In his Christmas Day sermon, the Bishop of Bath and Wells encourages us all to think about Christmas afresh. Delivered at Bath Abbey this morning, the Rt Revd Peter Hancock said: “We all need to step back from the noise and the toys, the clamour and the glamour, the hustle and the bustle, the eating and the greeting, to strip away the wrappings and the trappings to discover again the real message of Christmas – which is that because of his love for us God came down to us as a baby…
“…We need to discover afresh that at Christmas God’s love came down to us in Jesus and that he shares our lives today. The decorations and the lights and candles may soon get packed away for another year. But if we open our hearts to Jesus he comes to us, watches over us, leads us and guides us and is with us. And then we can truly sing; ‘Christ the Saviour is born. Christ the Saviour is born.’”
Read the full text below:
Christmas Day, Bath Abbey, 2017
Luke 2: 8 -20
Recently I heard someone say that: ‘To perceive Christmas through its wrappings becomes more difficult with every year’. And if that is true it means we all need to step back from the noise and the toys, the clamour and the glamour, the hustle and the bustle, the eating and the greeting, to strip away the wrappings and the trappings to discover again the real message of Christmas – which is that because of his love for us God came down to us as a baby.
And for most of us here today this is a message we have heard many, many times before. So how might we unwrap the story this morning? When I was thinking about what to say I was reminded of a Nativity Festival which takes place at St Cuthbert’s Church in Wells. Each year they gather nativity sets from right across the world, from countries in Europe, Africa, South America and everywhere. This year they had about 350 different sets, some tiny, some huge. A couple of years ago they had a life-size knitted nativity with a full-size Mary and Joseph, full-size shepherds and wise men, and full-size animals. It was absolutely amazing. Rather cheekily my daughter and her boyfriend crept round the back and stood there looking out from among the figures and animals, much to the surprise of the people passing by. It made me think, however, that if we are to really understand the message of Christmas, if we are going to be able to unwrap Christmas, then we probably need to do the same thing. We need to put ourselves in the story – to go back to Bethlehem and imagine we are seeing and hearing the events that took place.
So this morning I would like us to look briefly at the story through the eyes of the angels and think about the four places where angels appear in the Christmas story.
The first is when the angel appears to Zechariah whilst he is serving as a priest in the Temple. When Zechariah sees the angel we read that ‘He was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John… many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.’ (Luke 1: 12 -15)
The second occasion is when the angel Gabriel appears to Mary and says to her: ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High.’ (Luke 1: 30 -32)
The third occasion is when an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and we read that the angel said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.
She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ (Matthew 1: 20 -21)
And the fourth occasion we heard read this morning:
‘In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2: 8 -11)
I am sure you noticed that on each occasion the first thing the angel said was ‘Fear not’ – ‘Do not be afraid’. For of course, they were alarmed. They were probably terrified! They had every reason to be afraid because it’s not every day you find an angel standing alongside you. They had never experienced anything like this before. Heaven had opened its doors and something of the glory and the light of heaven was shining upon them.
And on each of those four occasions, the angel brought a promise. Zechariah was told that his prayers had been answered and that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a child.
Mary was told that something that appeared humanely impossible would come true. That she too would bear a child and that his name was to be Jesus, the Son of the Most High.
Joseph was told to take Mary to be his wife. He was an honourable man and to spare Mary from public embarrassment and disgrace he decided not to go ahead with his plans to marry her. Imagine that. Imagine how disappointed and broken-hearted he must have been. The thing he had been longing for; the thing he wanted most in the world was to be married to Mary and now his plans were in ruins. I am sure we have all known what it is to have a broken heart at some point, when hopes we have had were dashed and plans shattered. And Joseph’s heart must have been broken in pieces. But the promise to Joseph was that God had a plan, that Mary was to bear a son and he would be called Jesus, that he had come to save us from our sins.
And to the shepherds came that same promise that a baby had been born who the Messiah, God’s Son, the Saviour of the world.
And in those four stories, there is also a message for us today.
The first is the promise that prayers are answered. The angel told Zechariah that his prayers had been heard and been answered. That is a wonderful promise, that God hears and answers our prayers. Sometimes perhaps we think that our prayers aren’t important, that somehow God must be too busy to listen to our prayers, perhaps that we aren’t good enough or our faith is strong enough. Yet the truth is that God does hear and God does care. We may not always see our prayers being answered in the way that we want, but God knows what’s on our hearts and he watches over us and walks with us wherever we go.
And the message to Mary was that things that seem humanly impossible are possible with God. How could it possibly be true that she was to have a baby – and yet she did, and God’s Son came into the world. And there is a message for us too. Today there is a temptation to only believe in what we can see and hear and feel and measure. To believe that miracles don’t happen. To believe that the world is spinning forever through the frozen eternity of space. That everything is random. But there is a song which many of us sang as children ‘He’s got the whole world in His hands.’ And it’s true he has. God cares for his world. God loves every single one of us. And miracles happen – because God is at work in his world. And Christmas proves that for us.
And finally, the shepherds heard the angels proclaim that ‘a Saviour had been born, who was Christ the Lord.’
The promise of salvation is indeed true and salvation is something we can know. Jesus came to live as a baby, to die upon a cross and to rise again, so that our sins could be forgiven. New Life is God’s gift to us now and heaven is a reality waiting for us.
A friend of mine wrote to me a few days ago to say she would not be coming to a meeting she had hoped to come to. Her father had recently died aged 92, and in her words had died ‘full of years and full of faith’. She said however that her mother was now also ill and very close to death. She said her mother ‘is peaceful and ready to leave us’ and that she was visiting her mother as often as she could.
In her letter she wrote this ‘Yesterday when I visited we sang ‘Away in a manger’ together – she remembered all the words. Never before has the last verse felt so apt:
“Be near me, Lord Jesus. I ask thee to stay. Close by me forever and love me I pray.”
Christmas means that we can be sure that our prayers are heard; that God loves us; that he has a plan for our lives, even when things seem to be going wrong; that Jesus is Lord and Saviour and that we can be confident in God’s promise of eternal life.
We need to unwrap Christmas, to strip away the wrappings and the trappings and invite him into our hearts and our homes and our lives.
We need to discover afresh that at Christmas God’s love came to down to us in Jesus and that he shares our lives today. The decorations and the lights and candles may soon get packed away for another year. But if we open our hearts to Jesus he comes to us, watches over us, leads us and guides us and is with us. And then we can truly sing; ‘Christ the Saviour is born. Christ the Saviour is born.’