By porthkerryandrhoose, Jan 9 2018 10:40AM
How has Christmas been for you? Good? Bad? Same as usual? My favourite day of the season is Boxing Day because I get to spend it with Darren and the children. No phones ringing, no compulsion to go and do something else, just time for me and the family. It's great! I wish the day could go on for twice as long. I didn't always feel this way about Boxing Day. When I was a child I hated it because all the excitement of Christmas had seemed to disappear overnight and everything was just as it had been before, only perhaps with a few more toys in it. I guess I was feeling something akin to what Peter Hitchens described in a Christmas meditation he did for Radio 4 some years ago, printed again this year in his blog. He wrote:
"So what actually lies beyond Christmas Day is flat disappointment, every sense stirred and tuned to expect something marvellous, and then just a lot to eat and drink, a few presents and a long, numb celebration of the miraculous birth of TV."
How can we stop our Christmases from being followed by flat disappointment? Our reading from Luke this morning gives us some pointers, as we look at what the shepherds, Mary and Joseph did after all the excitement. Let's begin with the shepherds who investigated. v15 "When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another 'Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.' That Christmas night had to have been shocking, awesome and mindblowing all rolled into one for the shepherds. One minute they were on a hillside outside Bethlehem, looking after the sheep as they did every night, and the next minute they were joined by first one and then a whole army of angels, all shining with the glory of the Lord. It had to have been like nothing they had ever experienced before: light brighter and purer than any campfire or oil lamp, and the presence of God radiating down through the angels. But as soon as it had happened, it was gone. Their hillside was back to normal, the sheep were wandering around and munching the grass, just as they had been before. They could have just gone back to work, remembering a great experience, but moving on, back to normality. It had been a nice thing, but it was over. This is what many will be doing on Tuesday or Wednesday. Christmas and New Year have been and gone, and life continues as it always has. But the shepherds did something quite different. They went to investigate what the angels' message was all about. v16 "So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph and the baby, who was lying in the manger." They didn't stop with their experience of Christmas, the angels, they went to check out if their message was true. And they weren't disappointed. There was the baby in the manger, just as the angels had said. If that was true, they could believe the rest of the message: that this child was truly the Messiah, Lord and Saviour. The result was joy, and not just for them, but for all the people they told too. Yes, they had to go back to the fields, but they went back as people whose hearts were filled with the glory of God and whose lips were filled with praise (v20). Christmas had changed them. If our Christmases are just about the trappings: Santa and reindeer and presents and food, then when all that has passed, the world will feel like a darker place again. But if we investigate the message behind Christmas: the birth of the Messiah, Lord and Saviour, then we meet the true light who shines in the darkness forever.
That's the shepherds. We can also learn from Mary. v19 tells us "But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart". We have Mary who pondered. Christmas messages in the films we watch and the TV we see can be quite bland. It tends to be all about being happy and kind without answering the question 'how?'. In the Dr Who Christmas special as the Peter Capaldi doctor was preparing to regenerate, his refrain was to 'be kind'. And that's great, but it's so hard to sustain. We see small examples of kindness like the couple in Llantwit who walked a drunken stranger home after they had found him staggering in the road, but we also hear about homes and even churches being burgled over the Christmas period. Sustaining a life of kindness or 'being happy' are not as easy as they are often made out to be. We can try and push such troublesome thoughts away and look forward to the next celebration or to the summer holiday or whatever, or we can do what Mary did and ponder the meaning behind the Christmas story. Ponder what the angels were saying about this baby, ponder how others have responded to him and ponder too the difference he can make.
Our third character brings us closer to some answers. It is Joseph. Now he is not named in this passage, but we know from Matthew's account, that the naming of Jesus was Joseph's job, so he is behind the last verse of our reading v21 "On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived." It had to have a big thing for Joseph, naming the baby. He might have wanted to make a statement that he was accepting the baby by naming it after himself or his father Jacob. Or he might have wanted to distance himself from it in a Hosea style naming: Lo-Ruhamah, not loved. But instead, Joseph had listened to and believed the angel who had spoken to him 9 months earlier. The name Jesus is imbued with meaning. It means 'the Lord saves' and it helps us to understand both the message of the angels to the shepherds and the deep contradictions we see in society.
Banksy has been busy in Bethlehem once again. As many of you may know, he has a hotel in Bethlehem, right by the wall the Israelis built, called the 'Walled off' hotel, and he's painted numerous works of art on to the wall itself. This Christmas he has painted a new one, on a doorway in Bethlehem. It says, in Christmas card style writing, 'Peace of earth' with a Christmas star at the end. It's only as you look more closely that you see that the star is really an asterisk indicating some small print, and at the very bottom of the painting is the same star with the words 'terms and conditions apply'. He has a point. 2000 years since the angels declared peace on earth just a short distance away, and still there is war and hatred, seen so clearly in the guarded watchtowers on the barbed wire topped wall separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem. Yet as we look back to Luke 1:77 and Zechariah's song (or the Benedictus if you're traditional Anglican or Catholic), we get a clue about the child who will "give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins." We, and the other people who live on this earth, struggle to sustain kindness because we have sin running through us like DNA and we need a rescuer. That's why Jesus came. That's why his name means the Lord saves. As the carol puts is 'Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled'. He comes to save us, to reconcile us to God by the forgiveness of our sins. And one day he will return to bring the new heaven and the new earth we so long for.
So if you're feeling a bit flat with the festivities of the season almost over, why not take another look at what it's all about. Could you be like the shepherds who investigated, Mary who pondered and Joseph who listened and believed? For a mind that looks deeper, a heart that ponders and a will which listens and believes the message of God will produce something far more sustaining than the memory of the Christmas tree lights and the extra pounds gained from one too many mince pies. It brings a restored relationship with God and the joy of getting to know him better as the year rolls on. So as we prepare to enter 2018 why not go deeper into the message of God, investigate, ponder, listen and believe what you find, so that the true joy of Christmas stays with you, even on dark and dismal January days.