A Christmas eve sermon from a couple of years ago, focusing on a modern ikon of the Nativity and the prophecy from Isaiah chapter 9.
Christmas eve 09. Readings: Isaiah 9:2-7; Matthew 1:18-25
Loving God, through your Holy Spirit, take my words so that we may encounter again the gift of your Son, Jesus. Amen.
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light” This promise of God was made through the prophet Isaiah, hundreds of years before Jesus was born. It talks of the promised one who God will send to bring his kingdom to earth. It was made during a time of chaos and confusion, of power struggles and superpowers fighting for supremacy. And right in the middle of this was Israel, whose power dwindled as she turned away from God. Isaiah’s prophecy was an attempt to turn Israel back to the worship of God.
This year for Christmas the soldiers serving in Afghanistan will get an extra 30 minutes on their phone cards. They may get a Christmas dinner. One soldier who was interviewed said that he would have a quiet moment of reflection for one of his friends who had been killed in action.
Christmas services will be held by the army chaplains which will fit round the times when the soldiers are on patrol. Because, even in the midst of the darkness of conflict and war, there is still the light and hope of God.
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light… for to us a child is born”. The picture on the screen is a modern version of an orthodox ikon of the nativity, which shows some lost looking wise men, some startled shepherds and a rather uncomfortable looking Mary. Because how was this prophecy fulfilled? With the pregnancy of an unmarried teenage girl. Months of morning sickness, the excruciating embarrassment of telling her parents and her fiancé, who knew it wasn’t his child. You can see in the ikon Joseph is sitting in the bottom left-hand corner looking rather fed up. Poor Joseph, and poor Mary. Months of craving strange food, getting bigger and bigger, the slog of a long, hot journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the pain of childbirth. Blood and dirt in a stable.
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light… for to us a child is born… and he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”. This promise was fulfilled in the mess and blood and pain and confusion of Jesus’ death and resurrection, which shows us the way to God. And this is why in the ikon Jesus is lying in something resembling a coffin. The cross and empty tomb of Easter cast their light over our Christmas celebrations, for without it, we celebrate the birth – of what? A baby, born in uncertainty, in financial insecurity, in a time of conflict. And God knows, we know, there are many millions of them. Each baby is special, each baby is made in God’s image, but this tiny, human baby was Immanuel, God with us. So, in the ikon, we can see the angels attending the birth of God’s Son as well as in the bottom right hand corner two midwives bathing Jesus. This is to remind us that Jesus is both fully God and fully human.
Earlier on today, King’s College Cambridge held their traditional service of Nine lessons and carols which, as always, began with the carol Once in Royal David’s City. It’s a carol that many people love, but unfortunately it does have the verse which ends with “Christian children all should be, Mild, obedient, good as He.” Now, I suspect that this was written by a frazzled parent trying to persuade their children to be better behaved. But, probably through sleep depravation, they forgot that the only incident that the gospels tell us about Jesus as a boy is the time when he left his parents to spend four days in the Temple. I’m not sure that it can really be classed as mild, and Mary and Joseph certainly didn’t think it was terribly obedient! It’s a bit of a shame really as I quite like the next verse “tears and smiles like us he knew”. That’s a good reminder of the fact that Jesus was fully human who had the same sorts of joys and hurts that we do. But Jesus is also God with us, God with us in all the mess and confusion and pain of this world. Jesus was born, lived and died in dirt, poverty and under Roman occupation, but as we’ll celebrate at Easter he was raised by God to new life to show us our future. A future of new life in a new transformed body in a new transformed creation.
This year has been a difficult year for many people, with all the financial problems that there’s been, with the ongoing wars that may have affected you, on top of all the usual struggles and heartaches that we go through. You might have lost your job, your loved one might have died, you might be struggling to keep up with the bills, you might be ill, or lonely.
But, the promise of God through Jesus is that he is here with us in the midst of our difficulties, who we can turn to and who sends us the Holy Spirit to help us and who gives us the hope of a better future. It doesn’t mean its going to be easy. It wasn’t easy for the people who heard Isaiah’s prophecy, but didn’t live to see it fulfilled. It wasn’t easy for Mary or for Joseph who both had their hardships to endure. God doesn’t promise that it will be easy, but does promise us a sure and certain future which is open to us all through Jesus.
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light” It is the light of God’s kingdom which has come through Jesus and will be brought to completion. Like the people who first heard Isaiah’s prophecy we are still looking forward to when, finally, there will be no more fighting, poverty, oppression, uncertainty and death. But, in the meantime, we have Immanuel, God with us, Jesus the Prince of Peace. Through Jesus we can know God, who promises to give us his Holy Spirit, to be with us, to walk with us in our joys and in our sadness and who holds out to us the promise of a new heaven and a new earth where there will be no more crying or pain
And as we go out from here into the night, to continue our Christmas celebrations let us take with us Christ, whose steps can give us hope again. Let us follow our Immanuel. Amen.