Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14 and Luke 2:1-20
May I speak in the name of God, the everlasting Father, and the Prince of endless Peace, whose authority grows continually in His world! Amen.
What a joy and privilege it is to be here and share this Christmas Eve service with you all! Thanks to the Dean and his staff, all who make our fellowship and worship in this Cathedral Church such a great occasion for peace and joy! Congratulations too, Mr Dean and Bonita, on your 29th wedding anniversary.
We join you in thanking God for the gift and sacrament of marriage and of family life, all the more so today, for tonight we ponder on the news of the holy family starting their family life with a child born in a manger.
Wow, what an end to the year – especially with regard to the passing on of Madiba our icon. Let us be silent for a while as we further acknowledge the 9th day since his burial in Qunu and especially as we lift Ma Graca Machel and Madiba’s broader family in our prayers. [Silence]
Let me continue, for in the midst of death we have life in Jesus Christ our Lord and believe that both the living and the dead are in his hands, and are comforted with these words.
So, a happy and blessed Christmas to all of you who are present in this service, for you too are part of the broader family of God through the birth of Jesus Christ, which we are celebrating tonight. To our regular cathedral family members – even if for some, “regular” means attending midnight Mass regularly every year – welcome, we appreciate your presence tonight.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, now Lord Rowan Williams, used to tell a story which I am paraphrasing – and which my wife says I have told you too many times. Rowan would say, if someone rushed hurriedly into this cathedral, and yelled “Shut the door, run for cover, or dash out," very few would remain seated.
Today’s Gospel passage speaks into this situation, to our fear of the unknown, or a fear of the known which we have kept closely guarded. The Lucan gospel announces boldly tonight: "Do not be afraid."
In modern IT language - which of course is not apt theological language, but as an archbishop in a family raising two teenagers at the moment, I can use colloquial language - God is declaring, through his billboard, or his App, for the the whole world to see and hear, "I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people” – not just some people.
God declares, in the company of his heavenly host that he has seen in our world religion being politicised and the persecution of Christians globally escalated;
He has smelt the rot and pain of inequality in our midst and the resultant humiliation and exclusion of many from the economic order in his world of plenty;
God declares that he has sensed our anxiety and fear, our shame and disgrace when we cannot afford a maternity ward and have to give birth in a shack or a taxi after being sent off home from a local clinic;
God puts his feelings on his sleeve and opens up his heart, and his heart is as heavy and broken as are ours by our personal struggles and the global systemic problems of this mortal life. God sends us his heavenly host to call us back from our straying away from what creation was intended to be; to unveil a road back home.
Throughout our lessons, the consistent theme for today is: I am intervening, I am not an aloof God who is untouchable, distant and unresponsive to your longing.
As the Psalmist says elsewhere in the Bible, God says to us, "I will unloose your bonds." Today's passage from Isaiah puts this declaration succinctly, God declares: I will break the bar across your shoulder, lift your burdens and cast off darkness and fear and illumine you with Christ our light!
Christmas can thus be understood as the birth of good news. It is appropriately celebrated when we proclaim, in words and action, this good news, that God who is love, has pitched his shack in our midst for all people and his creation.
God loved us so much that his son, Jesus Christ, is born of human flesh and blood and encounters the joys and also the angst of human life.
In entering this world of time and space, he holds before us a mirror so that we catch a glimpse of both the divine and a true and full humanity. His birth as one of us transforms and offers us an opportunity to be moulded into the image of his holiness.
That is why we have reason to celebrate this day, this good news, even if life has dealt us a blow in one way or the other in human terms.
God, in this birth that we are celebrating tonight, declares that we can never be alone in our anguish or want, nor will we be left to our own devices, to discriminate against or to lord over the other, until we are wiped off the face of this earth. He is Emmanuel. He is with us. He is the one to whom we sing throughout Advent, “O come, o come Emmanuel!” and frees us from all that keeps us in captivity. In Christmas it is as if he says, "I am he! I am cometh!"
How should we respond to this Revelation, to this good news? Luke's passage from today gives us a way: the heavenly host responded to the news by breaking into worship and praise, saying (Luke 2:12 ff), “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!" The shepherds too in (Luke 2:20) “returned, glorifying and praising God..."
