Since the year 1611 many, many generations of English-speaking Christians have greeted Christmas by hearing these words:
‘And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord’ (Luke 2:10-11 KJV).
The old words of the Authorized Version of the Bible, better known in North America as the King James Version, held a rock-solid monopoly in the Bible-reading world for hundreds of years, and even today many of us who are older can repeat them word for word without even thinking. ‘Good tidings of great joy’; ‘the city of David’; ‘swaddling clothes’; ‘no room at the inn’. Scholars know today that there are actually problems with all of these traditional translations, but no matter: for better or for worse, they continue to be the best known versions of the Christmas story.
That can be problematic, though, because sometimes words become so familiar that we don’t think about their power, and sometimes their placing in the sentence softens the sharp edges of their meaning. There’s one word in the King James translation that I didn’t notice for years: the word ‘you’. ‘For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour’.
Who is that ‘you’?
In 1977 Franco Zeffirelli brought out what I still consider to be the best movie of the life of Jesus ever made: ‘Jesus of Nazareth’. In his version of the nativity story Mary gives birth to Jesus in a cave on the edge of the village of Bethlehem. A little later, as she and Joseph are welcoming their baby son, the shepherds arrive, just as we would expect: dressed roughly and with working class accents. They start talking about angels, and of course Mary is all ears, because she remembers the angel who came to visit her. The shepherds stumble a bit over their words, and one of them has to pick up the story when another one drops it. But the phrase that sticks in my memory is when the old shepherd, with wonder on his face, repeats the angel’s words to them: “It is for you that ‘e comes!”
‘You’! You see how the change in word order in Zeffirelli’s version redirects our attention to that little word!
So who is that ‘you’? Well, who would we expect it to be?
We’re used to the idea that Jesus is a great religious leader, the founder of Christianity. Today over a billion people around the world claim to be his followers. Leaders in his religion have exercised a massive influence throughout the last two thousand years of history; they’ve crowned kings, excommunicated emperors and walked the corridors of power with their heads held high. Distinguished scholars have written countless Ph.D. theses about different aspects of Christian theology and New Testament translation. Preachers go through years of study and training before they get ordained and stand up in pulpits to instruct their congregations.
What sort of people would we expect to get an invitation to the birth of a great religious leader like Jesus? Well, not the non-religious, that’s for sure! We’d expect bishops and popes, Bible scholars and very, very godly people. They’d be the ones with the inside track.
But wait a minute – the words the angel uses here aren’t just about a religious leader. King James’ men don’t help us here, because they use the traditional word ‘Christ’, which many of us think is just Jesus’ surname: Jesus Christ, son of Mr. and Mrs. Christ!
But the Greek word ‘Christos’ is not a name; it’s a title. It means ‘The Anointed One’. Kings in ancient Israel were anointed with olive oil as a symbol of the power of God’s Spirit coming down on them to fill them and equip them for their ministry. ‘Anointed One’ in Hebrew is ‘Messiah’, and so our pew Bible, the NRSV, says ‘to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord’ (v.11). But I think you could make a very good case for just translating ‘Christos’ as ‘King’ – which makes the verse doubly appropriate of course, as David was the greatest king of ancient Israel, and Jesus was his descendant. ‘To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the King, the Lord’.
Who gets an invitation to royal birth celebrations? Not the likes of you and me, that’s for sure! You have to be royalty, or at least aristocracy. A royal child is firmly included in the 1%; the rest of us, the 99%, are in a completely different category.
But God blows all our expectations out of the water with the birth of this child; he turns everything upside down – which, if you read the rest of the gospel of Luke, you’ll discover is very much part of his way of doing things. “It is for you that he comes”, the angel says to the shepherds, and we can imagine how they would have treasured those words in the years to come when they told this story to their children and grandchildren. “There we were, minding our own business, sitting by the fire in the middle of the night trying to keep warm, with sheep sleeping all around us, and suddenly the sky lit up with the most terrifying light you can ever imagine! You can bet we were terrified! But then this voice speaks to us, the most majestic voice you can ever imagine – it seemed like it was coming right from the centre of the light! It told us about the birth of a Saviour, a Messiah. And do you know what it said? It said, “It is for you that he comes!”
