Richard’s Carol Service Talk

Richard’s Carol Service Talk

A massive thank you to everyone who has helped and given of themselves tonight…  We are all so grateful for just being in the room, for singing, for being able to do this thing…  And so grateful for the readings, and the choir and the songs…  Thank you Debbie…  Thank you all…

But does it make sense to you?  If we are really honest, can we really grasp it all?  This crazy, wild, remarkable story, carrying an even more amazing, remarkable, and wild truth?

There’s a good reason why the song we just sang, starts every verse with a negative…  I cannot tell – I don’t understand it – I can’t get my head around it…  It’s honest isn’t it…  This story is both strange and remarkable, in both content and meaning…

I cannot tell why He, whom angels worship,
  Should set His love upon the sons of men,
Or why, as Shepherd, He should seek the wand’rers,
  To bring them back, they know not how or when.

It’s a bold way of starting a Christian hymn… but I do like it… because it gives space for the wonder of it all

Now, the over-arching theme we chose for all our services this year has been Comfort and Joy.  Comfort.  And joy.  Peace and happiness… 

The words come from the Carol – God rest you merry Gentlemen – a song about the Angels announcing news to the shepherds… …

It’s one of our oldest carols – dating back to the 1650’s…  And the opening line, God rest you merry, Gentlemen – dates back even further, another hundred years or so and is quoted by Shakespeare and others of the time.  The comma has moved over time so that we now think of it as a song addressed to ‘merry gentlemen’ – a phrase which conjures up all kinds of images for us…  But the original line meant something more like this, ‘Gentlemen, may God grant you peace and happiness.’  Rest and merriment.  Comfort and joy.

And of course, this is a hyper-link to Luke’s 2 which we’ve heard read:

And there were shepherds living out in the fields near by, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord

Have you ever wondered, ‘Why the Shepherds…?’  Why did God choose them to make this astounding announcement?

Now, we don’t know much about the shepherds but over time we have definitely filled in the blanks and so the pictures and ideas we have about them have become kind of hardwired and fixed in our imagination…  So, what do you think?

Were the shepherds rich or poor?
Were they insiders or outsiders?
Were they clean or unclean?
Were they holy or uncouth?

Now, because of the way we tell the story again and again, we can’t help but think that the shepherds are the surprising ones that the Angels visited that night…  The poor, unclean, uncouth, outsiders that God announced the news to…  And this becomes the meaning of this bit of the story for us – God’s surprising choice – which in turn is meaningful for us as it reinforces the powerful message that Jesus came for the poor, the outsiders and the unclean…  All of which is of course, wonderfully true! 

But while Jesus certainly did come for the poor, the outsiders and the unclean, all of which applies to all of us at one time or other, for a moment, I want to open up another idea about the shepherds and their role in this story…  I wonder if we have been missing something that points us in another direction, something that the hymn we just sang gets right…

I cannot tell why He, whom angels worship,
  Should set His love upon the sons of men,
Or why, as Shepherd, He should seek the wand’rers,
  To bring them back, they know not how or when.

Because I think the shepherds were in the story, and were the first to see the saviour – not so much to make a point about God’s inclusion of people on the edge of things – but because it’s a way of making the point that Jesus was one of them – he was going to be a shepherd – more than that – the great shepherd, the good shepherd

You see, again and again through the Old Testament, God himself is presented as a shepherd. 

Psalm 23, most famously, simply starts, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”

But it’s a theme all the way through…  Earlier in Genesis 49 we read about Joseph, (the one with the technicoloured dream coat – not the one in the Christmas story) “whose strong arms were made agile by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob, by the name of the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel.”

And then through the prophet Ezekiel God speaks to his people and says, “As a shepherd looks for his sheep on the day he is among his scattered flock, so I will look for my flock. I will rescue them from all the places where they have been scattered on a cloudy and dark day.”

YHWH is a shepherd… And when he comes, he will come as a shepherd

And when you think about it, the three key Jewish figures, Abraham, Moses and David, they were all shepherds

  • Abraham – the father of them all – was a shepherd with many flocks.
  • Moses – the one who led them out of Egypt, as you might lead a flock of timid sheep to green pastures, was also a shepherd when he received his call from God at the burning bush
  • King David – the king whose rule dominated the imagination of the people – and who came from Bethlehem – started his life as a shepherd on those same hills.

