Another Christmas and what a wonderful time this Advent and lead up to Christmas has been this year. Over the last few weeks at St James’ we have shared the nativity story with various groups of pre-school children; carolled our way through several nursing homes; taken part in a sheep-filled Knitivity before the culmination of Christmas Eve Crib and Christingle services and the pinnacle of Midnight Mass. It was my privilege to be able to preach at this first service of Christmas on what was a very special night…
Make I speak and may you hear through the grace of the Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit
How’s everyone’s Christmas going? Got everything prepared? – I hope so, because you know gentlemen, I think even the late night petrol stations are closed now… But, of course you’re all prepared, and what better way to begin our Christmas Day celebrations [looking at watch] – well it’s not quite morning yet but it will be by the time I stop talking – than to gather here together to hear again the timeless story of Jesus’ birth. And there is something rather special about being here, at this time and in this place, and you must admit that the church does look rather wonderful, full of light and mystery.
However busy we’ve been, all the rushing around trying to find the perfect presents; making sure we’ve stocked up on plenty of food and drink; and those little treats we can indulge ourselves with; despite all of that, something calls to us to take a moment, this moment, to remember what Christmas is really all about. We hear the story of a young teenage woman about to give birth; the reluctant fiancé whose done the right thing; the outcasts and rejected members of society in the persons of the shepherds privileged to hear the good news first… of a baby born in an animal shed, yet destined to change the world… all heralded by angelic messengers descending – to bring heaven so tantalising close to earth.
Tonight we’ve come together in what I believe the Celts would have called ‘a thin place’. They had a saying that ‘heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places that distance is even smaller’. A thin place is where the veil that separates heaven and earth is lifted and one is able to receive a glimpse of the glory of God. Perhaps that’s why we’re here tonight, hoping to catch a glimpse of heaven’s glory
Indeed, there’s something about that story that seems to call to something deep within us, to draw us in so that just for a while we believe that all will be well with the world. A story that speaks of things so long ago and so far away and what wouldn’t we give for it to be happening right now; maybe like me you sometimes, just sometimes, wonder why it doesn’t appear to be doing so nowadays. After all it’s good news of great joy for all people.
“”I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people”
What then was that good news that the angels spoke of to the shepherds, and how is it good news for us today? Because let’s be honest, the news that’s beamed into our homes and phones and splashed across the newspapers doesn’t exactly fill us with confidence and hope that humanity has a common goal of seeking respect, harmony and love.
Respect, harmony and love, three key element of Jesus’ message for the world into which he was born… and the world in which we live today; a message that is good news for us but also requires us to be good news to others; a message that allows us to glimpse heaven’s glory.
For Mary and Joseph their lives had been turned upside down and the baby that was now sleeping in the manger brought them joy as any new-born child would, despite the distance they had travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem and the circumstances they found themselves in. Yet the fact is within two years they would be fleeing for their lives, trying to keep one step ahead of Herod’s henchman who would indiscriminately slaughter thousands of innocent children and bring misery to countless families; families who likes Joseph’s were valuable member of society, and who now had to rely on the country to which they fled to offer them security and compassion, to recognise and respect who they were.
Sounds a bit like a scenario that’s been happening around the world more and more lately? That even today there are people having to flee from their homes, seeking that same sort of asylum, escaping from violence and conflict. Do we recognised their value and treat them with respect? How do we welcome the stranger and alien in our land or into our homes? Do they hear good news from us?
So tonight, on this special night, it would be good to remember all those who are far from the country of their birth, who are missing the comfort of their own home and their families, and pray that with our help they too can envisage a future that allows them and us to catch a glimpse of heaven’s glory
We hear too in the story that the birth of Jesus was a herald of peace on earth and our reading from Isaiah confirms that the one who was coming would be known as the Prince of Peace. It was a peace that would come about not only through meekness and tolerance but through seeking justice and reconciliation in a land dominated by a foreign power and then through the ultimate sacrifice.
“Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”
Most recently I believe we too are weary of a world in which violence and hatred seems to dominate, where mistrust and selfish power struggles offers discord rather than harmony, where acts of violence leave men, women and children in fear for their lives. How it jars with Jesus’ message of peace and how we so often feel powerless to do anything to bring about that peace?
Surely though it just needs to start with us, to be at peace with ourselves, our families and our neighbours, to reject hatred and discrimination and to stamp on injustice. So tonight, on this special night, let us be resolved to seek everything that speaks of harmony rather than conflict, not just in words, but in actions, so that we and the whole world might catch a glimpse of heaven’s glory.
Back to the story then; those shepherds were just the first example of Jesus’ determination that every single person would be valued, respected and loved. Throughout his ministry he actively sought out the poor, the homeless, the excluded – those rejected by a society that saw them as failures, inconveniences, worthless. He didn’t treat them as charity cases or patronise them in order to make himself feel better – he genuinely loved them. And he calls us to do the same.
Not just to love those who are lovable but those whom we consider unlovable. It’s too easy to create exclusive groups around us rather than to love inclusively. Perhaps though tonight, on this special night we can determine to open our hearts to love, to receive love and to give love so that all may catch a glimpse of heaven’s glory
As I said earlier, tonight we hear again in the Christmas story those three key elements of Jesus’ message for the world – respect, harmony and love, but there’s one more important thing that Jesus’ birth has to offer us – his death. It wasn’t until just over 300 year after his death that Christians began to remember and celebrate his birth. Up until then the good news had centred on the message of the cross.
A message of forgiveness, redemption and salvation for the world as a whole and for us as individuals; but we do recognise that as part of the Christmas message as well. When, later on we come to sing ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ the last verse has these words, “Born that man no more may die, born to raise the sons (and daughters of cause) of earth, born to give them second birth”. So tonight, on this special night, we can believe that heaven really has come close to give us a glimpse of heaven’s glory.
“…born to give them second birth”
But the truth is we can’t just leave it there – the Christmas story cannot be just that, a story in history. You may have come this evening because it’s simply part of a family tradition, or maybe you’ve been coming for years, or perhaps you haven’t been for a while – and that’s okay, all are welcome here… or maybe something stirs deep within and calls to a discovery that his story is also your story, my story, our story.
Isaiah prophesied all those years ago that ‘the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.’ Tonight, on this special night, we can be certain that that light still shines brightly, dispelling the darkness and allowing us all a glimpse of heaven’s glory.
Love came down at Christmas, and may that same love come down and enter our hearts both tonight, this morning and for evermore. Amen