At the dawn, his hand created
All that crawled or walked or flew.
At the end, when days are over,
Once more, he’ll make all things new.
In between, we sweat and struggle,
Blame the chances missed or lost.
So the seasons turn and wither:
Spring to summer, sun to frost.
Once, in all the years revolving,
He cried out, intersected time;
Took the kind of risk we wouldn’t,
Let the starlight be the sign.
Lord of seasons, tiny baby,
King of puzzles, born to save,
Child whose birthday breaks us open:
Make us trust more, make us brave.
Hymn We three kings
“You must be…ummm…immensely proud,” said the first visitor.
“And tired,” said the new mother.
“Well, you would be, wouldn’t you?” said the second. “It clearly hasn’t been…how shall I put it…easy.”
Her husband grunted. The sort of sound that says: you have absolutely no idea how difficult this has been, no idea at all.
“It’s turned mild for the time of year,” said the third, who frankly couldn’t think of anything to say and those were the words that tumbled out. Neither mother nor father had an answer to that. So the visitors just stood there for a moment, struck dumb by how troubled their own journey had been and how unexpected their destination was. Then they kneeled. “Some gifts for the little one,” said the first, finding his voice again. “Gold, frankincense and myrrh.”
Finally, they turned and stumbled off. Nearly returned to the palace but something in one of their dreams stopped them. Instead, they slipped unnoticed back into their own land where they said little about it…for there was little to say. Of course, they had been amazed but the meaning in it all was unclear. They had simply done what they believed they were expected to do. Only when they were old – after lives and deaths and rumours of angels – only then could they begin to discern the pattern, the astonishing hope that had grown from this humble birth. And, for the first time in their lives, they told the story with a sense that they had, after all, been part of something bigger than anyone could reasonably imagine.
Visitors from the East – Matthew 2:1-9
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, during the time of King Herod, wise men who studied the stars came from the East to Jerusalem 2 asking, “Where is the one born to be the king of the Jews? We saw his star arise in the east, and have come to worship him.”
3 When King Herod heard about this, he was disturbed and asked, “Where will the Messiah be born?”
5 “In the town of Bethlehem in Judea,” his advisers answered. “For this is what the prophet wrote:
6 ‘Bethlehem in the land of Judah,
you are by no means the least of the cities of Judah;
for out of you will come a leader
who will guide my people Israel.’”
7 So Herod called the visitors from the East to a secret meeting and sent them to make a careful search for the child. “When you find him,” he said, “let me know … so that I too may go and worship him.”
They left, and they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it arose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. What joy!
We’ll leave the wise men there for today and move backwards in time so I can offer you two readings you don’t usually hear on the second Sunday of Christmas. They link but the question is how. Every new year should start with a puzzle or two! So we turn back to the second chapter of Luke and just a couple of verses.
8 There were shepherds in that part of the country who were spending the night in the fields, taking care of their flocks. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone over them. They were terrified.
Well, you’d be terrified too, wouldn’t you?! And now back a lot further in time to a reading that doesn’t fully make sense. At least it doesn’t when you start part way through what is happening. You’ll recognise that last words of this reading but you’ll rarely have heard the first. Isaiah 8 verse 21.
A Time of Trouble – Isaiah 8 + 9
21 The people will wander through the land, discouraged and hungry. In their hunger and their anger they will curse their king and their God. They may look up to the sky 22 or stare at the ground, but they will see nothing but trouble and darkness, terrifying darkness into which they are being driven. There will be no way for them to escape from this time of trouble.
Do you think pandemic? I did when I found these verses. And Isaiah goes on
The land of the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali was once disgraced, but the future will bring honour to this region, even to Galilee itself, where the foreigners live for
2 the people who walk in darkness have seen a great light. For those who live in a land of shadows, a light is dawning.
The link? Well, what we have in these three readings are people who will have to go on a journey – a nation, a routine group of agricultural workers and a small gathering of academics. None of these groups are offered a choice. Responses include despair, terror and puzzlement as well as more positive feelings. And the thing that ties these journeys together is not only the babe in Bethlehem but also that they are each lit by light. I suppose I’ve always known that but I’ve never thought to highlight the connection. Every new year should have something new and that’s one thing to start with.
