Friday, 26 December 2014

An army of angels, not men - Homily for Christmas Night

(Isaiah 9.2-7; Titus 2.11-14; Luke 2.1-20)

To save you from waiting any longer for the Christmas cracker jokes at the dining table, here are some to have you groaning now.

One you can use any year:

Many people will stop everything at 3pm on Christmas Day to listen to Her Majesty’s annual address to the nation. But what does the Queen call her Christmas Broadcast? The One Show!

Here’s one with perhaps a certain generational appeal:

Why did Harry Styles fail at being Santa?
Because he can only use the chimney in One Direction.

But here’s the most vicious I’ve come across yet:

Father Christmas is forced to have an official from the Aviation Authority check his sleigh to make sure it’s airworthy. The official checks out the sleigh on the ground then sits beside Father Christmas for a test flight. Suddenly Father Christmas notices the official has a revolver in his pocket. ‘What’s that for?’ he asks. ‘You’re not a hijacker are you?’ ‘No,’ replies the official. ‘But we have to see how you handle this craft when you lose an engine on take-off.’

The Christmas story begins with a call from officialdom 

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered.

The Emperor proclaims that everybody within his dominions has to take part in a census. Count your subjects and you can tax them more efficiently. The Gospel reading tonight tells us this is how the birth of Jesus came to take place in Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph might have been living in Nazareth but that’s not the original family home - so off they go to Bethlehem. And there Jesus is born, as the angels proclaim to shepherds in their fields:

To you, in David's town, this day
is born of David's line
a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord;
and this shall be the sign:

There’s a certain irony in this - or a sense of history not going full circle but entering into a spiral. Joseph is descended from King David whose home was Bethlehem - so to Bethlehem he goes with Mary to be counted in for the census. Read the story of King David in the Old Testament and you find that almost the last thing he did was to declare a census throughout his lands of Israel and Judah. Not everyone thinks it’s a good idea, but David gets it into his head that it’s God’s will to count his people. Not only does it tell him how big his Kingdom is. It tells him of the power at his disposal: 800,000 soldiers able to draw the sword in Israel and a further 500,000 in Judah.

It’s rather frightening to think that in such a small country so many men could be mobilised for war. The Emperor Augustus wants to know how many subjects he can tax. King David wants to find out how many he can call on to fight. In fact David comes to regret what he has done as an act of self-aggrandisement. He’s putting his own power and prestige above the honour due to God. He’s forgetting that his authority and power come ultimately from God - they are not his to use in just any way he might decide for himself.

But don’t these actions of a Roman Emperor and an Israelite King tell us so much that’s true of our world today? Without revenue - without tax - how is a government to provide for its people?... though most of what we’re hearing in the news these days is of how our political leaders plan to reduce the deficit, rather than meet the cost of health and social care. And the numbering of King David’s troops has its echoes in all our concerns for national security in a world where so many people suffer from capricious violence and oppression fomented by those who possess the weapons of force and are able to direct people willing to use them.

The censuses called by King David and the Emperor Augustus are reminders of the ways of earthly rulers. They get their way because of the temporal powers they possess. But born in the line of David’s descendants - born in Bethlehem because of Emperor Augustus’s command - Jesus enters the story to reveal a new sort of Kingship. The hope of the Jewish people was that a Messiah would rise up amongst them as their leader - and that he would be born of David’s family. One King had led them for a short time to be a united people, victorious on the battlefield. Another King, they hoped, would lead them to bring freedom from being a captive people. Now Jesus is born - one whose name translates into a promise that he would save his people.

But Jesus comes as a Saviour with a difference. Born in the poor town of Bethlehem with an animal trough for his first bed, he has no trappings of royal kingship. When wise men come from the East looking for a King whose birth has been heralded by a new star in the sky, they go to Herod’s palace in Jerusalem. But he is not there. They need to travel on to humbler surroundings in a village on the city’s outskirts. And while the Emperor Augustus allowed himself to be proclaimed a god, Jesus comes - the Son of God - but laying aside his divine prerogatives to be born as any one of us, the son of Mary.

Wise men will visit the child of Bethlehem - in due course. But the first visitors to the new-born king are not royal courtiers, but shepherds, called from fields where they had tended their flocks. Shepherds were the outsiders of their day - not only economically poor but spiritually on the edge as well, unable to keep the ritual requirements of their religion. But they are the ones who first hear the message of Christ’s birth - and hear it from an angel, a messenger of God. They might be the last people who would expect to receive a divine revelation…  And then there’s a whole host of angels before them. The Bible’s word for “host” perhaps translates better as “army” - an army of angels; and they bring a call to follow a new King.

It’s a call that we need to hear as well. God has touched this world in a way that had never been done before. He wants to establish his ways not by force but by the changing of hearts. Because in Jesus we see how divine power can make itself able to enter into the fullness of humanity:

Welcome, all Wonders in one sight!
   Eternity shut in a span.
Summer to winter, day in night,
   Heaven in earth, and God in man.
Great little One! Whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth.

God looks on us now with the eyes of a child. The manger is at such a height that kneeling shepherds may look into the eyes of God. May we too look - and learn what it is to be his people, and he our King.


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