Story Time - Bishop Paul recounts the Christmas Story

CHRISTMAS EVE MIDNIGHT COMMUNION 2020

Isaiah 9.2-7 & Luke 2.1-20

 

INTRODUCTION

Well, what a year this has been. When I presided at this service last Christmas Eve none of us imagined that this year the Cathedral would be occupied by such a small number, wearing masks and sat 2 metres apart, except for our ‘bubbles’ whilst large numbers watched on at home, either live or in the days to come at a time personally seen as more convenient.

It has been a year full of sadness for many as loved ones have died. It has left many damaged longterm through Long Covid, or through the impact on their mental health. The long term damage to the education of many will only truly emerge in the years to come, although all suspect it is significant for the poorest and most vulnerable. We have also seen the genius of scientists developing vaccines more rapidly than ever before. We will only see also in years to come the inspiration it has been to others individually to change their life course; and the stimulus it has been to rediscover the importance of kindness, neighbourliness and the sense of being a community together. The colliding impact of Brexit remains an unknown for good or ill, even with today’s news of a Trade Deal. History will help us, and generations yet to come, understand.

I have always loved history. I remember producing detailed history projects back in St Paul’s Hook Primary School. I love the discovery involved and then the seeking to understand what was really going on. Over the years I have become more fascinated with social history; the lives of the ordinary people not simply the headlines of the Kings and Queens; the Prime Ministers and the Presidents. The history of the powerful is important of course but so often the really fascinating stuff is what can be discovered about the life of the people.

LUKE THE HISTORIAN

Luke was a historian. Right at the outset of his gospel, he tells us ‘Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us …. I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account … so that we may know the truth …’ (Luke 1.1-4).

We are prone to over-exaggerate the importance of events in our own day. We call things unique when they are far from being so. We call things historic when they will pass forgotten quite quickly. However this year, 2020, whilst not unique in human history as global pandemics have happened before, and will happen again, will be a year that has been hugely significant for the life of our nation and world. The Covid 19 pandemic does look like it will reshape how we all live so significantly that it will be taught in history in the future. Future primary school pupils will revel in writing projects on it. A new Horrible Histories volume must surely already be in the making. GCSE and A level courses will include it in the curriculum. Many a PhD, in a wide range of disciplines, will be written off the back of it. Although it will probably by then be the 2019-21/2 Pandemic not simply 2020.

Luke roots his story of Jesus’ birth in history. We read this in the opening verses of Luke 2. Now there remains much scholarly debate about the exact pinpointing of the nature of the registration, whether or not it was ‘while’ or ‘before’ Quirinius was Governor of Syria; how long such a census took; and who precisely had to travel because of this census. We have become at times so focussed on wanting every detail to be forensically recorded that we have lost sight of how history was told and recorded in times past. Sometimes it is not precision of detail that a writer is concerned with but rather a core point of what was going on. Luke is making the point that when the apparently all-powerful Roman Caesar who liked to refer to himself as Saviour and ‘son of God’ was enacting his rule over others something entirely else was happening. It was the birth of Jesus that truly was God’s way of saving and rescuing. In history’s eyes at that point, Augustus and his decisions were those that mattered most. But actually in an obscure corner of his empire through the very enforced actions made by him and his rulers God was doing something far more significant and powerful. But God was doing it through an ordinary carpenter and his betrothed teenage spouse. Further, God would make this known to poor, oppressed, uneducated and disregarded shepherds just getting on with their every day, job.

 

GOD AT WORK

Luke is making it very clear that the birth of this child in obscurity is God at work bringing salvation to all of humanity, indeed all of creation. The lying in the manger is, for Luke, less about the poverty and trial of the circumstance than it is about being the confirmatory sign to the shepherds. In this way, they know exactly which baby God is pointing them towards. For Mary and Joseph surely the shepherds’ story acted as a complete confirmation to them of the promises made to Mary by Gabriel. This had already found confirmation in Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. It is now further confirmed to them through the shepherds. Somehow, mysteriously, this child is the one who will bring true Peace. This child will bring about God’s saving of us all. Jesus the newborn is truly son of God who is to be the centre of all worship. This child is to be the good news for all; through this Jesus, joy will come.

We need good news this Christmas, just as those who were in Bethlehem through government edict, needed good news in their own day. It arrived in an unexpected way, but good news came.

The good news for us is that the babe born in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago is God with us, Emmanuel. In growing up throughout his human life, in his public ministry and supremely in his death and resurrection Jesus is the one through whom God brings about the salvation of the world. The very best news this Christmas remains the good news of God in Jesus Christ. Here we find the one who makes sense of all history. Here we find the one who brings us peace in the midst of all our anxieties and fears.

The story also reminds us that God is still at work. God still works in and through the decisions and movements of those who hold the greatest political power, although like Caesar Augustus, Quirinius and Herod such leaders generally completely fail to realise that they rule under God rather than of their own importance. The story also reminds us that God’s significant work tends to be away from those places that we accord significance. God tends to be at work quietly in forgotten places, amongst ordinary people. Perhaps the events of this year have given us a glimpse again of this truth. God is at work in the quiet care of the elderly person with dementia through the tender care of the loving spouse, child or the care assistant in the care home. God is at work through the nurses and doctors in A & E and on Intensive Care wards. God is at work in those who are delivering Christmas food and meals to the lonely. God is at work in the nursery school supporting the young child with special educational needs. God is with you, and at work through you as you love and care for others. It is my prayer that this Christmas we all might catch a glimpse, or more, of God at work amongst ordinary everyday living. It is my prayer too that we might all see afresh that the birth of Jesus is not simply a good story to recall once a year but that Jesus is the one through whom we all find a living relationship with the God who loves each and every one of us beyond our understanding.

In the midst of our losses, sorrows, fears and anxieties that arise from Covid, or Brexit, or climate change this particularly difficult year Jesus truly remains the good news for us all this Christmas and for 2021 and beyond.

May we all know the presence and peace of Jesus afresh.

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