Audio transcript is available here: http://youtu.be/Pb06vuZRee4
Christmas Eve B 14 Luke 2
Human life is a strange business, full of complexity and contradiction. On one hand we are made in God’s image, we are wonderfully creative, we can see beauty and appreciate it, we can be altruistic and care very deeply for others. Humans are beautiful and wonderful creatures. And at the same time we are, all of us, flawed and capable of doing things of which we should be and sometimes are, ashamed. This past week or two had brought that into our consciousness. The Martin Place siege reminded us that ideology taken too far can blind us the value of human life, and that we need to look after each other and be aware of the difficulties and struggles that we all face. It also reminded us that people can be courageous and self sacrificing. The ghastly massacre of school children in Pakistan again reminded us about the danger of ideology replacing our humanity. Let us be quite clear that it is not Islam itself that is the problem, but the extreme position of religious or other ideological intolerance that blinds people, whether they are Christian, Muslim, Fascist or Communist, to the rights of other people. And this kind of position is always about power. “We will make you worship our God,” or “we will make you conform to our system”. Add guns and other weapons and you have the kind of events that unfolded in these last weeks. Then we have tragedies of a more personal nature- people who are mentally ill and in despair, people who are desperate for whatever reason and the extremes to which they sometimes go. It all adds up to darkness and we can feel despair as we look and see evil and pain and sorrow all around us.
Isaiah, in chapter 8, before we started today’s reading describes a scenario like we have been going through. He says, ‘they will look to the earth but will see only distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish; and they will be thrust into thick darkness.’ This is the human condition, from the dawn of time, ever since what Rene Girard describes as the founding murder, human being have been choosing to inflict pain on each other, pain which gets passed down by a process of imitation. But it doesn’t have to be like that. God, God’s self, has come into our world and intervened. Listen to what Isaiah said about it:
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined….
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
So, the people who walked in darkness- well, that’s all of us really- have seen a great light. Have you ever been in some place where it was really dark? Out in a paddock in the bush a long way from the house, or maybe in a cave? The tiniest flicker of light shines into that darkness and dispels it, and this is a great light, which not only dispels the darkness but brings joy, because the one who is the light will have authority, and his authority will bring peace, with justice and righteousness. Do you recognise these themes? The books of Isaiah continuously talk about justice, righteousness and peace, which of course represents the solution to our problems on a world wide scale. The word that isn’t mentioned here, in Isaiah, is love, but that is the other characteristic of this Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace. And we know that because when the baby, from the manger, grows up he tells us that the Father loves us, and he models love for us. In fact he loves us so much he allows himself to be crucified, to become a scapegoat, to finish the darkness forever. But the cross comes a long way into the story and today we are thinking about the beginning, about the incarnation of God.
Luke sets the story very carefully so that we will understand that this birth, of a baby in Bethlehem, is highly significant. Luke’s hearers would have recognised the references to the prophets, that tell us that the Messiah, or anointed one, would be an heir to David’s throne. This tells us something very important about this baby- he is the one the Jews are waiting for. But there is also language here that equates to language about Caesar Augustus, who had been described as “son of God” and ruler of the whole world- Jesus is more important, Luke is telling us, than the great Emperor himself – this birth has a cosmic significance not just an earthly one. And suddenly we have light, but it is the blinding light of the multitude of the heavenly host all praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven!” The birth of this child is not just about our earthly darkness, even though that will be dispelled, but is significant in the eternal world as well. And on earth there is the promise of peace!
And you know the witnesses to this amazing scene are also important. They are shepherds. Now, the shepherds have a kind of dual role, they are, particularly in Ezekiel, but in Isaiah too, the symbol for the king. When the prophet talks about the king that is coming, he describes him as the Good Shepherd of the people- the shepherd that looks after the sheep in a very particular way, so that is the first reference for the shepherds- they are associated not just with a king but with the king. But the other side of the coin is that shepherds were despised in Jewish society of the time. They were poor dirty and stigmatised as lascivious. There were always questions about their honesty. So when the angels came first to the shepherds, they were coming to the dregs of society, they were making the very significant point that this God, this Saviour, Messiah and Lord, was for everyone, not just the rich and powerful, but the humble poor, the despised and mistreated as well. God loves these shepherds enough to send angels to bring them the good news. And if this is the message of Jesus’ birth, he certainly followed through in his adult life, didn’t he? Jesus spent his time with the poor and outcast, the unclean and untouchables, the uneducated and the humble and loved them all.
After the message from the angels the shepherds go to see this Prince of peace, that Isaiah describes and find him, not in the royal palace but in a stable, lying in a feeding trough. The light was shining, into the world, but it was coming from a very unexpected source. God himself, in the person of this new baby, was in a stable out the back of an inn. God had become human, we sometimes say “become flesh,” God with skin on, in the most humble of circumstances. And I am sure that the reason is that the darkness that he had come to dispel makes no difference between rich and poor, powerful or weak. We all live in the darkness.
But the question is, I think: if the light came into the world with Jesus, 2,000 years ago, how come we are still stumbling along in the dark? How can the terrible events of the last few weeks continue even after Jesus has come into the world? The problem, as I have said a number of times in these last weeks, is that we live in the “now and not yet”. It has happened but is not yet complete, and in the meantime humans have the choice between living in the light or in the darkness. And so often people choose darkness. You know if we so chose, we, the first world nations, could feed all the poor and hungry in our world- that would be living in the light, but we continue to choose greed and power over the well being of others. We could also educate everyone in the world, if the powerful groups, like the Taliban would allow us to, just to pick two of the world’s problems. None of it is easy, and even in our wealthy nation there is poverty and homelessness, lack of facilities and care existing alongside our incredible desire to consume and to possess. As individuals we can choose to shine God’s light in our world, we can choose to continue the work of the baby of Bethlehem we can choose to love with God’s love. And, of course many of us do, many of you do! There are lights shining in this world of darkness. 2,000 years ago the angels came and made their grand announcement that the Saviour of the world had been born, for us, all of us! My prayer for us this Christmas is that we may walk in the light of the Christchild, and share in his glory, shedding his light and love all around us! Merry Christmas!