The Annual Boxing Day Ritual…

‘You know, the one where we bring Jesus back to God and ask to exchange him for something more comfortable, or better yet, just give us the cash.’

– Blatantly stolen from Joe over at Felix Hominum (where he’s currently blogging through Homer’s Odyssey).

Sermon for December 27th: Luke 2:41-52

Godly Habits

There’s an old story told about a dirt road in the Australian outback where you’ll see a sign that says, ‘Choose your rut carefully – you’ll be in it for the next thirty miles!’ I’ve driven on some roads like that over the years, so I think I know what the sign means! And at this time of year, some of our residential streets in Edmonton are starting to feel a bit rutty too – not because of mud, but because of ice and snow!

Of course, we also use the word ‘rut’ to describe ingrained habits – usually in a negative sense. ‘Getting into a rut’ is usually seen as a bad thing – a sort of laziness of mind and spirit that comes over us. It’s so hard for us to learn new ways of thinking and acting; it’s so much easier to keep on thinking and doing the same old thing. Clergy get into these sorts of ruts when they’re preparing sermons at Christmas time, especially when, like me, they’re getting a bit long in the tooth! I’ve preached on these same scripture readings for years and years; it’s so much easier to pull out an old sermon rather than to go to God in prayer and ask him for something new and fresh to present at the Christmas services! And we can all get into mental ruts; never open to the possibility that we might be wrong, or that we might not have adequate information, we just keep on thinking and saying the same old thing, over and over again. Getting into a rut, in this sense, is not a good thing.

But habits aren’t necessarily negative; they can be positive too. Habit, of itself, is a gift from God, saving us all sorts of time and energy. I’ve gotten into the habit of buttoning up my shirt in a certain way when I get dressed, of putting one shoe on before the other, and so on. If I had to think about it every time I did it, life would be impossible – every course of action would just take too long. Musicians know this very well; we guitarists sometimes talk about ‘finger memory’, by which we mean that after we’ve been playing a tune for a while we no longer have to think about it consciously – our fingers know where to go next without our conscious mind telling them. That sort of habit is a precious gift.

So on the one hand we have habit as a good thing, a thing that saves us endless trouble and helps us do all sorts of tasks more efficiently. But on the other hand, we have thoughtless habits – things we do, not because we necessarily have any great conviction about them, but just because ‘we’ve always done it this way’. These two sorts of habits both feature in our Christian growth. On the one hand, we have godly habits – things it’s good to learn to do, because they help to mould us into the character of Christ. On the other hand, we have ritual actions that don’t really come from any deep conviction in our hearts – they’re just ‘things we’ve always done’, according to that great Anglican creed that we used to say in the words of the old prayer book: ‘As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, amen!’

Why am I talking about habits this morning? Well, in our gospel reading for today the Greek word ‘ethos’ is important. It means ‘a pattern of behaviour that is more or less fixed by tradition and generally sanctioned by society’. The word is generally translated in our English Bibles as ‘custom’ or ‘habit’, but it’s sometimes hidden under other verbal forms. For instance, look at Luke 2:41-42:

Now every year (Jesus’) parents went up to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival.

That phrase ‘as usual’ is ‘ethos’ in Greek. In other words, it was their habit or custom to do it, and when Jesus was twelve, they followed their custom as usual.

Now interestingly enough, when the word ‘ethos’ is used in the gospels or in Acts, it’s often in the form of an accusation against Jesus and his followers: they are accused of attempting to destroy the customs that Moses handed down to the people of Israel. But we can see from today’s gospel and from the early chapters of Luke that this wasn’t the way Jesus was brought up. He and his family didn’t seek to destroy the habits and customs that had been handed down from the time of Moses, but Jesus did try to give those habits and customs a proper meaning.

