Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 25 December 2023.
• First Reading: Isaiah 62: 6-12 (Say to the Daughter of Zion: See, your Saviour comes)
• Epistle: Titus 3: 4-7 (Justified by His grace, we might become heirs of the hope of eternal life)
• Gospel: Luke 2: 1-20 (The birth of Jesus. Message to the shepherds, the angels’ song. The shepherds went to see)
I suppose that it is natural that our images of the birth of Jesus are centered on the stable and on the baby lying in the manger. That is how we are told it happened.
And so our Christmas carols and cards, our whole vision of what happened rests on these pictures. And indeed artists and composers have definitely projected them into our homes and churches.
It is as if the celebration is of the birth of Jesus alone. As one modern carol puts it, ‘Man shall live for evermore because of Christmas Day.’ And this idea has stuck with us.
There is however a challenge here, for Jesus did not stay in the manger. He grew up. Matthew tells us that when the Wise Men came calling, Jesus was already living in the house, maybe a toddler, already having moved on from being a baby.
And then He became a refugee, possibly visiting many parts of Egypt.
Then there were the stories of His Bar-Mitzvah, His baptism in the Jordan and His ministry, all leading up to His passion and resurrection.
The point is that Jesus did not spend His life in the manger, and if His life moved on then so must our faith and our discipleship in Him.
What began in the womb of Mary, did not even end on the cross or the empty tomb. It lives on, as a living reality and truth, which He wants us to enter and then to share with others. Jesus is indeed risen and glorified, at the right hand of God.
And if we stay with the baby in the manger, it is as if we never get beyond the contents page of a book, or the programme of a concert. We might buckle up in the car but not start the engine.
And out lessons give us two other pointers.
First, Isaiah, writing of the intercessors for Israel, of whom the present need is great, and their need for wise counsel is pressing, says that these are watchmen, looking at events and then praying to God about them.
But he says, crucially, give yourselves no rest in your prayers. A couple of tastefully-worded collects is not enough. Continue in prayer, wrestle in prayer, for you are not contending with God but in His name with the forces that oppose Him.
And those prayers are being secured and answered by the very same baby who grew up and grew strong, great in wisdom and in authority.
The One who started life in utter dependency on others is now looking for our prayers in the things of God. As His people, are we so asleep and so satisfied with the world that we will not contend before the Lord for His powerful purposes? Does He not also seek the prayers of His disciples so that He might move?
But then in Titus, we are reminded that that we are not saved into the purposes of God by our own works but by His mercy.
That is a mercy that looks for our engagement in the things of God through the release and movement of the Holy Spirit. Our own initiatives are never enough.
And this brings me back to the manger. What started life as a helpless baby became risen, glorious, triumphant over the very powers of sin and death.
We also need to move on from our own mangers. Whatever the bad experiences of life in general and of the church in particular, we need to move on.
Whatever disappointments and frustrations of life, we do not need to let them define us.
And so my central point is that Jesus was laid in a manger at His birth: but He did not stay there.