The birth of Jesus
Sermon for Midnight Service St James
Lord on this holy night, open our ears to hear the song of the angels and our lips to join their song of praise.
Twice this year our family has thrilled to the good news of the safe arrival of a longed-for baby. So I think I know how those angels must have been absolutely bursting with excitement, wanting to break the good news! They’d been in on God’s plan to be born as a human for some time now. But now the time had come, humans were going to need some help to get to grips with anything as unlikely as that.
Gabriel had headed up the campaign to prepare them, beginning with Zechariah. He’d been carrying out his duties as a priest in the temple when the angel appeared to him. He was literally struck dumb by the news that his wife Elizabeth could and would conceive at her advanced age. Her son, John the Baptist, would have the unique vocation of paving the way for people’s acceptance of Jesus.
It was Gabriel himself who came to Mary and gently explained what God had in mind for her. And to Joseph, the angel came in a dream – perhaps that was less terrifying than a direct encounter.
Because the first thing an angel has to say to a human when they meet is ‘Don’t be afraid.’ We like to think of angels as comforting beings, but the truth is, it’s unsettling to get caught up in God’s plans.
All was now ready; God’s promises were coming to fruition; the stage was set for the coming of God, the Messiah, the Saviour, the bringer of peace amongst humankind.
But Luke tells us there was someone else already laying claim to those titles: one Emperor Augustus. Augustus had been responsible for bringing to an end a generation of civil war, for establishing the so-called Pax Romana. As the bringer of peace, he imposed himself on his people as their Saviour and came to be worshipped as god. It was at his decree that a census was ordered. It was a way of establishing the resources which might be available to him to extend his empire through continuing conquest and oppression.
So we find Joseph, with the heavily pregnant Mary, forced to make their way to Bethlehem for the registration process, even as God is unfolding the beginning of a new and very different kingdom within her. Because of the emperor’s ruling, she has to suffer the indignity and humiliation of begging for somewhere, anywhere to give birth.
The world is still in the grip of oppressive and unjust forces such as these.
And so the incarnation: the birth of Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, takes place without fanfare in the place where the animals sleep and feed at night, and the new born baby in all his vulnerability is laid in the animals’ feeding trough because there is no place for him anywhere else.
Did I say without fanfare? Those angels are waiting for their big moment, their opportunity to draw back the curtain for humanity to have a glimpse of the glory of heaven. But how will they do it and to whom?
When our new babies arrived, it was the mobile phone which suddenly pinged, and the message opened to reveal a picture of an exhausted but happy mother with the new arrival. But those were births that we were expecting, had even to a certain extent been on tenterhooks for.
There was nothing to prepare the shepherds for what happened that night. It was like any other night as they watched over their sheep, probably chatting or dozing by the fire, lit for warmth and to keep prowling predators away.
Everything changed when an angel burst on the scene. Thankfully not like the ones in a nativity play I saw recently, who, instead of announcing themselves with the customary ’Don’t be afraid!’ were overcome by stage fright themselves.
None of them had the courage to lead the chorus to wake up the shepherds. So the teacher counted in a whisper 1,2,3. There was an intake of breath, and then - silence. In the end he counted 1,2 3, and we all joined in the shout of ‘wake up!’
Wake up, listen to the good news the angels bring! Go to Bethlehem where the Saviour, the Messiah, the Lord has been born. And then the angels watching behind the scenes can contain themselves no longer. The sky is alight with a host of angels singing and praising God and promising the beginning of a new reign of peace.
The shepherds must have been terrified out of their wits. But they were so infected by the angel’s excitement that without stopping to question or discuss what they’ve just seen, they hurry to Bethlehem, where they find things just as the angels told them.
Who knows what happened when they found the little family? We can only imagine the scene as they recounted what the angels had told them and gazed in wonder at this child. Did they perhaps hold the new born baby for a moment, and wonder at the weight of heaven’s love and earth’s hope and longing in their arms?
I don’t know. But by the time they left they knew for certain that the world had changed that night.
The angelic song had proclaimed more than ‘just’ joy at the birth of a child. The shepherds knew in the depths of their being that they were witnesses to the long-awaited moment when God had returned definitively and permanently to be with his people.
Though nothing outwardly had changed, this birth struck at the heart of the power of the Roman Empire. It strikes still at all oppressive regimes and exploitative rulers. For Christmas signifies the moment that God chose to be made known as a tiny, helpless, wordless baby – a baby who can do nothing but invite a loving response to his presence.
And God continues to invite us into a life of love as Jesus loved, a life of love which challenges a world too often ruled by violence, suspicion and fear.
So we come this holy night, as the shepherds did long ago, to worship at the crib. Let us, as well, get caught up in the angels’ excitement and song, share their joy, and leave this place with praise on our lips, unafraid as they were to call on the world to wake up and live differently.