It is of course possible for habits to become mindless actions, something we do without really giving any thought to what it means. For instance, many Christians make the sign of the cross, and I suspect that a good number of them don’t really think about what it means when they do it. But the solution to that problem is not to do away with the sign of the cross altogether. The solution is for all of us to think about what it means – to remember that Jesus gave himself on the cross for us, and that through that cross we receive forgiveness and healing and blessing and all sorts of other good things. To make the sign of the cross is an acted prayer, praying that God will bless us and give us all the benefits that Jesus has won for us by giving his life for us. When we think of it in this way, making the sign of the cross can be a powerful thing.

Let’s think for a minute about the customs and habits that Mary and Joseph had practiced in their house as they were bringing Jesus up, because those habits probably had a great deal to do with the sort of person Jesus grew up to be.

One habit that he was raised with was participation in the worship of Israel. This worship included the special yearly festivals like Passover and the Feast of Booths and the Day of Atonement, with all the sacrifices and ceremonies prescribed by law and custom. And it also included the weekly worship at the synagogue, going to hear the Law of Moses read and explained, and joining in the prayers of the people there. It never seems to have occurred to Mary and Joseph to say what so many people say today: “I don’t need to go to church to pray – I can do it quite well at home by myself”. To Jesus’ family, the fundamental form of prayer was prayer together, and they were happy to join with all of God’s people in offering it.

When Jesus grew up, he continued this habit. Luke 4:16 tells us that ‘When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom’. There’s that word ‘ethos’ again – Jesus was in the habit of going to church.

I consider myself very lucky that my parents got me into that habit at an early age. When they had me baptized at the age of two months, they obviously considered it part of their responsibility to get me to the church every week, so that I could learn to worship with God’s people. Interestingly enough, I have no memory at all of going to Sunday School, although I’m sure I must have done so from time to time. But what I remember is sitting in the services with my Mum and Dad, singing the hymns and kneeling for the prayers. I’m very grateful that they didn’t take the attitude “Well, we’ll go to church on Sunday unless there’s something else on”. They made it a priority, and I’m still benefitting from that today.

Participating in the festivals by which we remember the great events of Jesus’ life and what they mean to us is also very important. Over the years, all sorts of traditional practices have grown up around those festivals. One of those traditions is the use of an Advent wreath. I wasn’t brought up with this tradition myself; I learned it in the early 1980s when we lived in Saskatchewan, and Marci and I quickly adopted it and made it one of our family customs. When our kids were small, each night in Advent we would light the candles on the wreath – one for each week of Advent – and then do a short reading and prayer from an Advent book. Our book also gave us other activities to do with our kids – for instance, one week Marci had them making cookies shaped like crowns and stars and sceptres and other biblical symbols related to Jesus.

There are all sorts of other customs like this – using palm crosses on Palm Sunday, or the sign of ashes on Ash Wednesday, fasting during Lent and so on. These aren’t commanded in scripture, but they’ve been passed down to us in Christian history over hundreds of years. Yes, they can sometimes become thoughtless traditions, but the solution to thoughtless tradition isn’t to abandon tradition altogether – it’s to start thinking about it again, to ask what it means, and to be intentional and conscientious about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

So Jesus was raised with an ethos, a custom or habit, of joining in the worship life of God’s people – not just a private, do it yourself spirituality, but something they all came together to share in. And another habit he was raised with, one that was so characteristic of Judaism in the time of Jesus and since then, was the habit of reading scripture and discussing its meaning.

This is what the twelve year old Jesus was doing in our gospel reading, during those three desperate days when his Mom and Dad didn’t have a clue where he was. We read in verse 46 that ‘after three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions’. We can make a very good guess what those discussions were about: God’s law, and how to apply it to one’s daily life. This was the most common topic of discussion in Judaism at the time.

