Monday 24th December – Christmas Eve
St Petri Lutheran Church – Message by Vicar Shaun Manning
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their 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. 6 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 guest room available for them.
And 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 that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, 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 heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.’
So here we are on the Eve of Christmas, on the eve of one of the most joyful times of the year. Regardless if people celebrate the real meaning of Christmas or not, it is a time when people seek to be with the company of family and friends; get together, eat, exchange presents and even sing songs.
Not too long ago, whilst on school placement for my pastoral studies, I heard a story whose setting is also Christmas Eve. It’s family context also isn’t too unfamiliar to many of our Australian homes today. Other than the fact that we don’t typically have White Christmas’s here.
Anyhow, it’s starts off on a cold and snowy Christmas Eve, inside a warm house, the Christmas tree was cheerfully ablaze with lights and surrounded by dozens of presents.
The wife of the small family and the children were dressed and ready to leave for a Christmas Eve service at their local Church. “Come with us,” they urged their husband and father, for they loved him.
“Not me,” he snapped. “I don’t believe in all that religion garbage.”
For many years, the man’s wife had been trying to tell him about Jesus Christ and the salvation He offers. How God’s Son had become a human being in order to save us and show us who God really is and they way to heaven.
“Nonsense,” the man always replied.
The family left for church and the man was all alone in his cozy country home. He glanced out the window at the cold snowy scene outside. He turned himself by the fire. But as he turned, his eyes caught a movement in the snow outside. He looked. Cats! Three young cats walking slowly past his window.
“Silly cats,” he thought. “They’ll freeze for sure!” The man put on his hat and coat and opened door… “Come here, cats! Come inside where there’s warmth and food. You’ll die out there.”
He walked outside. “Come back! Don’t be afraid, I want to save you.”
But the cats ran away in fright, the cats were gone, it was too late.
“Well, I did everything I could for them,” the man uttered to himself. “What more could I do?”….
Now the story continues further but we’ll leave it there for a moment…
In comparison to this story, presumably in some Western first-world country, our Gospel text paints a slightly different picture.
Joseph and Mary’s Christmas Eve was in Israel, in the 1st century; hence their Christmas Eve looked much different than ours typically would also.
The Emperor of the time has issued a decree and so everyone needs to go to their home town. Hence for Mary and Joseph, being in Nazareth at the time, needed to travel back to Bethlehem. With the assistance of Google Maps I discovered that the distance between Nazareth and Bethlehem is 70 miles, or a 112km. This is similar distance if one is to travel from Nuri to Waikerie… a roughly 22 and a half hour walk.
This is in an age and time where modes of travel are even harder for ones of low status like Mary and Joseph, and also one must remember that Mary is heavily pregnant. (How they got there specifically, we don’t know for sure but lets just say that it wasn’t by motor vehicle, metro bus or a helicopter).
But as if things couldn’t get much harder.
When they finally arrive in Bethlehem but there is no where for them to stay, so they presumably get a small place in a close by stable. Whilst here Luke describes for us here that Mary gives birth to her firstborn son, wraps Him in swaddling cloth and lays him in a manger.
Not your ideal Christmas Eve to say the least…
nor a great time to fall into labor is it?
When one looks on the difficult, mundane and very human circumstances of Jesus’ birth, it’s easy to lose sight of Who He is and what His birth means.
But this is the whole point of Christmas and Luke presents this nativity scene in line with this truth. Luke paints the true picture of God in Christ who descended to our lowly and fallen world. Christ the eternal Son of God, who partook in the Creation of the World, has become human. John puts it this way “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us… He came to which was His own but his own knew him not”. The same world He created He has now literally stepped into and become a part of but all we could offer was a manger.
It makes one wonder about the depth of our state if God is having to intervene to such great depths. Just like if the Federal Police involved or if someone is being summoned to the Supreme Court, something major has happened. So how much more serious is the issue if the One who positioned the universe, composed all matter and gave life to everything, has had to step in and do something?
We paused on our story earlier, with the man pondering on what He could do to save these cats. After opening the door and enticing them to come in and be saved, he says to himself “well I did everything I could for them? What more could I do?… He interestingly considered that the only way he could reach and save them, would be if he would become a cat himself. “Surely then I could show them who I am and what I was trying to do”. As he ponders this, he returns back to his warm fire and hears the church bells ring in the distance. He paused for a second and listened. Then he got down on his knees and wept.
