Sermon St Peter and St Mary 27 December 2020 Year B Christmas 1
Isaiah 61v10-62v3 Psalm 148 Galatians 4v4-7 Luke 2v15-21
A Christmas star, angels, shepherds, and a crowded inn with a stable and manger, these are all a part of our traditional Christmas celebrations we have come to love.
Unfortunately not all those elements are truly faithful to the biblical story but grew up in apocryphal traditions written down during the second century. So what are we to believe?
Yes, there was a Christmas star. Perhaps you have all heard of the coming together, the conjunction, of the planets Jupiter and Saturn last week on 21 December, described by the media as ‘the Christmas star’, but that was not the true Christmas star the Magi followed. The power of modern computers and simulation software means we can now map the sky for any place or time in history. Those simulations shows the most probable ‘star’ the Magi followed was the motion of the planet Jupiter which the Magi had observed in the east ‘at its rising’, and which then moved westward and led them to Bethlehem. Amazingly, because of the form of its motion across the sky, called retrograde motion, Jupiter did in fact ‘stand still’ over the Bethlehem, the place where the holy family with the 15 month old Jesus, no longer a baby, stayed on 25th December 2 BC. Quite wonderful.
If you ever visit the Holy Land and go to Bethlehem, you can walk down the hill to the fields below where tradition places the ‘shepherd’s fields’, and visit the Orthodox and the separate Catholic Church commemorating the angels visit. Yes, the peasant shepherds were indeed keeping watch over their flocks during the early autumn nights of September BC 3, and were filled with fear when the glory of the Lord shone around them and a heavenly host appeared with the angel.
God’s gracious revelation to those lowly shepherds of ‘a Saviour who is Messiah the Lord’, must have come as a great shock, but this long promised Messiah, was not to be born in a palace, but in an ordinary village home like theirs, and was to be ‘wrapped in cloths’ just as their babies were. And where were they to find that babe? Of course, in the manger that each of those first century houses contained, a manger from where the household animals would have been fed during the night, and located inside the home of their owner.
No, it was not in the stable of an imaginary inn, but as the Greek word used clearly describes, in the home, probably of one of Joseph’s relatives, as the ‘guest room’ not inn, was full. Joseph’s family was of the house and linage of king David from Bethlehem, so with such royal linage, any home would have been open to the young heavily pregnant girl, but because the guest room, attached to this typical single roomed house of the time, was full, they shared in the family space.
When you understand the culture of the time of Jesus birth, all fits so much better together. Jesus, God’s Son, who came to set his people free, and give hope to the poor and meek, was born in a home just like the ordinary folk would have known.
It is unimaginable, in the culture of that time, that if those shepherds had found the holy family in a stable of some crowded inn, they would immediately have offered one of their own homes to share. They certainly would not have left after seeing the babe, ‘glorifying and praising God’.
I hope you may find that picture in keeping with the ‘one who humbly came among us, full of grace and truth’.
Way back in the sixth century BC, God had revealed to the prophet Ezekiel (Ez34v23) that He would send His Messiah as a shepherd to tend over his people, so how appropriate that the Messiah’s birth was first revealed to those lowly peasant shepherds watching over their flocks by night.
That babe, ‘born of a woman when the fullness of time had come’, was the one who was to change human history for ever. Now the hope of all peoples that a promised time of ‘righteousness and peace’, revealed to us by God through his many earlier prophets like Isaiah, that time really now had a chance to come to fruition. But sadly not, ‘He came to his own and his own received him not’, and so we still await that time, a time we reflected upon during the recent days of Advent.
But with the birth of the ‘Christ child’, and to its fulfilment of the many prophecies pointing to that first advent of Messiah, we can have an assured hope that the many more prophecies relating to the second advent of Jesus cannot fail.
We have come to the end of a year like none of us could ever have imagined. Such disruption to what we have all taken to be ‘normal’, perhaps a word we shall take greater care over using in the days to come. A year of much pain, isolation and for some, much sorrow as well. Yes, we can all take hope as the vaccines begin to roll out in number, but is that where our true hope lies as we enter a coming new year?
There is a beautiful old hymn from the early nineteenth century that goes, ‘My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness; no merit of my own I claim, but wholly trust in Jesus’ name’. ‘On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand’. Like Isaiah who confidently stated that he would rejoice in the Lord, that he would rejoice in the one true God Yahweh, and in Yahweh alone would he exult, we need to be sure that our hope is firmly seated in the Lord Jesus Christ, and that our lives are built upon Him as our rock.
When Isaiah was prophesising, it was at a time just before the impending judgement was to fall upon Jerusalem and Judea in 606BC, when the people would be taken into captivity in Babylon. But Isaiah could also see a later time to come, when Jerusalem’s salvation would ‘shine forth’ and make itself known like ‘a burning torch’, like something that could not possibly be missed. Jerusalem was given a message of hope to sustain the people while away from their homeland.
After this prolonged and disrupted year, maybe some have felt as if we have been under a form of God’s judgement, and with the uncertainty in the coming months with the implementation of the Brexit agreement, we also need hope that our salvation is going to once again shine forth.
Yet through all that may be still to come, our true and deep hope is in the love and faithfulness of God. Let us join with the psalmist in saying (Ps 18v2), ‘The Lord is our rock, it is He who is our fortress and deliverer’.
May we enter the coming year confident that we are loved by God, who through the salvation brought to us by the babe of Bethlehem, we can now address the Almighty God as ‘Abba- Father’.
And let us remember that our salvation means we are also called to do God’s work as we earnestly seek to further and build the kingdom of His beloved Son, Jesus our Lord.
On this day we remember Saint John the Apostle, the apostle whom Jesus loved, and so we pray:
Grant, O Lord, that the word made flesh proclaimed by your apostle John,
may ever abide and live within us.
We pray that through your Holy Spirit you will help us to live out our lives in
your service, we ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord and coming King. Amen