Religious people looked down on shepherds in the time of Jesus. Jewish people were under strict instructions to do no work at all on the sabbath. Farmers have struggled with this law from time immemorial; how do you ‘do no work’ when you’ve got animals to keep alive? But the priests and religious leaders in Bethlehem would have looked down on these shepherds as sabbath-breakers. They certainly didn’t make it to synagogue every week! Oh, they would have known their Bible stories alright, but they would have struggled to obey all the six hundred or so laws spelled out in the first five books, the Torah. Maybe they felt guilty about this, maybe they didn’t; we aren’t told.
And of course, Herod the Great gave no thought at all to these shepherds – as he gave no thought at all to the vast majority of the people in his country. His only thought was for his own power and wealth. Like many rulers, he ruled for his own benefit. When he heard the threat of the birth of a new king, he had no hesitation in ordering the brutal murder of every boy under the age of two in Bethlehem – rather kill too many than let the fake Messiah escape and cause more trouble. They were nothing; they were just peasant children. He certainly never knew their names.
But the God Luke tells us about knows their names. He knows every one of them. He’s the God of the Old Testament prophets, the God who has a special care for the orphans and widows, the poor and the helpless and the vulnerable. Mary the mother of Jesus knew about that God too. When the angel brought her the news that she – a humble village girl, probably fourteen or fifteen years old, not part of any elite circle in her home town – was going to be the mother of the Messiah, she sang a song of praise to God. Let’s blow the cobwebs of this song by hearing it in the words of the New Living Translation:
“Oh, how my soul praises the Lord.
How my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour!
For he took notice of his lowly servant girl,
and from now on all generations will call me blessed…
His mighty arm has done tremendous things!
He has scattered the proud and haughty ones.
He has brought down princes from their thrones
and exalted the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away with empty hands” (Luke 1:46-48, 51-53 NLT).
How did Mary know God had done all these things? Because when he was looking for a family for his Messiah, he didn’t choose a couple from the circles of the rich and powerful. He chose her – a humble village girl, engaged to be married to the local carpenter. That’s the kind of God he is!
And that’s the kind of Messiah Jesus grows up to be. Don’t get me wrong: Jesus did not exclude the rich and powerful from his circle of friends. It’s clear that some of his friends were wealthy – but it’s also clear that he treated them exactly the same as the poor. Everyone came to him on exactly the same basis, and he welcomed them on exactly the same basis. And if he gave anything like extra attention to the rich and powerful, it was more in the way of an extra challenge: beware of the poisonous power of wealth. Sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and then come and follow me.
That’s the God we celebrate tonight. That’s the sort of Jesus we believe in. And what the angels said to the shepherds I want to say to you: “It is for you that he comes”.
Some of you here tonight might not think of yourselves as particularly religious. Like the shepherds of Bethlehem, you don’t get out to church every week! Maybe you weren’t even sure that you were going to make it tonight. Maybe you’re not sure if the gospel of Luke is in the New Testament or the Old Testament, or what the difference is. No matter – “It is for you that he comes”.
Some of us here have had a bad year. Maybe we’ve lost family members who were dear to us. Maybe we’ve gone through debilitating illness and struggled to recover from it. Maybe we’ve had difficulty making ends meet financially. Maybe we’re just hanging on to our mental health by a thread. Maybe we’re struggling with an addiction and are only just managing to stay clean. Maybe we haven’t managed to stay clean. Maybe we’ve gone through a family breakup. Maybe we’ve come out to our family as gay or lesbian or transgender, and the response wasn’t quite what we were hoping for.
“It is for you that he comes”. Don’t exclude yourself from that ‘you’, because God does not exclude you. Jesus once said, “It’s not the healthy that need a doctor, but the sick”. You don’t have to have everything together in your life before you can keep company with Jesus. He goes out intentionally looking for people who don’t have everything together. “Come to me”, he says, “all of you who are tired of carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest”.
“Don’t be afraid!...I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Saviour – yes, the Messiah, the Lord – has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David” (Luke 2:10-11 NLT). And “It is for you that he comes”. You, and me, and everyone, righteous or sinners, rich or poor, brown or white or any other colour of skin. The gift of Jesus is offered to all of us, without exception. All are invited to come to him, and all are invited to follow him. That’s what Christmas is all about.