A sermon preached on Christmas Day 2021 by the Revd Aaron Kennedy
Isaiah 9.2–7; Luke 2 . 8-20
First of all, Happy Christmas, one and all!
I for one cannot avoid feeling a tingle of joy
when I read the words of Isaiah
we have heard this morning.
Which immediately bring to mind
Handel’s magnificent oratorio, Messiah,
particularly the 12th movement,
which I so enjoyed singing in my school choir.
For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given:
And the government shall be upon His shoulder;
And His name shall be called
The Mighty God, the Everlasting Father,
The Prince of Peace.
It is surely one of the most glorious and exultant
pieces of music ever written.
To me, the glory of God shines forth like pure gold,
and it is the perfect accompaniment to any meditation
on the wonder of the angels on the hillside near Bethlehem.
Just imagining the sudden and overwhelming appearance
of a multitude of the heavenly host shining brightly in the night sky
with the radiance of the divinity in whose nearer presence they reside,
floods my soul with awe and wonder and delight.
Now, any halfway decent Christmas sermon, however,
must, I think, at least touch on the great irony of God’s strategy,
to announce the cosmically pivotal, most joyous news
of the coming of the Messiah,
in such magnificent fashion,
… to the lowliest of all folk in the world at that time.
The humble shepherds were rusticated, simple, and poor.
They had very little to do with their wider society,
and not much more than a steady supply of mutton and lamb,
to offer the world at large.
I once had the privilege of travelling to Romania
to serve in an orphanage there doing manual labour.
The orphanage was in a small, rural village,
which could only be approached by dirt tracks.
We spent one evening in a nearby town
being hosted by a friend for dinner.
We returned after dark
and as our minibus trundled down the dirt tracks
– not a street light for 30 miles –
our headlights on full beam illuminating the scrubby pasture land
suddenly a rectangle of ground sprang up before us,
like some kind of grassy trapdoor,
to reveal one rudely awakened shepherd,
who quickly shielded his eyes from the blinding head lights,
apparently concerned only
to make sure that we didn’t veer off-track
and over his bed for the night.
It was a vivid illustration
not just of how dazzling
the light of the heavenly host must have been
to those eyes so accustomed to the dark,
but of the isolation of a traditional shepherd,
who would have lived largely off the land, self-sufficient,
could handle domesticated animals,
but also a variety of pretty scary wild ones,
and would spend many weeks at a time
with no-one else but their sheep for company.
So why did God choose to send a message of such cosmic significance
to these most isolated of country folk?
What was the point of a revelation of such importance
being delivered on a hillside
in the middle of nowhere?
The heavenly host would have made more of an impact surely
had they appeared to an individual of some wealth and power?
Would anyone even believe the lonely shepherds?
Well, it turns out that the main people
whom God wanted to receive the message that night,
were in fact Mary and Joseph themselves.
We are told that Mary treasured their words
and pondered them in her heart.
And, crucially, God’s strategy reveals a different set of values,
than those of our world.
This news was not only for the high and mighty,
but for everyone, whether of low or high estate.
But there’s something more going,
other than the fact that the night sky
was the perfect canvas
for such a display of angelic glory.
And the something more that is going on
is hidden in plain sight everywhere throughout the Bible,
and most especially in the birth of a child,
swaddled in a manger,
as the saviour of the world.
The passage from Isaiah drops a big hint for his readers,
which any well-educated Hebrew would have immediately picked up,
but which is possibly lost on most of us.
The people who walked in darkness
on whom this light would shine, he says,
would rejoice as on the day of Midian.
And what was the day of Midian?
Well, the day in question
was when the army of Israel, led by Gideon,
defeated the joint Midianite and Amalekite armies
with an army intentionally reduced in numbers at God’s command,
by several thousands to a mere 300,
so that they would not be able to take any credit for victory themselves.
So that the strength, the faithfulness,
the power and reality of God would be revealed clearly.
They didn’t even have swords with them
but snuck up on the encamped armies while they were asleep
and on cue, in unison,
smashed their clay pots in an echoing, ear-splitting cacophony
to reveal the light of their torches;
each then blew on his trumpets,
and bellowed, for God and for Gideon!
