Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Do our neighbours see what the shepherds saw?

I'm trying to work things out
I'm trying to comprehend:
am I the chance result of some great accident?
I hear a rhythm call me,
the echo of a grand design;
I spend each night in the backyard staring up at the stars in the sky:
maybe this was made for me,
for lying on my back in the middle of a field;
maybe that's a selfish thought
or maybe there's a loving God.
Maybe I was made this way
to think and to reason and to question and to pray
and I have never prayed a lot
But maybe there's a loving God...

Life’s full of maybes, some more mundane than the ones Sara Groves sings about: maybe we’ll make ends meet next month; maybe I’ll get that promotion at work; maybe my child will make more friends at school next term; maybe life’ll be better next year…
We’re living through trying times, symbolised by snow-bound Britain making getting about so tiresome. Shrinking incomes, rising prices, job insecurity, a general feeling of uncertainty and malaise leave us feeling we could use some good news.

Like the shepherds: slumbering, star-gazing, shivering, stoical; suddenly roused by choirs of angels and a startling message. I wonder if they got it. We read Luke’s account like good Bible students picking up the echoes of Isaiah, allusions to past stories. But did the shepherds get it as they shambled down the hill into the town looking for the bizarre sign the angel told them to look out for: a baby in a feeding trough?
It was all too unbelievable for words. And yet, they went. Maybe what drew them was the thought that if a baby had been born, there’d be a party going on; there’d be free food and drink and a warm room to gather in for a while. And probably when they arrived at the house, it was teeming with people: relatives crammed in because of the census, neighbours invited to wet the baby’s head, curious on-lookers.

Babies are always good news; they might turn our lives upside down, but they also fill them with joy – even though we know that they are another mouth to feed when the taxes are high and work is hard to find (is that what Joseph felt?).

But this one was particularly good news; this one would bring unimaginable change to the lives of his family, to the neighbours peering into the manger, to the shepherds shambling down the back streets, to the magi setting off from their palaces in the East, to Herod fearfully hanging on to power in near-by Jerusalem, even to Caesar, oblivious to events so far from Rome, who had sent this family on their perilous journey to this birth in the first place.
Everyone’s affected; life will never be the same. This child is the one that Isaiah spoke about: ‘For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord— and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth' (9:6; 11:2-4).

Did the shepherds see this? Probably not; not fully, anyway. But they felt warm and filled and included. The neighbours had come because of the screaming – first Mary’s then Jesus’ (whatever Away in the Manger says!) – but the shepherds came because angels summoned them; God invited them to celebrate the birth of his Son. They could fill in the details when Luke published his book.

Often we live through events that we can only make sense of later. This morning someone described the 7/7 inquest as the first opportunity to create a continuous narrative of that momentous morning. The gospels are the first continuous narrative of the Christmas story that was experienced by participants in bits and pieces and whose significance was debated and chewed over for days and weeks afterwards.

And our friends and neighbours who shamble through their Christmas celebration, holding on to traditions that are part Christian, part family, part consumerist, do they get it? Probably not; not the first time we tell them or the second or the fifteenth…

But we keep inviting them because this is good news; because God really does like them and look on them with favour – however they choose to celebrate this day; because this child is for them as for the shepherds. And we, like the angels, are sent with the good news of Jesus’ birth to summon them to wonder and possibly even worship.
As Sara Groves sings:

Maybe I was made this way
to think and to reason and to question and to pray;
and I have never prayed a lot;
but maybe there's a loving God...

1 comment:

Catriona said...

Thanks Simon,
I have just spent the morning wondering what to say about the shepherds in my Christmas Day talk... this helps.