Thursday, December 24, 2009

Sermon for Christmas Eve: Luke 2:1-20

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.

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