The set readings are Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 2:1-14
Around the end of each year the providers of English language dictionaries sit down and decide what is the word or phrase that has made the most impact over the past 12 months. It might be a new word; it might be a word that has suddenly come back into fashion; it might be a word that has recently hit the headlines. So, for example, Oxford Dictionaries decided their word of the year 2017 was “youthquake” which has got most people puzzled as it’s something they’ve never heard of before. Websters Dictionaries chose the word “feminism” on the basis it has apparently had a huge upsurge in popularity. But it was the choice of Collins Dictionaries that attracted the most attention, and rightly so. Their word of the year 2017 was – well, it might seem like two words to us, but let’s not get technical – their word of the year was, and I’ve researched this very carefully, “fake news.”
Apparently the first use of the term “fake news” was some time back in the 1890s but as we all know one particular individual has made this word almost ubiquitous. Time after time we have seen the President of the United States stand at a podium, making that hand gesture, and dismissing some news story or other as “fake news.” And of course, where the president leads, others follow.
Now we’ve been very aware over the past few years that not every item that appears on the Internet can be trusted. We know that certain stories are planted deliberately in our media, and we know that some sources are more reliable than others. But by calling something “fake news” we’re doing more than simply saying something isn’t true. We are saying that whatever the story is about, we can dismiss it and ridicule those who believe in it. Fake news is something we don’t have to investigate or even read properly. We can simply ignore it and whatever facts it claims to present, and send it straight into the spam folder or the recycle bin.
And for quite a few people the whole Christmas story falls under the category of “fake news.” At best, it is a sweet winter’s tale that entertains and amuses the children every year. At worst, it is the invention of the early church designed to force others in accepting their beliefs. That at least is the contention of Dan Brown, and judging from the millions who somehow believe his books are worth reading, there are plenty who share his point of view.
But for Luke the whole point of the Christmas story is that it is “good news.” The angel tells the shepherds on the hillside at Bethlehem: Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. And of course, as you might expect, I will in a moment be looking at what this good news is. But before I can even begin to look at the angel’s words, we have to ask ourselves – how can we be sure that what we hear year by year is not fake news? Why is this a story that we can trust as something reliable and accurate?
The gospel writer Luke put together his work somewhere in the AD50s. By this stage some of the original followers of Jesus had died, and there was an obvious need to put together a definitive account of his life while the surviving eyewitnesses were still around. It is probable by this stage that Matthew and Mark had already been written, and there were almost certainly other stories about Jesus doing the rounds. Luke wanted to make sure that in a world, just as now, where some sources were more reliable than others, there was a legacy of writing that could be believed and trusted.
As he says in his introduction:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eye-witnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account…
So how exactly did Luke write this orderly account? Let’s look more closely at this familiar passage we heard just now.
The first thing we notice is that Luke puts the Christmas story in a real historical setting. Verses 1-2: In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) Now we often see these verses as some kind of background detail but actually they are very important as the basis of our faith. Because what they tell us is that the story of Christmas is open to factual, historical investigation. It means we can back up what we read in the Bible with the evidence on the ground and what else we know of this particular Roman emperor and his world. And what do you discover? The more you begin to explore the world of the time, the more evidence you find that backs up what Luke has written. Even today more and more archaeological discoveries are being made which support and authenticate the text in front of us.
Secondly, Luke locates the Christmas story in a real location. Verse 4: So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. And if somehow we were able to, we could travel tonight and also find ourselves in Bethlehem. You see, Bethlehem is no mythical place or the product of someone’s imagination. It is a noisy, crowded town, full of colour and life. And today on the very site where Jesus is said to have been born there now stands the Church of the Nativity which is rightly a place of pilgrimage for millions.
Of course you can argue whether Jesus was born in that exact place is open to question, but as I knelt in worship in that church a few years back, I was overwhelmed by the sheer physical reality of the Christmas story. Here at a real point of history in a real place Jesus, the very Son of God, was born. This was no Internet hoax, no conspiracy theory. It really happened, at a location that, if the technology existed, could have been pinpointed by Google Maps as an event that could have been posted on someone, possibly the shepherds’, Facebook timeline.
