22/12/02 6 p.m. Carol Service Luke 2:8-19
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger." 13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests." 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about." 16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.
Tonight we have been considering the stories of people. Isaac Watts who wanted to write better hymns than the ones he was singing. The unknown writers of O Come All Ye Faithful and The Twelve Days of Christmas. James Montgomery who overcame his difficult start in life and used his gift of poetry to write "Angels From the Realms of Glory" which was set to the tune of blind musician composer, Henry Smart. Pastor Joseph Mohr who wrote the words of "Silent Night" sung to the tune of his friend Franz Gruber, a school teacher and the church's organist and choir master. 211 Hark the herald angels sing which was adapted from the words of Charles Wesley and music of Mendelssohn by Dr. W. H. Cummings.
There is a story behind each of these songs. A story of people. A story of trust in God. Wonder and praise for who He is and what He has done for us in coming to earth as a baby.
We see a similar pattern in today's Bible reading with the shepherds and Mary.
I don't know if you have read of the stir that the Bishop of Lichfield has caused in the local press by his Christmas sermon. He was just explaining the background to the Christmas story! Perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised by this because this is a shocking story. That God was born as a baby in an animal's feeding trough. Died as a man on a cross. Rose again from a guarded tomb with a resurrection body.
The lowly ministry of Jesus was underlined by the fact that shepherds were invited to see this new born Saviour. Shepherds were lower class and considered to be untrustworthy. They were ceremonially unclean because of their job, so could not take part in the Jewish religious life. They were social and religious outcasts. Yet it was to them that God chose to reveal his plan to save everyone. Not the religious leaders of the day, not the rulers and governors of the Roman Empire, but outcasts.
Christmas can be a difficult time for many people. Some people have no home, little or no food, face persecution - perhaps for their faith, or are refugees. Some are separated from loved ones by death, illness, a breakdown in a relationship, or by distance. But no-one is ever too far away from God. No-one is unimportant to God. Jesus shows this to us. The Christ-mas story reveals this to us.
Our reading also features Mary side to the story. Quieter, less exuberant than the shepherds. She treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart, verse 19. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told verse 20.
There is a place for both of these responses to Jesus this Christmas, indeed every day.
There was a woman once who wanted peace in the world and peace in her heart, but she was very frustrated. The world seemed to be falling apart and her personal life wasn't that great either. One day she decided to go shopping, and she went to town and walked into a large store.
She was surprised to see Jesus behind the counter. She knew it was Jesus because he looked just like the paintings she'd seen in museums and in devotional books. Finally she got up her nerve and asked, "Excuse me, but are you Jesus?" "I am." "Do you work here?"
"In a way; I own the store." "Oh, what do you sell here?" "Just about everything," Jesus replied. "Feel free to walk up and down the aisles, make a list, see what it is you want, and then come back and I'll see what I can do for you."
Well, she did just that. She walked up and down the aisles, writing furiously. There was peace on earth, no more war, no hunger or poverty. There was peace in families, harmony, no conflict, no more drugs. The careful use of resources. By the time she got back to the counter, she had a long list.
Jesus looked over the list, then smiled at her and said, "No problem." And then he bent down behind the counter and picked out all sorts of things, and finally stood up, and laid out the packets on the counter.
"What are these?" the woman asked.
"Seed packets," Jesus answered. "This is a store of beginnings."
"You mean I don't get the finished product?"
"No, this is a place of beginnings. You come and see what it looks like, and I give you the seeds. You go home and plant the seeds. You water them and nurture them and help them to grow, and someday someone else reaps the benefits."
"Oh," she said. And she left the store without buying anything.
What we do in this situation?
Today Jesus offers everyone a new beginning. Not a fairy tale, Disney type, happy ever after wish that costs us nothing. But a new beginning none the less. Immediate peace with God and forgiveness of sin. A right relationship with God. A 24 hour a day, 7 days a week hotline to God. A source of divine love and joy, a power to live for God. But we need to respond. We need to take the time, energy and devotion to nurture and grow in our trust of God. This involves discipline, not a popular word today, but you don't get to be a disciple without discipline. This involves time and energy in worship, Bible study and prayer, both on our own and with other believers in church. Jesus invented the church so we can support and help one another, and show his love and life to a hostile and dying world.
Shortly we will have the opportunity to say the Lord's prayer. The theologian William Barclay once said that the world's most popular prayer is, "Thy will be changed." But the world's greatest prayer is, "Thy will be done." Mary prayed the latter. She could have refused the invitation of the angel to bear the Son of God. It would have been understandable. She lived in a culture where an unmarried mother would be denounced and gossiped about. Her reputation would be lost. Her marriage to Joseph put at risk. She would have to undergo the pain of an 80 mile journey to Bethlehem. The pain of seeing her child being rejected by those he came to save. Betrayed by a close follower. Suffering a hideous death.
Yet she did it because God is God and he had chosen her. God chooses people to follow him today, too. He offers us the seeds of discipleship. In the last few days of 2002 and into 2003 are we prepared to accept these seeds, plant them, feed them and nurture them.
William Barclay also said "God does not choose a person for ease and comfort and selfish joy but for a task that will take all that head and heart and hand can bring to it. God chooses someone in order to use him." Someone said, "Jesus Christ came not to make life easy but to make people great."
This Christmas are you prepared to settle to a mediocre life ? Living comfortably. Dying eternally. Or do you want to seize the gift that God has got for you ? Do you want to unwrap it and relate to Him and receive the faith , hope and love that only He can give you, this Christmas and forever?