As a Jewish boy Jesus would have heard the scriptures read regularly, in the synagogues on the Sabbath and on other occasions, and part of his education would have been to memorise large chunks of what we now call ‘the Old Testament’. Of course, in those days before printing it was not possible for people to own their own copy of even one book of the Bible, but between regular public reading and memorisation, they probably knew it as well as we do, if not better. And the Jewish people loved to discuss the meaning of the scriptures and the way to apply them to daily life; their teachers came up with a huge body of oral tradition on just this subject.

But I suspect that the thing that had the greatest impact on Jesus was seeing his parents struggling to live by God’s Word. In Matthew chapter one we find the young Joseph, expecting to be married to Mary, suddenly discovering that she is pregnant and agonising over what he should do. He wants to do what is right; he is guided by the Scriptures, but also by the voice of the angel in the dream telling him that something unusual is happening here. And Mary, when the angel brings her the news that she is to be the mother of the Messiah, replies “Let it be to me according to your Word” (Luke 1:38). She is willing to obey God at great personal cost. Hearing the Lord’s word isn’t just an intellectual exercise for her – it’s about life transformation. This is the sort of people Mary and Joseph were. And this is the way of life Jesus learned.

So there are these two customs or habits that Jesus learned as he was growing up in the house of Mary and Joseph – the habit of worshipping together with God’s people, and the habit of hearing and discussing and practising the word of God in scripture. But there’s one other really important feature of this passage, something that’s so vital that without it the other stuff really can just become routine. Notice the words of the twelve-year-old Jesus when Mary rebukes him. She says, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety”. And Jesus replies, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” – or, another possible translation would be, “that I must be about my Father’s interests?” (vv.48-49)

This strong sense of personal connection to God as Father was unusual in the time of Jesus. The Old Testament talks about Israel as a nation being God’s firstborn son, but it was almost unheard of for an individual person to have that sense of sonship – to say not only ‘our father’, but also ‘my father’. But Jesus was able to do this. In other words, he had not only learned the outward habits that formed him as a faithful Jew; he had also learned to know God personally, for himself.

This is something that is absolutely central to the Christianity that we read about in the New Testament, and I have to say that we as parents aren’t always successful in passing this on to our children. There’s a simple reason for this: it’s something that can’t be passed on! We can teach our kids to come to worship and to read the Bible, but we can’t give them a personal connection with God – they have to find that for themselves. And if they don’t find it, then in the end they will probably abandon the habits and traditions we’ve tried to teach them as well.

If you have not yet found this personal connection with God, don’t be satisfied until you do. Cry out to him to make himself known to you. Come to Jesus in faith; put your life in his hands and ask him to teach you to know the Father for yourself. Some of us have a definite moment of commitment when we pray a prayer of faith, putting our lives in the hands of Jesus. Others grow into it in a more gradual way. I don’t think it really matters how you find it, but it’s vitally important that you do find it.

And when you do find it, all those habits and customs you picked up as a child will have a fresh meaning for you. Some years ago a man who had been brought up in the days of the old Book of Common Prayer, and then had a fresh experience of the Holy Spirit, commented that he was noticing all sorts of things in the Prayer Book that he’d never seen before! The habit of weekly worship with God’s people, the habit of daily prayer and Bible reading – all these things take on new meaning for us when they are ways of relating to a God we are coming to know and love personally. So let us press on to know the Lord, and then let us learn and use these godly habits so that we can grow in our faith day by day.

Christmas Day in Edmonton 2009

I took this one when I went out for my early morning walk before going to Christmas Day service.

We went to church for the 10.00 Holy Communion service, but I didn’t take any pictures there. The company was small as usual, but it was a truly magical service. The sermon is below this post.

We came home, had lunch, and then opened our presents. Here’s Nick preparing to do his usual job as Santa’s elf.

My best Christmas blessing, every year (I nicked this photo from Jacqui).

Not very flattering but I love Christmas music and was having fun playing it on my guitar!

Theodore the bear welcomes guests to our house at Christmas. If you come, you get one of the candy canes in his pouch.

Jacqui and Nick: brother and sister together again.

