Sermon preached by
The Reverend Charles Royden
Midnight Mass 24th December 2001
St Mark's Church
I have often heard the phrase spoken from Christian people. 'The Lord told me.' Now if you are not used to religious language you might be forgiven for thinking that the person speaking these words was somewhat strange, hearing voices. Actually they most probably have not heard a voice or seen a heavenly apparition, what they are actually saying is that they are convinced in their own mind that God wanted them to do something. Sometimes such religious conviction is wrong, 'God told me to kill people' and sometimes it is plainly right, 'God wants me to help those who I have the opportunity to do so.'
The language cause problems however because no sooner has the person uttered these words, which their friends totally understand, than other people begin to distance themselves thinking that they are some kind of religious maniac. Using the language causes a barrier and it would be far better if people told the truth and said that they believed that God would want them to do something than resorted to what other Christians might interpret as a form of blasphemy, claiming divine authorization for our own ideas.
However move a step further and instead of saying 'The Lord told me' substitute 'an angel told me.' That is the language of our Christmas stories, and for some people it is a problem. The language which the Gospel writers choose to use, is for some people an obstacle to faith and understanding. What actually happened when the Gospel writers tell us an angel appeared. Was it a glowing heavenly being with wings, such as we see on our Christmas cards? Was air traffic control over Bethlehem full of angels, flying around and proclaiming the birth of Jesus or appearing in dreams?
The question is what exactly happened? Some Christians have found this language unhelpful, indeed they have found the very notion of virgin birth itself at variance with their own understanding of the faith and how God works in the world. So what was going on? The truth is that over the years Christians have disagreed. Some believe in flying beings and others have a more rationalistic approach and think that the appearance of angels was a means used by the Gospel writers to say that the birth was a special thing which people believed God led them to appreciate. Some Christians believe in a literal and miraculous virgin birth, other find it more helpful to think that this was a way of demonstrating that the birth of Jesus was special.
Well we can all have our own ideas, but at the end of the day all that matters is that we agree that Jesus was born as God in human form, and after that angels and virgin births all seem rather common place. What is beyond doubt was that people at the time of Jesus were led by strong convictions to proclaim that in Bethlehem something was happening which was of profound importance for all humankind. What God was doing was miraculous and those who were involved felt that God was leading them and directing their ways.
The faith of those shepherd enabled them to see God working even in the birth of a baby in a stable. Something happened to those Magi which enabled them to be guided by their studies of the stars to the human birth of one who was before the stars.
Now you and I are in a similar position. Sometimes I would like to be able to say, 'I believe this because an angel told me,' 'I am a Christian because an angel told me about Jesus.' But it is not nearly so easy. We Christians believe because in the midst of all the questioning and searching of life we find Jesus. I do not care what the Gospel writers meant when they spoke of angels.
This is Christmas when we begin to consider what God has done in the birth of Jesus. Trees will soon be taken down decorations put away. Normal life with all of its cares will soon resume, but "The word has become flesh and dwelt among us." God decided to enter into a personal relationship with humanity. God became like you and me—flesh. God could have chosen simply to watch and see what would happen in this world, but instead he chose to care and experience the human condition. Not only that, God limited the experience to ours—no special privileges. God took on the living conditions of the time: the smell, the thirst and poverty, the ravages of disease and discomfort. Jesus was not offered anything better than others because of who he was.
So, Christmas means that God wants a relationship with every one of us, not just a chosen few. God wants us to know we are loved, valued, and worth saving, that we are precious. God wants to draw us together into a kingdom of life that is abundant and rich, Ultimately what will give credence and validity to our faith is not whether we can prove the existence of angels or even the virgin birth. It is the fact that we can proclaim this simple truth that Christ is alive in our hearts today and lives in us as we partake of this bread and wine.