And here is a picture a Churchwarden took at the Christingle Service at St James', Cross Roads yesterday afternoon, and a version of the sermon I preached in turn at all three of our churches during the course of the day:
A few weeks ago, I was having a coffee in a bookshop in Bradford when there was a moment’s pause in the hubbub going on around and I heard a voice from the table behind me which simply said “I’m really worried about him – he thinks that angels are talking to him”.
So I’ve been re-reading each part of the Christmas story with those words coming back to me each time.
At the beginning of Luke’s Gospel there are three places where people think that angels talk to them.
There is a story about an older childless couple called Zechariah and Elizabeth. Zechariah was a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem. He drew the lot to go and burn incense in the innermost and holiest part of the Temple, where an angel appeared. The story says Zechariah was disturbed and “fear (‘phobia’) fell on him”.
The angel told him Elizabeth was to have a child; the child would become John the Baptist. It didn’t seem credible, and Zechariah said so, so he was struck dumb. He didn’t speak for most of a year – he could only communicate by signs and by writing things down.
Then there is the story we know best about Mary, who was Elizabeth’s cousin. The angel comes to her and says “Greetings, most favoured one, the Lord is with you”. Mary isn’t simply “disturbed” by this – it says she was “greatly disturbed”.
She too thought what the angel said simply didn’t sound possible, although she did come to accept it quite quickly. So she wasn’t struck dumb, but she did run away for three months; she stood to lose any respect in her community and her fiancé and probably much more if she had stayed around.
Finally, shepherds. Sky full of angels. It doesn’t say they were “disturbed”. It doesn’t even say they were “greatly disturbed”. It says “they feared with a great fear (a ‘mega phobia’)”.
They lived in occupied territory and the language the angels used was the same language which would be used to announce a coup; it could have felt as if they were being caught up in a revolution against the state beginning round the corner. They came to visit Mary’s child, but it isn’t surprising that they only did so at night, under the cover of darkness.
I can imagine gossips in Jerusalem, in Nazareth, in Bethlehem astonished as Elizabeth’s pregnancy, worried about poor mute Zechariah, sniggering about Mary, incredulous at the shepherd’s tale – and worried about them all because they thought angels were talking to them. But, much more, I notice how frightened they all are.
Meanwhile, Matthew’s Gospel tells it differently. There it is Joseph who hears angels – and he does so in his dreams. So, first, stick by your fiancée even though she is pregnant by someone else. And then, flee the country - all this talk of revolution means a state sponsored massacre is coming.
So I had a think - and two things struck me. One is very challenging. The other is a little more comforting.
The challenging thing is that receiving a message straight from God isn’t as much fun as we might think it would be. Our instinct might be if only we heard a voice direct from an angel everything would be clearer and easier.
But actually, as likely as not, we’d be fearful, dumbstruck, caught up in something quite out of our league, and possibly fleeing for our lives. The fact that our friends would be worried about us would be only a very small part of our problem.
I put it this way to myself: if I think I have discerned correctly what God might be saying to me then, if I am not at least a little disturbed by this, if I am not at least a little worried that it might not be deliverable, if I don’t suspect it might get me into some trouble, then it isn’t really very likely that I’ve heard what God really wants from me at all.
But the more comforting thing is that God has been getting his message across despite the frightened and fallible people he has had to work with from the very beginning of this story.
It shouldn’t be a real surprise that the Church of England today has many priests who are are tongue tied and inarticulate in the face of the challenges of the deeply secularised world around us and not actually very confident that God is able to do new things around us. Zechariah was a bit like that.
It shouldn’t be surprise that Church of England today has some members whose instinct is sometimes to hide away quietly rather than be public about the things from God which they suspect are growing within them. Mary herself may well have been a little like that, certainly to begin with.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that the Church of England has some supporters who wouldn’t want to be too publically associated with it but occasionally want to come to a service held in the middle of the night. The shepherds sound a little like that.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that the Church of England regularly joins in prayers for places across the world where Christians are being massacred or have had to flee – it is going on in south-western Pakistan at the moment. Joseph knew all about things like that.
This story matters – and people are probably quite right to worry about us when we behave as if it does. God will continue to make the implications of the story known as he has always done – and will go on doing so even when those who hear it are scared by it, doubtful or simply not very good at following it through. Thanks be to God.