Readings: Is. 9:2–7, Tit. 2:11–14 & Lk. 2:1–20
Christmas is a wonderful time for family and friends to gather together and enjoy each other’s company, share hospitality, and exchange gifts. And it goes without saying that it takes on even greater significance this year, especially when we think about the length of time that people were isolated and separated from family because of Covid-19. So for that reason alone, I pray that everyone has a very special Christmas this year, and that we all truly appreciate the time we spend with our loved ones. But I also pray that, among that time of celebration and happiness with family and friends, we don’t overlook the true meaning of Christmas.
It’s very appropriate that we gather here today for this service of the Eucharist (or mass as it’s known in several other Christian denominations) because the very word ‘Christmas’ is a shortened form of ‘Christ’s Mass’. We come together to share in the Eucharist as we commemorate and celebrate the birth of Jesus. It was through the birth and life of Jesus, that God revealed Himself to the world. As the opening verses of the Gospel of John describe it, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’ (John 1:1–5 NRSV)
God had previously revealed Himself to the ancient Israelites when Moses led the people of Israel out of captivity in Egypt. As they wandered in the wilderness for forty years, God travelled with them, going ahead of them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, to guide them, and to remind them of His presence with them. Then of course many centuries later the people of Israel were forced into exile, first the people of the northern tribes by the Assyrian Empire, and later the southern tribe of Judah by the Babylonian Empire. The people of Israel felt that God had deserted them, that He was no longer present with them.
But God continued to speak to the people of Israel through the many prophets of the Old Testament, and His promise was always the same. That He would eventually return to live among His people again. In our first reading, the prophet Isaiah speaks of the birth of a child who will fulfil that promise. He writes, ‘For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’ (Is. 9:6) Centuries later, many Christians would believe this to be a prophecy about the birth of Jesus.
At the time it was written though, it was thought to have been a prophecy about the birth of King Hezekiah of Judah. Hezekiah was born when the Assyrian Empire ruled most of the known world. The Assyrians had already defeated the northern tribes of Israel and forced many of the Israelites into exile, and they threatened to do the same with Judah, and its capital city Jerusalem. Hezekiah defended Jerusalem against a siege by the Assyrian army, and when a plague wiped out most of the Assyrian army and forced them to abandon the siege, Hezekiah and the people believed the plague was the work of God intervening directly on their behalf. At that point in time, it appeared the prophecy of Isaiah had come true, at least to the people of Jerusalem.
However, around a hundred years later, Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, and many of the people of Jerusalem were sent into exile. And even though they eventually returned from exile, the people of Jerusalem (and Judah) remained under the rule of foreign powers right up to the time of the birth of Jesus, when of course they were under the control of the Roman Empire. But in the centuries between the exile in Babylon and Roman rule, the prophets of Israel continued to prophesy about a Jewish Messiah, a descendant of King David, who would free the people from foreign rule, and establish God’s kingdom on earth.
Today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, which describes the birth of Jesus, gives us several clues that Jesus is this Messiah. First, he is born in the town of Bethlehem, which was also the birthplace of King David. Second, Joseph, who is engaged to Jesus’ mother Mary, is himself descended from King David. And of course Luke describes the visit of an angel of God to shepherds living in the fields around Bethlehem telling them that the Messiah (that is Jesus) has just been born in Bethlehem.
But as we know, Jesus is also much more than the Messiah. As the Apostle Paul said in the letter to his colleague Titus, “The grace of God has appeared bringing salvation to all. . . . .while we wait for the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ”. Jesus IS God. God revealed Himself to humankind by taking human form in the person of Jesus. He became one of us, in order to show us, through the life of Jesus, how we should live our lives and treat our fellow human beings.
God has given us the greatest gift that we could ever receive. By His grace, we are called to be in relationship with Him. God is present with us, just as He was all those years ago with the people of Israel, leading and guiding them as they wandered in the desert. All that we are required to do is to receive Him into our hearts, and into our lives.
So in this Season of Christmas, I pray that not only will you all have a wonderful time with family and friends, but I pray that you will open your hearts and receive God into your lives.