The Very Reverend John Hall Dean of Westminster
Monday, 25th December 2006
Colossians 1: 15-19; Luke 2: 1-20
The shepherds were terrified by the sight, as the angel of the Lord came down and glory shone around. They had begun to obey his instruction not to be afraid, when their astonished ears were struck by the song of the angels. Perhaps not surprisingly, they were changed by the experience. They had been visited by the angels, God's messengers. They abandoned their flock, their duty, to see what had happened. While they were there, they told Mary and Joseph what they had heard.
Westminster tonight I find a fairly astonishing sight, as it was for the carol service this afternoon, with people in every corner of the Abbey. Be not afraid. Like the shepherds, we have come to hear the song of the angels. Like the shepherds, we have come to see what happened in Bethlehem. I hope, as they were, we are changed by the experience. Like them, we should tell others what we have seen and heard.
Tonight, we hear the song of the angels in a great company of people from every time and ion every place. Tonight, we join in the song of the angels, glorifying God for what we have seen and heard: the baby in the manger, Mary and Joseph, the ox and ass, the shepherds. This familiar scene focuses our attention on the central fact that in the birth of Jesus, the son of God, born of Mary, God shared our human condition, God is with us.
Listen to the song of the angels. Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom he favours is what we heard this evening. The choir sang this angelic song earlier in the service: 'Gloria in excelsis Deo et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis', literally: Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men [we would add and women] of goodwill. A more modern translation, familiar when the Gloria is sung in English, is Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth. Then again, there is a popular version of the text that runs Peace on earth; goodwill to men.
We could easily misunderstand these words. We can think of people of goodwill as people who are generally good, warm human beings, who wish no harm to anyone and who probably get on quite well with their neighbours: decent citizens, merry gentlemen, people whose will is good. Now if this were the interpretation, we might suppose that the angels are singing of peace to good neighbours, decent citizens, and perhaps only to them. The neighbours from hell can go back to hell. But this is to misunderstand the Greek word translated as goodwill. The meaning of the text is that the angels are wishing peace among those in whom God has placed his goodwill, those who are his people, the ones he favours. And St Luke surely wants us to understand that the ones God favours include the rough and ignorant shepherds who live apart from civilization, apart from decent society, watching their flocks by night.
The gospel is full of stories of surprising people being the ones God favours. Jesus told the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, who both went up to the temple to pray. The Pharisee quite properly thanked God for all the gifts he had received and for the decent life he lived. The tax collector, who knew he had done wrong and indeed lived a terrible life, could not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast saying, Lord, be merciful to me a sinner. Jesus says it was the tax collector and not the Pharisee who went home justified, at rights with God.
They are not all surprising. God favours the man Jesus. After his baptism by John in the river Jordan, a voice came from heaven, You are my Son, the Beloved, whom I favour. The word has the same Greek root as the word goodwill in the song of the angels. But then, the company the adult Jesus keeps is pretty surprising: tax collectors, sinners, and outcasts of various kinds. As his mother Mary sang: he has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.
The shepherds, rough and ready though they are, receive the gift of God's peace on earth and will give glory to God in heaven. They are changed by the profound experience they have of the power, the glory and the love of God. They go and see what happened in Bethlehem and they tell their story.
A real encounter with Jesus does change us. If you visit the church of the Nativity at Bethlehem, you find the lintel of the doorway is set very low; almost everyone except children needs to stoop to go in. The mighty cannot enter; only the lowly or children can go in.
You have come tonight to see Jesus. Whoever you are, and whatever impulse brought you here, Jesus welcomes you. You are in remarkable company - with the shepherds, the angels, the poor, the outcast, the sinners - and the countless men and women who have loved God here on earth and now give glory to God in heaven, and the innumerable hosts throughout the world with whom in Christ we are one.
In a few minutes, as we sing O come all ye faithful, I shall go to the west end of the nave to bless the crib. Come with me in heart and mind. Come to the stable. Stoop to come in. See the baby laid in the manger. See his mother Mary and Joseph watching tenderly. Worship the baby born at Bethlehem.
Later, at the high altar, we shall take and bless bread and wine as Jesus did at the last supper. Those prepared to can come forward and receive the bread and wine as the Body and Blood of Christ, the very sign of his presence with us. This baby, whose birth two thousand years ago we celebrate tonight, when he was grown to manhood, gave his life and was raised to new life so that we might live. We can meet him, and receive his life in ours, in Holy Communion.
Let the encounter change you. The shepherds lost their fear, and found their tongues. They returned glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. May we too glorify God, not only with our lips tonight but in our lives!
May this Christmas be truly a time of blessing for you! Happy Christmas to you all!