Hymn In the bleak midwinter
Three prayers for this season
Lord, who came to our world in a quiet unremarkable corner of Bethlehem,
a little town beyond the big city,
may we always look for the things that other people don’t notice.
May we marvel at the small miracles of the days:
the winter rose,
the sun low in the sky,
the unexpected smile of a stranger.
And, where anything or anyone gets forgotten,
may we be the ones to remember Amen
Who chose the least expected of settings for the best gift of all, keep our eyes and hearts open to all that you long to give to us in the years that lie ahead.
May the friendship and the kindness of the Christmas season warm our lives in the coldest depths of our winter.
May the heartache and the loneliness we sometimes experience at this time turn us back to your love.
Remind us again and again that your gift was as much for shepherds as it was for kings and that no one is excluded from your family.
And may we, by our actions and our words, make the flame of Christmas burn a little brighter year by year,
Through Jesus Christ, who challenges us to make his spirit live in every season of the year. Amen.
A child is born in Bethlehem, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Llandaff. Then and now, far and near: each child needs protection. Be there at every birth, Lord.
Governments’ demands or changes means families on the move: across the Holy Land, around Africa, through Europe. May families find a way where there seems to be none. May countries cope and destinations be safe. We pray for ordinary people but for politicians too.
Sometimes a mother hears the sound of angels, another time a scream of fear. We pray for all who live in dread of what tomorrow may bring. May hope replace uncertainty, Lord, and trust replace doubt.
As Mary and Joseph sought help in a busy town so a knock may come to our own door – a need, a concern, a trouble, a practical request. May we deal with those moments in whatever way we are able, as your hands and hearts here on earth.
We offer these prayers through Jesus Christ, the baby in Bethlehem, the voice that people had waited for, the saviour still of those who know they need him. Amen.
Hymn Once in Royal David’s City
I am 11 years old. It is December 1962 and it has not been a good 12 months. I’ve been bundled off to a secondary school that is large and a long way from where we live. Worse than that, mum is not well. I can’t work it out. She lies in bed for days on end. Someone comes in to help. I do some of the shopping in my spare time.
She’s had a breakdown but I don’t fully understand the ins and outs of mental illness at this stage in my life. What I do know is that I’d better keep my head down and not cause any added stress for anyone. The message has been drilled home and even I know that this is an important instruction, not just adults letting off steam as they regularly do.
We get by. Over the years I’ve learnt to get by because mum has been unwell before. She has a thyroid that’s been wrong since the birth of my younger brother and nothing has quite sorted it out. What’s happened now is early onset menopause and mum has been flattened by a feeling that she can’t cope with anything at all.
When mum is well, she’s the funniest loveliest mum in the world. Laughter seems to dance around her on those good days but in 1962 there are relatively few of them.
Looking back, I guess that the new school is quite a good thing even though I’m not too sure about the change. It gives me new experiences and a place to make more friends. The school is a different chapter in life and full of odd surprises.
In December, a letter is sent to parents about the school carol service. This is not your regular standard issue event. Oh, no. My parents have sent me to a school that was established in 1639 as a Guild School – Haberdashers’ Aske’s – one of only a handful of secondary schools in the whole country at the time. So it has a carol service in St Martin’s-in-the-Fields just off Trafalgar Square – one of the most famous London churches and as grand a venue as you could imagine.
There’s just one problem: you’re expected to get from wherever you live in the suburbs to the centre of London for just after midday. Now, in case you don’t know, even back in the sixties, 11-year-olds did not regularly take to the London underground system on their own. I’m ahead of many because I’ve been allowed to do one or two short journeys. The heart of London, though, has always been done with mum or dad.
For nearly everyone else in my year group at least one parent seems to have been pressed into service. Not for me. My dad is in retail sales so December is his peak season. My mum? Well, as I said, she’s in bed.
So that leaves my gran at the far end of the London train network on the other side of the big city. She promises my mother that she will meet me at Trafalgar Square underground station. At the top of the steps by the south east lion: we know how to be precise in my family.
My father, who was born and bred in London gives me exact instructions: “You’ll be on the Baker Street train.”
“But don’t go to Baker Street.”
I nod again.
“Get off at Finchley Road and change there. You’ll get totally lost at Baker Street.”
