Sermon for Christmas Eve, on Luke 2.1–20
This is a night of celebration and joy. What are we celebrating, and why are we joyful?
Well, a lot of what we have seen and heard seems to concern the birth of a baby, a little boy named Jesus, born to a young woman named Mary and her husband Joseph—a birth in very humble circumstances, in the stable of an inn in a little town in Judaea, the baby placed to sleep in a feed trough. Inns were not savoury places two thousand years ago, and this family isn’t even in a room in the inn. They have arrived because of a census to find the town swarming with visitors, and there is no vacancy. It’s rather as if a mother gave birth in the utility shed of a cheap motel.
There is nothing at all remarkable about this family as we look at them. Wife, husband, baby. Nobody notices them. They create no stir. The newborn boy does not look unusual; he is born with no special marks, none of the clues that special babies in stories are usually born with. His mother has been told that the baby she’ll bear will be great and called the Son of God. But she isn’t told to look for anything or to do anything, and when he’s born, nothing happens, or so it seems.
Then our story changes scene, and we get our clue that all is not what it appears to be. If it were a movie, there would be a cut to: fields outside Bethlehem, where some shepherds—among the poorest and roughest and least respected of men—are up late watching their sheep. And we actually see most of tonight’s story through their eyes. We stay with them. And that’s important. To understand who this baby boy is, we need to be with the shepherds.
Because these men, who don’t count in the world’s eyes, see the world change. They see a messenger from God, whom we call an angel, an awesome and frightening sight. And the message they hear is: “Don’t be afraid. I bring you good news, which is for everyone.” I bring you good news—you, poor ragged shepherds, this good news is coming to you. You are good enough for this good news. And already the world is turning upside down. Good news for all people has come to a bunch of shepherds. Now we know a divine power has to be involved, because how else would such a group of low-lifes be favoured in this way?
The God we worship here talks to low-lifes.
And what is the good news? “Today, in the city of David, a Saviour has been born, who is Christ the Lord.”
In other words: “In that little town over there, where hundreds of years ago a king was born, now another baby is born. He is the one God has marked out, has put his seal on, to put his people right; he is the one everyone has been waiting for, and he will be in charge.”
Which is exactly what Isaiah the prophet had promised: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counseller, The mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9.5). And with this baby comes again, a turning upside-down of the ways of the world. Isaiah had said that too. “For every boot of the tramping warrior…and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire” (Isaiah 9.5). What an amazing verse. The ways of war will not win, in any way that matters.
That’s quite something to tell anyone, let alone a bunch of shepherds. Very hard to take in; what does it mean? How can you believe it? So the shepherds go and see.
And what do they find? No great wonder, just an ordinary baby and two ordinary parents in the utility shed at the cheap motel.
The shepherds remember that this is not just for them; this amazing good news is for everyone. Which means everyone had better hear it. So they tell about it, now they’ve seen the baby. “And all they that heard it wondered.” I bet they did. The story does not say that all they that heard it believed. Would you believe a crazy story about angels in the sky and this unremarkable baby being the one who would save his whole people, coming from people like this?
But that doesn’t matter. The shepherds knew people wouldn’t believe them. They told the story nonetheless. And they returned “glorifying and praising God.”
The God we worship here chooses shepherds to bear the most important news.
So what does this all add up to?
Well, look at it this way. The baby in the feed trough was an ordinary baby, who was completely helpless. He needed to be fed a lot, needed his diaper changed, needed to be kept warm, and needed to grow up like anyone else. Nowhere in our Scriptures are we ever told that Jesus slept eight hours a night when he was a month old, or that he walked at the age of six months, or could read when he was one…there’s no hint of any of that superhero stuff. Nor are we ever told he was a perfect child by the world’s standards. The first clue he gave that he was different was at the age of twelve. That was a long way off for a newborn baby in the first century, and it could never have been expected. Mary, recovering from the birth and getting to know her new son, needed faith just to believe that he, and she, would live that long.
But this utterly ordinary baby is the same child that one angel had said would be called the Son of God, and the same child that another angel said was “a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.”
So, God’s way is to come to meet us as one of our own kind. God’s son, this great Redeemer, would share all the risk, all the pain and sickness and yearning, all the crying and laughing and playing and bruises, all the growing and learning, of any other child of his time. He was human, completely. It would take years for his promise to be fulfilled.
So, it’s no wonder such a God, willing to enter our human life to live as one of us, in such conditions of poverty and risk, should choose shepherds as bearers of his message. In Jesus, our God reaches down and embraces the lowest. The song of Mary, Jesus’ mother, her song of joy when told she would bear this child, describes what God is like. “He has put down the mighty from their seat, and has exalted the humble and meek. He has filled the hungry with good things, and has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1.52–53). That is what our God’s plan is in Jesus, that is where his action is in the world in Jesus, that is where his blessing is in Jesus. And that would be the story of the life of Jesus when he grew up.
But we mustn’t get ahead of ourselves. For tonight, it is enough to follow the shepherds. They are our guides for tonight. They heard a message, good news for them, humble as they were. They responded: they went to see. And they spread the news, not worrying about who would believe it or what people would think. That’s what we call faith, and they acted on it.
The shepherds are our guides because they take us to Jesus. They wouldn’t get there without trusting the message. And they show us, through their faith and trust, who Jesus is: the Son of the most High God, the Almighty, Creator of all that is—AND a newborn human baby, just about the most helpless creature on this earth. Infinite power meets complete helplessness, and the two are held together. As an ancient carol put it, “Heaven and earth in little space.”
And that is what Christmas Eve is about. It’s when the impossible becomes, not just possible, but real.
Where are you, among the shepherds? Are you shivering in the fields, fields of poverty or depression or loneliness or age, feeling that you don’t count in this world? In Jesus, you do. He has come for you.
Are you hearing the angel’s message anew, astounded? Feel the wonder of that moment, because Jesus is astounding.
Are you struggling to know what to make of it? That can be a long moment. You need to go and see. For tonight, just ponder the child in the manger. You can always come closer. But then take a step further. Ask a friend. Read the story for yourself. Start a conversation. Come back on a Sunday.
Or have you seen the child and his mother, and are feeling nervous about following the shepherds as they go to spread the news? That’s OK. One step at a time. The first step is often the hardest. You’re on the right track.
Whether you are hearing this story for the first time or the hundredth time, it starts anew here, tonight. And this is only one chapter. The best journey of all is to be taken with this child. If you don’t know why, and something is urging you to ask, please come and talk to me. May this be the best Christmas yet for all of us.
Christ Anglican Church, North Bay, Ontario
24 December 2017
Fr Derek Neal