Christmas Sermon
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day Sermon

Sermon preached by Michael Jackson, bishop of Clogher

St Luke 2.15: Come, let us go straight to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us …

The shepherds in the fields are a vital part of our celebration of Christmas. And this year we see sheep, almost alone of animals, still out in some of our own fields in the snow, eating their way down to the grass. We marvel at the hardiness of such sheep, animals which we take for granted at other times of the year. The message of the shepherds makes harmony with the message of the angels. The shepherds leave their flocks and go to Bethlehem. They tell us that, when we must take risks, what matters most to us remains safe, while we have gone to be with God. The angels leave the court of heaven to tell these shepherds not to fear but to receive good news as great joy. Their message brings togetherness and healing.

Heaven and earth come together in this meeting of angels and human beings on a mountainside as they had done many times before and as they would do again in the ways in which God interacts with human beings in the Bible. We remember Mount Sinai on which Moses received The Law which framed and fashioned so much of what Jesus did and how he did it. We remember the way in which Jesus as a grown-up person taught The New Law of unconditional love on the Mountain by the Lake of Galilee in what we call to this day the Sermon on the Mount. And we remember also the Mountain of the Ascension above Jerusalem when Jesus finally left his disciples to prepare for the coming of the Holy Spirit.

The picture of shepherds and sheep also features large in the Biblical pictures which Jesus uses to get across to his hearers the importance of nurturing and protection which are at the heart of the work of Jesus the Good Shepherd. The shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep which are safely in the pen for the night and he searches for the last, one hundredth sheep, until that sheep is found and carried to safety. The shepherd himself lies down and forms the door, blocks the entrance, to the sheep-fold – in order to offer protection. If anyone or anything comes to attack, he is on the spot and ready to come to the defence of the sheep whose safety and security are his priority.

But these are not the only pictures of Christmas which we have and which we see. Hasty improvisation is every bit as much part of Christmas as is careful tending of what matters to us. Often in our own lives we have to make do with improvisation. We have to trust to what we do not fully understand and probably never will. We have to let ourselves be uncomfortable in order to let the next thing that really matters happen. Too often we think that the predictable is the reward of our goodness. Too readily do we tie our convenience in with our reading of the future. For Mary and Joseph this is not, nor would it ever be, the way things were to be. The familiar lines from Christmas Carols paint towards a more ragged picture as being there just as much:
no crib for a bed;
child in the manger … outcast and stranger;
in the bleak mid-winter a stable-place sufficed;
Lord, you were rich beyond all splendour, yet, for love’s sake, became so poor.

The world in which we live offers us this picture of hasty improvisation this Christmas. Travelling conditions are and have been hazardous. The care and nurture of animals is very difficult and labour-intensive at this time and in this weather. For many people, offering a sense of Christmas to their families and neighbours has become a real struggle as the economic downturn in both parts of Ireland has become a biting reality. We are, I suspect, becoming tired of being told that this has come upon us because we were greedy and irresponsible – not everyone was and the argument does not hold water for many of us, facing reduced hours and fearing total loss of jobs. We are also rather tired of watching opportunities which we need to see for our young people and children to stay here and make a life here fail to materialize and cease to exist. We are, at the same time, also amazed at the resilience and cheerfulness of people in circumstances beyond their immediate control to be kind, to be practical and to think of others before themselves particularly in frost, snow and more frost. This too speaks volumes for the human spirit and for the goodness which is always more ready to give than to receive.

Into this world of careful shepherds, reassuring angels and makeshift delivery wards comes the infant Jesus. The prophets have been foretelling him for us throughout the Season of Advent and the Old Testament Readings for Christmas resound to the tale of him still. He is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Not only is he born in Bethlehem, but to Jerusalem he will bring a salvation which gives honour to a people once rejected; they will be called The Holy People, The Redeemed of the Lord; the turn-around in their fortunes brings singing, joy and peace. The infant child of Bethlehem stands throughout his life with those who have a lasting joy and peace with integrity and with those who crave both. Justice and righteousness are the gifts which he brings; he graciously and firmly brings endless peace with an authority which sweeps the outcast and the oppressed up into the kingdom of the Father, towards the final uniting of both earth and heaven. Yet he begins as heaven and earth in little space.

As we follow the shepherds joyfully to Bethlehem, we move and sway with the song of the angels in our ears. The child is the Messiah. The child is the Saviour. The child is the Lord. In leaving their sheep, the shepherds know what we know: in following God, the people and the things which we hold dearest are and remain in safe keeping. In coming from heaven to earth, the angels know that good is stronger than evil. Let us rejoice today to worship the baby lying in the manger.
And let us rejoice to be God’s children through the miracle of grace and the witness of the church and the lives of countless extraordinary human beings.