He’s right. Even mum gets confused by all the options there but mainly because she hardly ever reads the departures board carefully enough. We’re often on the wrong train but when mum’s well all she does is laugh uproariously and sweet talk the ticket inspector.
“Finchley Road,” I say to dad.
“You don’t even have to change platforms, just move across from the one side to the other. All the trains are marked Charing Cross and pass through Trafalgar Square. Just remember to get off”
It sounds simple but I’m being shovelled onto one of the largest underground systems in the world and I’m not convinced it will be as easy as I’ve been told.
Well, the day comes and it dawns bright but chilly. It’s a 20-minute walk just to get to the station so I have plenty of time to worry. But there’s nothing wrong with my memory. If only I could say the same now. The trains run on time, I remember to concentrate after Wembley Park and I jump off at Finchley Road.
This is where it goes wrong, I tell myself. But it doesn’t. The next train pulls in with Charing Cross on the front as my dad has told me and I sit there counting off the stations to Trafalgar Square. When I get off the train, there’s a nerve-wracking moment as I look at the choice of exits but they are clearly marked and I follow the one that is supposed to take me up to the square itself.
As I get to the top of the stairs, I panic again. I just know I am going to be in the wrong place. However, the south east lion of Trafalgar square is staring straight at me as I emerge and my nan is standing beside it, smiling.
“Well, you made it,” she says in a voice that clearly indicates she expected I wouldn’t.
Because it’s a school carol service, she sits with the parents and I sit with my form. At this moment, I have never been to a carol service so I have no idea what it will be like. To be honest, I expect it to be utterly boring.
It’s a dark shadowy place, St Martin’s-in-the-Fields, and it feels like night-time even in the middle of the afternoon. The service starts with a candlelit procession. Out of the gloom, an astonishing voice rings out – Once in Royal David’s City. It is Darien Angadi who is a year or two above me in school. I have no idea that he is the best treble in the country who has worked regularly with Benjamin Britten and has a record contract with EMI. But I do know I have never heard a voice like that before and I am transfixed.
The headmaster’s sermon isn’t as great as Darien Angadi’s voice but the service, overall, is at least a little bit magical. Mind you, for an 11-year-old, the visit afterwards to Lyon’s Corner house on The Strand is the bigger magic. Nan and I have always done tea together – Purley, East Grinstead, Sevenoaks. I was the four-year-old who could negotiate a chocolate éclair with a patisserie fork. Old ladies would look on in amazement. So the treat is a reminder of simpler, easier times but it also feels like a reward for getting there.
Back at Trafalgar Square tube station, nan gives me a hug and sends me on my way. The return journey is straightforward – I was always okay at doing backwards what I’d done forwards – and actually I get home slightly early. Even better, mum is out of bed and pottering around the house.
Well over fifty years later, the memory is still vivid. It’s why I still love carol singing. But there must be more to it than that. I suppose it was the moment I realised that I could do more than I thought I could. Plus the fact that I’d got through the darkness and the fears to find a little bit of sparkle at the end of it all.
And that’s why I read you the readings that I did. Because the shepherds were as terrified of the angels as I was of riding the London Underground system on my own. And the Wise Men were as uncertain about where their journey was taking them and what they would find as I was about the task I’d been set that December day nearly sixty years ago.
But most of all I think about the nations who needed light and had got themselves mired in darkness. I’d found a little chink of light by the end of the day; those people that Isaiah wrote to had to wait over 400 years for the promised light to dawn. Suddenly the pandemic doesn’t sound like quite such an eternity anymore.
Finally the words from Isaiah remind his readers and listeners that the light is not just for particular people who think that God may like them but for all the others too … including the foreigners who live in Galilee and who will after four centuries hear one of their own declare: Happy are those who know their weaknesses in God’s world – the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.
John, in his gospel, explains right at the beginning what Jesus is there to do – he is lighting a flame that will never waver, never fail. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not, will not and cannot snuff it out.
We need to hold on to that because it’s not just some people who are on a journey, we all are. May we find the fire that inspires us and the strength that upholds us both in each other and in Jesus who didn’t just come to prop us up but, more importantly, to lead us on Amen
Hymn O little Town of Bethlehem
May the Christ child bless you;
May he always keep you;
May the stars still shine.
May the joy of Jesus with us
And the comfort love delivers,
Be with us here,
Be with us now,
Be with us for all time.