Dec 24, 2014
Reading Luke 2: 1 - 20
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Joy, Peace & Shelter
Why was the news that the angels brought good, why did it bring such joy? I believe it is because God is with us and not just with religious people or powerful people or great people or really Good people. God is with all people and all people can be with God.
That experience of God being with a person, born in a person, of the joy coming, is a powerful and transforming thing.
This year most Uniting churches in Queensland are using the theme “Find refuge this Christmas”, and another way of looking at this idea that all people can be with God is to say that all people can find their refuge or home or shelter with God. When people come to faith or even when they find a church or faith community that they like they will often say they are “at home”, they have found their place. When people of are assailed by the storms and trial of life they will also very often say that they found shelter or refuge in God or their faith.
To illustrate these ideas of God brining transformation and refuge, I want to briefly tell three stories of transformation. The most important one being that of the shepherds.
First I want to tell a little of my own story. At the age of around 20 I suddenly came to a new experience and understanding of my faith. On this weekend I was sitting in Church listening to a preacher explaining the Christian idea of grace. Grace is the idea that God loves us, not because we are good but God just loves us even though we are always all less than perfect and even though at times in our lives we are just plain bad. God loves us anyway. He told a story, not a true story, just an illustration, a modern parable. It is of a young man in court, convicted of a crime for which he must pay a fine, or face jail. The man can not pay, he will go to jail. The judge leaves the court room. The young man sits devastated. He is about to be taken away, when suddenly there appears beside him the judge, come down from the pace of judgement. He reaches into his pocket and he hands the young man a cheque for the full amount and embraces him. Gives him a hug. You see the judge is the young man’s brother. He loves him and has come down to him and will do anything to stop him being cast into prison. Through paying the fine he offers him shelter & protection from all he may face in jail. The judge is just like God in Jesus, the eternal Son, coming to be with us that we might know we are sheltered, loved and forgiven.
When I heard that story, for the first time I understood what Amazing Grace meant and how amazing it was. The words of some of those old hymns, Rock of Ages, Abide with Me, And Can it Be, O for a thousand tongues all came to life. I realised as our next carol puts it Christ, the holy Child of Bethlehem had not just been born in a stable 2000 years ago but had been born in me, he had come to me he was God living in me, Emanuel - God with us, God with me! Me, even me! Because God had made a home in me I had found a home, a shelter with God.
There was Joy, that joy has come and gone, very often I am very far from a joyful person, but that joy has never completely left me, and the memory of it today brings it back, rekindles the fire. Without that experience I don’t think I would be here today as your minister.
The brother of the writer of our second last hymn had that same experience. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. He writes,
“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
For him there was no great joy but there was a radical transformation which led him to becoming arguably the greatest evangelist and preacher the world has ever known.
Why was the birth of this child so important, why did it bring such joy. Let’s think about those shepherds. As Jews living in a land occupied by the Roman Empire, they were longing for and hoping for a Messiah, a new King, a Godly warrior who would not only get rid of the Romans but would bring everyone closer to God, because he would set up a Godly kingdom. That would have been an exciting message, they may have felt that it was beginning. Jesus it turned out wasn’t a warrior or King in that sense, but the King had been born. Also the whole angel thing. Once they got over the shock and of the angel appearing, and angels were heavenly soldiers or warriors as well as messengers, it would have been awe inspiring and joyful. Of course the key would have been that this was not just the Messiah, the new Godly King, but he was the Lord, and the Saviour. For Jews, only God is called the Lord, yet this is how the angel describes the child in the manger. But like Wesley and me, the thing that probably had the most impact was, that the message, was for them of all people, it was for shepherds. As I’ve shared over a number of Christmases the shepherds were the dregs of society. They could not be good Jews. Because of their work they could not attend the synagogue or go to Jerusalem each year as a good Jew should. They could not easily keep the laws about diet, or being clean, that good Jews should. By rights the Angel should have come to a high priest or a strict keeper of the Jewish law. Instead the Good News is announced to the 1st century’s equivalent of a Bogan.
In that Church in the late 1980s God came to me, to me of all people, in Aldersgate street on the 24th of may 1738 Wesley realised that God had come to and forgiven even him and somewhere between 4-6BC God came to and for all people, even the Shepherds, and each one must have felt and said, God has come for me! Even me a dirty shepherd. That’s where the Joy came from for the shepherds. All of a sudden the Shepherds, outsiders, had a home, a place in God’s love. These outcasts were given a refuge, just as the baby Jesus had been given a refuge in the stable.
As the life of Jesus was lived, and after his death and resurrection, the church unfolded, it became clear that if God had a place, a home, for the shepherds, and the tax collectors and the prostitutes, then God must have a place for everyone, even non Jewish people. God must be for Jews and Gentiles, men and women, rich and poor, slave and free, sinner and saint. This was Good news of Great Joy for all people. And it meant that all people could and should be at peace in this shelter of love with God and one another. What is the reason for fighting and hatred and division, if every person is loved and embraced by God, if every person is God’s brother or sister, a member of God’s household? In the baby in Bethlehem God’s peace is declared, for God has a place, favours, has Good will toward all people. “Glory to God in the Highest heaven and on Earth, Peace Goodwill toward men.”
And therefore it is Good News for you. Yes even for you, every one of you, even if you are far from perfect. It is my prayer that you will know the Joy and the Peace of the Shepherds, and your hearts will be strangely warmed by God toward God and toward all people. May Christ be born in you today. May you know the shelter, the refuge of his love and find your home in Him.