What is your usual Christmas Day routine? Where and when do you open your presents? Does the Queen’s Christmas message get broadcast in your home? And what festive food and drink gets consumed at your house?
Whatever your Christmas plans are, I hope they go better than they always seem to on EastEnders, Coronation Street and the other TV soap operas. As far as I can see, their Christmas episodes usually seem to involve fanciful plots, flaming rows and family breakdowns. Not much “peace on earth and goodwill to all men” in sight! Surely not the right way to celebrate Christmas?!
Thankfully, in our reading from Luke’s Gospel just now, we were given a God-given illustration of how to respond rightly to the birth of Christ. We shall see that the shepherds, not the soap operas, show us the true essentials of a Christmas celebration.
But first, let’s remind ourselves of the amazing events of the first Christmas:
- Amazing Events…
There’s no denying that the Christmas story contains some very unusual and amazing events. A virgin birth, a guiding star, angels appearing to shepherds, wise men from the east. Surely this is all make-believe? Fiction? A Children’s Story?
And yet Luke, the author of our Gospel reading tonight, assures us that the story he recounts is carefully researched, first-hand, historical information. Luke writes the following at the very start of his Gospel, just a couple of pages before our reading tonight: “Many have attempted to write about the life of Christ, using eyewitness reports from those who were with him from the beginning. Having carefully investigated everything, I have also decided to write a careful account for you, so that you can be certain of the truth of what you’ve heard about him.”
Throughout his biography of Jesus, Luke is careful to provide details, dates and locations of every event he describes – much of which has been cross-checked against others sources and found reliable.
It’s possible that Luke may have got much of his information about the birth of Christ directly from his mother Mary, towards the end of her life. It is certainly true that much of the story is told from her perspective – from her standpoint as a young woman in the middle of such dramatic and life-changing events.
- An Angel Explains…
So we have good reason to believe that, however remarkable they sound, the amazing events of the first Christmas really happened. But what is their significance? What is their purpose? Why do they matter?
Throughout the Bible, almost without exception, God provides words to explain and interpret his great acts within history. Like a commentator describing the drama of a football match, or a TV newsreader telling us about the day’s events, God spoke throughout the history of Israel to describe and explain his amazing acts of salvation. From the Exodus until the return from Exile, God had spoken through his prophets to explain exactly what he was doing.
And at the birth of Christ God spoke too. As we read in our passage tonight, it was a glorious angel who had a God-given message to share with some Shepherds.
The first part of the angel’s message was that the Lord had come, the King of kings had arrived on earth. The ultimate authority over Heaven and Earth has humbled himself and been born in a manger.
Because Christ has been born, we no longer need to look elsewhere for authoritative information about God and his world. Wikipedia, the Radio 4 Today programme and BBC News just can’t compete!
In the life and words of Jesus we receive a definitive disclosure of what God is like and the way he wants us to live. Christ clears the fog of confusion about God, and brings light to a world in moral darkness. The new-born son of David, was also the Son of God incarnate, the rightful King of all Creation.
But Jesus is more than just our Creator and King. Thankfully the message of the angel did not stop there. If it did, we would have no hope, because none of us has lived a life of full obedience to the King of Kings. None of us has fully obeyed our Creator’s commands.
So that’s why it’s great news that Jesus came to be our Saviour as well as our King. Thankfully, Christ came to rescue us as well as to reign. He was the baby born to give us peace with God.
Because the surprising, even shocking news of Christmas is that Jesus was the baby born to die and rise again. Thirty years later the Son of God would take our sin upon himself on the Cross. On the first Good Friday he would do everything necessary for our guilt before God to go away. He then rose again on the first Easter Sunday, so that through faith in him we can enjoy God’s forgiveness and friendship forever.
That’s why it is fitting that on this Christmas Eve we also remind ourselves of the first Easter – as we shall do when we share bread and wine together at the Lord’s Supper. They are a sign and symbol of Christ’s body – a body which died and rose again for our redemption.
- An Example to Follow…
So the amazing events of the first Christmas were a prelude to the amazing grace that God made available to us all at the first Easter. But how are we to show our gratitude for this grace? How are we to truly celebrate Christmas?
Well, two thousand years ago the Shepherds responded rightly to the angel’s message. They can show us the essentials of a Christian Christmas celebration:
Firstly, like the Shepherds, we are all to seek out Christ our Saviour. The Shepherds believed the angel’s message about Jesus, and hurried off to meet him in Bethlehem. Whoever we are, we too need to seek out Christ. He is no longer to be found in a stable, but can be met in the pages of the Bible and encountered personally in prayer. Do join our forthcoming Christianity Explored course here at St Michael’s if you’d like us to help you on that journey. Christianity Explored starts on the 7th January, and there are leaflets at the back of church if you would like to know more.
Secondly, the Shepherds also sang praises to God when they realised Christ had come. They challenge us to thank God for sending Jesus into the world, to praise him for all he’s done – not just by singing Carols at Christmas, but by offering our whole lives in service to him. Let’s make Jesus Lord and King of our whole lives: at home and at work, in private as well as in public, over all of our relationships and responsibilities.
Thirdly we are to be like the Shepherds by sharing the good news of Christmas with others. They could not keep the angel’s wonderful message about Jesus to themselves, and we too should seek opportunities to tell our family, friends and colleagues about Christ. The Gospel is too good to keep to ourselves.
So what is the right way to celebrate the amazing events of Christmas? Well, Shepherds, not soap operas, give us the example to follow: Let’s seek out Christ as our Saviour. Let’s serve him as our King. And let’s declare his praises – not just at Christmas, but throughout the year!