Welcome to worship with the Ocean Grove &
Barwon Heads congregations
This service was streamed live from the Ocean Grove church via Zoom on December 25th at 9am
Below is the entire text for a service of worship for home use for those who are not ready to return to public gatherings. Even though the service is streamed live, those who are unable to participate online may use this material at any time for their private devotions. If ‘two or three’ are gathered with you, you may choose a ‘leader’ in order to use the responsive prayers and readings as you would in church.
There are also links to YouTube files for music and, should you rather listen than read, sound files for some of the text, including the sermon . [I’m sorry about the commercials that sometimes come with YouTube clips. Be sure to click on the “Skip Ad” box if and when it appears in the lower right of the YouTube clip] When a YouTube clip has finished, simply click on the ‘back’ button of your browser to return to this page. Pictures can be enlarged by clicking on them.
“For he was made man that we might be made God.”
CALL TO CELEBRATION (based on Is.52:7,9)
L: How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of one who brings good tidings.
R: We receive good tidings of joy, words of peace, a messenger of salvation.
R: Word of the infant born in Bethlehem is our good news.
L: Christ is born. The prophet’s hopes are made flesh and all our longings are made human in joy.
R: Rejoice and be glad for Christ is born!
JOURNEY INTO SILENCE
All this was a long time ago, I remember,And I would do it again, but set down,This set down,This: were we led all that way forBirth or Death? There was Birth certainly,We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,But I had thought they were different; this Birth wasHard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,With an alien people clutching their Gods.I should be glad of another death. (from Journey of the Magi by T.S.Eliot)
Let there now be a quiet time among us. Come apart from the busyness of family and work, and dwell in the presence of God, who is our source of being. (30 seconds of Silence)
WE REFLECT UPON OUR RELATIONSHIPS
God, the prophet proclaims, the angels announce, the star lights the way, and we still ask, “Where?” Like children, we stand first on one foot and then the other, waiting impatiently for a parade, so eager for the bands and floats that we miss it while telling a friend what’s coming.We want a circus God. We want ringmasters and acrobats, tigers and elephants, beautiful bareback riders – not some straw-strewn hovel with a sway-backed donkey and a tired woman with dark skin. God, keep us willing and alert, that when you reveal yourself, we may be aware. Amen.
THE ASSURANCE (John 1:14,12)
L: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” and “as many as received him, to them he gave the right to become children of God;” and so I declare to you, the door to life has been opened for us.
R: Thanks be to God!
FROM THE HEBREW SCRIPTURES – Isaiah 62:6-12
This portion of Isaiah takes up the themes of Is.40-55, which announced the impending return of the exiles from Babylon to their homeland, but it is reapplied to a new situation. It is no longer exiles returning home, but pilgrims going up to the temple in Jerusalem for the feast.∫ Christians have chosen to reapply the theme to the birth of Christ, so that the passage speaks of the joy of the new Israel at the advent of its salvation.
7 And give Him no rest till He establishes
And till He makes Jerusalem a praise in the earth.
8 The Lord has sworn by His right hand
And by the arm of His strength:
“Surely I will no longer give your grain
As food for your enemies;
And the sons of the foreigner
shall not drink your new wine,
For which you have laboured.
9 But those who have gathered it shall eat it,
And praise the Lord;
Those who have brought it together
shall drink it in My holy courts.”
10 Go through, Go through the gates!
Prepare the way for the people;
Build up, Build up the highway!
Take out the stones,
Lift up a banner for the peoples!
12 And they shall call them The Holy People,
The Redeemed of the Lord;
And you shall be called Sought Out,
A City Not Forsaken.
FROM THE GOSPELS – Luke 2:1-20
The angelic messenger had told the shepherds that they would see a “sign.” What they see has a meaning beyond what is visible to the eye: a baby, his mother and her husband; a common enough sight. This sight is a “thing which has happened.” The word translated as “thing” can also mean “word”, i.e. a significant, meaningful communication. So the sight of the child is a communication about the significance of what the angel had told them: that God’s salvation had come to earth. This reading is a protest against the sentimentalising of Christmas. We are not just celebrating the birth of a baby, but rather the dawning of a new age characterised by God’s peace and favour toward humanity.
