bunch of rough, tough working men seemed in quite such a hurry. But one way or another they reached their goal and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.
And what was their reaction? Well, verse 20 tells us: The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. Because the funny thing is, when people start investigating the claims about Jesus, they usually end up discovering that they are true. At first sight, the idea that this baby could possibly some kind of Saviour seems absurd. It may seem foolish or embarrassing even to consider the possibility, especially in a world that is generally hostile to any idea of faith.
Yet when you start to look closely at who Jesus is, you find in all kinds of surprising ways that the actual evidence backs up the claims made about Him. And even as we gather today, there are millions, if not billions of people around the world, who are worshipping the same Jesus that they have discovered is their Lord and their Saviour. Somehow the evidence for Jesus just keeps on persuading across the ages, in many different places, and there is no better thing any of us can do than to find out why.
The shepherds went. The shepherds discovered. And, finally, the shepherds spread the word.
Now let’s be clear what exactly the shepherds did or did not do after they discovered Jesus. They did not set up stall in the middle of Bethlehem, handing out leaflets to passers-by. Nor did they approach random strangers and tried to persuade them of the truth of their argument. There might be a place for spreading the word in that kind of way, but it will only ever reach the very few.
No, what the shepherds simply did was go out praising and glorifying God. They were so full of the fact they had discovered this baby they could not help themselves singing and declaring the wonders of the Lord. It’s little wonder, then, that everyone who heard them were amazed. Here were these rough, tough working men a few hours beforehand hurrying through the streets, anxious to find a baby. Now they are back out on the selfsame streets, making a right noise, genuinely excited that they have discovered the Saviour who is Christ the Lord. That kind of change in their behaviour was bound to get noticed. And when people asked them what all the fuss about, they told them. Because that, you see, is the way the word of God spreads most effectively, when folk see the visible difference Jesus makes and begin to ask questions.
And I believe there is a challenge here for those of us who have already gone and discovered for ourselves who Jesus is. I don’t know about you, but it can become just so easy in all the rush and the busyness of the season to lose the wonder and joy of Christmas. Our Saviour has come. He has revealed to us the very likeness of God. And He has proved His love for us by dying in our place for our sins on a cross. Surely we too ought to be getting a little excited, shouldn’t we? Just a tiny, little bit? For I put to you that when we truly have the joy of knowing Jesus, that others will see Him living in us and want to find out more.
Now we would love to know what happened to these shepherds afterwards. The honest answer is, we don’t know. But there is so much we can learn from what we discover about them here in this passage this morning. So in the coming days let me suggest you find a quiet, still point to reflect on what they teach us. They received the good news of Jesus and they went. When they arrived, they discovered what had been told was true. When they left, their joy overflowed into the lives of others. So the question is: Where are you in the process of discovering Jesus this Christmas? And what difference does your discovery make?