My dogs and I have a basic communication problem. I say that the fault is with them, but I know deep down that it is really with me. When I talk about their lack of obedience I am really talking about my inability to train them.
When I say ‘come’ they go. When I say ‘stop’ they start. When I say ‘sit’ they run. And whilst one of them is completely blind now, when I point to where I want the other one to go, he simply looks longingly at my fingers wondering what on earth I am trying to communicate to him. So when I am busily pointing over there, they remain focused on my fingers over here. I intend my finger to be a kind of tool to show them where I want them to go, but for them my finger becomes the whole fascinating story.
My four little boys have been looking forward to Christmas for a very long time now. In fact if truth be told they have been anticipating Christmas since the last one of them had a birthday which was back in August. The society in which we live provides all kinds of fingers pointing to what Christmas is all about. According to commercial advertising there are some fairly clear expectations of what a perfect Christmas will look like if we only have enough time and money and energy to do it properly. All around the place there are carefully developed systems in place to point us to the connection between Christmas and possessions and excess.
As we listened to the radio yesterday morning my boys were in wonderment as they heard children like them telephoning in to speak to Father Christmas to give him long lists of what they wanted him to bring them. The kinds of things that transfix my boys about Christmas – wonderful as they are – have very little to do with the story that we have just heard this morning.
And yet this good news – Gospel – Christmas story which we gather around this morning is so rich in its own way, with pointers.
There are the shepherds living out in the fields, minding their own business, trying to keep warm and simply get through another night without losing any sheep. They are the first humans to name out loud what is going on when they follow the instructions given to them and find the baby with Mary and Joseph. They are the ones who are able to vocalise what is happening from what they see and have been told, even as Mary continues to ponder all of these things in her heart. The Gospel writers imagine them on the central stage of the story to remind all who are to hear this story later (including us today), that whoever else will be invited to share in the joy of the birth of Jesus, normal people like shepherds will not be excluded.
There are the angels who bring the message, one at first, and then a multitude of them celebrating what is going on. These angels are like huge neon advertising signs pointing out that something amazing is taking place. They are a figure of speech, a way of expressing, that all that is going on on this first Christmas night is not happening by chance, but that it has heavenly, eternal purpose. The message that these angels bring to the shepherds is both expected and unexpected in its world-changing significance.
Expected because like generations before them these simple men have been watching and waiting for a messiah, hearing rumours that God is going to act, that things are going to change, that the promises of the prophets – like the promise that we heard a few moments ago from the Prophet Isaiah – will finally be fulfilled. Unexpected because just like all promises that are handed down from one group to another, the imminence and urgency of this promise’s fulfilment has lost its plausibility over time. So the message has a familiarity about it, there is a sense in which it was expected, but not by these shepherds, on this night, in this way.
There is the manger, the drinking trough in which this new born baby will be laid. Positioned in the downstairs of the inn where the animals slept at night, because there were no bedrooms available upstairs. It is this manger that is, in Luke’s account of what is going on, the most significant pointer of all.
It is the fact that the baby is in the drinking trough that will be the sign, according to the angels, in their message to the shepherds, that all that they have said is true. Indeed it is only when the shepherds see the baby in a manger that they believe what they have been told, and share the news with others.
In Luke’s Gospel there is no bright star overhead, there are no halos around the holy family, no animals looking longingly into the eyes of the Christ-child as we see depicted on our Christmas cards. There is a drinking trough which is the sign for the shepherds that seals the deal. In my imagination I wonder how many other inns and resting places these shepherds entered first, looking eagerly for a baby in a manger but finding only families tucked up in bed.
Later, according to other accounts, there will be a further pointer, wise men painted into the picture to remind all who hear the story that this Jesus, born in Bethlehem has a significance which will affect not just those who live nearby, but people from the ends of the earth.
But of course all of these things – shepherds, angels, wise men, the manger, are merely pointers. To focus on them as the main event would be like imitating my dogs looking at my fingers but failing to see what they are pointing to.
This week I have been reading a biography of the Swiss theologian Karl Barth, who was one of the most prolific Christian thinkers of the Twentieth Century. During one of his many lecturing tours, this time in America, he was invited to speak at the University of Chicago Divinity School. During that lecture Barth became quite unwell and so when he finished his presentation, the President of the college asked that rather than being deluged with a whole series of questions by those in the audience (which was the normal custom), that only one question should be asked of him, so that the session could be finished and so that he could go off to bed.
The question that was chosen was this: “Of all the theological insights you have ever had, which do you consider to be the greatest of them all?” That is a great question to ask someone who has penned literally thousands of pages of writing about the Christian tradition.
Karl Barth, so the story goes, closed his tired eyes, thought for a moment, and then half smiling opened his eyes again and said to the questioner, quoting a simple old Sunday School song: “The greatest theological insight I have ever had is this: ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’” This is what the whole of the Christmas story is pointing to: shepherds, angels, wise men, the manger – they point us to the hope at the heart of our Christian faith, at the heart of this Christmas story. That all of this is about God’s love for you and for me and for all those who live around us. God loves us, this we know, for the story of Christmas – the birth of Jesus – tells us so.
At the heart of the Christmas story we find this incredible assertion that God so loved the world that he sent his Son so that we might share in the eternal life of his love. At the heart of the Christmas story we find a baby who embodies for us the love of God. A baby who is the hope for the whole world.
The angels point to the hope that this story is not a historical artefact but instead the planned and purposeful eternal working out of God’s plan. The shepherds and the wise men point to the hope that no one will be excluded from sharing in this joy: rich and poor, educated and uneducated, near and far – the good news of God’s love for us is for everyone not just for a few.
“Do not be afraid,” says the angel, “for see 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.”
That is the radical message of Christmas for us all: God loves us, and if we want to see that love most clearly, then we will find it in the life of Jesus as we find it in the Bible and in his ongoing life in the Church. As we gather around this good news story this Christmas we find the new birth of God’s love in the world, embodied in the baby Jesus, heralded by angels, and adored by shepherds, sought after by wise men, as he lays in the manger. All of this means that nothing for the whole world can ever be the same again. Everything is different, every possibility and hope is transformed.
Which brings me back to this drinking trough – this manger – in which Jesus was laid in the downstairs room in the inn. It is the manger in the story which is the sign, the pointer, which confirms to the shepherds that all that they have heard is true. That this baby is all that the angels have said about him. “You will know that it is him,” says the angel, “because you will find him in a manger.”
For those of us who are members of this Church family, and who gather here week by week, we have found for ourselves that this great Church of Saint Peter is rather like that manger for us. It is here in the life that we share together (not just at Christmas but throughout the year), that we are finding together the answers to our deepest questions, and hopes and fears as we live together in the name of Jesus. But this Church is not a private club or a membership society, all are welcome here. We want to be a place where everyone can come to see if the rumours that they have heard about God are true, like the shepherds at that drinking trough.
We try to be people who can point beyond ourselves to what we believe God is doing in our world.
The shepherds go away from the inn glorifying God for all that they have seen and heard. We who celebrate this festival this evening/morning are called to do the same. Ring the bells, open the champagne, start the feasting in such a way that no one is excluded. Share this good news with others. Be people of hope, be people of joy.
Let it be written across the sky above East Maitland and Tenambit and Ashtonfield and Metford and Green Hills:
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours…
God loves us, this we know,
for the Christmas story tells us so.”