Our faith response to this good news of great joy should thus be to worship God, as we are doing right now, with awe, joy and reverence. In fact our ACSA vision statement has as one of its priorities “transformative worship”.
Yes, our faith response should be to worship God and use liturgies, hymns and prayers that transcend our everyday-ness into a realm in which God in Jesus Christ, through the quiet whisper of the Holy Spirit, reigns and utters the words, “Do not be afraid, for I bring you good news of your liberation.”
The shepherds in our Gospel passage (Luke 2:17), we are told, "Made known (proclaimed) what they had been told and seen, about this child.”
We too are urged to proclaim anew and afresh, in our time and context for all to hear, this good news, this loving and saving act of God in Jesus Christ. This good news cannot be for private consumption only. We need to go out and tell, as we sing occasionally in this cathedral at the top of our voices, the good news that God's kingdom has come!!!
So first, let us in unison create melody as we sing to God, joining the beautiful voices of our choir and the organ accompaniment - as well as those who have worshipped here and are now at rest, and indeed the heavenly host, angels and shepherds - in thanksgiving and praise.
We cannot end here in this safe worship space, we can always start here, old or young, healthy or sickly, poor or rich, and by word as in the letter to Titus, we should also clothe ourselves with all that is more loving and peace-giving towards humanity and the whole of creation. We should, as I have said in the secular media, "peel off those scales in our lives that are old, cynical, tired and negative," and even fearful, and be ready to be light-bearers in God's broken but hopeful world.
In our Gospel reading tonight, the shepherds never sought permission from Emperor Augustus or Governor Quirinius to tell the good news, nor should we in times such as these. The shepherds became new persons, transformed and touched by the news and sight of Jesus Christ.
We too are constantly touched by the mystery of his birth each time we eat his bread and drink his cup until he manifests himself again. So like the shepherds, let this transformative encounter with Jesus Christ in Word, Worship and Sacrament, "compel you to go out and tell the good news."
Go and proclaim the demands for peace with justice and uphold these demands in your lives and community; go and proclaim in loving service the demands for equality, fairness and dignity for all, where the “emperors and governors” in church or state, in business or labour, are corrupt and abusing their power instead of serving God in his people.
As those whose plight God has seen and heard, and also as those fed by the body and blood of our Lord and Saviour, as those who are hearers of the good news tonight, and as those who are empowered for witness and service, we are sent to go and ask God's transformative questions and demand answers for God's sake in his created world.
What shall we ask?
Ask, who is benefitting from the new conflict in South Sudan, from the discord in the Central African Republic, from the killings of Syria, the bombings in Egypt, the xenophobic violence inflicted on economic refugees in our country and continent?
Ask deeper and piercing questions, without fear: about the extent and level of poverty, militarisation and corruption – for when you encounter Jesus Christ, the Comforter, Prince of Peace, the liberator who transforms us, you can never be superficial, nor be the same again.
My message to you is our gift on this special birthday, that we are all being sent to go out then and plead for the cause of the poor, of those without proper sanitation, of those learning in mud schools, the cause of the abused and those affected and infected by HIV and AIDS; for those suffering the pain and humiliation of economic inequality, or those exploited by economic practices. We have to ask, who are the investors and shareholders in exploitative companies, especially in the extractive industries, following the Marikana massacre?
Do not be afraid, for the zeal of the Lord will do this. Good news indeed! You are not alone and so go out, proclaim this celebration of God's utter and unreserved self-giving, the divine Word, mysteriously both human and divine, as the Word transforms your fears and makes you ready to be his salt and light in the here and now.
This birthday gift is a God who transforms us by his presence in our midst and calls us to imitate his holiness.
So let me end by going back to where I started:
Do not be afraid, for the zeal of the Lord will do this; it will enable you to speak for those like the holy family upon whom we are pondering tonight; for those who have no homes, those whose tin and plastic shacks have burnt down today in Valhalla Park, Cape Town, or those who have failed to pay their mortgage instalments and whose only homes the banks have repossessed.
May renewed courage be your gift and special grace this Christmas.
May you yearn earnestly for justice and peace, holiness of life and joy, as you bring his light to this created world.
Finally, may His conception, birth, life, teaching, passion, death, resurrection and ascension transform you and us this day and for evermore.
+Thabo Cape Town
This text has been updated since first published to reflect the sermon as preached, with minor changes for readability in written form.