I have mentioned before that the subject I disliked at secondary school was English Literature. I only developed a conscious interest in creative writing when I was an adult. Even now, I rarely read novels. If I read one novel a year, that’s quite a high rate, even for an avid reader like me.
But I have found some of the ‘literature’ aspects of the Bible fascinating. In particular, one insight about biblical poetry has stayed with me, and in a moment I aim to show you how it is important in this account of Jesus’ birth.
In the Old Testament, the poetry of the Psalms and large parts of Proverbs, Job, some prophets and so on rhymes. But it doesn’t rhyme like English poetry does. We rhyme the sounds at the end of each line. You can see that in the carols we are singing tonight.
Hebrew poetry rhymes differently. The Hebrew poets didn’t rhyme sounds, they rhymed ideas. So the second line rhymes the first by repeating the same idea in a different way. Or it states the opposite of the first line. Or it takes the idea of the first line and moves it on.
If you want to impress people at dinner parties, this particular kind of rhyming is called ‘Hebrew parallelism’. So now you know.
I want to suggest that the song of the angels to the shepherds can be understood this way, and that when we do, we see the power of the poetry they sing. Hear again their familiar words:
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.’ (Verse 14)
In the first line God, and the second line refers to human beings. Heaven in the first line, earth in the second. Glory in the first, peace in the second.
So firstly, why does God in heaven receive glory? What has he done that is worthy of praise? Well, clearly, he has at last sent the promised Messiah, for whom his people have longed for centuries, to deliver them:
Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. (Verse 11)
At last! The prayers of the centuries are being answered. The waiting is over. To people suffering long comes good news. The angels sing praise, and if the shepherds can think straight in the middle of this strange and terrifying experience, they will, too. Hope is about to be fulfilled!
But you and I know that this child came as a very different kind of Saviour and Messiah from that which was expected. Not the mere human military ruler. And there are hints here, in that he is called ‘the Lord’. He takes on a divine description. This isn’t simply some warrior. This is God, come to command our allegiance. If he is military at all, he is the Lord of hosts, the Old Testament God of angel armies. God himself has come to save his people. This is not a human being calling Israel to rally to him.
What that will mean can only be hinted at in the barest terms in the nativity story, and even then it is easier to spot if you know how it all pans out. A humble birth to poor parents, and now lying in a manger, for example. God comes in weakness, and he will live and minister in weakness, depending entirely upon the Holy Spirit. He will die in weakness, but that weak death on the Cross will transform all things. He will not raise himself from the dead, but God the Father will do that for him by the power of the Spirit.
But for all this, God is glorified, God is praised. He has come to save his people. He has come to bring a revolution. But not a revolution that will spill the blood of enemies. A revolution of love. A revolution where the Messiah himself will spill his own blood, not that of others.
This is why God is to receive praise in heaven. Do the angels even know what is coming? Do they know the plan of God? We have no idea. But there are tiny signs now of what is to come, where God in Jesus will accomplish his purposes in the most humbling and astonishing ways. As the American Methodist minister and scholar Allan Bevere says, the God of Christmas is an embarrassment. He stoops as low as it takes. He enters the muck and the mire. He will go on to party with sinners.
So we have a choice with God this Christmas. We can be embarrassed by him – and take offence. That was what Jesus’ religious opponents would do, thirty years later, when he spelled it out in his words and actions. Or, God’s embarrassing actions can make us smile, laugh and rejoice. And then we give glory to the embarrassing God.
And secondly, what about this peace on earth? Lots of people jump on this and use it to support their favourite notion of peace. Christians with a very personal, individualist understanding of faith use the mention of peace here to buttress their claim that Jesus came to bring peace on earth between individuals and God. It’s rather like the way Billy Graham used to preach about having ‘peace with God’. It’s the peace that comes from having your sins forgiven and declared righteous by God, all because of what Jesus would do for us in dying for our sins on the Cross.
Other Christians, those with a social conscience, emphasise ‘peace on earth’ in the sense that Jesus came to bring peace instead of war to this world. They see an effect upon society, more than an individual transformation. They see the hope of the prophets that the lion would lie down with the lamb being fulfilled.
Let me suggest to you that the text requires us to see that Jesus’ coming to bring peace is both personal and social. It has to be personal, because this is not a general ‘peace on earth’, which you might be forgiven for thinking from the way this verse is popularly quoted, and from the way those who stress it purely in terms of social justice speak. For it is ‘on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests’ (my italics). It is peace being granted to the people of God, to his followers. Now that can still be social, as we shall see, and those good Jews who were desperate to see the end of Roman occupation could have seen it that way, but it is definitely specific. This is a gift of peace for those whose allegiance is to the God of Israel.
