Opening Scripture: Isaiah 52:13-53:7
See, my servant shall prosper;
he shall be exalted and lifted up,
and shall be very high.
Just as there were many who were astonished at him
—so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of mortals—
so he shall startle* many nations;
kings shall shut their mouths because of him;
for that which had not been told them they shall see,
and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.
Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering* and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.
Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
He was despised
Call to Worship Isaiah 9:6
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Let us come and worship!
O Come All Ye Faithful
Good Christians all rejoice
We bring our joys as our offering to you this day as we celebrate your Son’s coming. Who are we that you send us your Son and call us to you through him? What have we done that in your love, you send your only Son to us to redeem us? Which sins have we not committed that you have surrounded us with such grace?
O dearest Lord,
Your grace, mercy and love are beyond our understanding, conception and imagination. Know that our hearts are set on you and your Son as we welcome him. Receive our thanksgiving for the very Life you have sent to us in order that we may find our life through him. All these we pray in your Son’s name. Amen.
While shepherds watched their flocks by night
Scripture Reading: Luke 2:1-20
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then 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 among those whom he favours!’
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Sermon: What we learn from angels
What we learned during these COVID years is that fear is one of the strongest motivators of human behaviour. Fear of death has gripped us in ways that we have never seen. Total lockdowns were the favourite method of dealing with possible death even to the detriment of mental and psychological health. The message was and continues to be that saving life is more important than mental and psychological well being. Imminent death by COVID became our number one enemy replacing all other fears. After all, climate change or global warming is seen as benign compared to the spread of COVID.
Death is a powerful threat. Painful death is a greater threat to life than death without pain. At the beginning it was the pictures of painful deaths in Italy that made us finally understand the level of threats facing us. In a way, we are a society still panicking when death is forced upon us no matter how developed and advanced we are in technology and knowledge. I mention this so that we can understand the degree to which shepherds and those who encountered angels were terrified. Only when we understand the depth of terror in them, can we understand how relieved and ready to hear the good news of God they were.
A quick recap of yesterday’s conversation on the predicament Mary, Joseph and about to be bornJesus were facing because of the pregnancy of Mary prior to marriage. We discussed how our world was still fairly similar to the world of Mary, Joseph and Jesus. What we saw was that the angel’s guidance for Joseph created a family to face the hostile and dark world of Palestine under the Jewish religious rule. We did not exactly put it in this term, but it was implied when we discussed how difficult it would have been for Mary and Joseph culturally and religiously if others found out about Mary’s pregnancy prior to marriage. Today, we will continue the conversation to see how God through appearances of angels leads us into the hopeful future even though the present is dark without hope.
The birth account of Jesus involves mainly Mary and Joseph. Baby Jesus is mentioned, but not the centre of the story. In Matthew, the whole narrative is about how Joseph dealt with the news that Mary was pregnant. In Luke we are told how Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem in order for the child to be born there. In both Matthew and Luke, we see an angel appearing. This Christmas, we will focus on the role of the angel in Luke’s account.
Let’s begin with some background information about angels in the Old Testament. Angels appear there in dreams (remember Joseph in Genesis) or in visions (remember prophets). There are few other places angels appear as human beings (often in male form in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah story) and other times as a being that can be seen by Balaam’s donkey. Angels could bring good news or bring destruction.
We are introduced to an angel in Matthew. The angel appears in Joseph’s dream and reveals Godly plan to Joseph alone. There, an angel came to let Joseph know that Mary was carrying a child by the Holy Spirit and that he should still wed Mary and ought to name the child Immanuel, “God is with us.” Even though the angel was instrumental in assuring home for Jesus, the message was delivered privately in a dream. No one else heard it. No one else saw it. Did Joseph tell Mary? What we know is that initially Joseph was going to dismiss Mary or not have Mary as his wife quietly. Whether Joseph told Mary about the angel and the instruction he received is not clear. What is important to us is to see how the angel’s speech changed Joseph’s mind and led to the formation of this holy family that made Jesus’ childhood possible in stability and safety.
In Luke angels’ appearances were different. In all three cases we are about to take a look, we read that the angels appeared directly in fullness. They did not appear in dreams. They were there physically. It is not clear how they appeared, but what seems clear to us is that they were in conversations with Zechariah, Mary and shepherds. By all accounts these people recognized them as angels. As in the Old Testament, these angels were able to converse with Zechariah, Mary and shepherds as if they were in human forms. Everyone in Luke instantaneously knew that it was an angel who was speaking with him, her or them.
In many cases, seeing an angel brought terror. Zechariah and the shepherds were terrified. It appears that Mary’s perplexion also contained an element of fear. Each time, the angel who appeared began with variations of “fear not…” and “do not be afraid…” This friendly reminder from angels was due to a great chasm between human beings and heavenly beings. We do not know the exact origin of this fear. Yet, in all these encounters, angels were perceived with great fear. It is important to note that heavenly beings needed to address people’s terror first.
