How long have you been waiting for Christmas? When the shops start displaying Christmas goods in October and even November, we frown and say, “far too early”. But come the beginning of December, we start to panic that we are all behind with our preparations.
Our vicar tries her best to slow us down and encourages us to take time to prepare ourselves during Advent. She rations us to one candle a week on the advent wreath, but this just serves to remind us that time is running out. And then, just when have calmed to the pace of advent, all the tree lights come on for the Nine Lessons and Carols and we really do start to panic.
But, despite everything, Christmas has arrived today, bang on time. You have had plenty of warning that Christmas was coming, and there are really no excuses for not being ready.
Now the Israelites knew about the Messiah coming - the prophet Isaiah had told them. We heard his prophesy in our first reading. I want you to imagine how people felt when they heard him.
Isaiah talked about people who walked in darkness seeing a great light. Who are these people. Well, we did not hear it in our reading, but Isaiah tells us that this refers to the people living in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali. This region was neglected and suffering at the time of Isaiah. We know this area nowadays as Galilee, and it would be where Jesus lived and started his mission to bring light to the world.
Isaiah told the people that an event is coming which will change their darkness into light, and their misery into joy. It will be like the joy of the new harvest, the end of a brutal war, like being released from slavery into freedom.
And what is this event - the birth of a child.
Isaiah gave the new child some amazing titles - Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. And what’s more he will establish a kingdom and rule with justice and righteousness for evermore.
And so, all of Israel waited, and waited, and waited. Can you imagine waiting year upon year, generation upon generation, and yet still hoping for this wonderful child to be born. Surprisingly the Israelites did not give up hope. They trusted God and waited for the Messiah to come.
But when the Messiah came, around 800 years later, the event took everyone by surprise.
It should have been straightforward. The first part went fine. God sent an angel to Mary to tell her that she would have baby. Mary broke the news to Joseph that she was pregnant. Joseph coped quite well, after an initial wobble, and supported Mary.
But then the Emperor of the Roman Empire, Augustus, decided that he wanted to count everybody in Israel. We do this regularly in this country and manage it without too much fuss. But Augustus decided that everyone should go back to where their family came from. Can you imagine. It was chaos. Mary and Joseph had to travel nearly 100 miles by foot to get to Bethlehem, because that’s where Joseph’s ancestor David had lived. And everybody else in the country was doing the same. Lots of toing and froing.
Now Tracy and I have an 8-week old grand-daughter and there was a whole lot of planning for her coming and for visiting in the days after she was born. So, you would have thought that, as God had been planning this for at least 800 years, he would have lined up all the right people to greet Jesus when he was born. But it turned out that the only people who got an invitation were some people at work - shepherds. And the invitation came in the middle of the night. But the invitation came from angels and so the shepherds knew it was important, perhaps the most important thing they ever heard in their lives. They had no time to dress up for the occasion, they just left everything and went. And they were the ones who shared the joy with Mary and Joseph, and the story of what happened with the world.
Despite all the advances of civilisation since then, the world is consumed with a desire for peace and a fear of war. When we observe the conflicts and wars around us, it sometime feels like a thick darkness, similar to what Isaiah spoke about. And this wonderful holy land in which these events happened is one of those areas in great conflict.
There are many different peace movements. Strong countries believe that peace must be negotiated from a position of power, radical groups believe that terror will force the issue. Oppressed countries feel powerless and so call for justice. But the world seems unable to live in peace.
Last week there were two programmes on BBC TV about Danny Boyle, the film director, making a nativity play against the backdrop of the separation wall in Bethlehem this Christmas.
At the start of the programme, Boyle is told he may struggle to find actors, or even an audience, for the play. Palestinians find the huge wall surrounding Bethlehem menacing and try to stay away, and parents worry about spending an evening near a wall, the very existence of which some have tried to hide from their younger children.
In spite of all this, the play was a great success. Parents did bring their children and they did sing about “Peace on earth” in a troubled place.
In February last year our Holy Land Trip visited the home of Claire Anastas, which is just next to the site of this play. So, for those who had been there, this was a poignant reminder that people are still working for peace despite the incredible difficulties they face daily.
And still, every year over 1 million people visit the site of Jesus’ birth at the Church of the nativity in Bethlehem, renewing the joy of that special night.
I think all this reminds us at this time of great joy, when we sing of peace on earth, to give thanks to those working to bring about true peace on earth. And to do all we can to help Jesus to establish his kingdom where he will rule with justice and righteousness for evermore.