2 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before 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; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
A CONTEMPORARY WITNESS – “Let’s Pop Over to Bethlehem”
“Come, we must go straight to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened.” (Lk.2:15)
For me, Christmas is THE time of year. Certainly, in the Church it is at least one of the main celebrations of the year. Yet it was not always so.
Apparently, it was not observed at all until around 336 A.D., some three hundred years after Jesus’ death. During the Cromwellian period in England, efforts were made by the Puritans to abolish Christmas on the grounds that it was not authorised by Bible!!! And, of course, there are still people today who would abolish Christmas if they could. No they’re not members of some strange sect or political extremist group. They are people like you and me, for whom Christmas has become a time of too much stress. There was an article in the paper which indicated that, for many people, Christmas was more trouble than it’s worth: the shopping, the spending, the entertaining, the mad rush, the traffic, and the loneliness. For such people, Christmas is no longer conveying the old message of peace and goodwill.
It is easy to blame commercial enterprises or the media for distorting the meaning of Christmas, but even the Church has contributed to the fact that Jesus has taken a back seat at Christmas. You see, we have had this tendency to understand the Christmas story as mere history, hence localising it in a particular time and place. We stick it back in a corner of history 2000 years ago in Bethlehem so that it becomes a once-upon-a-time event that happened back then at the beginning of the life of one particular man. Treated as mere history, Christmas is separated from our present time and place, and its impact has been lost amidst the sentiment that has accumulated around it as the only thing left to us.
All we have left is a story of a miraculous conception, a dramatic search for accommodation, the birth of a baby and the visitation of shepherds, angels and wisemen. Moving though the story may be, what has it got to say for us today? If it cannot touch the lives of today’s people, then it is no wonder that its impact is lost in the Christmas rush.
The gospel passage today, with its interpretation of the nativity scene as a sign, and its insistence on that to which the sign is pointing, is a protest against the sentimentalising of Christmas.
Luke’s story of the shepherds tells us:
1. that God has been revealed
2. that God was revealed to shepherds
3. that a transformation took place in the shepherds’ lives.
The first point is certainly why Christmas is celebrated, or at least why it should be celebrated. The Old Testament reading from Isaiah contained a phrase which is very pregnant with the joy of Christmas: ”You shall be called “Sought-Out.” Here, in the Christmas story, we have a story of God’s search for humanity; God’s yearning to part of, and be made visible in, human lives.
So often our religion is a pitifully futile search for the peace, joy, wholeness, and purpose in life; something which seems lacking without God. I say it is futile because God is beyond our knowing, out of reach, a Mystery with a capital “M”. We cannot get to God, but paradoxically, God waits within us; waiting for the chance to come into our lives; waiting for us to let down the barriers and so that we may be taken over.
I remember watching “The Fourth Wish” a few years ago. It is a story of a boy with Leukaemia and his father who quits his job to spend the remaining time with the boy. The father goes to extraordinary lengths to grant the boy three wishes, the last of which is to meet the queen. The father, however, is unable to penetrate the wall of red tape which separates the queen from common people. Not able to get to the queen, the only thing the father can do is ˛put the boy in a time and place where the queen will come to him, which does, in fact, come to pass.
The very best we can do in our search for God is to read the signs, and be available in the right time and place for God to come to us. Christmas is not a celebration that we have found God, but that God has found us.
The second point is that God comes to the shepherds. It is not haphazard that the Luke chooses shepherds for his story of God finding humanity. As a result of Luke’s story, shepherds are fairly common symbols around Christmas time. We see the loveable pre-schoolers in their shepherd gear in Christmas plays and we think of cute little lambs. But here again, if we maintain the sentimentalised picture, we miss the point.
