The Amazing Christmas Story
Christmas is a busy time for church ministers. At the end of a very challenging year, we decided to offer a Christmas sermon in the hope that it will help ease the burden on those who are preparing for the Sunday after Christmas. You can watch it here.
We have also produced a written version that you can read below.
A truly amazing Christmas!
I wonder what Christmas 2020 is going to be like? In sharing some thoughts for this last Sunday of this most challenging of years, I am trying to imagine what it will actually be like. There will be elements of the familiar and that we might consider normal. For example: the decorating of homes with lights and a Christmas tree; the sending of cards and presents; food preparation. However, the throwing of Covid-19 into the Christmas mixture will inevitably bring a very different flavour to it: Restrictions on who we can meet up with leaves families having to make very difficult choices about who they can actually meet up with; Christmas services may not be taking place in person and we can’t sing carols together as we are used to doing. The familiar refrain of the secular carol ‘Deck the Halls with boughs of holly’ highlights this well - the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson said, “‘Tis the season to be jolly but ‘tis also the season to be jolly careful!’ The familiar and the unfamiliar mixed together.
Whatever Christmas is feeling like for us this year, we are still celebrating the unchanging truth of the most amazing first Christmas with the birth of Jesus. The significance of this takes us beyond our personal circumstances and beyond the realities of celebrating a Covid-Christmas. And today we are going to consider three amazing aspects of the story from the perspective of the Shepherd’s story that are as true for us this year as any year. We can be amazed at 1) His presence; 2) His favour; 3) His promise.
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields near by, 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 that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, 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 heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour 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. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
1) Be amazed at his presence
“You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” V12
It isn’t uncommon for cats to go missing. And perhaps you, like I, have seen a number of posters up over the years seeking information to help find a missing cat. It must be about 6 years ago now that the owner of a black and white short haired cat put up one such poster in their Cardiff home. A passer-by felt they might have information to help the owner when they saw the cat… sitting right next to its ‘missing cat poster! A story of a missing cat turning up in an unexpected place! Jesus turns up in an unexpected place.
There is a contrast between the description of the birth and the circumstances of the birth that is announced. We are told that the glory of the Lord shone around the shepherds as an angel announced the news of the birth of Jesus: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David, a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” V10b-11. There is a grandness and majesty about this statement that would bring an expectation of an equally grand place of birth. Surely such a baby should be born in the Jewish centre of Jerusalem, not an ordinary town in Judea. Surely such a baby should be born in a palace with servants fussing around him and the new mother. Instead, the humble surroundings of a stable or cave, with Jesus being laid in a manger, show us God works in ways and places that are very different to what we might expect.
Here is something for us to pay close attention to - God can turn up in the most unexpected of places and in the most unexpected of ways. The question each of us has to face is this… ‘are we going to make the effort to meet him?’ The shepherds had to make a decision… were they going to remain in the field, stay with their duty to look after the sheep, or were they willing to step out of routine, take a risk and go somewhere new because they could meet Jesus? They went and they weren’t disappointed.
What about us? Perhaps this Christmas, when things are far from normal, we can be reminded that God turns up in unexpected places and unexpected ways. Maybe even now He is calling us to meet with him afresh. We might wish it was as clear as a multitude of angels singing and the glory of the Lord shining around – probably all of us would pay attention to that. However, often God speaks to us in much quieter ways that mean we must be determined to pay attention and then respond. Perhaps even now, you and I are being called to pay attention and act to meet with Jesus – we might feel the quickening of our heartbeat, a warmth flowing through us, the desire in our thoughts about the opportunity to encounter Jesus. It may not be now – it might be while out on a walk, whilst reading a book, watching a classic TV film or at some other moment – the prompting of the Holy Spirit to pay attention to where God is – turning up in unexpected places and unexpected ways – offering the opportunity to meet with Him.
The shepherds said, ‘Let’s go’. They were willing to step out of routine and their expectations. What about you? Are we determined to pay attention to God, who may meet with us in an unexpected place and an unexpected way?
2) Be amazed at the favour
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.” V14
Were you happy with the presents you received at Christmas or were you left disappointed? Have you returned any yet? It is only the 27th December, so maybe you haven’t had a chance. Last year an estimated £140 million worth of unwanted Christmas presents were returned. The first reported present returned was at a Collect+ point in Wiltshire at 7.02am on Christmas morning. In Enfield, one customer dropped off 7 parcels just after mid-day - presumably indicating a very disappointing set of Christmas gifts.