All the killing that day
was done by the Amalekites and the Midianites.
The day of Midian was a day of great victory of Israel,
the equivalent of their Independence Day,
and it was won for them by the hand of God,
so that no-one could boast.
Paul makes oblique reference to this story in 2 Corinthians (4.6-7)
when he says of Jesus Christ,
in whose face we find the light of the knowledge of the glory of God,
that “we have this treasure in jars of clay
to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”
The common thread running through
the strange appearance of the angels on an isolated hillside;
God’s choice of a 14-year-old girl,
who gave birth to the saviour of the world in a stable
and laid him in the animal feeding trough;
the great victory of a mere 300 men without swords;
and the fact that God banks his treasure in clay jars (us!);
is that when we are weak, God is strong.
When we are dependent upon God,
he can really begin to show his strength, beauty and power.
The great problem of course
is that we find this incredibly difficult,
and generally resist it with every fibre of our being.
What happens at Christmas
in the coming of the Messiah, God’s anointed,
is a great and shocking for victory for God
against the forces of sin, the world and the devil,
for which we can take no credit,
and in which the marvellous wisdom
of our Wonderful Counsellor,
the all-powerful strength of Almighty God,
the provision and protection of the Everlasting Father,
and the will to end all wars and bring shalom
of the Prince of Peace,
is stunningly revealed through the weakness, the frailty,
of a baby born in a stable,
heralded by a gaggle of scruffy, smelly shepherds.
The great strategic minds of humanity
could have devised a hundred other ways
God could have gone about his business,
and I think we all know
that none of them would have involved little babies,
rusticated shepherds, or 14-year-old virgin girls.
As St Paul says to the Ephesians in chapter 2 of that letter:
For by grace you have been saved through faith,
and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God
— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.
Do you walk in darkness,
and long to see a great light?
Do you long for your joy to increase?
As at the time of harvest,
or as people exult when dividing plunder,
when the heavy yoke of burden across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor, is broken?
Do you wish to rejoice as if on the day of Midian?
Friends, we need be oppressed no longer.
We need be lost in darkness no more.
Swept along by the currents of worldly thought;
wracked by the disordered forces within us;
and pinioned by the devil and his horde.
For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given.
Jesus Christ longs to become our counsellor. Our teacher.
He longs for us to know him as a bosom friend,
with whom we keep a constant flow of conversation,
in which he will lead and guide us.
Does that sound good?
Jesus Christ is himself Almighty God,
the maker and creator of all,
and the Good Shepherd,
who is more than handy in pinch with his rod and staff,
should we come under attack.
With him we have nothing to fear.
Does that sound good?
Jesus Christ is the image of the Everlasting Father –
if you have seen him, you have seen the Father.
If you have seen Jesus you have seen the face of the really real –
that in which we live and move and have our being.
Who provides for our every need,
who is life itself.
Does that sound good?
Jesus Christ is the Prince of Peace,
because the peace that he gives surpasses our understanding.
That means that we cannot imagine it
until we have experienced it.
No new car, no amount of psychotherapy, no higher salary,
nothing else can give the peace that the human heart so longs for,
than he who created us and gave himself for us, Jesus Christ himself.
Does that sound good?
If any of that does sound good;
if you would like to experience this God for yourself,
if you would like to know God’s power,
God’s righteousness, peace and joy in your life,
if you want more than merely religion,
but instead to know personally the Good Shepherd himself,
we must become sheep.
We must realise the uncomfortable truth
that while we are strong,
that while our resources swell,
like Gideon’s army,
God cannot move in power.
God’s purposes cannot be fulfilled.
And when we do relinquish control,
when we do begin to rest into God in radical trust,
the peace of Christ can begin to rule our hearts,
and joy, as on the day of Midian,
the joy of the unlikely recipients of Good News
at the hands of a heavenly host,
on a hillside in Palestine,
can shine in our hearts.
Friends, we have been addressed again this Christmas,
with the good news of great joy for all people.
Let us, like Mary, treasure these words in our hearts,
ponder them this day and always,
and allow the seed that has been planted within us
to grow and take root,
so that Christ may be our Wonderful Counsellor,
Mighty God, Everlasting Father
and Prince of Peace.
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