THE SHEPHERDS AND THE ANGELS – Christmas Midnight Service
A Sermon preached on Christmas Eve, December 24th, 2017, at the Church of the Holy Ascension at Hyde, by Canon Gary Philbrick, Rector.
I don’t know how it is for you, but for me the run-up to Christmas can be quite challenging.
There is always a lot to do – wrapping presents, sending out cards, getting to see family and friends to deliver things, making sure there is enough food and drink in for all the guests who might turn up; and for clergy there are Services and Sermons to prepare, and lots of things to arrange. In the past week I’ve been to around 15 Carol Services or Carol Singings, all of which have been delightful, and really worthwhile, and I wouldn’t have missed any of them. But they do mean that the week has been fairly full.
And then, this afternoon, two Christingle Services, in Fordingbridge and Sandleheath, hundreds of children and adults, hundreds of lighted candles, and a great deal of excitement all around.
But now, leaving all of the busyness of Christmas behind, we’ve come to this quiet corner of the Forest, to this lovely Church which has stood here for over 150 years, to hear again the Christmas Story, to sing carols, to pray in whatever way we can or want to, and to open ourselves to the deeper meanings of Christmas, behind all of the tinsel, turkey, presents, and trimmings – important as they are to our celebrations, and all of which I love.
It could be in just such a quiet country spot as this, somewhere of which it would be difficult to say that it was the centre of the universe, that the shepherds, as we’ve just heard from Luke’s Gospel, were ‘Living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night’ [Lk 1:8].
Who were they, these shepherds, living in the fields? Ordinary working men – and they probably were all men. Simple but skilled village folk, brave enough to face the cold nights and the dangers of wild animals, to stay with the flocks wherever they roamed, and to protect them from all that might harm them. Sometimes they would be the owner of the sheep; sometimes they would be hired hands. As Jesus pointed out [Jn 10:11-13], sometimes they were good shepherds, and sometimes they didn’t care all that much about the flocks in their charge.
In contrast to Jesus’ generally favourable opinion of shepherds, though, by the
First Century [AD], it seems, shepherds – specifically, hireling shepherds – had a rather unsavory reputation… Rabbinic sources [suggest] that ‘most of the time they were dishonest and thieving; they led their [flocks] onto other people’s land and pilfered the produce of the land’. Because they were often months at a time without supervision, they were often accused of stealing some of the increase of the flock. Consequently, the pious were warned not to buy wool, milk, or kids from shepherds on the assumption that it was stolen property. Shepherds were not allowed to fulfil a judicial office or be admitted in court as witnesses… Philo, a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher of Alexandria [25 BC – 45 AD], [living about this time], wrote about looking after sheep and goats, ‘Such pursuits are held mean and inglorious’
These then, these ordinary working people, of a generally unfavourable reputation, these chaps minding the flocks and minding their own business in the fields outside Bethlehem, in quiet countryside such as we have here in Hyde – these were the ones who were suddenly confronted by ‘an angel of the Lord [who] stood before them, and the glory of the Lord [which] shone around them’. And no wonder ‘They were terrified’ [Lk 1:9]. And no wonder the angel’s first words were ‘Do not be afraid’ [Lk 1:10].
In the midst of their ordinary working lives, their routine daily existence, God’s ‘good news of great joy’ [Lk 1:10] suddenly came upon them, they heard the angels’ words, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’ [Lk 1:14], and they rushed up to Bethlehem to worship the child who had been born that night.
If it can happen to them, it can happen to us, as we gather here this evening, and open ourselves again to the message of the angels, about which we’ve already sung twice, and will sing about three times more in this Service: ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’ [Lk 1:14].
An anonymous poet imagines the shepherds telling their story to Mary, when they arrive in the stable – ‘Mary’ here described as ‘Lady’, as in ‘Ladybird’ or ‘Lady Chapel’
We stood on the hills, Lady,
Our day’s work done,
Watching the frosted meadows
That winter had won.
The evening was calm, Lady,
The air so still,
Silence more lovely than music
Folded the hill.
There was a star, Lady,
Shone in the night,
Larger than Venus it was
And bright, so bright.
Oh, a voice from the sky, Lady,
It seemed to us then
Telling of God being born
In the world of men.
And so we have come, Lady,
Our day’s work done,
Our love, our hopes, ourselves,
We give to your son.
We, the ordinary people of this place, have come to listen for the message of the angels, to be assured again of God’s plan for each of us and for the whole world which he loves, and to have the opportunity to reflect on our lives in the light of the Christmas Message.
I came across this poem recently, written by Esther Curtis in 2010 – Esther, I’ve recently discovered, lives locally, and has links with Hyde Church. It sums up for me the continuing significance of the Christmas narrative for our day-to-day lives.
THE FIRST CHRISTMAS
We try to imagine the first Christmas Day –
The Shepherds, the Angels, the Babe in the hay,
Young Mary and Joseph, the beautiful star,
The Wise Men who journeyed, from country afar;
The Innkeeper surly, his wife who was kind,
No room at the inn, and no shelter to find,
The oxen, the donkey, the stable, the snow –
For this is the picture of Christmas we know.
A story so simple, we read in God’s Word –
By ordinary people the message was heard;
God chose a young maiden as part of his plan –
Salvation was promised before time began.
The Shepherds saw Angels, a star led Wise Men,
A few people worshipped – there in Bethlehem.
Emmanuel came just as God had arranged,
For this was the night on which everything changed.
Yes, everything changed with the birth of this boy –
To a world of great darkness he brought light and joy;
For God intervened in earth’s history –
Jesus was born, to set us all free.
So look past the parties, the lights and the fun,
Say ‘Thank You’ to God for the gift of his Son,
Who came here among us, and for our sins died,
That life everlasting, he might provide.
Esther Curtis, December 2010