Later on in the afternoon we went for a walk in Whitemud Ravine. The sun was just going down.

Caught a bit of sunlight on the top of the ridge.

Looks like an elven path to me…

Jacqui and Nick again.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Sermon for Christmas Day (Isaiah 9:2-7, Luke 2:1-20)

A Different Kind of King

In this morning’s Old Testament reading, from Isaiah, we heard these words:

‘For a child has been born for us,

a son given to us;

authority rests upon his shoulders’ (Isaiah 9:6).

Or, in the more familiar language of the King James Version,

‘and the government shall be upon his shoulders’.

When we hear these words, we ought to breathe a sigh of relief. Because what we need right now, perhaps more than at any other time in recent memory, is someone to shoulder the burden of government, someone who can carry our problems and find a solution for us.

I have nothing but sympathy for the brilliant but fallible human beings who we have elected to high office, but it becomes more and more obvious as the years go by that they just don’t have the answers. They’re faced with a resurgence of terrorism around the world, with a burgeoning food crisis, with the near collapse of the global financial system, and with the approaching crisis of climate change. They do the best they can, but in the long run, not much seems to change. The world is just as violent now as it was when I was born, despite all the brilliant minds that have tried to find peaceful solutions to our disputes. The gap between rich and poor is getting greater, not less. Emissions are going up, not down. And of course, everyone loves to blame the politicians for it, when the truth is that we’re all implicated, one way or another. The burden is too much for these people to bear. Quite frankly, they’re not up to the task. No one is.

And so it comes as a great relief for us to know that God has a plan. God has sent us a leader who will be up to the task. After all, look at the names given to him in this passage from Isaiah:

‘…and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace’ (v.6).

It sounds as if God himself is about to stride onto the stage of human history and take charge. He should be up to the task! And what will be the result of his rule? Look a little further on:

‘His authority shall grow continually,

and there shall be endless peace

for the throne of David and his kingdom.

He will establish and uphold it

with justice and righteousness

from this time forward and for evermore’ (v.7).

It sounds like God is finally going to sort things out!

But when we turn to the gospels we get a surprise. It’s a surprise that had been hinted at in some of the Old Testament prophets, but it’s fair to say that most people hadn’t noticed it there. It looks very much like a change of plan on God’s part, although when we see the whole story, we can discern that it’s very much in line with God’s original purposes. And the surprise is this: God sends a king, but the king refuses to rule – at least, in the way kings had ruled throughout history up until that point, and continue to rule even today, even though we mostly elect them now rather than trusting to heredity to do the trick!

In our gospel reading for today we come face to face with two different kinds of power. In the first few verses we come face to face with the power of big government:

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David (Luke 2:1-4).

This is power! The divine Augustus sits on his throne in Rome, gives an order, and the whole empire starts to move. People’s lives are impacted, trade is disrupted, while all over the world officials start to register people – all so that Rome can be more efficient in the collection of taxes, of course! But just imagine the power that can cause this to happen! If you want to make an impact on the world, that’s the sort of power that you need.

The Roman emperor was the most powerful ruler the world had ever known in those days, although of course there have been many since then who have even more power. Like many absolute rulers, he claimed some pretty amazing titles for himself. Two of them were the Greek words soter and kyrios, which we translate into English as ‘saviour’ and ‘lord’. And yet, later on in our gospel for this morning, these same titles are taken by an angel and applied to the adopted son of a Galilean carpenter – one who had been caught up in Augustus’ registration and forced to take a journey far from home at the worst possible time in his wife’s pregnancy:

‘To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord’ (v.11).

It must have seemed a very strange thing to the early Christian converts who first heard Luke’s story of Christmas – that the angel would take the titles of great Caesar and apply them to this powerless and defenceless man from Galilee. Evidently God’s idea of power is very different from ours.