Why did he weep? This is an understandable reaction of someone who experiences God’s love, especially for the very first time. The man had been encountered with the Gospel, finally understanding why his family had enticed him to come to church for Christmas, year after year.
Isn’t it true that we are lost if God doesn’t intervene?
In the state we are in, we cannot come to God on our own accord but need Him to come to us. And He did, and He does also now.
Around halfway through the Gospel narrative we hear of the shepherds.
These shepherds have encountered the glory of the Lord, God’s holiness in the field and are terrified.
None of us can stand in the Holy presence of God, for without God’s help we are totally unholy, aren’t we?
The angel of the Lord says to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid, I bring Good News of great joy for all people”. The angel continues by explaining what the Good News is… “For unto you is born this day… a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you… you will find…”
How would you finish this sentence yourself? Jesus is the King and Lord, so how would you think royalty would typically make its appearance? Think of when Prince Harry and Kate came to Dubbo earlier this year. There was media everywhere, security and crowds following them everywhere they went, and dozens of roads being closed off. This is not overly surprising is it? This is how we expect earthly royalty to be greeted by the hosting nation. However, what do you think the sign would be if, not the Prince of United Kingdom, but the King of the Universe was to make his appearance? So, you’ve just heard that the Lord of the Universe and Saviour of the World has come… what sign would you look for? what would be the sign that you would think God would send? Surely something magnificent and glorious and definitely not… “a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
The Wise Men who catch wind of the King who is being born and then head to where they would expect a King to be born, in a palace and hence they head up to Jerusalem. We often do the same don’t we?
How do expect God to work out His plans in the life is His people?
We look and expect a different King, don’t we?
If you’re anything like me, you would expect the Creator to come and work in some glorious and ostentatious manner, but He typically doesn’t. In particular, when we think of tonight, He goes about His work of reconciling us to Himself, through this baby lying in a manger in Bethlehem.
But this is just who God is, and who He has always been. Walking amongst Adam and Eve in garden, coming to visit Abraham his home, meeting Moses on the mountain and being present with His people in the Temple in Jerusalem. He has now come ever so closer and even took on the flesh in which He created. St. Paul puts it this way in his letter to the Philippians… “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”
This divine Son of God became human in baby Jesus; traded in His throne for an earthly manger; He exchanged robes of splendour for swaddling clothes; He left the songs of praise from a multitude of angels for the recognition of a few shepherds. He has done all this for you and for me. Not because it was nice, but because it was necessary. Necessary for us to be restored to right relationship with God. And this could not have happened if God didn’t become one of us.
This is who God was, has always been and is also now. By looking for Him to operate in a way other than Christ, we end up missing Him and who He truly is. Although we may celebrate, we find it difficult to accept that our Lord became a human and died a cross, don’t we? It is also tough to believe that He works through His Spirit through the Word, ink and paper, that the Holy Spirit through the proclaimed Word creates and strengthens faith or that kneeling at the alter receiving bread and wine that our Lord’s body and blood are really present. Look at me, not even wearing a fancy stole but yet God still uses this imperfect creature, right now… to bring Good News of great joy.
Just as God stepped into a dark and sinful reality at Christmas, so He comes to you and me today.
He comes and steps into our broken and hurting lives and offers us hope through His Spirit and Word, peace through the forgiveness of our sins in Absolution and joy in the Good News of the Gospel which we share together as God’s people. He does all of this magnificent work in the lives of all people everywhere even to us here in Nuri.
The angels knowing what a miracle has just worked in the birth of Christ, and so they exclaim “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased”. So who is God pleased with? You? Me? Pastor Adrian? The answer is no. These words of affirmation belong to Christ. They were said to Christ at His Baptism. Christ shares that same affirmation from Father with us, when he became one of us, assumed human flesh and now through our Baptism has united us with Christ. United us with His death so that we share in His resurrection. And this brings peace to earth for those with whom He is pleased. And the good news is that He is pleased with any of us who don’t have to earn the right to receive His love, but who receive His love for us by faith.
This Christmas may God grant once again the joy, peace and hope as we hear and meditate on the Good News of His love that He has come in lowly means, that He does come to us here and now and that He will come again to take us to be with Him in the Highest Heaven.
Though I’m sure there are presents still waiting for you to receive this Christmas,
this season is truly about the gift that you have already been given.