If God was going to come to his people and save them, he will come like a shepherd.

And so, what better place and what better people to announce this news than to a group of shepherds on David’s hillside

Where do our politicians go when they want to make an announcement about health?  They go to a hospital.  Or about education?  They go to a school.  Or about housing? They go to a building site.  Or about business?  They go to a pub…

So, where does God go to announce his saving intentions?  He goes to the shepherds, on David’s hillside – with news of comfort and joy – of rest and peace and happiness because we all need a shepherd…  the world needs a good shepherd…  a Saviour, a Messiah, a Lord…

Matthew hyper-links the theme of Jesus as a shepherd in slightly a different way.  He does it by recording what the Chief Priests and teachers of the Law told Herod about where the Messiah would be born:  Quoting Micah they remind Herod what the scripture predicts…

“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah: because out of you will come a leader who will shepherd My people Israel.”

God knows we need a shepherd… God knows we need a shepherd…

And so, it is no surprise that in the rest of the New Testament, the shepherd motif, sticks to Jesus so strongly.

In Hebrews Jesus is the great Shepherd of the sheep

Peter, who knew what it was like to wander, reminds us that we were all once ‘like sheep going astray, but now we have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls.’ 

Now, for Peter all church leaders are shepherds, are ‘pastors’, but he is adamant that Jesus is the Chief Shepherd

And then in the final book of the bible’s library, Revelation, we read that at the end of things, as all things become clear, and all things are renewed we will see that ‘the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; (and we read that) “he will lead them to springs of living water.” “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”’

And of course, Jesus himself made this point so simply, not just in his stories and parables about lost sheep but, as John records, describing himself as the ‘Good shepherd’.

10 The thief, he says, comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. 11 ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. | 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So, when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. | 14 ‘But I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep.

I think God announced the news to the shepherds as one shepherd announcing news to another.  I think that God wanted to surround his son with shepherds at the beginning of his life, as a sign of his son’s calling – his vocation to be a shepherd to the people.

Friends, Jesus is the good shepherd.  We all need a shepherd – someone to save us, to rescue us, to protect us, to seek for us, to bring us home.  This is who Jesus is.  And it’s what he came to do.  There is a thief – come to steal, kill and destroy – but Jesus has come to give us life…

Jesus is God with us – as a shepherd – who lays down his life for the sheep.

It’s a wild, amazing story. 

I cannot tell why He, whom angels worship,
  Should set His love upon the sons of men,
Or why, as Shepherd, He should seek the wand’rers,
  To bring them back, they know not how or when.

And it’s the kind of story that needs a song…

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, let nothing you dismay
For Jesus Christ our Saviour was born upon this day
To save us all from Satan’s power, when we were gone astray;
O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy,
O tidings of comfort and joy.

Some of us here tonight know we need a shepherd.  We need to come home, to be found, to be rescued, to be saved.  We need a new guide, a voice we can trust, a good shepherd who will call us by name and lead us to better pastures and keep us safe when we travel through dark valleys, even death itself.

Make him your shepherd tonight.  Right now.  Why not?  It’s why he came.

Others of us what to explore this more…  Come to Alpha – a great 11 week course that is starting in on January 10th online – sign up on our website – Come to share and listen and ask your questions.

Others of us need to return once again.  If we are honest, we have drifted these past two years and we know we need the good shepherd once again.  It’s time to be found again.  It’s why he came.

I love the hymn we just sang.  It doesn’t just tell us why he came – it tells us how he saves…

I cannot tell why He, whom angels worship,
Should set His love upon the sons of men,
Or why, as Shepherd, He should seek the wand’rers,
To bring them back, they know not how or when.
But this I know, that He was born of Mary,
When Bethl’hem’s manger was His only home,
And that He lived at Nazareth and laboured,
And so the Saviour, Saviour of the world, is come.

I cannot tell how silently He suffered,
As with His peace He graced this place of tears,
Or how His heart upon the Cross was broken,
The crown of pain to three and thirty years.
But this I know, He heals the broken-hearted,
And stays our sin, and calms our lurking fear,
And lifts the burden from the heavy laden,
For yet the Saviour, Saviour of the world, is here.