I offer to you the approach, then, that the song of the angels promises peace between people and God, and then the people of God as a people of peace. We have a world that longs for peace, and as the people of God we are meant to be a sign of God’s coming kingdom. The church is not the kingdom of God, but we are meant to be the community of the King. Our common life as well as our individual life is to be a witness to the coming of God’s reign. Our life together is to show people what life under the rule of God looks like. That is why the bickering, the jealousy and the petty feuds we experience in the church at times have no place in our midst.
And where does it start? It begins with the personal commitment to follow Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. It means accepting his assessment of us as sinners, and his offer to make a new start, based on the Cross. He cures our alienation from God and gives us peace.
But it cannot stop there. The one who names Jesus as Lord and Saviour does so as an individual, but never in a private capacity. It is public and communal. God is building a people for his praise. He is doing it in his uniquely embarrassing way, as I said. The God who comes in all humility at Christmas offers us peace with him that we might build a community of peace in his name, a colony of heaven on earth.
If we as Christians are serious about celebrating Christmas, then we embrace a personal relationship with Christ and all that means – prayer, witness, discipleship and so on. And we also commit to one another in the church as we embrace our calling to show the world what the forgiven and forgiving life looks like. That would be a fitting way to sing the angels’ song:
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.’
Here is the address I gave at yesterday’s carol service.
There are two groups of people I would like us to think about for a few minutes this evening.
Group number one: cast your mind back to July this year, and the birth of the royal baby. Crowds gathering at Buckingham Palace awaiting the posting of the official announcement; other crowds at St Mary’s Hospital, camera phones poised behind the barricades for that first glimpse, and then an outburst of applause and flash as the proud parents came out.
Follow that with the speculation as we awaited the announcement of his name. And sure enough, he was given conventional royal names: George Alexander Louis. Kevin and Tyler weren’t in the running.
Then we had the christening, where there was more media coverage about the gown the young prince would wear than the meaning of the ceremony. Do only the royals dress up their little boys in frilly clothes, or is it just preparation for a public school uniform when he is older?
Trappings, ceremony, accoutrements – and enough coverage in Hello magazine to destroy all the rain forests. We expect that with a royal birth. Facebook and Twitter going crazy, you know the deal.
Yet we celebrate a royal birth at Christmas that looks so different. No privilege, no wealth, no ease. Mary is a teenage girl who may popularly be suspected of a scandal. She doesn’t come from an upwardly mobile family, and she had no chance of an education, let alone one at a prestigious historic university. Joseph wasn’t born licking a silver spoon, and he merely grew up to become an artisan, working as some kind of carpenter, builder or stonemason. You want that extension on your house or that new fitted kitchen? Call Joseph, and he’ll turn up in his old Transit van, with his plaid shirt, beer belly, and a copy of the Daily Mirror.
Royalty? Well, the only connection they got with royal circles was when the local despot Herod felt threatened and sent his death squads into Bethlehem. Mary, Joseph and the young Jesus have to leave everything behind and become refugees. No palace for them.
All of which leads me to believe that the Christmas story is especially for the poor, the forgotten, the obscure and those who think they are nothing or worthless. Do you feel insignificant? Jesus came for you. Do you feel like you don’t count? Jesus came for you, too. Or do you feel like you are on the margins, or rejected, or that you will never be popular? Do you believe that you are the sort of person who, when fame and fortune come along the road, take a detour to avoid you? The Jesus who came in the Christmas story is for you.
Perhaps, though, you are not like that. You may be one of those Surrey residents who has wealth or power or position or influence. If so, then the story of Christ’s coming at Christmas is one that holds dangers for you – or at least warnings. It is no good relying on our social position or our prestige with Jesus. Why would the King of Kings and Lord of Lords be impressed by that? Doesn’t your power or property seem puny in the light of who Jesus is?
Christmas – the time when we celebrate the coming of the humble king – is the time when we can only come to that king in humility ourselves. We don’t get into heaven on the basis of our contacts or whose number is on speed dial in our phone. But if we do come in humility, then we discover the amazing truth that Jesus is for us.
Group number two: they were a gang of heavy drinkers who lived on the outskirts of town. They carried weapons, which they were ready to use and they were known to conduct burglary raids together. Better not get in their way, or they might use a knife. They weren’t unemployed, they had a trade, but people were happy to do business with them, just so long as they stayed out of harm’s way. Although they tended to use other people’s land for their work, and if they came over your boundary, then you’d better not argue. At least, not if you wanted to keep good health.
If you had a gang like that living in your town, what would your attitude be? Would you call the police? Would you band together to hold a public meeting and demand that civic officials took action? Would you lobby your councillors or MP?