So on the one hand we have the enormous power of Rome – and of governments since then, whether totalitarian or democratic. On the other hand, we have a child who was born far from home, who very quickly had to flee from his own country as a refugee from Herod’s death squads, who was raised as the son of an artisan in Galilee, and who spent most of his life in obscurity before striding onto the stage for a brief three years of teaching and healing and exorcising, before Rome decided it was time to put him in his place, with nails. Isaiah may have said that ‘authority rests upon his shoulders’, but the only sort of authority that ever rested on Jesus’ shoulders was the authority of Rome, symbolized by the wooden cross they made him carry to his place of execution.

But things aren’t always as they seem. The New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce used to say that the Roman emperor Nero may have executed the apostle Paul, but ‘the day would come when men would name their dogs ‘Nero’ and their sons ‘Paul’! The Roman empire is long gone, but the movement Jesus started is still here. In the earliest days it had no power to compel people to follow it; it had no budget, no strategic plan, no access to mass media and so on – but in a couple of hundred years it transformed the Mediterranean world, and is still going strong today. At times it has been seduced by Caesar and has used the coercive power of the State to do its work, but those times have always been looked back on as failures. The times when the Jesus movement has been most effective in transforming the world have been the times when it has looked most like its Master – the one who worked by the power of love, not the love of power, and who allowed himself to be crucified rather than destroying his enemies and imposing his will on others.

So Luke’s story introduces us to a different empire, a different emperor, a different kind of emperor. Jesus isn’t simply another politician on whom everyone can pin their hopes and who will then let them down. His way of establishing peace and justice on earth was totally different to the usual power games and money games. Today we’re hungry for just that difference, and Christmas is a good time to think about it.

How do you change the world? Not from the top down, says Luke – not by seizing control of the government and imposing your will on others. Even when that’s done with the best of motives, in the end it just seems to leave a bad taste in people’s mouths, and the results are usually disappointing.

No, you change the world from the bottom up – by transforming people’s lives, by giving them a vision of life as God intended it, and by giving them the power to live that life. You change the world through the lives of ordinary people like the shepherds of Bethlehem, and like the family of a Galilean construction worker, who meet God and are forever changed by the meeting. You don’t change the world by having the sort of authority that makes people bow before you and serve you as slaves – washing your feet when you come in from walking on the dirty roads. No, you change the world by being the one who does the footwashing, the one who serves other people in love. As you know, in the mind of Jesus there’s no contradiction between absolute authority and humble service: ‘So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you’ (John 13:14-15).

I’ve sometimes called this the ‘slow and messy way’ of changing the world, because on the surface it looks far more weak and inefficient than the usual power-grab. But centuries of experience should have taught us by now that the usual power grab may look effective, but it’s really not. As one of my Bible teachers used to say, ‘a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still’. Forcing people to do something when their hearts and lives are not really changed will not accomplish much in the long run. It may succeed in restraining evil for a while, but it can’t establish goodness. For that, you need inner transformation.

And so God doesn’t force himself on people – he simply knocks, and waits for them to respond. As the well-known verse from Revelation has it, ‘Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come into you and eat with you, and you with me’ (3:20). There’s a risk in operating this way, of course – the risk that there will be ‘no room at the inn’ – that we will refuse to find room in our lives for God and for God’s way of transforming the world. Apparently God thinks the risk is worth taking.

So this morning, as we remember the birth of our King, let’s embrace his way of being king, his way of changing the world – the way of seemingly small actions in the lives of ordinary people, acting, as Jesus said, like yeast gradually working its way through the whole lump of flower, or like a tiny seed being planted in the ground and eventually growing into the largest of plants. Our acts of love, in obedience to Jesus, are the most potent force to change the world. So let’s leave this place today and go and do them, in his name and in his power, and trust the results to him.

(Note: I borrowed the first paragraph of this sermon from Tom Wright, but then took it in a completely different direction than he did).