And thirdly, the Christmas story involved real people. Now by the time Luke wrote his gospel Joseph was long dead. But Mary, the mother of Jesus, certainly does appear in the Book of Acts, which describes the growth of the church in the first few decades after the death of Jesus. She would by then have been an old woman. From all the evidence it seems very probable that Luke either met her or met those who knew her and cared for her. So what we have here is not the account of someone who decided one day it would be nice to write a story for cold winter evenings (and, yes, evenings can be cold even in Israel). This is the account of someone who took the trouble to find out what happened sixty years earlier by interviewing those who knew the real story of Jesus’ birth.
The problem with those who dismiss stories as fake news, of course, is that they never take the trouble to actually look in depth at the facts presented to them. Facts have a disturbing habit of unsettling us and forcing us to re-evaluate what we think as true. That’s why despite all the historical, geographical and biographical evidence so many people still write off the Christmas story as make believe, something that may or may not have happened in a distant land long, long ago.
But let’s suppose that, on all the basis of the evidence, the Christmas story really is good news, what then? One of the issues with our Internet age is that, in general, stories no longer hold our attention. Instead we surf the Internet looking for things which are new or quirky or interesting, without ever stopping to actually read and digest what’s in front of us. So if we find something that we’ve read before, we skate over it, or dismiss it as yesterday’s news, because frankly the story no longer interests us. We’ve already liked it, or shared it, and we can see no value in reading it again.
And for many people their problem with the Christmas story is that it is yesterday’s news. They’ve read it before, they think they know what is all about. They might come along to a Christmas service out of habit, they might identify themselves as Christians. But what could possibly be interesting about the story of Jesus born in a manger? Haven’t we been there last year and the year before that? Why should this story interest me now?
Let’s go back to those words the angel spoke to the shepherds two thousand years ago on the slopes of what is modern day Beit Sahour, just above Bethlehem. Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.
Now I am sure that some of you can probably recite these verses almost word for word. We read them, after all, every Christmas. But for an increasing number of people the whole story of Jesus’ birth is completely unknown. They wouldn’t dream of coming out on a night like this to a strange building called church to take part in some strange religious service. So what are many of them doing even right now? They are on their phones, or their computers, and they are searching. They may not know exactly what they are searching for, but they looking for anything which will fill the void they know they have inside. They may be playing a game, perhaps, or even at this late hour shopping for a bargain. They may be acting out a fantasy, they may be seeking for the perfect relationship. They only know they are seeking, just like they have been the night before, just like they will be tomorrow night.
The angel tells us, however, the end of all our searching is not to be found on a screen, but in what is traditionally called a stable. There in the manger is the one we all need – a person who can rescue us from the longing inside us and still our desire for meaning and purpose, a person who is not the figment of our imagination but the real flesh and blood Son of God in human form. His name is Jesus, and He is the Saviour we have all been looking for.
Why? Because ultimately the longing inside us is a longing for God. However feebly or however strongly we may have this sense of longing for God, we carry around deep inside us the knowledge there is someone who is greater than ourselves, who knows us, who loves us and cares for us. We may try and still that longing in all kinds of other ways, but somehow whatever else we choose doesn’t seem to work. We need this God whoever He might be, wherever He might be, to come to us, to make Himself known. And that is the good news the angel brings: Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.
That is the simple and very beautiful truth that is at the heart of the Christmas story. It’s about the Son of God breaking into history at a real moment in time in a real location and being born to real people in a real place. But Luke isn’t telling us this story simply to inform us. He is telling us this story so that it might transform us. Because that Saviour born in a manger is not just a weak, helpless baby. Indeed, even as he lies in the manger, He is still at the same time Christ the Lord. He is the one through whom the world was made. He is the one who reigns over human history. He is the one who will return to judge the living and the dead.
That’s why our response to the story should be far more than just to click “like”. It should be to offer our lives to Him and to give Him the deepest desires of our hearts. For if we are seeking that relationship with God we have always been looking for, if we are wanting to find in Him that peace, that hope, that forgiveness we know we need, then there is one simple thing we need to do. We need to disconnect from the virtual reality around us, and come in prayer to the ultimate reality who is God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We need to invite God the Father and God the Son to come and live in our hearts by His Holy Spirit.
And when we do that, we will indeed discover that the Christmas story is not fake news, nor yesterday’s news. It is good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For you, for me, for all those who are still out there searching this night. So let me invite you tonight to come before Jesus, our Saviour, in prayer, and give Him all the longings of your heart. Ask Him to make Himself known to you, and receive the gift of His presence into your life. For His name’s sake. Amen.