Sermon - 24th December 2012
Light in the Darkness: Christmas Midnight Eucharist
Scripture - Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 2:1-14
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is also available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video]
Light in the Darkness
One of the main images used at Christmas is that of light in the darkness. Many Christmas cards have the line from our reading from Isaiah that we’ve just heard “the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light” and we decorate our homes, and our streets, with lights to celebrate this season and to lift our spirits in this the darkest time of the year. We often use candles in church to represent Jesus, the Light of the World, and St John reminds us that the darkness could neither understand, nor overpower, Jesus our light. These images are especially strong at this time of the year and in this service – the only time we gather in the middle of the night to worship as we remember, as Janet Morely so poetically puts it, the night when Jesus was born, needy and naked, wrapped in a woman’s blood and born into poverty and exile.
Our reading from Isaiah is, perhaps, one of the most famous passages from that book and is one of the traditional readings at Christmas which is odd as it was written for a very different context. Isaiah’s fate was to minister at a time of great disarray and uncertainty in the life of the Jewish people. The kingdom had been divided for generations with Israel in the North and Judah in the south. By the time of Isaiah, the Northern Kingdom had been overrun by the superpower of the age – Assyria and Judah would suffer a similar fate a few years later. The passage was probably part of a liturgical text, or song, for the coronation of a new king – probably a child king with the reference to “unto us a son is given”.
The people were to rejoice as, previously they had walked in the darkness of putting their trust in foreign alliances or in idols instead of in God, but now, with this new king everything would be different – or at least that was the pious hope. The rejoicing is not anything to do with the actions of the new king, but in God’s actions in bringing this about. The yoke of the oppressor has been broken and, in its place, the people take on the yoke of obedience to God. We don’t know which king these words were written for but, as events worked out, the southern Kingdom was destroyed and the people came to look at these words as a prophecy for a future king who would come and lead them into the light.
Christians have always looked at the Isaiah passage and seen within it prophecies fulfilled in Jesus. Van Honthurst’s picture, the Adoration of the Shepherds, is another staple of the season and is often reproduced on Christmas cards. Van Honthurst was a Dutch painter in the 17th Century who was patronised by the aristocracy and royalty of Europe. This picture was, sadly, destroyed in 1993 in a Mafia bombing in Florence which also killed five people.
The picture holds our attention because of the way in which the artist plays with the image of light. Mary, Joseph and the Shepherds gather around Jesus but the light doesn’t fall on him, instead it comes from him. The further away one is from Jesus in the picture the less the light reaches you. We’re used to candles representing Jesus as the light of the world, but here Jesus is the candle, Jesus is the light, from him the light bathes his parents and the Shepherds.
Those shepherds who are bathed in the light from Jesus in the picture are the main part of our Gospel reading tonight. St Luke starts this passage by grounding the news of the Incarnation in tangible history – it happened in Augustus’ reign, during the time of Quirinius. But then he turns away from the powers of the earth and deals, instead, with Jesus, the divine power becoming incarnate in our world. The Romans spoke of the “good news” of the birthday of the Emperor and hailed him as both “saviour “ and “Lord” but Luke uses these titles and applies them to this little helpless babe – it’s quite a contrast.
Luke’s passage is, however, all about contrasts. A king is born, but his birth isn’t announced to the rich and the powerful but to smelly poor shepherds out on the hills. Jewish people at the time saw shepherds as a lower class occupation, they were seen by Pharisees as similar to tax collectors and prostitutes as their work meant they broke the law. Shepherds had to work on the Sabbath as the sheep are no great respecter of religious laws. The shepherds were outsiders who couldn’t get back into the inside even if they wanted to as their job kept them – both religiously and physically- on the outside – the outside of their faith and their culture. Shepherds were not trusted, their testimony wasn’t accepted in court. They were stereotyped as thieves and liars and so were outside the mainstream of society. They were taught that they were made in God’s holy image, that they had to obey God’s law and worship regularly yet their work kept them from obeying the very laws that had been impressed upon them.
It’s easy as we sit here in the warmth of this beautiful church with our lovely crib and beautiful decorations, as we sit and look at the flickering candles and celebrate this special time of the year to forget the isolation of those shepherds who had to work out in the fields. God’s presence amongst us was announced not to the rich and famous, not to the people in power but to the isolated, the disenfranchised and the forgotten out in the wilderness. The Good News of Christ’s coming was proclaimed there, on the edge of society.
God brings good news to those who need it the most. God speaks to those who need to hear him most. But He comes in a way which is gentle – and who can be afraid of a little baby?
Interestingly the angels aren’t with Mary and Joseph. In Luke’s account there is no star or wise men – so all the divine messages are focused on the outsiders of Jewish society.
This good news because we all know and love people who have been outside so long they have given up on God. We all know people so depressed and desperate this Christmas that they cannot come to worship. The startling news is that God comes to those people as once He did to the shepherds, but now God uses us as his messengers. God is sending us as His messengers out to the edges of our society with good news of great joy, and Jesus is being born among people who have given up on him. This Good News should inspire us to sing of joy coming to the world and to sleep in heavenly peace.