Shepherds in Jesus’ day were considered the dregs of society, the ‘scum of the earth’, the ‘bottom of the barrel’. Their profession kept them from keeping the Jewish laws, and they had more than their share of rogues and thieves among them.
So Luke is saying that God, searching for humankind, first came, not to the religious, the law-abiding and the socially acceptable, but to the sinner, the outcast, the baser elements of society. Could it be that these people had fewer barriers to keep God out of their lives? Might it have something to do with their being closer to nature or their freedom from the comforts of civilisation or their distance from worldly wisdom out in the wilderness?
Some might say that this is a statement of assurance: that if God could come to shepherds, of all people, then certainly no one is excluded. Personally, I think that Luke’s reasons for choosing shepherds for his story go deeper than that. Perhaps, in order to be at the right place and right time to see God, one must learn something from the shepherds, in their baseness, their austere isolation, so close to nature, to life and death. To them the word became flesh: sweaty, dirty, human flesh.
Where would you go to find the ‘shepherd’ in your life, within you? Go there sometime; you just may hear angels singing.
Finally, Luke tells us of the result of God’s revelation. Note that in this story, the shepherds didn’t become prophets or priests or pastors as a result of this wonderful experience. They remained shepherds. They returned to their work; back to the common round; back to their duties and responsibilities. But they returned with a difference. Everything was different because they saw their lives and their world in a new light: the light of God.
Luke says, “And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God…” They are singing, they are happy. They return to the old routine, but it has all gained new meaning. What we call salvation isn’t the transportation to a new world, leaving the ugliness and the dreariness behind, so much as finding the joy inherent in the lives we have been given, even among the pain, the fear, the loneliness.
The old Presbyterian catechism, (and I believe the Catholic one is similar), begins with the question, “What is the purpose or man?” The answer is simply to glorify God and enjoy God forever,” i.e. to rejoice in God’s and our own existence. This is the discovery the shepherds have made in their encounter with God. In discovering God, their search for meaning and purpose in life, their search for wholeness, has ended. This is salvation!
This is not a story which only happened once 2021 years ago, give or take a few years. This is a story which happens now. It touches our very existence because God is still searching, still yearning to be part of our lives. The invitation has been issued. Only our response is awaited: the response of the shepherds, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened.”
Let’s go! Let’s realise that this coming together to worship is not part of a personal search for God, but a means by which, through word and sacrament, and the love of our brothers and sisters in Christ, God searches us out. Let’s make Christmas real again. Let’s go to Bethlehem in faith, in anticipation, and make ourselves available to God, that we, like the shepherds, may return to our daily living rejoicing and praising God.
WE SHARE GOD’S CONCERN FOR THE WORLD
Gracious God, we pray this day for all who have come with us to Bethlehem. We pray for the poor and cold and hungry like the shepherds, that they may hear good news. We pray for those who are wandering and searching like the Magi, that they may find the place to leave their gifts and their burdens. We pray for those who are busy, hurried, preoccupied like the innkeeper, that they may know the peace that comes from a genuine act of hospitality. We pray for those like Herod who have power, that they may use it with good will. We pray for ourselves as the tinsel falls, the year turns, and the carols fade. As the blessing of Bethlehem that touched all the grey in our lives with star-silver passes, we pray for a steady becoming: for renewal amid the routine, for courage in current events, for the assurance of God’s presence beyond our holidays and into the arid, barren times of our lives. Amen.
THE LORD’S PRAYER
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name; your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven. Give us today our daily bread and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Save us in the time of trial and deliver us from evil. For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours now and forever. Amen.
And may the God of Christmas
fill your hearts with all joy and peace in believing!
The blessing of the manger, God’s creation all around;
the blessing of the shepherds,
God’s people with feet on the ground;
the blessing of the angels, good news for all,
and peace for the world be with you all now and for ever.