Sermon for The first Sunday of Christmas
by Mark Simms - 27th Dec 2020
So, the baby is in the manger and we have just heard the tale of the shepherds. Angels have come and gone with their various messages. The story of the wise men is next week, but we have heard it in the children’s services anyway. There are a few of the less pleasant details of the story that we may have skipped, such as the Holy Innocents and the flight into Egypt, but I think that we have done Christmas as well as is possible, given the circumstances.
But as we look forward to the uncertainties of the coming year, what difference does it all make? Why bother telling the same old stories again and again? In a year of pandemic, what does the story of the birth of Christ have to say to a world of fear, doubt and uncertainty? What relevance to us today is the babe in the manger, the word made flesh?
I think that our reading from Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia can help us see more of what is really going on in this familiar story. It shows us a bit more of God’s bigger picture, of what is happening behind the scenes. Most importantly, it tells of why this mattered to the Christians in Galatia and why it matters to us.
In our reading, Paul reminds the Galatian Christians that before they heard the gospel, they were subject to the “elemental spirits of the universe”. When he wrote this, Paul was not thinking primarily of supernatural forces. In fact, the word “spirit” does not actually occur in the original Greek. The phrase is better translated as “the elementary principles of the world”. Paul was thinking more about the forces at work in human societies and organisations. This is what we sometimes refer to as “the system”. In John’s gospel, it is often called “the world”. People then as now, were under all sorts of pressures to fit in, to get on or to obey.
Whether it was the current fashions, social pressures from friends and colleagues, or the latest whim of the emperor or governor, the Galatian Christians were caught up in the norms and pressures of their society. Sometimes, these pressures were so strong that it seemed that the Galatians were behaving like slaves to the system, with no choice or free will of their own. Paul comments that even the Jewish Christians were acting like slaves to the Jewish law.
This can also be a problem for us. We can also get trapped into the system as “slaves to gods, which are not gods at all”. This means different things for different people. For some of us, it might be looking good on social media. For others, it might be making sure that we have a “proper” Christmas. For yet others, it might be the next stage on the career ladder. We all have different temptations, which can ensnare and enslave us. They can become the most important thing in our minds, dominating all we do. Even in church, the desire to sing beautiful music, to wear the right vestments or to deliver an interesting and engaging sermon, can distract us from the heart of the story we are trying to tell.
Paul reminded the Galatian Christians that this was not the way God meant it to be. We are not meant to be slaves. God wants to adopt us as his children. So, God the Son came into the world as a human being so that we humans could be God’s children. It is through knowing Christ, the son of God and son of man, that we as humans can know what it is to be a child of God. What is more, God the Holy Spirit comes into our hearts so that we can pray to God as our father. Then we can trust in God’s redeeming power in Christ and we can accept our adoption as heirs of all the good things God has to offer.
Knowing that God is our loving father frees us from the need to conform to all those pressures around us. It doesn’t matter how many friends we have on social media. What matters is that we speak God’s truth with his love and care. It doesn’t matter whether we had all the trimmings on the Christmas dinner. What matter is that we shared God’s love with those who were with us. It doesn’t matter what our status is in the world’s eyes. What matters is that we are using our talents and resources in the ways that build up God's kingdom.
God came into the world as Jesus to bring us back to him. He came as a child to show us we can be his children. He came into a family under the Jewish law so we can gain freedom from the pressures and ties that enslave us. He came as a son so we can be his heirs.
This is why the Christmas story is good news. It is through God’s coming to us as Jesus, truly human and also truly God, that we can be adopted as God’s children. As God’s children, we know that he loves us, whatever the world might think. That frees us from being a slave to the system and to live in God’s love. If we make our homes in that love and let it make its home in us, then we will not have to fear the judgement of people or of God.
This is good news indeed.