Mother’s Union Carol Service
2 December 2015
Readings Luke 2 vv 1-20 and Matthew 2 vv 1-12
Good afternoon. I am, of course, delighted to be here sharing this carol service with the Mother’s Union. Not only is this my first carol service of 2015 – and I am therefore un-jaded and as fresh as a daisy – but the Mother’s Union is also the first to get their carol service for 2016 into my diary – so, well done to you on both counts.
Our readings from the gospels of Luke and Matthew contain the classic, Christmas card, imagery of the birth of Jesus. Luke has the Angels visiting the shepherds on the hillside, telling them to go and search for a child wrapped in cloth and lying in a manger whilst Matthew tells us the story of the wise men travelling from the East looking for a new born king of the Jews.
Before looking at both of those stories a little more, and thinking about what they may mean for us, it may be worthwhile bearing in mind a couple of important things:
First the gospels of Luke and Matthew do not overlap – by which I mean that the shepherds do not appear in Matthew and the wise men do not appear in Luke. Our Christmas cards and nativity scenes always seek to conflate these stories, and primary schools are very good at putting on huge tableaus in which everyone and everything, which includes not only wise men and shepherds but also donkeys, cows and sometimes squirrels, all appear around the manger together. Whilst this is a lovely image and much can be made out of rich and poor and squirrels worshipping Jesus side by side that is not actually an image that we find in the bible, so we need to be cautious. To be justice to the biblical text we need to treat Luke and Matthew in their own right and not seek to jam them together.
Second it may be worthwhile bearing in mind is that the other two gospel writers, Mark and John, do not contain any nativity stories at all. For Mark, Jesus’ ministry begins with the baptism Jesus and for John we have the mystical prologue of the Word becoming flesh before he too goes straight to John the Baptist’s testimony about Jesus and his baptism. So 50% of our gospel writers did not write about Jesus’ life prior to his baptism and that ought to tell us something. As I touched on last Sunday, and at the risk of sounding like a Puritanical curmudgeon which I really am not, it is important that our Christian understanding, our faith, our discipleship, do not get stuck at the primary school level of cooing over a baby in a manger. I don’t know, perhaps that is a dangerous thing to say to the Mother’s Union?
Jesus as a baby in the manger if, of course, a beautiful image but it should only ever be the very starting point of our engagement with our faith, but like both the shepherds and the wise men we should not get stuck there but should always move on – but we’ll come back to that in a moment.
But, having said all that, we do have these two beautiful stories from Luke and Matthew and I want to think briefly about both.
Luke tells us that Mary and Jospeh lived in Nazareth, near the sea of Galilee which was in the north of Israel but, because the Emperor Augustus wished to take a census of the empire, that they had to travel to Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem to be registered there. We are told that Joseph was descended from the house of King David and the messianic prophecies of course said that the Messiah would be a descendent of David and come from Bethlehem. Luke’s account both of the journey to Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus are very matter of fact. Luke simply says:
“While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn.”
Perhaps you can tell that this was written by a man and maybe it would have been interesting to have Mary’s perspective on that evening.
And then the scene switches from a manger in Bethlehem to a hill side where shepherds are watching over their sheep. It was night, it was dark, there was no TV, no radio and no internet. It must have been pretty boring and bleak on that hill. We don’t know how many shepherds there were but we do know that there were more than one, and perhaps they met together to sit around the campfire and swap stories to help pass the time.
Then, without warning, a single Angel appeared and stood before them, and we are told that the glory of the Lord shone around them. And they were terrified. Can you imagine walking home late at night in the dark and suddenly there is a huge figure standing in front of you and a thousand spotlights come on at once? I should think it was blinking terrifying.
But, as they always do, the Angel said “Do not be afraid” – in a world which loves to make us live in fear it is comforting to see that God’s messengers so often open with those words, “Do not be afraid”. And then the Angel delivers its message – it brings “good news of great joy for all the people – in the city of David a saviour, a messiah has been born”
And then, as if this wasn’t all impressive enough, this single Angelic messenger is then joined by a multitude of the heavenly host and saying the words that we now enshrine in our liturgy as the Gloria:
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on Earth peace among those whom he favours.”
Well, that is the modern version – the less politically correct King James version says:
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
Having been treated to such an experience the shepherds feel they have little choice but to go down the hill and into Bethlehem and find the child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. And when they find Joseph and Mary and Jesus they told them what had happened with the Angels and the message they had been given that this baby was to be the saviour and was the promised messiah. Don’t forget that in chapter 1 of Luke Mary had been previously visited by the Angel Gabriel who told her God’s plans for Jesus. So, for her to have been told of another angelic message about her child must have been a source both of confirmation and of joy and we are told that she treasured these words of the shepherds and pondered them in her heart.
And what about the shepherds? Well, they did not linger by the manger but rather they went off and obviously told more people both about the visit of the Angels and about finding the baby that had been foretold – and we are told that all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said. The humble shepherds were so transformed by their encounters that evening that they became the first evangelists telling people that the messiah had been born. They pointed the way to Jesus while John the Baptist was still in his own swaddling cloths.
That story of Angelic revelation followed by Evangelistic zeal is quite different from the story of the wise men.
The wise men were not called to Jerusalem and then onto Bethlehem by an angelic messenger or a heavenly host but rather by the rising of his star. It is commonly thought that the wise men were Zoroastrians from Babylon who were learned both in astronomy and in the Jewish prophecies which would have been left there from the time of the Jewish exile. But the star did not lead them all the way to Bethlehem, rather they stopped first in Jerusalem and made enquiries with King Herod who consulted his scribes who then pointed them onto the town of Bethlehem.
When the wise men arrived they made their offerings of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh – commonly interpreted as Gold for a king, Frankincense for God and Mryhh for embalming – and then they departed for their own country never to be heard of again, at least in the bible. We don’t know what they did next or who they told about their encounter with the Messiah but we certainly aren’t given the impression that they were gripped by the evangelistic zeal of the shepherds.
And for me this huge difference in calling and reaction to the good news of Jesus Christ is an important message for us to take away. We are not shown a picture of wise men and shepherds gathered around the manger worshipping together, rather we are given a story of interesting contrasts. The illiterate shepherds were treated to a chorus of angels and were told were to go in no uncertain terms and when they get there their reaction is to go and tell others the good news. The rather more bookish wise men are directed there by the stars and by prophecies and when they get there they make their offering and depart.
And this diversity of experience tells me that God calls us each in the way that we need, when we need it, and that our reactions will differ depending on our personalities. Unfortunately there are too many Christians out there who will tell you that unless you are converted to Christ in exactly the same way as them and unless your reaction to being called is the same as theirs then your experience is not the real deal and that you still need to be converted. These stories tell me that God respects our individuality and speaks to us in the way that we need to hear – that may be through a rousing chorus of angels or it may be through a book. There is room in God’s economy for all. Similarly some will tell you that when you encounter Christ you have to become an evangelist like the shepherds, telling others the good news. Some certainly are called to that vocation. But others may just return home quietly, not necessarily spreading the good news in obvious ways but hopefully being transformed by the encounter in the way that God intends for them.
During this season of Advent and into Christmas I pray that each person here will be called into the presence of Jesus in some way and will be transformed by that experience. It does not matter if that calling or experience is different for each one of us, God is at work here as each of us needs, and as each of us will give him room.
But do not be afraid – there is good news of great joy – a Messiah has been born.