So few arrived to worship on Christmas morning and I was relatively pleased with my sermon, so thought I'd post it here in case a few people might read it and enjoy.....
Many years ago I read a story about a travelling missionary in China who was asked by a newly converted lady how she could learn the gospel. The missionary gave her a list of Bible verses to learn, suggesting that she start with the first one and only move on down the list when she knew each verse perfectly. The first verse on the list was the sentence in 1John 4: 16, which begins, God is love, ....... The missionary went on his way. Twelve months later, the missionary returned to the area and asked the lady how she had got on with learning the list of Bible verses. The lady told him she was still learning the first one and she hadn’t yet got it perfectly into her heart or her life and so hadn’t been able to move on down the list. The words of that verse are so familiar to us, that, probably like the missionary himself, we don’t really take them fully into our hearts and lives.
I think it’s the same with the Christmas story.
When I read again the nativity story in Luke’s gospel, I thought, We’ve heard this so often and it’s so familiar, what on earth can be fresh for us in this? So I looked, as I so often do, for a fresh thing that God wants me to know from his word.
Have you ever noticed the huge contrast between the scene out in the fields and the scene at the manger?
Into the ordinary darkness of the night comes a revelation of glory. There’s a weird light all around and a terrifying being appears telling the shepherds not to be afraid! Yeah! Right! They’re human, aren’t they? And they’re probably not what we might call ‘squeaky-clean’ humans. I can imagine all their sins probably flash through their minds. They probably are thinking, ‘Well, this is IT. We’re done for!’ But this awful heavenly being tells them an amazing bit of news. The Messiah has been born! I think it’s a miracle in itself that they took that in. But it seems they did. Gutsy people, these shepherds.
Then, there’s a multitude of heavenly beings singing praises to God. These shepherds not only have been given some startling news, but they are also being treated to a glimpse of heaven. There are a few other places that I can think of in the Bible where there’s a description of heaven. There’s Isaiah’s vision in Isaiah 6 with fire and smoke and heavenly beings flying around shouting praises to God. Then there’s Daniel’s terrifying dream in Daniel 7: more fire and noise and ten thousand times ten thousand heavenly beings worshipping God. And there’s John’s vision recorded in Revelation 5 with many angels surrounding the throne of God and myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands singing praise to God. It seems to me that heaven might not be a quiet and peaceful place!
These shepherds have been given a glimpse of heaven, just for a few moments. I don’t really think human beings could stand too much of heaven at one time. For a few moments, the heavenly curtain is drawn aside. At the other end of Jesus’ life, Luke tells us that a curtain is torn. At the moment of Jesus’ death in Luke 23: 45, Luke tells us that the curtain in the temple was torn in two, another symbol of the barrier between heaven and earth being taken away, allowing access to the holy of holies to all people.
The angels go away and the shepherds go to find the baby in the manger they’ve been told is the Messiah. Sure enough, they find the baby in the small unimportant town of Bethlehem, in an animal shelter of all places. What a contrast to the heavenly glory they’ve seen a short while ago. Here there’s no glorious light surrounding them. Why not? If this is the Messiah, the Son of God, shouldn’t there be a heavenly sound and light show?
Luke doesn’t even mention a wondrous star in the sky! Of course not. Why would we need heavenly lights or shining stars when in this baby is the Light of the world? In this ordinary place there’s no need for angel messengers. The shepherds take the place of angels. They give the message they’ve been told about this child. They praise and glorify God.
Here in this story of the shepherds and the angels is where we find the barrier between heaven and earth being broken down. God is now here in human flesh. God has joined the human race. Now it is the role of humanity to become the angels, to bring the message of God’s kingdom, to bring glory to God and to break down the barriers between people that cause bitterness, anger, violence and injustice. These do not belong in God’s kingdom. Jesus comes to bring light - enlightenment – and life that is worth living, not only to us here in this relatively safe and secure country of Australia, but to all the world. The light of Christ cannot be overcome by any kind of darkness. Sometimes, we need, like the shepherds, to believe and trust when we don’t understand what God is doing.
Here in this Christmas story we are assured that God, in Christ, became human. We can be assured that God doesn’t only come into a safe and comfortable world. He came as a vulnerable baby into an occupied country and lived in an ordinary working family. There were no luxuries in Jesus’ life. There was danger, violence, injustice, just as there is in many parts of the world these days.
We are all vulnerable in different ways. We’ve experienced that in recent days with the devastation of bush-fire and the uncertainty that brings. We experience it when we face up to illness in our lives and death amongst our families or friends. We are vulnerable too – and so was Jesus. God in flesh lived among us human beings. We know God understands our vulnerability.
But John’s gospel reminds us of the power of the God who created all things, even though when he joins us, he comes like a vulnerable baby. God is able to share our lives and bring us his strength, because of his love for all his creation, including you and me.
There is good news at Christmas and we are asked to do as those shepherds did and make known this amazing good news wherever we can.