Because the message of Christmas isn't only for a day or a season, here is a Christmas message to take us into the new year. The following is the text of the address given by Dorothy Francis at our last-Sunday-before-Christmas service.
In the northern hemisphere Christmas arrives at the darkest time of the year. The days are short and sometimes it seems that the sun barely rises before dipping below the horizon. The nights stretch out and envelope us in deepest black. We seek warmth, comfort and brightness. The celebration of the birth of Jesus provides an oasis of light and a welcome respite in these dark months.
Many will remind us that we do not actually know when Jesus was born and that it is unlikely that it was at such a cold time of the year. Winters in the Holy Land are considerably warmer than in the UK but nonetheless winter nights in Bethlehem can be as low as 12 degrees and a little chilly to be watching flocks outdoors. These same people will remind us that in lieu of knowing when Jesus was born Christmas was positioned at this time of year to provide a winter celebration because we have a need for light in the darkness of winter and people have always celebrated midwinter festivals of light such as Samhain, Saturnalia, Diwali, Hanukkah etc. All of these festivals take place at a time when darkness has reached its depth. The sun stands still and we wait for its turning. There is a sense of anticipation. Will the light keep its promise? Will it redeem us from the dark?
We all experience moments of darkness when we don’t know how deep we will be submerged before light returns. The world has these moments too, when it seems so dark due to divisive politics, war and disasters that we wonder if light will ever return. But we have hope and faith and we use love to work for peace, and slowly and surely, light returns to our world.
Christmas takes place within the winter solstice when for a few days the sun seems to hang in place and stand still until - almost imperceptibly - the world turns and the light begins to stream back. And so we celebrate. We celebrate because the celestial light of the world – our sun – has overcome the dark. We also celebrate because the heavenly son of God – who became the son of man – has defeated sin by birthing a light out of darkness. It does not matter the day that Jesus was born. What matters is that he came. He was born unto us. For the past four weeks we have lit advent candles as part of the service and each candle has carried a meaning relating to the birth of Christ. Hope. Peace. Joy. Love. I have gazed at the candles and pondered their meaning.
The first candle is hope. One dictionary definition of hope is “a feeling of expectation and a desire for a particular thing to happen”. We can imagine that a feeling of expectation and desire was in the air at the point when Jesus came to earth. He was born into a small nation that had once been great but had lost its sovereignty to the Romans; overseas masters who extracted tax from its subjects and made them walk miles to register at their place of birth so they could be taxed even more efficiently. Jesus was born into a country that once controlled but now was controlled and where the indigenous population felt displaced by people who had come to their country. And perhaps they feared for their jobs, their lifestyles and their culture? They wanted their country back. They wanted the fulfilment of the prophecy that had been promised to them that a king would come who would lead them into a new future and make their country great again. They had kept hope in their hearts for hundreds of years and hope had sustained them. They knew that one day a king would arrive who would lead them against their oppressors and free them. Unfortunately they did not expect a poor carpenter who told them that their enemy was as much within themselves in terms of blind hatred, suspicion, prejudice, vanity and ungodliness and that this enemy could be conquered with understanding, love and compassion. Their king had arrived but he came with kind words and benevolence rather than a sword and smart rhetoric. He came from a stable and not a palace. What kind of king was he? When Jesus began his mission many felt that their hope had been misplaced and wondered if he was truly the one that they should pin their star to. Had hope only led them to a stable door and a wooden cross? Was that it? The second candle reflects that Jesus is the Prince of Peace. How wonderful that is! How truly wonderful! I don’t think that any of us can truly understand what it is to feel perfect peace but that is what the birth of Jesus promises us. The Prince of Peace will bring us joy from the darkness. The people of Israel wanted peace. Israel was occupied but it was not at war, yet they did not have peace. Peace is more than the absence of war – there are other forms of warfare. Peace is the ability to walk down a street without concern. Without fear of being spat at or abused. Of having your veil ripped off by someone who objects to your attire. Without fear of being shouted at and told to go back to where you come from. Without being vilified and blamed for the state of the nation. Or being hated because you are a Samaritan. Or a Hittite. Or just someone who is a little different. I know that as a person of colour living in the UK I also seek that peace. We are not at war as a country but in many ways we are involved in a war against certain sectors of society and many things - such as food banks, denial of rights to refugees, the Windrush scandal - demonstrate this. I have an ever present fear of being attacked on the street and this fear has intensified due to our current political situation which seems intent on pitching neighbour against neighbour and where our most top ranking politicians peddle and legitimise xenophobia and racism. My fear of being attacked stems from the fact that I have been spat on and abused in the streets of Coventry where I grew up, and in Leicester where I relocated as an adult. And in all probability it will happen again, especially as some people now feel that the political and social situation has given them a mandate to hate. So one of the things that I thought about as I gazed at the peace candle in week two is how I can find peace in a country which seems intent on denying ne this comfort?
