Titus 2.11-14 Luke 2.1-20
In those days’ a baby was born. It is a tale that is so familiar that it is easy for us to miss how extraordinary, how life-changing this event was. The events of that first Christmas were – and are – truly awe-inspiring and as we ponder them they should be life-changing too for on that first Christmas, Jesus was born: ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us’ (John 1.14). We have gathered today to celebrate the greatest miracle in the history of the world: the eternal Son of God being born as a man and to praise God for because of this miracle we can know Immanuel, God with us.
At first glance, it does not look that earth-shattering as a story: a young couple have a child. So what? In the midst of a mass migration of people ordered by an empire seeking to maximise its profits – a baby was born. Hardly front-page news: no doubt many babies were born that night and there is sadly nothing new about the powerful exploiting the powerless. A poor couple give birth to a baby in an obscure town in a distant land. Granted, it was a son – so much better in those days than having a mere daughter – but hardly something to trouble the sleep of kings and emperors. But then there were angels…an angel and a multitude of the heavenly host left their place in heaven and appeared in the skies over Bethlehem. The heavenly host had been seen as God’s heavenly army ready to fight before, but on this unique night, for the only time recorded in the Bible, the heavenly host appear and people see them worshipping God. The shepherds get a glimpse of heaven.
Of course Mary and Joseph both already knew that their baby was special – and not only special in the way that most parents see their children as special. They had both been visited by angels who brought them the good news that their baby was the Messiah. However, for their families and community their pregnancy did not look like good news, it was nothing to celebrate. Mary was at best a liar with her tales of being pregnant by the Holy Spirit and at worse a fallen woman, either way she had brought shame to her family. Joseph may have stood by her, but not without talk and scandal: had he slept with his betrothed or was he a cuckold? So the customary community celebration and singing which usually greeted the birth of a boy did not happen outside the place where Jesus was born… But then the angels sang and all heaven rejoiced at the birth of this baby:
Hark the herald-angels sing
Glory to the new-born King.
as we have sung.
The angels tell the shepherds just what they told Mary and Joseph: that God was bringing salvation to the world through his Son…that the Creator of all things had laid aside his glory, had laid aside all his majesty and power and splendour and been born as a fragile human being…that Jesus, the eternal omnipotent Son of God had taken the form of a servant. As St Paul puts it in his great hymn to Christ in his letter to the Philippians, Jesus
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.’ (Philippians 2.7-8)
And having told the shepherds this ‘news of great joy for all the people’ (Luke 2.10), the angels praise God:
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’ (2.14) they sing.
The glory of God is not to be seen surrounding the baby in the stable that night, but shining on the hills above Bethlehem. It is hardly surprising that the initial response of the shepherds is one of terror. Although there are a few people like Moses and Isaiah who have seen God and lived, there is a strong tradition in the Old Testament that it is not possible to look on the glory of God and live to tell the tale. The close relationship people enjoyed with God in the beginning which we see in the Garden of Eden, where Adam walks with God in the cool of the evening, has been broken by human sin. God is holy and just and we are not. But the shepherds are told that they have no need to fear for God has intervened and sent us his Son so that we can know true peace…shalom…the peace of God which passes all understanding and which is only found in a restored relationship with God. Because Jesus was born and lived, died and rose again, we can call God Abba, Father and enter into his presence without fear.
‘Do not be afraid; for see’ says the angel (Luke 2.10)…behold…look…if they look at Jesus they have no need to fear…if they go and see Jesus and let him into their hearts they have no need to fear and can enjoy that peace which the Prince of Peace alone offers. It is not enough that the shepherds…that we…hear the good news the angels bring…we need to respond to it…we need to go and see Jesus for ourselves…we need to let our lives be transformed by the encounter…that is what happened to the shepherds. Once the angels had left them, they went to see Jesus and they found him just as the angels had said they would, wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger. Just like the angels, the shepherds then did two things: they told others about Jesus and they praised God for all they had heard and seen.
This Christmas, we too are invited to look on Jesus and to be transformed by him. This Christmas, we too are invited to share the good news with others and praise God for all he has done. When Jesus comes again, as our reading from Titus reminds us, it will be in all his glory. On that day, he will not be found in a manger but descend from heaven and we ‘will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory.’ (Mark 13.26). As we wait we are called to live lives that witness to what God has done for us in Jesus. As we wait we are called to use the time to share the gospel with others so that they too may be among those whom God favours. As Paul writes to his friend Titus, as we wait, we are called to ‘live lives that are self-controlled, upright and godly.’ (Titus 2.13).
So today let’s ponder anew the miracle of Christmas, let’s look past the tree and all the trimmings and see afresh the baby and let’s recommit ourselves to living lives that glorify him. Above all let us join with the angels and worship God, for to us ‘is born… a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord’ (Luke 2.11):
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’ (2.14)
Revd Rebecca Fardell