Thus, unlike Matthew's account, an angel appeared for real to the shepherds. They were not in trances or dreams. They were wide awake and saw and heard angels in real time. All those shepherds in the fields saw the angel and heard the good news together. This time, it was not only the angel, but heavenly hosts also made an appearance. These shepherds were watching over their flocks in the night. The angel came, not in stealth mode, not in hidden form and not privately. Instead the angel showed up spectacularly. So much so that the shepherds, who were generally very hardened people and were ready to fend off wolves and worse predators, were afraid.
This terror is in line with all others who meet heavenly beings in many parts of the Bible. Sins of the mortals were so severe that they knew that death was their lot. Instead of joy and gladness, meeting an angel made them think that they were doomed because of their sins. Just by speaking of this terror felt by the shepherds, Gospel Luke was able to outline how there was an unbridgeable chasm between mortals and immortals. In this impossible divide, the angel crossed over into the world of sinful human beings and brought the good news of God. This good news began with soothing words, “Do not be afraid.”
In those first few words, “fear not” or “do not be afraid” these angels set aside people’s fear over death. These few words set the tone for a hopeful present and future. Death was not going to be part of the lives of those to whom these angels appeared. It is important for us to understand that in order for anyone to be in the right mind to receive the good news of God as it was intended, fear of death must be set aside. As long as one is grappling with the terror of death, it is impossible to fully grasp the significance of the good news. Hence, the necessity of opening the speeches with “fear not” or “do not be afraid.”
After the initial shock and terror, the shepherds could finally hear and understand the good news. They were given this message of peace and safety. Now the shepherds did not need to fear the multitude of heavenly hosts who appeared with the angel. Fear was gone. Only the good news of God was heard. The news of Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem was no longer a dream or a future hope for these shepherds. It became the reality in which they were part. Without fear, then, they could immediately head to Bethlehem.
Today, as we rejoice the birth of Jesus who is the Messiah not only for us but for the world, we need to rethink how to share this great news of God as the good news for all people. We are quite accustomed to thinking that everyone will receive the good news straight away and be glad. We tend to forget those who need this good news of God the most are the ones who are under the grips of death and are living in fear the most. We need to realize that the power of sharing the good news begins with assuring them that they are not going to be given over to death and that we bring the good news as the angel did to shepherds.
If we are excited to share the Gospel, then, it may be essential for us that we begin first by addressing the fear that others who require the good news live with. The angel’s approach has lots to teach us. COVID prevention measures revealed how deeply our society is fearful of death. This fear needs to be addressed before anyone in our society can see and receive the good news of God. Without dealing with this fear of death, those in fear cannot grapple with the joy of good news no matter how loudly they sing along with us Joy To The World.
Dear loving Lord,
You have been patient with us. Throughout human history, you patiently guided and provided for us. Yet, we have not been patient. Instead of waiting, we have always hurried ourselves and others. Instead of letting your will take place in the world, we intervened to shape the world in our own image. In your patience you sent us your Son. May we learn from your patience to let your love shine through in your Son’s time.
You have been kind to us. Your kindness, however, is taken for granted by us. In dealing with our families, friends and neighbours, we easily forget to be kind as your Son has been kind to us. Rather than learning to be kind like your Son our Lord, we often blame and admonish those who are less powerful and less able. Remind us again through your Son’s birth why we are called to be kind to all people.
You have taught us not to be envious. You have provided us sufficiently. You satisfy all our needs. Yet, in our immaturity and selfishness we search for something more to fill our emptiness. In envy we have created the world that exploits the world in a destructive way and are never satisfied with all that we have. Recreate us again in your Son to learn from him what it means to be satisfied by you alone.
Your Son, O God, has taught us not to be boastful, arrogant, or rude. Yet in our daily lives, we puff ourselves up in order to get bigger promotions, recognitions and acceptance from others. We treat others arrogantly and rudely as a matter of course. We demand to be treated better than we truly deserve based on our wealth, knowledge and status. Open our eyes to our sinful behaviours. Make us recommit our lives on this day of your Son’s birth.
O Lord, how effortlessly we insist that our own ways are honoured and respected while we reject ways of others. How irritable we are when our ways are not accepted! Whenever our wills are ignored, we become resentful. In small matters, too, our anger rises up against those who are weak, meak, and humble. Grant us sights to see the way your Son taught us. Prepare us to follow your son on these matters by being reborn in your Son our Lord.
As we celebrate your Son’s birth, give us insight to rejoice in the truth each and every day. We find thrills and excitement in our wrongdoings. Guard and protect us by prompting us that the very one, whose birth we celebrate, delights in seeing us rejoice in the truth always.
Make us to love as your Son loves by bearing all things, believing all things, hoping in all things and enduring in all things. Recreate us as the very ones through whom your Son’s love is shared in the world.
All these we pray in your Son’s name. Amen.
And the glory
Next Sunday, January 1, lunch will be served after the service. Please, come and share with us your joy as we give God thanks.
On Christmas night
Once in royal David’s city
Joy to the world!
May the blessings of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit be with you and go with you as you share God’s love with your neighbours near and far.