Sermon for Christmas Eve

Good News is for Sharing

A few weeks ago I heard some very exciting news. I’m a big fan of a tiny little folk singer from Yorkshire by the name of Kate Rusby. She has a wonderfully clear voice and is a superb arranger of traditional folk songs, and in the last few years she’s become one of the biggest names on the folk music scene in England. However, she has a phobia about flying, and so overseas concert tours from her are very rare. But a couple of weeks ago I opened the entertainment section of the newspaper and discovered that she will be performing at the 2010 Edmonton Folk Music Festival. I was so excited about this news that I immediately emailed three or four friends of mine who are also fans of hers. I just couldn’t keep it to myself; good news is for sharing!

In our Christmas gospel reading for tonight we read about the passing on of good news. First of all we have the angel of the Lord appearing to the shepherds on a hillside near Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ birth. This is what he says:

“Do not be afraid, for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” (vv.10-12).

After this a great choir of angels appears to the shepherds, singing the praises of God.

What’s the next thing that happened? Luke tells us that when the angels had left them, ‘the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us”’ (v.15). So they left their flocks to look after themselves, and they went down into Bethlehem to search for the child. I chuckle a bit when I think of how they might have gone about their search. Did they knock on every door in town and ask, “Excuse me – is there a new baby in this house? Er – is he lying in a manger?” I expect they got a few strange looks, and I wouldn’t be surprised if at least a couple of doors weren’t slammed in their faces! But eventually they found the right house, and they found the baby and Mary and Joseph, and they told everyone they met what the angels said to them about this new child. The good news had been given to them, and now they were passing it on to other people. Good news is for sharing!

What was it about the message they had heard that would have motivated the shepherds to abandon their flocks and run down to Bethlehem to see this child? It certainly wasn’t just the fact that a baby was born. I mean, I’m expecting a grandchild myself next month, and I’m sure I’m going to be really excited when he or she arrives, but I wouldn’t expect total strangers to abandon their work schedules just to come to the hospital to see for themselves how this particular baby is of course the most beautiful child ever born!

No, it was what was said about the child that motivated the shepherds to go and see for themselves. The angel said, ‘To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord’ (v.11). The word ‘Messiah’ today tends to have an exclusively religious meaning, but that wasn’t the meaning in those days. The Messiah was a deliverer, a king who God was going to send to rescue his people from oppression and violence and restore them to prosperity and peace. And when the Israelites looked back in their history, the model they used for the Messiah wasn’t a preacher like Jesus; it was a famous king, their first great king actually, David. He himself had been a shepherd boy in this very town of Bethlehem, but God had chosen him and had led him by a long and tortuous journey until he became the king of Israel and delivered his people from the threat of the powerful Philistines.

So when the angel told the shepherds that the Messiah had been born, their excitement wasn’t just to do with what we might call today ‘religious’ feelings. They believed that God was about to cause a great change in their circumstances; God was sending them the King who would deliver his people from their enemies and usher in prosperity and peace for everyone. No doubt the shepherds could imagine this having a direct impact on their own lives – hence their excitement.

Of course, we know today that Jesus confounded some of those expectations. He chose not to be a political and military ruler, because he knew that political and military solutions to human problems may work in the short term, but in the long term they don’t address our human addiction to sin and evil. And so when he grew up he chose instead the path of gathering together a group of followers and teaching them the way of life of the kingdom of God – a way based not on violence and greed, but on love for God and for your neighbour and even for your enemy. He embodied this way himself when he went to the cross, and God vindicated him by raising him from the dead. He then sent his followers out to share the good news of God’s power and love with the whole world, and they went out boldly and fearlessly to tell everyone that God has made this Jesus the true Lord and Messiah. Once again, good news was for sharing! And they did it to tremendous effect; although they had no organisation and no access to mass media, the community of followers of Jesus spread like wildfire around the Mediterranean world and beyond. And two thousand years later, here we are tonight, still celebrating the good news that the angel brought ‘for all the people’.

