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Christmas Eve – Christmas Day Eucarist

Readings: Is. 9:2–7, Tit. 2:11–14 & Lk. 2:1–20.

Our first reading from the Book of Isaiah, is often said to be a prophecy about the birth of Jesus, especially verse 6, which reads:

“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”.

With what we know about Jesus, we can easily see how this could be interpreted as being a prophecy of his birth. But at the time it was written, it was not a prophecy about Jesus. It is believed to have been a prophecy about the birth of King Hezekiah of Judah.

This chapter was written at a time when the Assyrian Empire was the dominant civilisation in the Ancient World. The Northern Tribes of Israel and Syria were already under Assyrian rule, but they wished to rebel, and they wanted the kingdom of Judah to join them. When King Ahaz of Judah refused, Israel and Syria declared war on Judah. Against the advice of the prophet Isaiah, King Ahaz of Judah appealed to the Assyrians for assistance. Coming to the aid of Judah, the Assyrians totally destroyed Syria, and then conquered the Northern Tribes of Israel in 722 BCE. In return for their assistance, the kingdom of Judah became a vassal state of the Assyrian Empire, with King Ahaz required to pay a large sum of money each year as a tribute to the Assyrian emperor. As a result, the kingdom and people of Judah were now worse off than they had been before.

It is against this background that Hezekiah, son of King Ahaz, was born. When Hezekiah became king, he revolted against Assyria and declared the freedom of Judah in 705 BCE. Assyria invaded Judah in 701 BCE and laid siege to Jerusalem. A miraculous plague (which was attributed to God by the people of Jerusalem) wiped out much of the Assyrian army, and they returned home without taking Jerusalem. However every other city in Judah was attacked and destroyed, and Hezekiah was required to pay money each year to the Assyrians, to maintain his throne, and keep them from attacking again.

The situation for the people of Israel and Judah at the time of the birth of Jesus was similar to that of the people at the time of Isaiah. The Assyrian Empire had been defeated by the Babylonians in 612 BCE, and it was the Babylonians who destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BCE and sent the people into exile. The nations of Israel and Judah remained under the rule of foreign powers up to, and including, the time of Jesus’ birth, at which time they were under the rule of perhaps the greatest empire ever known; the Roman Empire. And in the centuries between the exile in Babylon and Roman rule, the prophets of Israel had prophesied about a Jewish Messiah, a descendant of King David, who would come and free the people from foreign rule and oppression.

This brings us to our gospel reading from the Gospel of Luke, which describes the birth of Jesus. Luke tells us several important facts about Jesus, that provide us with clues to his true identity. Firstly, he is born in the town of Bethlehem, which was also the birthplace of King David. Secondly, Joseph, who is engaged to Jesus’ mother Mary, and who will act as Jesus’ father when he is born, is himself a descendant for King David. Having provided these clues on the way, Luke now reveals to us the true identity of Jesus when he narrates the visitation of an angel of God to shepherds who were living in the fields around Bethlehem. The angel says to the shepherds:

“I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. He is the fulfilment of the prophecies that the Jewish prophets had made over many centuries. He has come to save the people of Israel and Judah. But he is much more than that. He is the fulfilment of the promise that God made to Abraham (Gen. 22:18):

“And by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”

As the apostle Paul would tell us in his letters, Jesus is Abraham’s offspring, and all people of the earth are blessed if they believe in Jesus. And to be blessed means to be in a right relationship with God; something which happens by the grace of God alone.

As Paul stated in the letter to his own disciple Titus, which we read earlier, God’s saving grace in Christ was revealed to all kinds of people at Jesus’ first coming. But even though we have been gifted with God’s grace, that doesn’t give us a full license to unrestrained freedom. It teaches us to have restraint to a variety of “worldly passions,” and to live in a “self-controlled”, “upright”, and “godly” manner in the present age. The difference here is that in Christian teaching, it is not human self-effort but divine grace, that enables virtuous and godly living.

Paul’s call to self-denial (properly understood) and a commitment to a godly, disciplined life, is in keeping with Jesus’ teaching that his followers must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him (Mk. 8:34).

At Christmas we not only celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, but we wait for his coming again. And at this time, we have the opportunity to reflect on both our own lives, and our own relationship with God, and to make any necessary changes in our lives that will better prepare us for Christ’s coming again.

The Lord be with you.

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