I wonder if there was any sense of disappointment in the shepherds that night before the angel appeared. You couldn’t blame them if they were - disappointed not because of any unwanted Christmas gifts but because of their lot in life. Shepherds were viewed as amongst the lowest ranked people in society and shepherding at night was a cold, lonely and potentially dangerous occupation. Here they were, yet another night just looking after sheep. And if they reflected on what God thought of them, they might have thought that they were a disappointment to him and at the very least that they wouldn’t be special to him. It is striking that the angels didn’t appear to the VIPs of the land who had human power and influence. As heaven invades earth, it is the lowly shepherds who experience the amazing announcement as a great heavenly host join to sing: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.” V14
The announcement tells the shepherds the most amazing truth – they are amongst those on whom God’s favour rests. They might not be considered a success in human terms and there may be nothing in their earthly make up that made them special. But what is more important is how God saw them. The favour of God tells them that they are special, that they matter and that they are loved.
Whatever Christmas feels like to us in this most disappointing of years, we can hear the amazing truth that resounds this Christmas and every Christmas: we are special to the God who loves us. This isn’t because of our human achievements or giftings. It is simply about who God is – the one who loves us unconditionally and only asks us to accept His love and walk with Him. The amazing truth of the Christmas story is that God’s favour can rest on us. We can bring a smile to God’s face as He delights in us. Today, we can be truly amazed by the favour of God as we accept him as our Lord.
3) Be amazed at the promise
“But Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart” v19
In the summer of 2019 (when people were used to flying on holiday), an Easy Jet flight was delayed when the captain became unavailable to fly the jet from Manchester to Alicante. It could have been a significant delay, but it just so happened that one of the passengers was an off-duty Easy Jet pilot, due to go on holiday with his wife and young son. He had with him his license and ID, so he rang up his bosses to offer to fly the plane for them. They agreed and the flight was able to take off. One newspaper headline proclaimed: ‘Dad steps in to save the day!’
At the heart of the story of Christmas is a loving Father who steps in… not just to save the day but to save humanity. The Christmas story is not just about the birth of a baby but the promise of who that baby will become. Jesus was not to remain a baby – he was to grow and go out to serve God. His time in a manger was an amazing moment but he wasn’t called in his earthy life to sleep in a manger year after year! He was to move on from there and grow as a child and into his calling as Saviour, the anointed one, the Messiah, the Lord. The Bible tells the story of Jesus’ life and how he did that through dying on a cross. But his death was not the end. He rose again and we are told in the wonderful passage of Romans 8 that Jesus: “Is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” V34
Mary didn’t understand all this right then. Neither did the shepherds. What God was doing was not fully revealed to them. However, Mary treasured the ways she did see God at work and pondered on what it all meant. The shepherds went away praising God for they found it just as they had been told – God is true to his Word.
Maybe at the end of this strange and difficult year, as we wonder what God might be doing through it all; as we wait for an end to the restrictions of the pandemic… maybe, just maybe there are those of us who can treasure up the things that we have been aware of God doing? Praise God because he is at work amongst us. We can also praise God today because he is true to His word. There is no promise contained in the Bible that won’t come true. In the birth of Jesus, we see that God came and lived amongst us and he is still with us today. As he is present, he is working out his way of saving us and restoring the world to be the place that it was always meant to be. We may not always see it; we may not always understand it; but he is at work and we can praise him for the things that we have heard and seen. And one day we will praise him for the amazing way he has been at work in the world and that every promise he ever made has been fulfilled more wonderfully than we can ever imagine.
Final thoughts… The shepherds went back to tend their sheep, but they went back differently. They had experienced the presence, favour and promise of God. Things would never be the same again. What about us? Can we be the same after hearing the amazing Christmas story? May God bless you as 2020 gives way to 2021. May the coming year be one of where we pay attention to God who comes in unexpected ways to unexpected places as we are amazed at his presence. May we be amazed at the favour of God who tells us we are special to him. May we be amazed at the promise not just of what is, but what one day will be. May God bless us with an amazing finish to 2020 and a very different 2021.
(Mark Fairweather-Tall, Regional Minister – Team Leader)