Luke 2.15-21

In the name of the living God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

A 5-year-old boy was asked to say grace before the Christmas dinner.  The members of the family sat around the table and bowed their heads.  He began his prayer, thanking God for his friends, naming them all one by one.  Then he thanked God for his Mum, his Dad, his brother and sister, Grandma and Granddad, and all his aunts and uncles.  Then he began to thank God for the food.  He gave thanks for the turkey, the potatoes, the carrots, the parsnips, the stuffing, the cranberry sauce, the gravy, and even the Christmas pudding.  Then he paused, and everyone waited - and waited.  And after a very long silence, the boy looked up at his mother and asked, "If I thank God for the Brussels sprouts, do you think he'll know I'm lying?"

Whatever our own views about Brussels sprouts, the memory of this year’s Christmas dinner will already be fading.  And although some people still have holiday to enjoy; and here in the Minster we continue in celebration mode – with white vestments and the crib steadfastly in place until Candlemas – for most people Christmas is done and dusted for another year.  Today is just an ordinary Sunday; it’s now back to normal.

And so we come to church almost a week on from Christmas Day – and what do we hear but the story of the shepherds – again!  Some of us have been hearing this at carol service after carol service since the beginning of December, then again on Christmas morning – and here it is again – albeit only the latter part.  So what’s going on?

I’ve often said that when we read the Bible is almost as important as the words themselves.  When we hear St Luke’s account of the shepherds on Christmas Eve as part of the service of 9 Lessons and Carols, we hear it in a particular way.  The context of that service means that the shepherds are encountered as part of the big picture as, in Eric Milner-White’s immortal words, we

read and mark in Holy Scripture the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious Redemption brought us by this Holy Child.

St Luke’s words gain resonance and meaning from the context in which we hear them: the other passages of Scripture, the hymns, the choir’s carols, and the occasion itself.

On Christmas Day, we hear the same words, but in quite a different context.  Here, they are heard as the Gospel – the good news – of that particular day.  The act of turning to face the Gospel reader on this occasion is significant – we turn so that we can come face to face with Jesus our Saviour who is born for us, as it were, once again.

Today, the latter part of that same reading has a different resonance.  We heard Luke’s account of the shepherds’ visit to Bethlehem, their encounter with the Christ-child, and their return, ‘glorifying and praising God.’  We heard this, not as a Christmas Gospel, but as a post-Christmas Gospel.  The Scriptures never speak into a void, but into this particular service on this day.

Other elements within the service work together to form a liturgical context for these words.  One is the New Testament Reading, from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians.  This is a short, but rich passage, with two important points which contribute to that context.  Paul emphasises, first, the importance of time:

When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son.

that in the birth of Jesus, God – who is beyond time – chooses to enter our time-bound world in order to redeem it.  And the purpose behind this is

that we might receive adoption as God’s children.

In other words, our identity – who we are – is found not in ourselves, but in our relationship to God, whose Spirit lives within us.  The hymn sung between the readings amplifies this context further.

       Thou who art love beyond all telling,

       Saviour and King, we worship thee.

       Emmanuel, within us dwelling,

       make us what thou wouldst have us be.

       Thou who art love, beyond all telling,

       Saviour and King, we worship thee.

 

‘Make us what thou wouldst have us be.’

And so the stage is set for the Gospel reading to be heard, not only within the context of this particular act of worship, but also the context of the lives of each person present.  On this particular day, as our lives start to return to what might pass for ‘normal’, the Gospel cries out that here is something which is far from normal.  That was clearly the experience of the shepherds.

They had been in the middle of their normal routine - looking after their sheep on the hillside - when they were told (by angels, no less) that they would find a child in a manger.  They visited the child, and went on their way full of joy and praising God (we're told) - but what had changed?  On the face of it, very little.  They continued to live in an occupied country, and continued to have low-paid, low-status jobs, with anti-social hours.  And of course, they'd seen only a baby.  It would be years before that baby would grow up and could even begin to have any impact on the detail of their lives.

Nevertheless, they left the manger praising God because they grasped that something important had happened.  That in some mysterious and miraculous way, they had come face to face with the living God; that the birth of this baby was special - and that it meant that there was cause for hope - that, in the grand scheme of things, there would be change.  That God - the God of the big picture, and of the long-term view – the God of Nine Lessons and Carols, if you like - had broken into their lives at that particular moment.  That life – although it meant going back to the ‘normal’ – would never be the same again.

The post-Christmas reading of Luke’s Christmas Gospel points us to the truth that God, in Jesus, takes the normal and makes it extraordinary.  It’s relatively easy to catch a glimpse of that truth when we are caught up in the celebrations of Christmas itself.  But the challenge of the passage of time – and the turning of another year – is to hold on to that truth, and to continue to place our hope in God who transforms the normal.

So what does this mean for us, as we stand on the threshold of a new year?  The future holds real possibilities which are quite frightening.  The simple fact that we have had to step up our security operation in the Minster bears witness to a new culture of vigilance and caution.  The danger, of course, is that this soon degenerates into a culture of suspicion – of a failure to trust our fellow human beings, all of whom, without exception, bear the image of God.

      Emmanuel, within us dwelling,

       make us what thou wouldst have us be.

The future of our relations with our European neighbours is uncharted territory.  Many are fearful of a loss of the common life with our European neighbours that we cherish – the loss of the peace we have built, and the stability we have maintained these past seven decades.  Some fear the growth of an insular attitude, the narrowing of horizons, and the growing exclusion of anyone deemed to be ‘different.’

       Emmanuel, within us dwelling,

       make us what thou wouldst have us be.

But the point of the incarnation – the point which the shepherds seem to have realised – is that God really did break in to their time, and continues to break into our time.  The God of the big picture - the God of eternity - bursts in upon our present moment: upon this particular moment - here and now, and offers to transform our view of God, the world, other people, the things which frighten us - everything, in fact.  Through the birth of Jesus, God not only shares our humanity, but does this that we, in turn, might share his divinity.  Through the birth of Jesus, we have the means of being drawn back into a proper relationship with God, and of becoming the people God really created us to be.

       Emmanuel, within us dwelling, make us what thou wouldst have us be.

To end, some words by John Bell:

1     And did it happen

       that in a stable long ago,

       a weary couple,

       whom no–one seemed to know,

       should choose a manger,

       despite the danger,

       to hold and hallow the Lord below?

 

4     And did it happen

       that all of this was meant to be,

       that God, from distance,

       should choose to be set free

       and show uniqueness,

       transformed in weakness,

       that I might touch him and he touch me?