And what would you call for? ASBOs? Have them locked up? Perhaps they’re really illegal immigrants and should be deported.
Do you know what you’ve just done? You’ve just kicked the shepherds out of the Christmas story. The shepherds were the rogues, the chavs, the petty criminals of first century Palestine. Not respectable. The Daily Mail would have run front page campaigns against them and their type.
And yet, and yet … these people, these crooks, these bandits, these ne’er-do’wells, these scum of the earth are the first to hear the announcement that the Messiah has been born. If you think that Jesus came just to hang out with the ‘good’ people, forget it. He came for the bad and for the misfits.
If you doubt me, think about some of the crowd Jesus hob-nobbed with during his adult life. They weren’t all scallywags, but plenty of them were. Simon the Zealot was a terrorist or a freedom fighter, depending on your political views. The brothers James and John had a nickname – they were called ‘the Sons of Thunder – well, what kind of guys get that for a nickname? Early Hell’s Angels, perhaps? Matthew was a collaborator with the occupying Roman army.
So Christmas is a time to put to bed once and for all the idea that Jesus came for good people. Right from his birth, throughout his life even to his death on the Cross , when he was crucified with two common criminals, Jesus came to offer forgiveness and a new life to people who knew they were bad.
If you think you are a failure, this is good news for you. if you think you could never possibly be accepted, this is good news for you, too. Jesus wants you to say ‘yes’ to him and follow him.
But others here might be thinking, I don’t see myself like that. I’m a good, decent, hard-working member of society who is trying to be respectable. I put things into society, I’m not a taker. Why should Jesus favour the scroungers and the hoodlums? It’s unfair.
Do you know what the basic problem with that argument is? When we try to argue that we are fundamentally good, we manipulate our image. Like a photo of a plump person with acne being made to look clear-skinned and slim in Photoshop, so we tell the good story about ourselves and we mask the ugly truth about our own selfishness.
And Jesus won’t let us get away with that. Following him can only begin and continue with an acknowledgement of our selfishness, our thoughtlessness, our unjust behaviour. Without that humility he can’t clean us up, much as he wants to.
So I invite you to be like the shepherds this Christmas. Come dirty to the manger, and find the One who accepts your praise, makes you new, and calls you to follow him.
I’ve tried writing an address using an app on my new iPad called Haiku Deck. It’s a way of making simple PowerPoint presentations. You don’t get to do anything fancy with transitions, animations or anything like that. You just get to enter two lines of text and choose from some stunning Flickr images that have a Creative Commons copyright licence.
I’ve based this on the story of the shepherds in Luke 2:8-20. Obviously this isn’t a full script, but I hope there’s enough here for it to make sense. Let me know in the comments if it needs illuminating in any way.
Father Christmas has let me in on the present my parents have bought for my wife. It’s the DVD of Mamma Mia. You may have heard that this has become the fastest-selling DVD or video of all time in the UK – faster even than Titanic. Maybe it’s more than the catchy songs of Abba.
Or it might have to do with the fact that when times are hard, we look for some good old-fashioned escapist entertainment. Admittedly the current revived interest in stage musicals predates the recession, but it would be nothing new for there to be a revival of them during a recession. Certainly that was true in the nineteen thirties.
In the current climate, how many of us are spending less this Christmas? Or are we putting even more on the plastic and postponing the evil day? Could the Christmas story have a message for people whose credit is being crunched?
I think it does.
Sometimes we get the wrong image of Mary and Joseph. Some people assume that Joseph as a carpenter is some kind of self-employed businessman with a decent income – rather like the reputation of plumbers. Then we grab hold of the attempts to book into an inn and think of them trying to get into the Bethlehem Travelodge. It’s not quite what you’d expect from people on benefits.
However, the traditional English translations that say ‘there was no room at the inn’ are almost certainly mistaken. The word translated ‘inn’ from the original Greek of the New Testament is one that means a guest room. That could be a guest room in an inn, but it could also be a guest room attached to a typical single-room Palestinian peasant dwelling.
Given the Palestinian emphasis on hospitality, that is more likely. Joseph’s relatives try to do what is expected of them and take the couple in, but all they can offer is the raised area where they keep their livestock. And hence the baby is laid in a feeding trough. This is a picture of poverty.
And later on, when the infant Jesus has to be dedicated in the Jerusalem Temple according to Jewish tradition, his parents make the lowest cost offering, the offering prescribed for the poor.
What do we have, then, in the arrival of Jesus to his mother and legal father? We have the presence of God in the middle of poverty.
The recession will mean poverty for some (although not on first century Palestinian terms), and reduced standards of living for others. But Jesus promises to turn up in the middle of difficult circumstances. Focussing on his presence – rather than presents – will make Christmas a celebration, whether we have a lot of gifts to open or not.
