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.
Amen.

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.

Christmas Day: Not-named Jesus, Angels & Shepherds

I am posting my two morning sermons from Christmas Eve & Day. They don’t particularly overlap (except for the introduction) but the style is similar. I decided to read slowly through Luke’s Gospel telling of the First Christmas and let various aspects fall on me in a new way. I then did some exegesis to unpick some of the ‘new’ aspects.

St M 8:00 P&P
St F 10:00 P&P
Christmas Day
25/12/17

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

God our Father,
whose Word has come among us
in the Holy Child of Bethlehem:
may the light of faith illumine our hearts
and shine in our words and deeds;
through him who is Christ the Lord.

One of the many things that I love about this season is how the story of the first Christmas comes alive. We see it in the pictures on Christmas cards; we hear it in the words of Christmas carols; we see the drama played out in Christingle and Crib services.

Even in the commercialization and secularization of our society the story of that first Christmas does get told – not always in words but in the symbols and pictures; seen if we pay attention to the world around us.

We know that many people who do not normally darken the door come to church for Christmas services. Why is that? Tradition and ritual? Just the done thing?

Maybe – naively on my part – they want to hear the first Christmas story told again in a way that is familiar, comfortable. The church tells the story of that first Christmas through our worship and liturgy.

But sometimes it can be easy to over-look things when we are familiar with the story. As I was preparing for this morning, I came across two aspects of Luke’s account that I want to share with you.

Now this morning we are here to celebrate the of Jesus. Amen!

But I wonder if you noticed that his name is not mentioned anywhere in the Luke reading? I really hadn’t paid attention to this before now. The name Jesus is not said in those first 20 verses of Luke 2. He is there of course – he gets noticed as an unborn child (verse 5); then he is ‘her (Mary’s) child’ and ‘her firstborn son’. The angels tell the shepherds of ‘a Saviour, who is the Messiah.’ Then they go to see ‘this child’ and ‘the child’.

It is interesting (at least to me) that Luke doesn’t use the child’s name – after all he was careful enough to name the Emperor Augustus and the Quirinus the Governor of Syria. Why their names and not the name of Jesus, the name that will go on forever?

One explanation is that by including Augustus and Quirinus the historical evidence is strengthened – to ground the birth of Jesus at a particular point in history.

The name of Jesus will go on forever though! In fairness to Luke, he is the one who for the very first time proclaims our Saviour’s personal name – ever – from the beginning of time. Jesus.

He does that in the first chapter of Luke when Gabriel appears to Mary to give her the news that she will conceive and bear a son whom she will name Jesus.

Jesus. The very name at which one day every knee will bow.

Jesus. The very name at which every tongue will confess.

Jesus. A name with no parallel in any vocabulary.

Jesus. A name with power like no other name?

Gabriel tells Mary ‘He will be great’. Oh yes he is.

This is who and what we are to celebrate this morning. Jesus and his greatness.
It is easy to get caught up in the busyness of this season – there are lots of lovely things happening – don’t get me wrong. But if the focus is not ultimately on Jesus – the true meaning gets lost.

The second aspect that I had overlooked was the three mentions of the manger. Luke very deliberately mentions the manger and the child lying in it in three separate verses. Yes of course he was lying in the manger – no crib for his bed and all that.

Mary laid her firstborn son in a manger.

The angels tell the shepherds about the child lying in a manger.

The shepherds went with haste and found the child lying in the manger.

The manger, appropriately enough, was the sign to the shepherds. It told them which baby they were looking for. It showed them that the angel knew what they were talking about. It was important to give the shepherds their news and their instructions.

Why does this matter? It was the shepherds who were told who this child is. This child – the Saviour, the Messiah, the Lord.

Yet the manger isn’t important in and of itself. The manger is a signpost – a pointing finger – to the identity of the baby boy who’s lying in it.

The shepherds’ arrival may have helped Mary and Joseph to confirm what had been their own secret up to now. I thought about this in a new way too – what would it have been like for Mary and Joseph as the shepherds arrived? The secret is now out!

I am not sure if you have had the experience of a secret being let out! It can be quite shocking and uncertain – what happens next?! Who knows!? Maybe it was a relief – that all that they had been through – God was faithful to his word.

God is faithful to his word. Always. What a relief that is. In this uncertain world and in uncertain times – we can look to the manger and know that God is faithful!

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 it. 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.

I have a small nephew who asks a lot of questions. Just after he turned 5, he and my sister had the following bedtime conversation:

‘Mom, how old are Great Grandma and Great Grandpa?

My sister replied ‘They are both 90.’
‘Mom, when will they go to heaven?’

My sister replied, ‘I am not sure but Jesus will be waiting to greet them when they go.’

‘Mom, how old is Jesus?’

My sister, ‘well, he was born 2000 years ago but he doesn’t age. He has always been around.’

In a very defiant voice my nephew declared, ‘Mom, Jesus is a baby!’

It is quite easy to take this view whether we are 5 years or not. Jesus is not meant to be contained to the manger. Isaiah 9:6 – For a child has been born to 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 newborn babies. A baby may be a good eater sleeper or pooper but has authority rests 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!

As we celebrate today – we can spend a little more time at the manger worshipping the baby born to us. The baby who becomes the Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

I love these names – I can identify with each of them as titles for the Child that has been born to us. He is my Counsellor when I struggle; Mighty when I am weak; Everlasting when unwanted changes come my way; the bringer 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 you are stirred up throughout.

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.

The Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace lead you and guide you always.