Reading Isaiah 62.6-12
I have posted watchmen on your walls, O Jerusalem;
they will never be silent day or night.
You who call on the LORD,
give yourselves no rest,
and give him no rest till he establishes Jerusalem
and makes her the praise of the earth.
The LORD has sworn by his right hand
and by his mighty arm:
“Never again will I give your grain
as food for your enemies,
and never again will foreigners drink the new wine
for which you have toiled;
but those who harvest it will eat it
and praise the LORD,
and those who gather the grapes will drink it
in the courts of my sanctuary.”
Pass through, pass through the gates!
Prepare the way for the people.
Build up, build up the highway!
Remove the stones.
Raise a banner for the nations.
The LORD has made proclamation
to the ends of the earth:
“Say to the Daughter of Zion,
‘See, your Saviour comes!
See, his reward is with him,
and his recompense accompanies him.’”
They will be called the Holy People,
the Redeemed of the LORD;
and you will be called Sought After,
the City No Longer Deserted.
Gospel Luke 2.1-14(15-20)
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 his 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 room for them in the inn.
There were shepherds living out in the fields near by, 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 Christ 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,
and on earth peace to men 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.
Christ, born in a stable,
give courage to all who are homeless:
hear our prayer.
Christ, for whom the angels sang,
give the song of the kingdom to all who weep:
hear our prayer.
Christ, worshipped by the shepherds,
give peace on earth to all who are oppressed:
hear our prayer.
Christ, before whom the wise men knelt,
give humility and wisdom to all who govern:
hear our prayer.
Christ, whose radiance filled a lowly manger,
give the glory of your resurrection to all who rest in you:
hear our prayer.
Lord Jesus Christ,
Son of the Father,
full of the Spirit,
hear our prayer,
receive our praises,
fill our lives.
Christmas Day. What can I say that has not already been said many times? The words of Luke 2 are so familiar we almost know them off by heart.
You may wonder why we always seem to read Luke’s gospel at Christmas? The reason is simple. Although Luke drew heavily on Mark’s account when writing his gospel, as indeed did Matthew – Mark has no infancy narrative. He dives straight in with the proclamation of John the Baptist. After only 8 verses, Jesus presents himself for baptism, fully grown. In fact by then he is probably 30 years old. Mark gives us no information about Jesus’s birth or his early life.
Matthew on the other hand is more concerned to establish Jesus’s lineage – descended from David and Abraham. His first 17 verses contain a list of antecedents back to Abraham himself. Mary and Joseph appear in Matthew, mainly to establish the virgin birth in accordance with Isaiah’s prophecy. Apart from that, there is nothing before the arrival of the Magi.
John’s gospel starts with creation – but the first appearance of Jesus is once again at his baptism. So we rely almost solely on Luke for the infancy narrative. But Luke is a careful, well educated man – who did his research, drew together all the sources he could find, and produced an orderly account (as he put it) adding to the existing sources and providing the basis for a proper understanding of Jesus’s ministry.
Chapter 1 starts with Luke’s method and objectives, then he goes on to relate in order the events surrounding the births of John the Baptist and Jesus himself. Throughout his gospel, Luke is keen to set the events of God’s salvation through Jesus within the context of secular history. So we hear about the decree of Emperor Augustus, and the census during the governorship of Quirinius. This places Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem rather than Nazareth where Joseph lived and worked.
Have you ever paused to consider why the shepherds have such a prominent role? Shepherds are poor, outcast and mistrusted. They are society’s outsiders. So they fit well within Luke’s story which is all about the inclusion of those whom society excluded.
After the shepherds comes a long list of people. Tax collectors – cheats and collaborators with the occupying forces. Sinners. Women – whose place in society and religion was almost invisible. Lepers. The poor and marginalised. And ultimately, us – the Gentiles. So it’s right that Luke concentrates on the angels’ announcement to the shepherds, whilst Matthew features the Magi – rich, privileged sages travelling from the east bearing valuable gifts.
Likewise, Jesus was not born in a palace, but arrived as an outcast to a puzzled teenage mother, out of wedlock, in the most backward part of Judaea, itself a troublesome and destitute region of Palestine.
All of this establishes the graciousness of God’s redemptive action in Christ. And by setting the birth of Christ in the context of all that is to come, leading right up to the most ignominious execution reserved from runaway slaves and those guilty of insurrection, we focus not on the baby, the manger, and the angels, but on Jesus the man and God incarnate.
This is what Christmas is really all about. Not presents, over indulgence, family rows, travel delays, happy holidays, or antacid tablets. Not even the baby in a manger, Christingle, wondering children, carols on the green, or choral lullabies. But God’s gracious redemption, coming to the world as an outcast, speaking to those on the margins of society, rejected by almost everyone, and sacrificed to political expediency by his own people.
This should have been the end, but the real miracle is that despite his few uneducated disciples and constant persecution the gospel survived. Yet in our benign tolerance of all faiths Christianity faces its biggest threat – indifference.
Indifference, fed by commercialism and political correctness where the events of Christmas Day share the limelight in our schools with Divali, Hanukah, Eid and the Midwinter Celebration as Bradford Council has this year renamed it.
The church, of course, does its best to get the simple message over to children. That God is love. That Christmas is about giving not receiving. That behind the story of the nativity is atonement through an incarnate God. So to counter indifference, political correctness and commercialism we have to become modern day John the Baptists who point out Christ as Messiah. Modern day Marys who bring Christ to the world in the way we live our lives. Modern day angels and shepherds who retain that wonder for the Christmas message and interpret it to an increasingly secular world.
So this Christmas, let our instincts be as the shepherds long ago: Come, let us go and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has told us about . Or like Mary who treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.