Sunday, 24 December 2017

Christmas Eve 2017

It was on this night on the hills outside Bethlehem that shepherds were watching. They were wakeful when others slept. They were counting not to hold accountable but to make sure all were safe. They sat and told stories to one another, united by a common task and a need for warmth and companionship. This is how it was every night.

 Then,  suddenly predictable became unpredictable, ancient promise became present hope and in the darkness of the night the shepherds saw the light of the glory of God:
an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace, goodwill among all people! (Luke 2:9-14)

Good news; Great joy; Peace on earth. What a promise!

A promise for all people, heard that night by those who were held in little regard, little noticed. Heard by those who cared for the sheep night and day; those who would leave the 99 to seek the lost – the shepherd’s who lived and worked on the slopes outside Bethlehem, occupied land then, as now.
Tonight we hear again that promise of good news, great joy and peace on earth.

Can we believe it?  Can we believe it over 2000 years later? Has it been fulfilled or are we still waiting?

Can we believe the promise when North Korea has become increasingly provocative, the rhetoric of Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump is inflammatory and personal and the a threat of nuclear war seems more real than for many years?

Can we believe the promise when Jerusalem is a city of tension and conflict and the little town of Bethlehem is in occupied territory, loomed over and fenced in by a wall of concrete; just one example in a world where walls of separation are being built because we dare not listen to one another, to hear each other’s stories being told?

Can we believe the promise when storm Tembin has devastated communities in the Philippines where  hundreds have died and 70,000 have been displaced from homes which have been flooded or buried under the mud?

Can we believe the promise when, across the world people are fleeing from persecution, economic hardship and despair and finding no room in the inn?

And can we believe the promise when in our own community many suffer from food poverty? Some of you may have read the series in the Northern Echo this last week with reports of those who are living on £1 per week for food, reports of the inequality of provision across our region and the stark fact that in areas of County Durham where Universal Credit has been rolled out, there has been a 40 per cent rise in food bank use. Just think what that means for individuals.

Globally, nationally and for many individuals- for many reasons – the message of good news, great joy and peace on earth may seem far fetched. A delightful fairy story to take our minds off reality but no more than that.
And yet...
And yet we know it is true.

The watching, waiting shepherds heard the news and hurried to Bethlehem to see a child, a baby wrapped in cloths against the cold, feeding at the breast of his young mother, watched over by his father. An extraordinary, ordinary child born among us, to be with us and with us to change the world. 

And if we can hear the song of the angels; if we can go to Bethlehem and see the child; if we can welcome him among us, then in all the darkness, conflict and struggles of the world we will know that he is with us, that God is with us. Then we know the story is not a fairy tale to be taken out and wondered at once each year. This story is the beat of our hearts, the reason for being and the source of peace and joy. When we know God with us, then and only then, we can begin to know and be with one another; then and only then will we know peace and hope and joy even in the deepest darkness.

The baby wrapped in swaddling bands grew up and became a man who changed the world. The man was wrapped in swaddling bands again after he had been crucified and died, the swaddling bands that enfolded him and kept him under wraps. But the swaddling bands were broken and restored new life burst from them on Easter Day. Love had won the day, light had overcome darkness and true peace was offered to all the world.

So gaze on the child tonight, hear again the angels’ song and know that it is true – that amazing story of God with us yesterday, today and forever. Know that God will release us from the swaddling bands of our time, from the swaddling bands of time. That the travails we feel are those of the womb before birth and new life.

You might like to read the poem, written by Malcolm Guite which has partly inspired the reflection for today. You can find it here

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