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No doubt most of us will hear the Christmas story read several times over the
next three or four weeks - the familiar words telling of the birth of Jesus, read
from the Gospel of Matthew or Luke. Many people know the stories off by
heart and would be able to recite them without much help from the actual text.
But as we read them or hear them, there is one phrase which occurs several
times at various points in the story, usually in connection with the arrival of an
angel. The phrase is "Do not be afraid." Why?
As the angels appear very unexpectedly every time - to Zechariah, Mary, Joseph
and the shepherds - they obviously need to reassure their hearers that all is
well and that they are coming with good news. I'm sure we'd all be a bit taken
aback if someone just turned up in our kitchen or next to us out in the countryside
with no warning at all. But when we read of the angel appearing to the
shepherds in Luke 2:9 (even before he's been joined by the massed ranks of the
heavenly choir), we are told that "the glory of the Lord shone round them". This
wasn't just a surprise appearance by the angel: this was something very unusual
and very spectacular.
The Christmas story, which we will all have heard many, many times, can become
very familiar and very cosy. As we now experience it, the nativity narrative
is a nice story about a special baby, which over the centuries has become
sanitised and domesticated. As we have already said, most of us know the stories
off by heart and they seem to hold no surprises for us. But they're actually
about the glory of the Lord bursting into our world, about God doing things that
are shocking and awesome.
The coming of Jesus, the long-awaited messiah, the Son of God, into our world
as a bawling, bloodied baby amongst the dung and dust of the Bethlehem stable
was an occasion of shock and awe. There was shock because things didn't happen
as you would have expected them to. All the expectations of the people
were subverted, expectations of the Messiah who had been promised for so
long, whom the Hebrew prophets had been foretelling for centuries. The Mes-
siah, God's Son - Emmanuel, God with us - came as a baby, a weak, vulnerable, highly
dependent baby. He was born not in a palace, not to a royal wife, not with the
attentions of the best midwives and with fanfares of trumpets, but in the muck and
mess of a pub outhouse, in relative poverty and great humility. God was coming into
his world in person - but the shock was not that he came, but in the way that he
came.
And there was awe, because despite the unexpected way in which he came, it was
still very clearly of God, this was still a divine occasion. The royal trumpeters didn't
herald the birth, but the sky was filled with angels and a strange star shone over the
town. The baby was born of a young woman who was apparently a virgin. There was
a clear sense of glory over all that happened. And both shepherds and wise men
found themselves on their knees before this tiny baby. They worshipped and then
spread the good news with excitement and enthusiasm.
God so loved this world - with all its mess and muck, with all its sin and cynicism,
with all its pain and poverty - that he sent his only Son, Jesus, the baby of Bethlehem,
into this world order to do something about it, to ensure that no-one need die
with their relationship to him unresolved, with the prospect of a lost and wasted
eternity. God loves you so much that Jesus was born into that smelly stable, Jesus
grew to adulthood criticised and persecuted, Jesus was executed and humiliated on
the cross at Golgotha, Jesus was brought through death and out the other side to
blaze a trail for all who believe in him - God loves you so much that he was prepared
to let Jesus go through all that in order for you to be restored to what you were
meant to be. That is awesome. If you really think about that, it should drive you to
your knees in wonder and gratitude and worship.
Maybe you've never thought about Christmas like that before. Maybe you've never
really linked the sentimental, cosy pictures of the baby in the manger with the awesome,
shocking Son of God who left the glory of heaven to burst from the bloodied
thighs of young Mary into a feeding trough. But whoever you are, however deep
you're in with Jesus, pray that Christmas will never lose its shock and awe for you.



Rev Ian Hayter



 
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Last updated: October 9th, 2018
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