Carols by Candlelight is a much-loved part of Christmas, and is a great opportunity to help people reflect on how the story of God fits into the story of their lives. This year I tried to do this by reflecting on what sort of year had people had, and on what sort of year the people from the Bible might have had.
I included three Old Testament readings in the six, as I think that this is an important chance to set the Christmas story (which most people who come to these sort of services at least think they know) in a wider context. And, the Old Testament deals more clearly with some of the themes of struggle and difficulty that I think were important this year.
What sort of year?
Readings: Genesis 12:1-7; Exodus 3:1-10; Psalm 89:1-8; Luke 1:26-38; Matthew 1:18-25; Matthew 2:1-12
What sort of year have you had? Has it been a good year? A bad year? What sort of year have you had? It’s been a year of shocks and surprises. Brexit, Donald Trump, all sorts of celebrities dying, the Olympics, Syria, and many other things. Not to mention whatever we’ve personally had to go through, the good things and the bad things that make up our own personal years.
But, as we’ve heard in some of the readings this evening, unfortunately, none of this is new. One of the readings that we heard was of Moses, and the oppression of his people. God’s chosen people had ended up in slavery in Egypt and had been there for hundreds of years, enslaved and almost without hope. The promises that God had made to Abram, to Abraham as he’s better known, those promises seemed a distant, painful memory. “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you” God had promised. Well, not even they, God’s own people, had been blessed.
So, Moses grew up knowing that his people were enslaved, feeling, perhaps as we do, that things were hopeless, that there was nowhere to turn for help. But, unexpectedly, God appears to Moses, now an old man, a murderer living in exile. And God tells Moses that he has been chosen to lead his people out of Egypt. Why? Because God had heard, God was concerned about their suffering, God cared, and God was going to do something about it.
What sort of year did Moses have? A difficult one, a year full of problems and challenges and terrors. But, one that also included, as we heard promised, freedom for God’s chosen people. And that is why, hundreds of years later, the Psalmist could write a celebration of God’s love, even as God’s chosen people went through many different challenges and tragedies. “I will declare that your love stands firm for ever”.
So, if you asked Joseph the year before Jesus was born, What sort of year have you had? I think he would have talked about the struggles he was having with the Roman occupiers, the desire to have freedom, the longing to see God’s chosen one, the Christ. And, the work and prosperity that being a carpenter under a Roman building programme was bringing. Enough work and prosperity to start thinking about settling down and starting a family.
But, Joseph wasn’t expecting the sort of family that God gave him. He wasn’t expecting that the hope that he had would be fulfilled through his wife’s child. He wasn’t expecting to look after God’s own son, to care for him, to bring him up, as he watched and waited for Jesus to act.
And Mary wasn’t expecting the sort of family that God gave her. She wasn’t expecting the gossiping and whispering that being pregnant out of marriage would then have brought. She wasn’t expecting to have to give birth in a stable without her mum and any sisters to help her. She wasn’t expecting the pain and suffering that watching the events of that first Easter caused her, as she watched her now-grown son suffer and die. She certainly wasn’t expecting the joy of that first Easter morning as she was reunited with her son, brought back to life by God.
So, what sort of year have you had? What sort of year are you looking forward to? A hard one? A joyful one? A bit of both? Well, these readings, and the whole of the Christmas celebrations, tell us that God knows and God cares. Christmas is a celebration that God is with us, that God has seen the troubles of his people and has done something about it, by sending us Jesus to open up the way to God.
And so God calls us to get involved, to become part of his story. To journey with him through Christmas and on to Easter. To invite God into our struggles and joys, and to have those transformed by his presence.
“All peoples on earth will be blessed through you” God promised Abraham. And he kept his promise by sending his Son, Jesus, to be born in a manger, to bring us and the whole of his creation back to him. The last reading we heard was of the Magi coming from the East. They had seen something from far off that they didn’t fully understand, that they wanted to find out more about. They came and they worshipped. And we’re invited to do the same. To come and to worship, however much or little we understand. To come and celebrate Emmanuel, God with us. To rejoice that God’s love, revealed in Jesus, is there for each one of us. In the words of the Psalm God’s love stands firm for ever. Amen.