Shepherds show us God’s unconditional love in Jesus Christ

IMG_2003I’ve got a bit of last-minute wrapping to do…. 

Click to watch the Red Box Black Box Magic Trick.

A brain teaser – a Christmas conundrum to puzzle over. How can both boxes fit inside each other?

There will be lots of presents being opened later on today – may be you have already torn into the wrappings and know exactly what you have. You may have chosen it or given strong hints of what you would like. You may be waiting till after lunch or later today. This year is a bit different so we’re going to meet up with our elder son and daughter-in-law online and then all 5 of us can do some opening together.

Gifts come with different price tags but the most important cost is the love behind them. It says on my shopping bag – ‘give a little love’ – a marketing strapline for this year. This almost says it, but I think there is something fuller on offer to us.

Today it’s not the gift of a little love, but the gift of total love; love without price, or you might say which costs everything, love without restriction and without reserve. Unconditional love is what is on offer to us as the gift of Christmas, in the child in the manger. This comes from the deepest point in the heart of God, who gives his very life and self to us so that we can know and share in his life and love and hope.

This is what was announced to the shepherds on the hillside in the gospel reading (Luke 2:1-20). They were a group on the margins of society, who were poor and, in the pecking order of the society of their day, not really counted as being very important at all. And yet it is to them that the angels announce the birth. It is those who don’t feel at the centre of everything, who may well be feeling isolated, forgotten, ignored, taken for granted, put upon, that this message of love and hope comes first.

The shepherds show us the full extent of the dazzling glory revealed to them, because no one is counted out or ignored by this love and embrace from God. That is a radical message of inclusion and equality, of grace let loose, one that challenges so many assumptions even today. It raises up those who feel cast down and abandoned. The message of the shepherds is that no one is outside of this radical love, no one is beyond the love of God. There may be all sorts of people we struggle to see this applying to, and one of them may be yourself. Many of us struggle with that thought, with accepting that we are counted in and loved.

This year has been tough for so many people, pushed to the limits of their resilience and further lockdowns and restrictions may well push us to the edge of coping. We may feel forgotten, abandoned, unloved, even punished for – well we must be bad if this is happening. It’s quite a deep thought. Rationally we can say that’s nonsense, but, you know, there is an angry parent image that so many struggle with when thinking of God. Today, Christmas Day, shows us that the heart of God is not angry, but loving, unconditionally loving.

That God should be present in this child, in this man who grew up to show just how much God loves us in his death and resurrection, this may be as puzzling as those two boxes I toyed with at the beginning. How can they both fit inside each other? A shift of angle to look at them differently reveals their secret and I won’t spoil it for you. So Christmas seems unlikely, implausible. Yet through the eyes of Easter, when we see the full cost, it becomes the mystery of life revealed in love. And then we begin to see the depths beneath the struggle, what this bible story is trying to say to us through its pictures and imagery of shepherds on a hill side and angels making God known to them. Glory comes to the most unsuspecting and in the most surprising and unpromising places.

May this Christmas be a time when the gift of unconditional love that doesn’t let go, even when we think it might, raise you up and place a song a praise once more in your heart. No one is beyond the gift of this unconditional love – not even us. Today calls us to expand our compassion, expand our charity and expand our embrace. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given and his name will be Emmanuel, God is with us.

Sermon for Christmas Day, Peterborough Parish Church, Friday 25th December 2020.

About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough and Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral in the Church of England Diocese of Peterborough. He served as Rural Dean of Peterborough for 5 years. Prior to moving to Peterborough, Ian was in Leeds for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian was born and grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon and is a former head chorister at Shakespeare's Church - Holy Trinity. He studied in Canterbury, Lincoln Theological College and has a Master of Divinity degree from Nottingham University. He is married with two sons. Publications include three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His most recent book, 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus', was published by Sacristy Press in 2017. There is a hymn based on this 'Christ the Saviour'. He has been writing online since the mid 1990s. Ian is a keen photographer and these frequently appear in his posts and on social media.
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