I used to celebrate Christmas in my childhood in South of France, at my grand mother’s. Many traditions around Christmas there, one of them is to have 13 desserts! The tradition that is the most well known is “creche”, nativity scenes. During Christmas time, you visit different churches, they all have their nativity scene, some of them use as much space as the space we have here for the altar! The whole village is represented – with those little characters called “santons”, not only shepherds as in the Gospel, but the postman, the mayor, the baker, the seamstress..even the priest! Coming to adore baby Jesus. I remember spending a lot of time as a child looking at all of them…Maybe you’ve had a chance to visit at the National cathedral? At this time of the year, they display nativity scenes from all over the world.
Amazing to see all those different people surrounding Baby Jesus, all united around Jesus. Sometimes a little bit like that here at Christ Church. We are really a diverse church. Lots of different backgrounds, but we all come here to worship Jesus, especially on this Christmas Eve.
In our world, so many different people and ways of living: What is it that we have in common? What would you say is, in spite of all our differences, the thing we have all in common?
Well, there are different answers to that, but to me, clearly, the thing we all have in common as human beings is that we all want to be happy. Think about it, think about what you really want for your life, or for the life of your children, of those you love. If you had only one wish you could ask for to a fairy, what would you ask for? Probably for happiness. Or maybe you would not ask it like that, maybe you would ask for health or to be loved by this very person, or maybe you would ask to get this amazing job, or to win the lottery – but if the fairy were to tell you: “I will grant you this wish, but it won’t bring you happiness, in fact, it’s going to make you very unhappy” Well, probably you wouldn’t want the thing you asked for anymore, would you? In the end, what we long for is happiness.
Now, what is it that God wants for us? Maybe it’s hard to tell, we barely know who God is, how could we tell what God wants for us? So we turn to the Bible, to try to understand what God has in mind for people. And as we read the Bible, we may come up with different answers. Some people say that, above all, God wants us to obey, to behave. Or to be good people. Or maybe: God wants us to believe. And that’s all right…
But listen closely to what God is telling us in the silence of this quiet night. Tonight God sends his angel, his messenger, to the shepherds and this is what God tells through his angel: “See – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people”.
And this is the beginning. The beginning of Luke’s Gospel, the beginning of the story of God incarnated, God with us in the person of Jesus, and this is how the beginning is: God wants us to rejoice. God wants to share God’s joy with all humankind. God does not want us first thing to obey, to behave or even to be good people. God wants us to rejoice. And so, no wonder we all have a longing for happiness, because this is what the Gospel tells us today: We are made for joy. We are made for joy and not any kind of joy, we are made for the joy that comes down from heaven. We are made for the joy that comes down from heaven. Maybe this is what it means to be human. To be meant to be filled with God’s joy.
Now you would think: If we are meant to be filled with God’s joy, if it is God’s will for us, and if deep down we want to be happy, things should be very straightforward, no? And yet, when we look around, or maybe when we look inside of us, we know that there is often not that much happiness to be found.
How do you explain that? If God really wants us to be filled with joy, and if we want so much to be happy, how comes happiness is so hard to find? Well, maybe we need to listen to the rest of what the angel has to tell the shepherds on that night, what the angel has to tell us tonight. There are two things that the angel does that I think are really, really important. First the angel ask the shepherds not to fear, and then the angel points them in the direction of Mary, Joseph and the child in the simplicity and the humility of their condition.
“Do not fear”. We’ve heard tonight that when Jesus was born, there was no room for him in the inn and so, it’s often an image preachers use, to say that, for us, at Christmas, we need to make room for Jesus in our hearts. We need to make room for Jesus. And as it goes, there is only so much room in a human heart. Not because we love other people or other things too much but what takes the most space in our hearts, it is as the angel tells us: It’s fear. It’s anxiety. I don’t think it’s our fault. We are humans and there is so little we can control. The shepherds had reasons to fear on that night: fear of the wolves, of the thieves. Fear of the oppressors (they were living under Roman occupation), fear of their own people: people didn’t like shepherds because they had what was considered a demeaning job. So, there were a lot of things that were threatening to them – but the angel says that God is not one they need to fear. God is not threatening them. God comes to them, on that night, as a little baby – not as an Emperor or as a judge. So really, God wants us to believe that although we may be afraid of many things, animals or people – sometimes for good reasons – we really don’t need to be afraid of God. We have to trust in God’s goodness, even if God can be scary because God’s glory is so big. The only thing we should be afraid of is to reject God. God wants us to rejoice in God’s presence, and not to run under the bed to hide away.
And then the angel does a second thing. The angel points to Mary and Joseph and Baby Jesus and the angel says this is where the shepherds need to go, this is where joy is to be found. We could spend a lot of time looking at our nativity scenes to understand what joy is all about, where joy is to be found. According to the angel, joy is to be found among the little ones, the poor, the humble. People like Joseph and Mary and their baby. Joy is not to be found in a palace or even in a Temple, joy is to be found in the heart of those who love, and joy will be found for the shepherds as they go to adore the baby. Think about it. The angel announces “A Savior”, but what could this little baby do for these shepherds? They would probably be very old when the child would finally be of age to “save” them! And yet, the shepherds rejoice, they find joy in adoring him.
The thing is – Joy and happiness aren’t exactly the same. Maybe sometimes, they are quite the opposite. We want to be happy, as I’ve said. Yet, have you heard how we speak about happiness? When we speak about happiness, we think about all the things we need to have to be happy, all the things we need to do, all the goals we need to achieve. How we want to be admired and respected. And so happiness seems always out of reach, there is always something that misses in our lives so we can be truly happy.
But this is what God says to us on this very night: It’s the rich who look for happiness as something they have to find, to achieve or even to deserve, and they exhaust themselves in doing so, and they sometimes make themselves and others very unhappy by doing so. But this is the secret: Joy is for the poor of heart, joy is for the humble – because the poor of heart expect God to give them what they cannot give to themselves. Joy is something that God and only God can give us – not as a reward – but because joy is what God wants to give us from the start, because joy, this what God is. In Matthew’s Gospel, we hear God say the day Jesus is baptized: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus is God’s joy, and God wants to give us Jesus, and this is the gift among all gifts.
To receive God’s gift, maybe we need to be more simple. To renounce to try so hard to find, to achieve or to be worthy of happiness, and to rely on God to give us the joy we were made for, receiving God’s gift into our hearts in adoring Jesus. When we love, we stop thinking about everything that’s not going well. When we love we only want to be with the one we love.
Tonight, like in the nativity scene, we are gathered around the one we love, around the one who love us beyond words, so much beyond words he had to become flesh to tell us. Let’s rejoice to be with one another and as we do so, let us learn how to receive God’s love, to (re) discover the wonders of God’s love for “all the people”, for each one of us. That’s what church is for (and not only on Christmas Eve!): to learn how to love and to share this love in a world that longs so much for joy. Amen.