Note those words, ‘for all the people’ (v.10). To put it bluntly, the shepherds weren’t normally the recipients of royal birth announcements! They were ordinary working class people, making a living by the strength of their hands and the sweat of their brows. Their work forced them to break the Sabbath, and so they were often looked down on by the religious people of the day, and we can be certain that the political rulers didn’t give them a second thought. Would they have expected to get an invitation to the birth of the next royal prince of the house of David, who would grow up to be God’s anointed king? I suspect not!

But they did get that announcement, and they were invited to the birth of the new prince. And this is just one example of the way Jesus reached out to the marginalised and to outsiders and to the people who no one else cared about. When he became an adult Jesus was constantly being criticized for partying with the wrong people; instead of spending time with the righteous, he went around with tax collectors and prostitutes and other lawbreakers, and he invited them to come into God’s kingdom and learn the new way of life he was teaching. Good news is for sharing – but it’s for sharing with everyone, not just the select few who have the inside track.

And so the shepherds were excited to be invited to this event, and they willingly left their sheep and came down to celebrate the birth of God’s anointed King. And tonight you are like them. I’m not sure what you were doing before you came out to the church tonight. Some of you probably had a busy day at work today, and you got home tired from your labours, looking forward to putting your feet up and taking it easy. Some of you were busy at home with all the Christmas preparations. But you’ve left all that behind – you’ve ‘left your flocks to look after themselves on the hills’, as it were – and you’ve come down to join in the celebration.

Why have you done that? After all, there are many who haven’t! Why have you chosen to be here tonight?

For some of you, it’s because you love Jesus. He’s at the centre of your life; you walk with him every day, listening to his word and trying to put it into practice. You just can’t imagine not being here on this special night when we remember his birth.

For some of you, it’s a treasured tradition to come to church on Christmas Eve. You might not go to church very much through the rest of the year, but this is a special day and you want to be here to be part of this event tonight.

Some of you might not even be sure why you’re here tonight. Perhaps you sense a deep spiritual hunger, and you wonder if perhaps Jesus might be able to help you with it. Perhaps you’re curious about him and what he has to offer.

So what do we find when we come to him? Like the shepherds of Bethlehem, we find what the angel called ‘a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord’ (v.10). The baby in the manger who looks so ordinary turns out to be extraordinary; he’s the one whom God has sent to change the world. And he changes it, not by the love of power but by the power of love. When we welcome him into our lives, he gives us the power to be what we can’t be by ourselves; he give us the power to change, and to live the life that God dreamed for us when he first created us. We receive that good news ourselves, and we experience its reality, and we in our turn pass it on to others, and they also are changed by it. And so the world is changed one heart at a time, and the kingdom of God comes nearer and nearer.

And the invitation goes out to all of us, without exception. You might find yourself thinking, “I’m not the sort of person God would be very interested in. I’m no one significant, and anyway I’ve done a few things I’m not all that proud of. I’m not really sure that God would welcome me if I turned up at his door; I’m sure he has more important people than me to worry about”.

I’m sure that’s what the shepherds thought, but they discovered that the invitation is sent out to everyone. The good news is ‘for all the people’. It doesn’t say, ‘for all the people, except for you!’ It says, ‘for all the people’ without exception. So you are welcome here tonight in Jesus’ house, and you are welcome to come into his presence and receive the blessing he wants to give you.

And so let us, in our turn, welcome him – into our hearts and into our homes, into our places of work and recreation, into all that we do and say and think and feel. Let’s experience for ourselves the good news that he is our Saviour, and let’s not forget to pass it on. Good news is for sharing. I’ve passed it on to you tonight; now it’s your turn to pass it on to others. And may God bless you in the sharing of it. Amen.

The reason for the season…

Here’s Luke’s take on the Christmas story:

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

(Text from Today’s New International Version)

(Photo from Franco Zeffirelli’s movie ‘Jesus of Nazareth’).