I pondered the meaning of peace and wondered how it can be defined? I feel that peace is security. Peace is safety. Peace is justice for all not just the few. Peace is kindness, fairness, compassion. Peace is an absence of fear. The people of Israel sought this peace and longed for the one who would bring the light of peace into their lives and would lead them out of darkness and fear and little did they know that a baby born in a stable would be the one who would bring this perfect peace.
The third candle represents joy which can be defined as “a feeling of great pleasure and happiness”. The people of Israel were in darkness and into this gloom came joy in the form of God born as a baby. The people were seeking joy but joy sneaked in through the back door. Not via the palace on the hill just a few short miles from where Jesus was born, with its hundreds of vast rooms filled with earthly treasures, but via a humble stable littered with straw. Yet more joy was in that tiny stable than could ever be contained in Herod’s palatial dwelling.
The first visitors to experience the joy of Jesus’s birth were shepherds on the hills who heard the news of glad tidings. However, the word hardly seems adequate to describe the reaction of the shepherds who visited the new born Jesus. Luke 2 verse 17 says that they were filled with joy and “They spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child”. They were changed from having entered the presence of Jesus and couldn’t keep quiet about what had happened to them. It seems that they joyfully shared the good news with everyone they encountered and verse 18 says, “and all who heard it were amazed.”
Imagine the joy of the shepherds to know that they were the first to see the living lord? Shepherds were amongst the lowest in society. They were nomadic so they could not easily observe rituals so were often religiously unclean and unable to mix within society. They were likely to be physically unclean as well as they lived with their animals and, to be frank, probably smelled a bit. Or a lot. They were not well schooled and were perceived as being rough. They could not testify in a court of law and had very little standing in society. Yet they were made first. Not Herod. Not an assembly of well-educated young men from exclusive backgrounds but a bunch of ragged scruffs from fields outside Bethlehem. They were lowly but loved and what joy they must have felt that God chose them to be raised high!
However whilst being on the outside of society shepherds also played a very important and essential role. Each day they provided two lambs without blemish to the temple for sacrifice. They hardened their hearts to the tiny and perfect frolicking creatures that they nurtured as they knew that the lambs were born to be sacrificed. They cared for the animals so that they remained as pure as possible to be given up for sacrifice to intercede between man and God and atone for sin.
On that night when they came to worship the new baby the shepherds unwittingly beheld the lamb that is truly without blemish and whose birth rendered the necessity for animal sacrifices invalid. Perhaps they held the baby in their rough and calloused hands and cradled him gently as they did their lambs before offering the creatures up for sacrifice, little knowing that they held the one who would be sacrificed to save them and all humankind. Their joy at seeing the new born baby would have been dashed had they known that in a few short years he would be sacrificed as a lamb to the slaughter.
We feel joy that Jesus came to earth as a baby to live among us and to carry our sin, however the Christmas story is tinged with sadness by the knowledge that this perfect baby has been born to be sacrificed. The joy is tempered by the realisation that the baby born in a wooden manager will one day be crucified on a wooden cross. But then joy returns again as he is raised from the dead and we realise that joy outweighs sadness. And that joy is wrapped in love which brings us to the fourth candle which represents love.
Love is variously described as “an intense feeling of deep affection” or “having someone’s best interest and well-being as a priority in your life. Or “giving for the sake of making the other person happy because you truly want the best for them and have no intention of receiving.”
These are all laudable but none of those definitions even come even close to describing the love of God as manifested in Jesus who came to earth to show us that love is the single most powerful force in the universe. Love conquers all. Love heals wounds. Love wipes away our tears. When unenlightened people spit in our faces the people who live in the light of love wrap us in their arms and demonstrate that love is stronger than hate. Love compels us to show mercy and compassion to others. Love is God and God is love.
We have explored hope, peace and joy and we end with love. The beginning and the end is encompassed in the love of God which enabled him to send his unblemished son to be the light, hope, joy and peace of the world. So much was wrapped up in the body of a tiny baby! So much depended on him. And he fulfilled his promise. We give thanks for the hope that he brings, the peace that is promised, and the joy that is his love. Amen.