Sunday, December 12, 2010

Through the darkness ... joy! The shepherds' story

There’s something rather special and endearing about the shepherds. You can, as Becky and the children have shared with us, have a lot of fun with the shepherds. It is the Holiday Club on Saturday … but that’s not going to stop me from getting across to sing carols at Sainsbury’s – 11-00 for an hour – do join us if you can – and when we get to While shepherds watched their flocks by night, we’ll have a lot of fun with the original tune – a rollicking rendering of that favourite of carols to the tune better known as On Ilkley Moor bar t’hat. So join us – we need all the support we can – as some of our regulars cannot make it.

As I read through the shepherds’ story once again for today, I noticed the beginning of the story and the end …

It starts by night when the shepherds were terrified.

It ends as the shepherds returned ‘glorifying and praising God’

I guess what struck me was the transformation from the dark and the fear to the glory and the praise.

Then I noticed something else. The Bible I was using to prepare for this morning has cross references in the margin. I noticed beside that wonderful phrase at the end ‘glorifying and praising God’ there was a cross reference. See Luke 7:16.

I turned to Luke 7:16 and I found it was the end of a story that had started with tragedy and sadness.

Jesus went to a town called Nain, … As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow … when the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her.

The story goes on to tell of the raising of the widow’s son … and of the way Jesus ‘gave him to his mother.” The reaction of all watching is a mixture of opposites - “Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God …”

How curious, there seemed to be the same mixture of emotions. There is the joy of glorifying God. But that glorification of God only emerges out of the fear … and it only comes out of the darkness of the awfulness of this woman’s experience of bereavement.

Isn’t it curious, thanks to the editors of my cross-reference edition of the Bible I started with the Christmas story, but quickly found myself reflecting on one of those moments of tragedy and sadness in the story of Jesus. On this occasion the glorifying of God only comes through the experience of the darkness and in this instance the weeping.

Beside the phrase ‘and they glorified God’ I noticed one of those tell-tale letters that is characteristic of a cross-reference Bible. The superscript ‘w’. I looked across at the margin and a long, long list of cross references, quite a number in Luke’s gospel.

I decided to follow them through.

Next I was taken to Luke chapter 13 verse 13, chapter 17 verse 15, and chapter 18 verse 43 and to three people who experienced the awfulness, the mess, the darkness of life lived at its worst.

A woman who had been bent double for eighteen years, one of a group of ten men suffering from the most feared of all devastating illnesses at that time, leprosy, and a poverty-stricken outcast reduced to begging on the streets of Jericho who cannot see.

Each of those people in a different way is living in the darkness of a world that rejects them, in a world that they can scarcely cope with.

Into the mess of their lives comes Jesus and something happens. Each is in some way set free, as healing comes into their hurt, and light floods into their darkness.

And each of them comes to the point at which they share in glorifying and praising God.

We started with a story you might expect at Christmas, the story of the shepherds. But we quickly have moved on to people whose lives have been torn apart by some of the worst things life can hurl at people. The loss of a son hard on the heels of the loss of a husband, devastating illness, rejection by society, abject poverty.

Into the darkness of each of these situations comes Christ … and in Christ’s presence comes a transformation. Whether it’s the shepherds terrified, the mother weeping, the woman devastated, the leper outcast, the blind beggar ignored, they each find the darkness dispelled and they find themselves glorifying and praising God.

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes feel the darkness can feel extra dark around Christmas … and it’s not just because of the time of the year. If things have gone wrong then everyone else’s enjoyment seems even more difficult to bear.

When that’s how people feel I want to draw people back to the story of Christmas and the message of our faith. Because it is of fundamental importance to me not only that the story takes place in a world that is at times very dark, but also that the message of Christmas speaks into the darkness.

But it is not enough for me that Jesus should come as a baby – babies are all right, but they quickly grow up. It is not enough for me, simply to be reminded of the healing that Christ brings into the lives of those who hurt.

The links in my cross-reference Bible take me further into the story of Jesus, into those parts of his story that have a power to touch us at our darkest and transform our lives too.

The next of our references precipitates us into the final days of Jesus’ life and to chapter 19 verse 37.

As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen.

That path takes them into Jerusalem, to the arrest in the darkness of the Garden, to the trial and to Golgotha, the place of the skull, where in the presence of two criminals Jesus is crucified.

He looked with compassion even on those responsible for his execution, and through them we can sense him looking with compassion on us. It is as if forgiveness and mercy flows out from the cross.

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Then, Jesus crying with a loud voice, said, “Father into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last.

And then comes the next of our references. And these words come from an unlikely source. “When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly, this man was innocent.”

Crucified, dead and buried, on the third day he rose again from the dead.

And that evening, again when it was dark, two friends made their lonely journey home from Jerusalem on the Road to Emmaus, their hopes devastated. Joined by a stranger they did not recognise, they stood still, looking sad.

Once again, the darkness envelops.

It was when he was at the table with them that he took the bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to them, that their eyes were opened, and they recognised him.

We have reached the ultimate moment.

It is now, through Christ’s death and resurrection, that the joy can really become real and firmly rooted.

Listen to that sense of joy those two had, and then to the joy they shared with the others on their return, and to the joy they all have as they wait with expectation.

Luke 24:32-36 and 45-53

32They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us* while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. 36 -->

36 While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’* 37

Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah* is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses* of these things. 49And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’
50 -->
50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.* 52And they worshipped him, and* returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53and they were continually in the temple blessing God.*

There are dark times, doubly so at Christmas, don’t just join the shepherds in the dark and look to the Christ child, don’t just look to the healing Jesus brought into hurting people’s lives. Realise that he shares with us in the most painful of human experiences on the cross, and invites us to share with him the glory of his resurrection.

That’s what enables us to move from the darkness with all its fear to the joy of giving praise and blessing to God.

But even that is not quite the end of the story.

There’s one thing we must do. And for that our cross references lead us out of Luke’s Gospel into Matthew and to the sermon on the mount where Jesus maps out for us the kind of life we must follow as we follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

Jesus says to each one of us … You are the light of the world … let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works.

That’s it – we need to put our faith into practice and in our actions show love towards others. That’s why Christmas has to be accompanied by doing something for others. And why our communion will include our collection for CHIKS, children’s homes in Kerala State.

Because something happens when we put our faith into action.

You are the light of the world … let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works, and those others will then find something that transforms their darkness and leads them to the point at which they too can share in that praise and glory of God … for they will see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:14-16

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