So if you are struggling this Christmas, invite Jesus in. He’s probably hanging around somewhere close already. Ask him to make his spiritual presence known in your time of difficulty. He’s used to that kind of situation. And his love transforms it.
Something else about my wife. Until she married me, she had lived all her life in the town where she was born: Lewes in East Sussex. If there is one thing for which Lewes is famous, it is the annual bonfire. Six ‘bonfire societies’ produce amazing public displays for the Fifth of November every year. You may know that historically, as a town steeped in the tradition of dissent, the Lewes Bonfire has paraded an effigy of Pope Paul V, alongside one of Guy Fawkes and of contemporary bogeymen, such as Osama bin Laden, George W Bush, Tony Blair and Ulrika Jonsson in recent years.
But you might recall the national controversy five years ago when one of the bonfire societies from the village of Firle made an effigy of gypsies in a caravan. The effigies are traditionally burned every year to the cry of ‘Burn them! Burn them!’ A group of travellers had particularly annoyed the residents of Firle that year, and hence the choice.
But several members of the bonfire society were arrested by police, and an investigation was carried out into whether criminal offences relating to racial hatred had been committed.
Why talk about Bonfire Night at Christmas? Because if you get a flavour of popular disdain for travellers and gypsies, you will get a feel for how shepherds were regarded in Palestine around the time of Jesus.
We have cuddly images of shepherds from our nativity plays, Christmas cards and perhaps from our carols, too. But the reality is that they weren’t liked that much. Oh, the Bethelehm shepherds could supply sheep for the Temple sacrifices in nearby Jerusalem, but they wouldn’t be allowed inside the Temple themselves. Popular opinion saw them as thieves.
Yet the angels show up for a group of first century pikeys. Excluded people. A group that suffered discrimination and prejudice. Were the birth of Jesus to have happened in our day, we might imagine angels showing up in a deportation centre for failed asylum seekers or an AIDS clinic.
Perhaps there is some aspect of your life that pushes you to the fringes of society. Maybe it’s a reason for people rejecting you. If so, then the Christmas message is one of Jesus coming to offer his love precisely for somebody like you.
But what about everyone else? It’s very nice to say that Jesus has come for the poor and the excluded, but didn’t he come for everyone? Yes he did, and the message of the angels to the shepherds is a message for us all. The newborn baby is a Saviour (verse 11), and the angels sing that God is bringing peace on earth among those he favours (verse 14).
Now if we’ve heard the Christmas story over and over again in our lives, these references to ‘Saviour’ and ‘peace on earth’ might become part of the words that trip off our tongues without thinking. But we need to connect them to one other detail in the story. It came right at the beginning. Who issued the decree about the census? The Emperor Augustus (verse 1). Who was described as a saviour, because he had come to bring peace and an end to all wars? Augustus. Whose birthday became the beginning of the new year for many cities in the Empire? Augustus’.
Did he bring peace on earth? What do you think?
I don’t mention all this just to give you a history lesson, two days after the school term has finished. I think it has important connections today. Having talked about the poor and the excluded, let’s talk about one person who this year has been far from poor and certainly not excluded. Barack Obama.
Remember his slogan? ‘Change we can believe in.’ As one magazine said, it sounds like Yoda from Star Wars came up with it. Change was the word he kept emphasising. So much so that even his ‘change’ slogans kept changing!
The same magazine that likened his slogan to Yoda also interviewed John Oliver, the British comedian who appears on the American satirical TV programme The Daily Show. The journalist asked him, ‘How long will we be living in an Obama Wonderland?’ Three weeks, or at most four, said Oliver.
Well, you might reasonably say that Jesus hasn’t brought peace on earth, either. Sometimes the Church has made sure of that, and we have a lot for which we need to apologise. It isn’t just the wars in the name of religion (although atheism and liberal democracy have a lot to answer for, too). It’s been our attitudes in ordinary relationships.
What we the Church have departed from has been the prescription of Jesus for peace on earth. Peace on earth means not only peace with God, because Jesus would die on the Cross to bring the forgiveness of our sins. That peace requires peaceable attitudes with one another.
The Christmas message, then, for all of us, is one not of indulgence but of sacrifice. In Jesus, God descends – even condescends – in humility to human flesh and a life of poverty, blessing the poor and the excluded. The descent continues all the way to the Cross, where he suffers for all. And having done all that, we cannot presume it’s just to receive a private blessing of forgiveness. It’s so that the peace we receive from him at great cost can be shared with one and all.
May peace be with us all this Christmas. May the peace of Christ be the most precious gift we give and receive.