This is my Christmas sermon for the 8am BCP Holy Communion this morning. There is a strong sense of not saying anything new here, but wanting people to find their own treasure, as I hope you too will find yours to ponder this Christmas:
What is it that brings us to this place this morning, not from sheep off the hillsides, but from warm beds? Perhaps we come from families sleepily athering to the sound of excited children, perhaps we are in transit to a gathering elsewhere in the country, or even here just before returning home to our own company.
Why, on this particular morning, do we all gather in this beautiful barn of a place, connecting a meal shared the night before a man died, with the story of his birth?
Is it the peace among the cacophony of the festive season? Is it because tradition pulls us back to a place and words of comfort; can it be that we come seeking the mysterious place of the divine in our world? Or is it, that here is the space in which we are encountering the Lord of the world in the form of a tiny baby, the treasure to daily ponder in our lives?!
The message that an angel delivered on a Galilean hillside to a group of startled shepherds focused on this baby being the Lord of their very ordinary, everyday lives. There is no mention here of the specific name ‘Jesus’, but the angel is very clear that the new-born in Bethlehem has a specific role to play in all the earth, and that these shepherd outcasts are the first to have the means of recognising both the child, and his importance.
So soon after his birth, the babe lying in the manger still awaited his formal name. But the angel announces that the baby is ‘saviour, who is Christ, Lord’. The Greek name Jesus would indeed be derived from Hebrew Jeshua word used here: savior; the long preserved Jewish hope for someone who will rescue and save them, overcoming the power of the oppressor – who at this point is one who styles himself Lord: the Emperor Augustus. Before this tiny baby has done anything at all, whilst he is simply lying wrapped in traditional swaddling cloths for warmth, salvation – the process of being saved – has come. God’s visitation to earth has commenced.
Here too is the announcement of a peace greater and more powerful than anything a Roman Emperor could enforce through military might and terror. God’s visitation to earth came “through love not might, through self-sacrifice not military prowess”; for the benefit of the marginal and outcast of society, rather than for the self-aggrandisement of those who “yearned to cling to power”.
This is not a promise of something that will happen in the future, it is not a tale of something that has happened in the past, it is something that is happening now, and if they want to encounter this Lord, this love, this peace, this hope, the shepherds will find him lying in a feeding trough in Bethlehem, the city of the shepherd King in their treasured past, David.
The baby himself, is sketched in, minutely, to the story. Blink, and you could almost miss the fact that the Lord of the world is just where he was promised; in a manger. There is no question but that the angel’s words to the shepherds, as they were to Mary, are true. The promised Saviour, God’s presence in the world, lies there, the focus of so much attention, and yet only given a passing mention. For it is what must be done with this fulfilled promise, this truth, this glorious presence, that is so important.
Mary, recovering as she was from the perfectly natural and exhausting process of childbirth, already had much to ponder. It is in the nature that God has given us, that in periods of exhaustion we have the ability to consider closely, to chew over in our minds, to treasure both the difficult, the understandable and the sometimes extraordinary circumstances which have brought us to a particular point. It is this very gift of comprehension that makes us human, somehow different to other animals; made in the image of God.
When the shepherds told of an angel speaking to them, Mary could empathise with their sense of perplexity, the awe and wonder of the message from God. She could grasp like no other, that however extraordinary that message was, it was delivered with such a sense of peace and hope in God’s very presence, that it was perfectly acceptable to respond with obedience and a commitment to follow through to its fulfilment. Mary could relate to the excitement that propelled the shepherds on a journey that defied common sense, risked their livelihood and their security, and what little position in society they held. It mirrored the original annunciation – a pregnancy bracketed by angels.
Just as the shepherds left so full of the glory they had encountered – the angel and hosts of heaven, their encounter with the message of the tiny baby – so Mary too had much to consider and praise God for.
Here, because of God’s desire to be physically present in the world, and because of Mary’s willingness to be open to that very idea, was the Lord of the world, a tiny baby born from her. Now, through the visit of shepherds, the story they told of God’s glorious presence and the announcement of an angel, she knew even more certainly than perhaps the guesses she had made in the presence of her cousin Elizabeth, that her child was like no other, destined to demonstrate beyond all doubt God’s presence in, and love for, the world. He was ‘Emmanuel’, God with us; the culmination of ancient prophesies and present angels.
She could not have known then, the shocking circumstances in which he would die to make that love fully known, how God’s desire to remain present with each and every person who encounters him would break the very bonds of death itself. But Mary now knew for certain that what she was experiencing was a treasure to be continually turned over in her heart and mind as Jesus grew up and acted to fulfil the promise made to her: that his kingdom will have no end.
We are here because of that promise. That treasure Mary stored must have been shared at some point for it to be made known to us today, so that we too can encounter the Lord of our lives in the baby in the manger and not purely as a crucified man. God desired beyond all else to be present not simply as Lord OF the world, but IN the world. Having arrived here at the manger, let us therefore this morning glorify and praise God for his love to US, and consider carefully the importance of that fact for our lives, and for the world around us.