This address was first delivered by Rev Deborah at the midnight service on Christmas Eve 2016
There are many different headlines that hit the news. Just occasionally an inspiring event or a heart warming action may hit the headlines, but ninety nine times out of one hundred the latest reports are dominated by doom and gloom: another conflict, another rise in unemployment, another political scandal, another grim set of economic figures, another natural disaster and so on. We grow so used to bad news that we come to expect it, seeing life as intrinsically negative.
In many ways the situation in Bethlehem wasn’t too different. There was Roman occupation and living life under that oppression was not easy. Jesus was born into essentially a third world context under a military dictatorship, a society where everyone was coerced.
The nation of Israel was fracturing. Four groups sought and fought to lead the people, the Pharisees who tried to shape religious life through their traditions, the Sadducees who opposed the strict legalism of the Pharisees, The Essenes, who lived a pure life in a commune near Qumran and the zealots who wanted to over throw Roman rule by violence. The competing sects in Judaism led to constant friction. Riots were common. Tension was unceasing.
About 10% of the population was born into nobility, with the remaining 90% growing grapes, olives or grain in Nazareth or in Bethlehem, where it is drier, raising sheep and goats, both of which provided a precarious existence.
Adding to these complexities was the census, the call to register in their own town.
You can almost imagine the headlines
Caesar Augustus announces census. Citizens have to register at birth place.
In a huge administrative feat, Ceasar has ordered a census to be taken of the whole Roman empire. ‘Being a tyrannical occupying power takes a lot of management’ says Quirinus, Governor of Syria.
Into this scenario we have we have an unmarried, pregnant woman and a young man on the way to Bethlehem. Bethlehem, as a result of the census is so busy that there are no rooms available and so the young couple end up in a stable.
You can imagine the headlines
A Stable Relationship
Baby laid in manger. Housing shortage blamed.
A baby has been laid in an animal trough, because there was no room at the house. The mother, a teenage girl, was travelling with her husband to register for the census.
‘There simply wasn’t anywhere else to put them’, explained a neighbour. ‘As you know, most of the peasant households around here keep their animals downstairs. With the census the house was full, so they laid the baby in the feeding trough.’
It’s perfectly normal for peasants to keep livestock in the lower part of the house,’ explained a town planner. The animals give off heat. And anyway, these people are poor. It is not like this is a world changing event or anything.’
And then the scene changes to a field in the surrounding area keeping watch over their flock. Suddenly the glory of the Lord shone around and an angel appeared.
You can imagine the headlines
We bring “ewe” good news.
Shepherds serenaded by holy choir.
A group of shepherds from Bethlehem have reported how they were serenaded by a large heavenly choir of angels.
‘We were terrified at first’ explained the shepherds, ‘but then an angel told us not to be afraid. He said ‘I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.’
Let’s hear from a bystander:
‘I can’t believe the news. They’re saying the Messiah’s been born right here in Bethlehem. Honestly. That’s what I was told, the Christ, God’s promised deliverer come at last to set us free. Do I believe it? It’s hard to credit, I admit. After all, you can’t believe everything you read in the papers, can you? This friend seemed pretty certain. Heard it from a shepherd apparently. Some chap who claimed to have seen the child for themselves and by all accounts was delirious with excitement, absolutely full of it. Something had happened in that moment.’
In the words of an adapted poem by U.N. Fanthorpe
- This was the moment when
- Before turned to after, and the future’s
- Uninvented timekeepers presented arms.
- This was the moment when nothing
- Happened. Only dull peace
- sprawling boringly over the earth.
- This was the moment when even energetic Romans
- Could find nothing better to do
- Than counting heads in remote provinces.
- This was the moment when a few farm workers
- And three members of an obscure Persian sect.
- Walked haphazardly by starlight straight into the kingdom of heaven.
- This was the moment when a single star was just enough
- To signal grace. A child is born in Bethlehem
- And offered for the human race.
- This was the moment when love came to birth,
- When the angels told the good news,
- God’s reign had come to earth.
This was not just simply news, but good news. The best that there could be, glad tidings of great joy for all people.
Because it had changed everything forever.
Yes, bad news continues, just as real and bleak as it has always been, frequently hard to bear and testing us to the limit. We only need to look at the events that have happened over this year. Political scandal, the horrific events in Aleppo and Mosul, anti-establishment voting, the treacherous journeys made by refugee and asylum seekers, terrorist attacks – including the recent attack at the Berlin Christmas market.
But the good news of the birth of Jesus is that bad news is not to have the final word. Light will replace darkness, love will conquer hatred, good will triumph over evil, life will defeat death. Hope for the future. That is what the gospel is all about – not about any demands that God puts on us, but the glorious message of his love in Christ from which nothing on earth of in heaven will ever be able to separate us. The message that we get in our reading from Titus:
‘When the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.’
Each of us will have slightly different hopes this Christmas, and maybe we are already wondering what the New Year may hold for us; but as we come to meet with Christ, not just over this season of Christmas, but throughout the year, I hope that we can all continue to come to him with a sense of awe, wonder, joy and excitement; because in Christ our unorthodox God stoops down to touch our lives, our humanity in the most profound ways if we let him, bringing the much needed gifts of hope, peace, forgiveness and love.
The headline is
A Saviour has been born, who is Christ the Lord.