Good news that will never fade
Revd Caroline Risdon, 31 December 2017
Let us pray…
Loving God we give you thanks for the gift of your word, the grace of the sacrament and the fellowship of your people. Amen.
It’s amazing how quickly news fades these days. Only a few weeks ago we were hearing about a coup in Zimbabwe; a change of President in South Africa; the possible breakdown of Brexit negotiations. The list goes on. And after the excitement and frenzy of Christmas, the world’s attention has already been drawn away- who’s on the New Year’s Honours list; the best bargains to be had in the sales; the racism plot on Coronation Street. This week it feels a bit like the admiring crowd has moved on and we are quite literally left holding the baby!
In a similar vein, we are so used to hearing the Christmas story and the stories of revelation surrounding Jesus’ birth, that it can be hard to learn anything new from them. Luke’s gospel however reminds us time and again of the unexpectedness of the God we worship. No one could have expected that God would come to earth as a tiny vulnerable baby. Nor indeed that Jesus would have lived out his life and ministry in quite the way he did. Unexpectedness is a theme that runs through Luke’s gospel. And we find it today in our account of the annunciation to the shepherds.
Luke’s gospel is full of angelic revelation- they reveal to Zechariah that John will be born; they reveal to Mary that Jesus will be born; and they reveal to the Shepherds that Jesus has been born. These supernatural events proclaim God’s intervention in the world and the coming of the salvation for which his people have longed.
But it would be a mistake to think that the only messengers of importance are angels. All those who encounter angels, become themselves impassioned messengers of God. So there is something of great importance about human messengers. The shepherds are sent by the angels to see Jesus in a feeding trough, but then go on to proclaim what they have seen to all they meet.
This shows that Luke’s stories of angels are not designed to make us passive recipients of God’s supernatural message, but active participants in its proclamation. During this Christmas season we have heard once more the message of Jesus’ birth and the salvation is brings. We hear it in order that we might become messengers of God, sharing that message with all whom we meet.
What was the message of salvation? It was the announcement that everything the Jews had hoped for had begun to be fulfilled. They were waiting for a time when the whole world would see God’s glory and peace would reign on earth. The angels proclaim that this moment has come; salvation has broken into the world in the form of Jesus; Emmanuel; God with us.
And what of the human messengers, the Shepherds?
It is very hard to work out what kind of status shepherds had at the time of Jesus. On the one hand, they seem to represent some sort of rural ideal; living from the land, tending to their flocks, free from the conventions of society. On the other hand, they were regarded as disreputable and untrustworthy; somehow just beyond the reach of civilised society and order.
In the New Testament, the image of the shepherd seems to be fairly well regarded because we hear of their tenderness in caring for the flock, and of their loyalty in finding the lost sheep. So it is hard to paint them entirely as the poor outcasts. Nevertheless, the shepherds make a striking contrast with the Magi, who we may have more naturally expected to see as the first visitors to the royal baby. The simple, unwashed, unrefined Shepherd does not seem particularly worthy. Once more, God surprises us with the unexpected.
What is perhaps more important than who the shepherds were, is how they behaved. They ‘go and see' - not so much an investigation as a pilgrimage and an act of worship. They came, they saw, and they were conquered by the overwhelming truth of the little baby whose birth reconciles, indeed marries, earth and heaven, and begins the story of our redemption.
What the angel announces, the shepherds see. What the shepherds see, they report. And it causes wonder and awe in all who hear. What Mary had been told in private, and Elizabeth learnt through divine revelation, is now made known to all who are prepared to listen.
And the gift of this angelic and human revelation is ours once more at Christmas time. We come, we understand. We are overcome, we are in awe. But this alone is not enough. We too must take our place as messengers of God’s good news. The good news that Jesus came into the world to live as we live. The good news that Jesus died and rose again so that we may know there is nothing, not even death, which can separate us from the love of God.
Among all that is unexpected about God’s coming into our world; there is one thing on which we can rely- our redemption through God’s grace is good news that will never fade.