I wonder how many of you can remember starring in a nativity play when you were a child? Did you get to play Mary or Joseph or be relegated to the back end of the donkey? I can remember being the Inn Keeper … but what I really wanted to be was a shepherd with a tea towel stuck on my head, clutching a toy lamb and granddad’s walking stick, falling theatrically to the ground with amazement when the Angel of the Lord ‘shone around!’
I can also vividly remember singing the wrong lyrics to the carol: While shepherds watch their flocks by night all watching ITV, the angel of the Lord came down and switched to BBC! Them were the days when we only had three channels!
But as we grow older, we no longer see that we have a part to play in the Nativity – it doesn’t have the same appeal for us adults, does it? Oh yes, we celebrate with parties and family gatherings, but immersing ourselves in the Christmas story? Maybe, maybe not!
The theologian and writer Eugene Peterson has a wonderful way of seeing our role as adults in the Christmas story, which might help us to play our part more authentically: ‘We get included’, he says, if we remind ourselves how the Bible teaches that: God is with us (Matthew 1:23); Christ is in us (Galatians 2:20); God is for us (Romans 8:31). With … in … for … Those simple words are the ways and means of each one of us entering and accepting the invitation to participate in something intriguingly powerfully and beyond ourselves: the story of Emmanuel: God with us.
After the angels told the shepherds: You’ll find the baby … lying in a manger, they responded: Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this ‘thing’ that has happened … It seems to me that the shepherds found Jesus because they chose to participate in God’s great story of salvation. And, if you were to follow the shepherds lead, and participate in God’s great story of salvation, what would you find in the Christ child? I want to suggest three things the Christ child brings us:
1: The Christ Child brings: Forgiveness
I don’t know if any of you ever watched programmes on TV such Back to the Floor. The idea behind it is that when managerial memos have failed, managing directors and other high-ranking executives, leave the splendour of their air-conditioned offices and turn up on ‘the shop floor’ (in disguise) to give an all-action demonstration of how things were meant to work – a brave thing to do. But that’s exactly what God did when he sent Jesus. God sent Jesus to bridge the gap between imperfect man and a perfect God. A gap that we would never be able to bridge ourselves.
And, because of Christmas, God offers us the chance to have our past forgiven so we can start all over again. Now that’s the most precious gift you can ever receive: the gift of a clear conscience. You can’t even buy that at Harrods. It’s priceless. It is, as the angel said to the shepherds, vs10. … good news of great joy …
2: The Christ Child brings: Peace of Mind
Someone perceptively commented: “Christmas is a season of emotional family ties – especially when you have to wear them!” When I was young, I remember asking my mum what she would like for Christmas, she always replied: a bit of peace and quiet! I was never able to find that in the shops. Now that I’m older, and live a busy life, I know exactly what she meant!
And, in a year which has seen the death toll of the COVID-19 pandemic increasing and the disillusionment of NHS and Key Workers. We continue to witness harrowing scenes on our TVs of the ever-increasing number of refugees escaping countries when politicians across the world must hold some responsibilities for causing the reasons they are seeking to escape in the first place.
The financial crisis resulting from the pandemic and Brexit are, in some ways, affecting every one of us, with threats of redundancy and unemployment and reduction in service and hospitality industries – both public and private. And not a day goes by when we don’t hear of some young person fatally injured in a stabbing or an avoidable tragedy of one kind or another which has taken place on the streets of our nation. In the midst of this, peace of mind is something which we desperately need!
The dictionary suggests that peace is the end of hostilities and the absence of tension. The Hebrew word for peace is Shalom and means wholeness and completeness and comes from God alone. It’s a peace that goes beyond what the human heart and mind can understand.
- Real peace of mind is knowing that no matter what happens, God will always be with me.
- Real peace of mind means that no matter what happens in my life, God gives me the strength to cope.
- Real peace of mind is living by God’s Word, which enables me to avoid the needless pain and hang-ups that mess up my life when I do things my way.
- Real peace of mind is having a relationship with Jesus and becoming friends with God.
- Real peace of mind is knowing that no matter what I do, God will never stop loving me.
No matter how sincere we might be, and no matter how hard we try to cope with the struggles in our own life, we’re destined to fall short every time without the supernatural peace of mind that comes from Jesus.
3: The Christ Child brings: Eternal Life
Jesus’ birth is only half of the story. We must never forget that Jesus was born to die. Now, I know some people don’t want to hear about Jesus’ death at this time of year, but that’s part of what we celebrate at Christmas – Jesus’ death is inextricably linked with our Christmas celebrations. And it wasn’t a pleasant death wrapped up in tinsel and glitter and bells and bows accompanied by singing choirs, but an agonising death of torture and crucifixion. The true miracle of Christmas isn’t found on 34th Street or under the Christmas tree. It’s found in the man on the cross.
Even though our time on earth is relatively short, we rarely find it easy to talk about death, do we? But have you ever thought that we’re going to spend more time on the other side of death than we’re going to spend on this side? It seems to me that only a fool would go through life totally unprepared for something he/she knows is inevitable. It doesn’t make sense to know that we’re going to die and not prepare for it. That’s why God sent Jesus: to give us hope in this life and eternal life for the life to come.
One of the most popular readings this time of year is from John’s Gospel 1:14. The word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. I love the way The Message translates it: “The word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood.” We don’t follow a king who sits in an ivory tower, disconnected from all our pain, but one who came down to earth and experienced it for himself and lived amongst us.
As we look forward to all that this Christmas season and a new year will bring, we could do no worse than to receive the gifts that God gives us through the Christ Child, the gifts of: Forgiveness; Peace of Mind and Eternal Life.
And, just as the shepherds, vs20, did not end up disappointed after they made the effort to meet Jesus, and … returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen … so may we continue to glorify and praise God for all he has given us.
May the joy of the angels,
the eagerness of the shepherds,
the perseverance of the wise men,
the obedience of Joseph and Mary,
and the peace of the Christ child
be yours this Christmas;
and the blessing of God almighty,
the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,
be among you and remain with you always.
Picture: Bernadino Luini – Madonna and child
This is a copy of a talk I gave at Emmanuel, Billericay on Sunday 19 December 2021. The Bible Reading was Luke 2:1-21.