Text: Luke 2.12
The angels said to the shepherds, ‘This will be a sign to you: you’ll find the baby wrapped in swaddling bands, and laid in a manger’. A sign? A sign of what?
If, like me, you are a fan of social media, you will undoubtedly have come across those clever signs which get erected outside of churches from time to time. Some of them only work if you can see them – because deliberate mis-spelling is essential to the joke. But some can be repeated orally. Like these:
“Forgive your enemies. It messes with their heads.”
“Come to our annual ‘Fish Fry’ – because our cod is an awesome cod!”
“Honk if you love Jesus! If you want to meet him, text while driving”
I rather like the sign I saw at another local church recently, which leaves no doubt in the mind of church-goers about where they should not leave their cars. It simply says “Thou shalt not park here’. I saw a similar one in the States which says “Parking for the Preacher only. If you park here, you preach!”.
There are other kinds of signs too. We all like to look for signs which foretell the future, or which guide us to some deeper reality. ‘Red sky at night…Shepherds’ delight’ for example. A surprisingly large number of people still seem to think that the position of certain stars in the ‘zodiac’ might predict what’s going to happen in their lives. We seem to be hard-wired to want to get some inside information from the Universe about what is going to happen.
The Bible is stocked full of signs. Time and again, our ancestors of faith used signs to speak to the people of the reality of God, way before rising literacy-levels meant that signs could be written in words. Moses lifted up a serpent on a stick in the desert, as a sign that people should look to God for their healing. Even today, the ancient symbol of pharmacies across the world is still a snake on a stick, thanks to Moses. The prophet Hosea deliberately married an unfaithful woman, as a sign to the people that they had been unfaithful to God. The star of Bethlehem was a gigantic sign, across the heavens, which lead wise men to search for the King. And Jesus performed many supernatural acts as signs of the power of God moving among humanity.
So what sign was God sending when he sent his Son to be born in a humble stable? What deeper were the Angels – the messengers – of God pointing to?
The German Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner, suggests that the meaning of
Jesus birth is something like this (and I quote):
“Now God’s self [as Jesus] is on our very earth, where he is no better off than we and where he receives no special privileges, but [shares] our every fate: hunger, weariness, enmity, mortal terror and a wretched death. That the infinity of God should take upon itself human narrowness, that bliss should accept the mortal sorrow of the earth, that life should take on death—this is the most unlikely truth. But only this—the obscure light of faith—makes our nights bright, only this makes them holy.
God has come. God is there in the world. And therefore everything is different from what we imagine it to be. . . . When we say, “It is Christmas,” we mean that God has spoken into the world his last, his deepest, his most beautiful word in the incarnate Word. . . . And this word means: I love you, you, the world and [all] human beings.” (End quote).
So, Jesus’ birth, in poverty and complete humility is a sign. It’s a sign that God truly gets what it means for us to be human, for us to grapple with life. I’m sure we’ve all being doing a lot of grappling this week…not least trying to decide whether we’ve done the right thing, morally or practically, by coming together to worship God this Christmas Eve. And that’s just a small part of the grappling which this time of year brings into all our lives. What presents should I buy? Who should I send cards to? Which family or friends should I gather with? How much food do I need to buy to cope with the shops being closed for a whole 24 hours?!
What about the grappling we must do with the wider world? How much should I give to charity, or to the church this year? Should I buy my energy from sustainable sources? Shall I buy a new car – which will support car-making jobs, but burn up precious planetary resources? Which political cause should I support? What do I think about euthanasia? And as for the Pandemic….”to jab or not to jab” seems to have become the big question of the day.
Our human lives have become ever more complicated in the centuries since the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We have so much more to grapple with, and the complexity of our lives seems to build and build. Nevertheless, at Christmas time, every year, we are drawn back to the simplicity of the stable. We are reminded of the most important things of life…the love of a mother for her child, the simple, basic necessities of life (some shelter and a little food) and (through the wise men and shepherds) the kindness of strangers.
But most of all, we are given a sign – that God dwells with us, grapples with life with us, and offers his life to us. Oh that we might have the courage to put out our hands and grasp the tiny fingers of the outstretched hand of God in a manger. Amen.