Christmas Sermon: The Story We Need

I preached this last night at Midnight Mass at St Thomas Colnbrook.
Merry Christmas!

St Thomas Colnbrook – Midnight Mass
Set 1
December 24th, 2020

Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20

Lord Jesus, Light of light,
you have come among us.
Help us who live by your light
to shine as lights in your world.
Glory to God in the highest.

I think this year, more than ever, we need to hear the story of the first Christmas with fresh eyes and open hearts. In our world of restrictions, lockdowns and tiers, we are easily distracted by the stressors and anxieties of life.

Yet this story is still told. We see it in the pictures on Christmas cards; we hear it in the words of Christmas carols, even in online Crib, Carol and Christingle services. There is a comfort in this first Christmas story. I am not sure about you, but I find that I need this story more than I ever have. I need something bigger, more substantial to believe in, to find comfort in this year.

I am not sure which parts of this story warms the cockles of your hearts the most. There are so many moving parts – the government, those with power making those without power move around to be registered like cattle (the hauliers stuck in Kent), the loyal and devoted Joseph, the young and heavily pregnant Mary, the birth of their firstborn son, the inn (probably a family home) with no empty space, the shepherds living in the fields, watching over their flocks by night, the angel of the Lord and the great multitude. Glory to God in the highest heaven indeed!

I love to picture the angel and the shepherds in the field. The Good News of Jesus coming to those on the margins, the outside first – in a burst of light. There was nothing subtle about this announcement. It was a dark, probably ordinary night for those shepherds. Nothing but a few baas here and a few baas there, the stars for light, each other for companionship.

This year has highlighted so many people who are on the margins, the unsung heroes – shelf-stackers, delivery drivers, bus drivers, postal workers, cleaners, of course NHS workers, lab technicians, police officers. I am not meaning to exclude anyone – please spare a thought and prayer for those who have been important, essential to you this year. People who, in ‘normal times’ are on the edge of our lives, not often thought of or acknowledged, who have suddenly become much more important to keep our lives and their lives going.

It is to these, the shepherds, that the glory of God first comes when the angel came and stood before them. The appearance of the angel should make one marvel at the creativity and beauty of God – who says Christianity is boring when there are angels! Angels are not, as popular myth claims, recycled dead people – as comforting as this might be. Angels are part of God’s created order, admittedly it takes some imagination for us – but they are real.

The angel knows that their appearance will shock the shepherds. That is why the opening greeting is ‘do not be afraid’. The phrase ‘do not be afraid’ appears 366 times in the Bible. One for each day of the year and an extra for Leap Years.

Both the angel and the good news proclaimed to those unsuspecting shepherds was utterly overwhelming! When was the last time you were truly overwhelmed by something good?

I know and you know people who have been utterly overwhelmed by bad stuff – 2020, unemployment, sickness, separation, anxiety, depression, loneliness, uncertainty, death. Many people at Christmas find themselves utterly overwhelmed and exhausted by the darkness of this world – more than usual.

Yet, as John Pritchard, former Bishop of Oxford, wrote, ‘Christmas is that wonderful time when we enter into another world. Just temporarily we bask in a different glow, and old hopes are reinstated, and the world is a little less chilly. But if it’s true that at Christmas we enter into a different world, it’s also true that for Christmas to be authentic another world has to enter us. ‘Where meek souls shall receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.’ There’s another world, one not made or bought by us, but a gift, given and received, fragile, mysterious, and utterly breath-taking. We only catch a glimpse of this other world; too much of it would blow our fuse, we couldn’t take it. But this much we can receive. This much – Jesus.’

We can receive Jesus again. I love this little line tucked into verse 6: ‘the time came for her to deliver her child.’ The time came. Again, we can receive Jesus at anytime and anywhere, but he was grounded in a time and place. This baby born unto us has come to bring us hope and is the tangible sign that God really is with us. God ceases to be distant or removed or too awesome to encounter. Instead, with Jesus’ arrival God becomes intimately involved in his creation and in our lives too. And when God is with us then there is hope.

The hope of the gospel overcomes the darkness, every darkness. It is not a fairy tale, it is not false optimism. However dark the world is or feels, the hope of God overcomes it. There are few things worse than disappointed hope. God does not disappoint. Hope comes in believing that we are part of a bigger, grander story.

Wherever you find yourself in the Christmas story this day – spend some time at the manger, bend a knee and gaze again at the baby who came at the right time and in the right place to bring us hope and be with us.

We also need to look in the manger – not just at it. Many people, Christians too, come to see the manger – but they never look in the manger. For some, Jesus remains the baby forever. A baby that is easily contained in the manger that gets brought out once a year – looked at – and then put away again.

Jesus is not meant to be contained to the manger. Isaiah 9:6 – ‘For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders.’ Now I don’t know about you – but I have not heard that said about many new-born babies. A baby may be a good eater, sleeper or pooper but has authority resting upon its shoulders?! Jesus did not just appear one night in Bethlehem as if out of nowhere. He has always been around – part of the Trinity. Always more than a baby!

This little lord Jesus becomes the Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. I love these names, I can identify with each of them. He is my Counsellor when I struggle; Mighty when I am weak; Everlasting when uncertainty threatens to overwhelm; the Prince of Peace when I am distressed.

I hope that you will know and experience the great love God has for you this Christmas. Not just at Christmas but at every moment of every day of your life – when things are calm and happy but more so when things are sad and messy.

I hope that you will know the Lord’s favour upon you.

I hope the name of Jesus falls sweetly on your ears and off your tongue. May the Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace lead you and guide you always. Bless you & Happy Christmas.

Author: Sue Lepp

Newly appointed Priest-in-Charge of the Hambleden Valley Group of Churches and will start later in January 2021. Time for a new start at the beginning of a new year. I served my curacy in the Parish of Langley Marish and trained at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. Former Nurse in both Canada and the UK. Specialised in Palliative Care, Gynaecology-Oncology and a bit of Orthopaedics (just to keep me travelling). Worked as a MacMillan Nurse Specialist in a few specialities in London.

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