Revd Dr Colin Dundon
Friday 25 December 2015—Christmas Day
"Do not be afraid; for see - I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people"
The day of his birth was celebrated in messianic strains. His career was recalled with rapt devotion. He was hailed 'prince of peace' – bringer of tranquillity – the deliverer – from war and bloodshed. Truly with his advent nations could put up their swords. A golden glow spread its fingers over the world. Light-aureate sunlight- was the image of his reign. A time of peace and contentment had dawned.
Their cosmic benefactor, called the saviour, bestowed on them mercy justice and freedom. The world was about to be transformed. He was the son of the divine. He brought the world good news.
And his name was … Augustus.
Luke begins there with Augustus, the promise of power and politics. But it does not stop there. (It was amusing but timely that one cartoonist portrayed the PM barking orders over the phone with a bust of Caesar Augustus next to him.)
Instead of consulting Augustus our story says God spoke to shepherds. And let's not be romantic. Shepherds were usually classed with ass drivers, sailors, butchers, camel drivers and other despised occupations. Being away from home at night they were unable to protect their families, hence considered dishonourable. In addition, they were often considered thieves because they grazed their flocks on other peoples' property.
The good news of great joy is given to them. But first "Do not be afraid."
Living under fear
From time immemorial human being beings have lived in fear, not the healthy primal force that drives us towards self protection. The people of Jesus' birth knew another fear.
They were afraid of their Roman overlords. We have noted that the day of the birth of the Emperor Augustus had been celebrated in messianic strains. He was hailed prince of peace and saviour. It was man made religion that called fear hope.
The poets celebrated the Age of Augustus as the dawn of a new era – an age of gold. The empire was expanding, the economy boomed: Law culture, arts, humanities, military might, religion thrived.
But the soul of this empire, as with all man made religion, was tyranny and violence. And slowly it began to die intellectually and with a withering of the heart. The demons of the empire of tyranny and violence were pessimism, fear, helplessness, fatalism. And they were let loose with force.
We have placed our hopes in liberal secularism which has given us great gifts only to find a desert, a void, a dessicated but comfortable meaningless hole.
They were afraid that the radical terrorists of their day would lead them into an unwinnable war, which they did much later. They were afraid that they couldn't pay their taxes; that the rich would ride roughshod over them. They were afraid that God had left them to rot in their own mess.
Out of such fear we inflict all kinds of misery on one another. We assert our superiority over one another; we try to frighten each other, especially if we have some sort of tenuous power over others.
Our fears may have different names: terrorism, climate change, entrenched corruption, economic uncertainty, loneliness … not much different.
When we fear each other we cannot trust each other. More and more research indicates how important trust is for every dimension of life and wellbeing, including economic. Fear sours those intimate and delightful relationships that mean so much to us.
In the place of trust we put our addictions, including consumerism. Our goal is to find joy. Our addictions give us short term hits but still joy eludes us. It is like a shadow, flitting around the corner of our pain, fear and loneliness.
Still, the angel speaks of good news of great joy. Is that possible? And is Jesus the one who can answer that question?
I am bringing you good news of great joy.
Joy is always the product of beauty, of love, of generous, open relationships. Think about the most joyous times, when things like hope and pleasure and gratitude and peace all come together in one potent mix. Joy enters our lives always when the beauty of loving open, generous, hospitable, accepting relationships takes root our lives.
We also know how rare that is.
And the story Luke tells is good news. Everything has changed because God opens Godself in the beauty of an open, generous, accepting, and hospitable relationship. Joy has its roots in God' action.
The story of this child born in the manger is the story of joy found not in wealth or consumer goods or status or power but in the humble God.
There was a joy ever present in Jesus' life. He was so open to God and the beauty of God's hospitality that He would not only bring joy he would live it. One of Jesus' most vitriolic critics once said of him:
"He traversed Galilee in the midst of a continual feast…His entering a house was considered a joy and a blessing. He stopped in the villages and the large farms, where he received an eager hospitality…The mothers… brought him their children in order that he might touch them. Women came to pour oil on his head and perfume on his feet." (Renan)
How can the joy that infused Jesus' life and drove him to be what he was be ours also? The story tells us how.
The future is not in the hands of Augustus and his modern counterparts but in the hands of the God who opens himself to us in love and mercy and peace and justice. The hope for our humanity is the God who becomes a child. The future is open to us. The future good in store for us is the beauty of the birth: loving, generous, hospitable relationship. Joy is built on hope in God.
Joy is also built on trust in God. How deeply we miss trust when it is not there. Mistrust, suspicion turn quickly to the acid of dislike, hatred and we close in on ourselves. That no longer has to be. God shows himself trustworthy coming to us in humility, mercy and love.
Joy flows from forgiveness. The good news tells of forgiveness. The past does not have to dominate us and tomorrow does not have to be the same as today. The good news of Jesus tells of healings, of exorcisms, all pictures of the renewing power of God. We do not have to remain trapped in what is.
That is because joy is part of the transformation that God works. In a world designed to shut down joy by conformity, by fear, and replace it with greed, with every kind of addiction, with cruelty, with violence, and shallow relationships we can break that world's bounds.
Joy, then, is our total wellbeing expressed in praise and thanks. Joy comes from that sense of wholeness that comes from having our relationships right.
And the only response to joy is praise. One of the great signs of that God's joy is set free among us is that we sing the praises of the God who comes humbly among us. The whole of life then becomes a ground for thanksgiving. A whole new positive vision of life can emerge. Life does not have to be governed by negatives and fear.
But a word of warning. The powers like Augustus and his ilk do not want people like Mary or the shepherds or us, ordinary people, to live lives of joy and praise. We are more controllable when we are afraid. We are more susceptible to their deceits when we believe their talk that all we need is what they will offer us; more consumer goods, more mistrust of those they define as enemies, and more fear.
I love a carol called "Music of the Christ child come." One verse goes thus:
"Music of the Christ child come, Oh come again
Into the lives of men where dark recesses
Deep distresses and wildernesses of cold impenetrable night
Crave the light
Music of the Christ child come."
The Christ child comes, the God of joy and hospitality and our lives find light. And we are free. At last.
That is the promise to you, not of a long ago child but the Living Christ, the true glorified ruler of the cosmos. To you.