Joy and Hope

“I bring you good news of great joy for all the people,” says the angel, “to you is born this day a saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

We gather here this morning in the knowledge that we are one of the first groups of millions of Christians who will come together today to hear that greeting proclaimed again, as Christmas Day works its way around the time zones of the world.  It is extraordinary that nearly 2,000 years after the first followers of Christ gathered together to fashion their lives around this story, we should be continuing to do so today.  There are few other stories that have so constantly and powerfully inspired people throughout the generations between then and now to live in joy and hope.

I am conscious of how grateful I feel to have the opportunity to be here this morning, to celebrate this good news with you – whether this is your spiritual home because you are here every week, or whether this is your spiritual home because you know that this is your place – year by year – as you return here for our Christmas festivities together.  However you have come to be here, you like me and the millions of others who will celebrate the birth of Jesus in the coming hours do so because we know that the powerful and joyful hope of this story is of greater significance than any of the bad news stories that we hear around us at the current time.

“I bring you good news of great joy,” says the angel. 

Good news for every people, in every place and in every time.  Although we may feel confronted, challenged, perhaps even galvinised as we hear this story once again, we should not be surprised by the good news that it contains;  because contrary to what some other religious people around us might want us to believe, our God is a God who loves to shower us with good news.  The birth of Jesus is not an isolated incidence of God doing something good for us, we locate this story within a never ending stream, or perhaps a tidal wave, of God’s good news for humanity throughout the history of the world, both in the past, and right now and also in the future.  The God who lovingly and purposefully created all that we experience around us, the God who made a Covenant with his people, and guided them through the teachings of his prophets, now sends – in this Christmas story – the most wonderful good news of all.

A more literal translation of what the angel says to those shepherds who were living out in the fields is something like “I good news you”, not very good English I know, but a ‘way of being’ for all who are caught up in God’s eternal life of never ending good news.  This good news follows, of course, the good news that has already been announced to Elizabeth (earlier in the story which we did not hear this morning) who has now – against the odds – been able to bear her own son John, and the good news that has been given to Mary that she is to be the one who will bear the Messiah.

The location for this world-changing, earth-shattering, all-transforming good news?   All of this is to take place in a field near Bethlehem where the shepherds were to be found, and a drinking trough in a stable in that small town, where Jesus was to be laid.  Such a long way away from here in both time and space, but not so far away that it does not speak to us again this morning.

“I bring you good news of great joy for all the people,” says the angel, “to you is born this day a saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

We have no idea why the writers of this story do not place this new born baby and his family in a more comfortable setting.  It is no surprise to us, with the benefit of hindsight that Jesus is not born in a palace because we know that he will not be like any other king, but quite why Joseph is unable to find any relatives in the town of Bethlehem who have a spare room for him (given that that is the home town of his family) is a bit of mystery for us.  In my imagination I wonder whether perhaps his relatives have already filled their rooms with other family members, or maybe they are not willing to have Mary and Joseph in their homes because Mary is pregnant and she and Joseph are not yet married.  For whatever reason, we find them on the first Christmas night in a stable.

Meanwhile there are those shepherds living out in the fields, minding their own business, trying to keep warm and simply get through another night without losing any sheep.  These shepherds are the first humans to name out loud the good news that is unfolding, when they follow the instructions given to them and find the baby with his Mother.  They are the ones who are able to vocalise what is happening from what they see and have been told, even as Mary continues to ponder all of these things in her heart.  The Gospel writers place these shepherds on the central stage of the story to remind all of us who are to hear this story later, that whoever else will be invited to share in the joy of the birth of Jesus, people on the margins of society (whatever the equivalent of shepherds are for us today) will not be excluded.

“I bring you good news of great joy for all the people,” the angel says to them, “to you is born this day a saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

As that great good news is announced, there is one angel at first, and then a multitude of them lighting up the night sky above the shepherds and celebrating what is going on.  These angels are like huge neon advertising signs pointing out that something amazing is taking place.  They are a figure of speech, a way of expressing, that all that is going on on this first Christmas night is not happening by chance, but that it has heavenly, eternal purpose.    The message of joy-filled hope that these angels bring to the shepherds is both expected and unexpected in its world-changing significance.

Expected because like generations before them these simple men have been watching and waiting for a Messiah, hearing rumours that God is going to act, that things are going to change, that the promises of the prophets will finally be fulfilled.  Unexpected because just like all promises that are handed down from one group to another, the imminence and urgency of this promise’s fulfilment has lost its plausibility over time.  So the message that the angel brings has a familiarity about it, there is a sense in which it is expected, but not by these shepherds, on this night, in this way.

“I bring you good news of great joy for all the people,” that is the message: “to you is born this day a saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

The sign that all of this is true, is strangely the drinking trough in which the baby is laid.  Positioned in the downstairs of the inn where the animals slept at night, because there were no bedrooms available upstairs.  It is the fact that the baby is in the drinking trough that will be the sign, according to the angels, in their message to the shepherds, that all that they have said is true.  Indeed it is only when the shepherds see the baby in a manger that they believe what they have been told, and share the news with others; because in Luke’s Gospel there is no bright star overhead, there are no halos around the holy family, no animals looking longingly into the eyes of the Christ-child as we see depicted on our Christmas cards.  There is a drinking trough and a baby which are the signs for the shepherds that seal the deal.  In my imagination I wonder how many other inns and resting places these shepherds may have entered first, looking eagerly for a baby in a manger but finding only families tucked up in bed.

Later, according to other accounts, there will be further visitors, wise men painted into the picture to remind all who hear the story that this Jesus, born in Bethlehem has a significance which will affect not just those who live nearby, but people from the ends of the earth;  and a wise old man and woman in the Temple, when Jesus is taken there to be circumcised who will confirm that all that has been said is indeed true.

The angels remind us of the hope that this story is not a historical artefact but instead the planned and purposeful eternal working out of God’s plan.  The shepherds and the wise men remind us of the hope that no one will be excluded from sharing in this joy: rich and poor, educated and uneducated, near and far – the good news of God’s love for us is for everyone not just for a few.

“I bring you good news of great joy for all the people, to you is born this day a saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

What are we to do with this good news of joy and hope?  Let me make two very brief and practical suggestions.

Firstly this good news requires of us that we live as people of hope, for ourselves and for others.

Now I realise that it is easier to say that than to live it out, especially when, for some of us, so much appears to be going wrong around us.  If I can put it like this: the good news of the good news of the Christmas story is that it is not just good news for Christmas!  This little baby born in Bethlehem who we celebrate this morning, will become a man, and if you haven’t had the opportunity to examine closely the rest of his story (whether you come here every week or come here once a year), then all that I can say to you from my own personal experience is that the story of Jesus only gets better. I invite you to help us to find ways between now and next Christmas to come to know the rest of the story of this good news of hope for yourself.

Secondly, it is important to say that the Christmas story calls for a great party and celebration.

For reasons that I simply cannot understand it has become fashionable for some religious leaders to speak out against the ways that people celebrate this festival season.  Yet good news of this magnitude calls for the biggest celebrations that we can imagine.  There is no better good news to gather us together with family and friends than the news that this baby, born amongst us, is truly the Son of God.  So if any of you needed it, you have permission to be people of joy over the coming days.

Ring the bells, open the champagne, start the feasting in such a way that no one is excluded.   Share this good news with others.  Be people of hope, be people of joy.

 “I bring you good news of great joy for all the people,” says the angel, “to you is born this day a saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Celebrate dear friends, what God has done for us in Jesus.