Sermon in Ankara for the First Sunday of Christmas (27th December 2020) - The Revd Patrick IrwinThe evangelist Luke likes to put the story of Jesus in its historical context and so he informs us that the birth of Jesus took place in the days of the Emperor Augustus. Julius Caesar’s great-nephew Octavian had been given the title Augustus by the Roman Senate in 27 B.C. He had brought peace and stability to the Roman world after decades of civil war. There is an elegant contrast between the peace-bringing ruler dominating the Roman world and the little baby to be born in Bethlehem who will be the real Prince of Peace. It is not to the Emperor Augustus and the governor Quirinius and their like that the Good News of Christ’s birth will first be brought, but to shepherds watching their flocks by night.
We are so familiar with the story that it may not strike us as strange that it was shepherds to whom the angels appeared. They are not the most obvious candidates for this revelation. What about the rabbi and cantor in Bethlehem synagogue, men reading and expounding God’s law and singing his praises with a group of the faithful? Later God would use the faithful worshippers Simeon and Anna to welcome the baby Jesus to the Temple. Yet the first news is not given to the faithful at prayer. It is given to a group of shepherds going about their nightly lives on the hillside.
Although God is described as a shepherd (as in Psalm 23: "The Lord is my shepherd") and this imagery is familiar in the Old Testament, the actual shepherds in first century Palestine were regarded as uncouth and untrustworthy. Early rabbis actually banned shepherds from appearing as witnesses in court on the grounds that shepherds were intrinsically untrustworthy! Clearly God did not share his servants’ opinion!
The angel appears to the shepherds and tells them that he has brought them good news of great joy. Ευαγγελιζομαι, says the angel, at least in the Greek of Luke’s account, and the word may indeed sound familiar, for this giving good news is literally the proclamation of the Gospel. It is the Good News, the Gospel, Ευαγγελιον in Greek and Evangelium in Latin, that has given us the words evangelist for those who proclaim the Good News in four books of the bible or on the street-corner. We might call this angel the first evangelist, as he is the first to proclaim the Good News of Christ’s Birth. It is important to remind ourselves of the origins of the word, that our Christian Gospel is by definition and must always be Good News, Good News of great joy for all the people, though it may be News that causes the devil and his minions to tremble. The angel tells the shepherds that it is news of great joy, and the evangelist Luke reminds us of the importance of joy in our faith when, at the very end of his account of the life of Jesus, he relates how the disciples return to Jerusalem after Jesus’ Ascension. They do so with great joy.
The evangelist angel has invited the shepherds to visit the baby Jesus. They may not have been the most obvious candidates for the initial invitation. They may not have been worthy of it. Yet God had instructed his angel to invite them. So it is with us. We too may not be worthy of an invitation to the crib. Yet God has invited us to worship and adore his Son, the Saviour of the World. Like the shepherds we have been invited to worship at the manger.
Many roads lead to Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph came to Bethlehem because they were ordered to do so by the authorities. Some will encounter Jesus by surprise as they go about their daily lives. The shepherds saw a heavenly vision. Some will come to Jesus as a result of a dramatic experience of conversion. The wise men were led by a star and scriptural quotation. Some will meet Jesus through scholarship. The roads we may have taken are varied, but they lead us all to the manger, to the one Lord, who is awaiting us. So let us join this Christmastide with the shepherds and the wise men and all the hosts of heaven in celebrating this Good News that we have heard, that to us is born a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.