A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
by Andrew McKearney at Christmas 2016
The gospel readings at Christmas are strikingly different from each other. Matthew majors on the wise men from the east and the flight into Egypt; Mark gives us nothing at all; Luke is the most elaborate, with the annunciation, the stable and the shepherds; John, the most profound with his magnificent prologue.
Puzzling…well not really! Scratch the surface and you discover that they’re all doing much the same thing – they’re telling us the significance of Jesus, his place in the purposes of God and the consequences of his life for us and for the world. But they’re doing this, each in their unique way.
Take for instance the point made by both Matthew and Luke that Jesus was born of a virgin. Why are Matthew and Luke telling us this? Are they interested in biology? Of course not, their interest is in theology – that the origins of this person, Jesus, must be sought in God!
And John’s gospel makes exactly this point but completely differently. He spends no time at all giving us any birth stories or genealogies, but opens his gospel by going right back to the source of Jesus’ being:
‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’
The origins of Jesus lie not in time, but in eternity!
Or take the point made by Luke that Jesus was born in a stable because when Mary and Joseph got to Bethlehem they found that there was no room for them in the inn. It’s a much-loved aspect of the Christmas story delightfully told by Luke. But why does Luke tell this story? His point is not to put pressure on the planning authorities to get more inns built in Bethlehem! No! Rather the homeless babe of Bethlehem tells us about the whole of Jesus’ life – that the Son of God was pushed aside from his birth, often lived rough, and was eventually pushed out of the world entirely.
John in his prologue also tells us about this key aspect of his life, but in a completely different way. He writes:
‘He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not accept him.’
There was never room for Jesus in any inn!
What then of the significance of the shepherds living nearby in the fields keeping watch over their flock by night? I think Luke would have been surprised to learn that you can go and see this field today, just outside Bethlehem! Luke gives us only the vaguest outline of a geographical description because again, geography is not what he’s interested in. The shepherds play a much more symbolic role than this.
So what might their role be?
Firstly the shepherds are a reminder of a famous ancestor of Jesus – King David. He too had been a shepherd, he too had been called to Bethlehem from minding his sheep; called in order to receive anointing at the hands of Samuel and made a shepherd to the whole Jewish nation, their king.
Later on though, Jewish attitudes changed and the shepherd’s task became devalued and even despised. Why? Because shepherds lived outside the general ordering of society and in particular they couldn’t fulfil their religious obligations – they were excluded by their way of life.
Well, at the heart of Luke’s understanding of the gospel is his conviction that with Jesus the excluded are now included, the outsiders made insiders, tax-collectors, women, the marginalised all experience God’s grace at the hands of this prophet from Nazareth.
And what do we hear at the conclusion of John’s prologue? How ‘From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.’ Even shepherds!
What a rich tapestry the gospel writers weave for us at Christmas, to tell the significance of Jesus, his life and ministry. And it’s done with such skill and elegance, using story, symbol, prophecy and philosophy. That’s why it bears repetition year after year – it’s subtle, it’s deep – and it draws us to kneel in wonder and delight!
So what might we take from the Christmas story this year?
I want to stay with the shepherds but with a contemporary shepherd, James Rebanks. He comes from a long line of shepherds stretching back 600 years who have lived and worked at Matterdale in the Lake District in Cumbria.
Rebanks has recently written a memoir The Shepherd’s Life. Astonishingly it topped both the New York Times and the Sunday Times bestseller list! It’s been Radio 4’s Book of the Week and the author now has a following of 60,000 on Twitter!
So who is he? He grew up on the family farm in Cumbria. Having hated school he left just as soon as he could, but continued to read voraciously. He was encouraged to take a continuing education course and ended up at Magdalen College here in Oxford, getting a double first in history! It’s an extraordinary story!
What did he then do? He returned home, back to the family farm in Cumbria – and that is where he still is! So how have things worked out for him? In the last two pages of his memoir he recalls a particular moment, and it’s with this that his award-winning book concludes.
It’s springtime, and he’s returning his flock to the hills. His sheep are bred to fend for themselves in rocky terrain and he enjoys watching them find their way in the rough fields – they’re happy to be back.
The author takes his cue from his sheep and decides to lie down in the grass and drink from a nearby stream. He rolls on his back to watch the clouds racing by with his sheepdogs lying at his side. Rebanks then ends his book, writing: ‘This is my life. I want for no other.’
‘This is my life. I want for no other.’ Doesn’t that expresses something of the goal of God coming amongst us in Christ that we celebrate every Christmas?
We’ve seen how all the Christmas stories talk in very different ways about the origins of Jesus – that his source lies not in time, but in eternity.
We’ve also seen how all the Christmas stories talk in very different ways about Christ’s life – that there was never room for Jesus in any inn.
But they also talk about the purpose of his life. The angels announce good news of great joy to all people! John’s prologue refers to Christ empowering us to become children of God!
I hear an echo of this part of the Christmas story in the brief last line of this shepherd’s memoir.
And if I’m right, then I hope that you too are able to say: ‘This is my life. I want for no other.’