Christmas is for the children. I wonder how often you have heard that or said that.
I heard someone say that very recently, and immediately my thoughts turned to six year old Arthur and little toddler Star, brutally tortured and killed by those who should have been protecting them, loving them and nurturing them. And then last week came the news of small twins killed in a fire – home alone.
And these are the ones of whom we know the names and something of the stories although I can barely bring myself to hear the details. There are hundreds more children across our world who have died or are dying even as we sit here – perhaps from lack of clean water or food, or from brutality, or as displaced refugees, even from drowning off our shores as their families seek to flee their home country.
And perhaps you’re saying – ‘Bishop Rachel, we didn’t come here to be reminded of those horrors. We came here to focus on a baby lying in warm straw in an animal feeding trough, to sing of shepherds and sheep, and angels lighting up the night sky – we want to hear that age-old familiar story, not least amid all that is going on in our world. After all, we are wearied by this pandemic which goes on and on; we’re tired of the batting back and forth of different opinions and perspectives – the fear and the anxiety equally matched by anger and frustrated defiance. We are wearied by not knowing who we can trust and where the moral compass lies as stories continue around Westminster Christmas parties last year, and who seeks favours from whom. And on top of all that we long for the Church of England to be just as it was many years ago. So please Bishop Rachel, this morning keep us focused on that familiar unchanging Christmas story and give us something we can hold onto amidst all that swirls about us and which we cannot control.’
Well take heart, we are indeed going to keep focused on that familiar Christmas story, and yes Christmas is all about the children because it’s about the Christ-child, the Son of God, coming to be with and among us, the children of God. Our God cares passionately about all the mess I’ve named and all the delight I haven’t, and God cares about ‘the hopes and fears of all the years’ – and the ones we’re carrying within us – the children of God.
Interestingly, the events of the first Christmas took place in a turbulent political climate and the issuing of governmental decree. There was a demand for everyone to participate in a census. It must have been quite disruptive, perhaps even chaotic, cutting across people’s familiar daily lives.
As Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem there was weariness and uncertainty and the unknown. Perhaps there was a donkey – but no mention in Scripture – And I hate to disappoint you, but there probably wasn’t a stable either. They were probably with distant relatives staying in the communal area along with animals, rather than in the guest space.
There was an animal feeding place, and there was a new-born child.
And then there were the shepherds – humble, lowly key workers on night duty – taking care and keeping watch. How we value those things today – taking care and keeping watch – and we are indignant when those tasked with caring and watching, fail so catastrophically. But here on that first Christmas night the rural key workers are keeping watch, each carrying their own story. I wonder what they were talking about. They were probably sharing in a few laughs and perhaps sharing family struggles, and perhaps dreaming of what the future could be for them and their children.
And suddenly something amazing cuts across all that daily stuff of joy and struggle. Something so mysterious and other that it can’t really be captured in words. How do you describe the lighting up of the night sky with angels? What does it look like and feel like for the glory of the Lord to shine around you? This wasn’t the comforting beauty of flickering Christmas candles or the delightful sound of Christmas crackers, or even the noise and sight of splendid festive fireworks lighting up the dark sky. No, this was momentous dazzling light and heavenly sound, and overwhelming inexplicable mystery. And the shepherds were terrified.
This was a happening completely beyond the familiar and out of their comfort zone – although there was something in the terrible overwhelming which was full of goodness and love, and almost immediately the angel says what angels nearly always say, ‘Do not be afraid’.
We don’t know what it was that made the shepherds choose to respond so eagerly but I believe that the sense of the overwhelming and the all-powerful was so full of goodness, and so full of love and hope, that they didn’t question the validity of the claims.
Here was the glory of God, crashing into their story – something so deeply personal and yet so beyond them.
And when they found a rather ordinary family scene in a crowded Bethlehem (where there would have been hundreds of families with children), they recognised something holy and hopeful and life-giving about this child.
Of course, they didn’t understand it and they didn’t have the answers. In fact they hadn’t even worked out all the questions, but they did know that this event, this birth, was good news and they chose to share it.
We don’t know what happened to the shepherds after that night. Who knows what went on to happen in their lives and their stories, or how this encounter changed the choices they made in life, but we do know that life was never to be the same again.
That child, Jesus Christ, Emmanuel – God with us, grew to be a man and went on to experience a place of darkness, cruelty and brutality as he was killed, nailed to a cross. The good news is, that unlike the brutality and murder of tiny children which speaks only of brokenness and hideous darkness in our world, Christ’s tortuous death was and is about transformation, reconciliation, hope, love and light – loving us even to death. Loving us amidst the mess and the beauty of the world; loving us amidst the joy and struggle of our own lives – and always offering us mercy and forgiveness. Of course, it’s our choice whether or not to receive it, just as all the brokenness in the world and all the transformation in the world is rooted in people’s choices – whether it’s about little Arthur or Star, or our relationships with one another, or the impact of our choices on those across the world, or our choices regarding our care for the planet, or how we live a time of viral pandemic and the choices we make.
God’s choice was love: A wriggling child in a food trough – God come to earth – and God still with us now amid all that excites and delights, and amid all that is messy and painful and uncertain.
And it’s all about the children – each of us a child of God loved and known by name.
After that child-grown-to-be-man had been strung up to die and was buried, he came back to life – a love stronger than death itself; and then after he ascended from the earth to return to the heavenly realms, Christ drew closer than close by the power of the Holy Spirit – Christ present with us now.
Today is all about the children – us and that tiny Christ-child lying in a manger.
Those shepherds chose to draw close and see. That choice is still there for every one of us whatever our age and whatever our story. We are children of God..
And today is all about the children.