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Sermon preached at Midnight Eucharist on Christmas Eve (24 December 2017) by Very Revd David Ison, Dean
The Dean reflects on the light of the stars that guided the shepherds, stars that we now struggle to see: 'you’ve been drawn like a moth to a light you can’t see but nonetheless is still here, the light which gobsmacked the shepherds on a night two thousand years ago'.
Did you see any stars on your way here, or while waiting in the queue? I don’t mean celebrities, of course – I mean those giant balls of flaming gas at amazing distances from our planet, out of the ashes of whose predecessors our planet and all that’s on it are made. Did you see any stars tonight?
Actually – do you ever see the stars? If you live in London, you won’t see much of them, maybe the brightest ones and a few planets and the odd satellite. It’s very unlikely indeed that you’ll get to see the Milky Way, the edge-on view of our galaxy, that amazing band of dense starlight.
There are just too many street lights, cars, aeroplanes, house lights – in fact, according to a survey last year of global light pollution, 80 percent of the planet's land areas—which include 99 percent of the population of the United States and Europe—have night skies so polluted with man-made light that the Milky Way has become virtually invisible.
One of the scientists doing the survey has commented, and I quote, ‘these numbers are shocking, because we’ve lost the connection with our roots, of literature, of philosophy, of science, of religion—all are connected with the contemplation of the night sky. A new generation can no longer appreciate this beauty.’
The shepherds in the fields keeping watch over their flocks on that first Christmas night may have had a campfire or a lamp, but fundamentally their night world was dark and open to the stars, lived under the sky, lived open to wonder and beauty and fear and awe.
Because the shepherds were looking at the stars, they were able to see the angels too. Whereas we walk with our heads down, with little to see above us. We have lost, along with our view of the stars, our sense of immediate connection with the universe and the wonders of the world around us.
And yet we long for wonder, for the sign that there’s something and someone greater than us, longing for what the writer of the last book of the Bible experienced when he looked up at the call of a heavenly voice and saw an open door into heaven: and the story of that first Christmas night is meant to take us from where we are now to encounter that deeper reality.
Luke is a classic storyteller. The early chapters of Luke’s gospel are like the beginning of a film, cutting from one scene to another in intriguing ways – we begin with the strange conception of a future prophet, son to an elderly priest, cut! An angel appears to a young woman living many miles away, who we discover is a relative of the first couple, cut!
The young woman travels to the older one and they support each other for a while, cut! One baby is born, cut! To the Roman Emperor who commands a census, cut! And what was that for? Oh, Joseph and Mary have to go to Bethlehem and that’s where Jesus is born, cut! –
And the next scene storyboard starts: In that area were shepherds living in the fields with their sheep –
What do you think the hearers of this story were expecting when they heard it for the first time? If you’d been watching this as a film, and you didn’t know the story, what would you think is going to happen next? There were shepherds in the field, and – so what? There were always shepherds in the fields, everyone knew that. So something must be going to happen – it’s like watching the film and you just KNOW that you’re going to be shocked at this point, a surprise is coming, but what’s it going to be?
Angels, overwhelming brightness and glory, terror, heavenly choirs, the announcement of an amazing birth with the invitation to go and see for themselves.
Ah, that’s the link, the shepherds are going to tell Mary and Joseph the wonder they’ve heard and seen, and they pass it on, and so it comes into Luke’s story, and so to us.
Shepherds looking at the stars. What were they expecting? Not this, not angels and glory, not a sudden eruption in the sky which they knew like the backs of their hands from hours of night-gazing, yet never could control. Ordinary lives become extraordinary, just for a night.
Did Mary and Joseph think they were drunk, to start with? But the new parents listened, and remembered, even if they wondered what a bunch of ordinary shepherds had to do with them.
And what about the morning after? And the morning after that? When the memory began to fade, and the tale had been told a thousand times in the village taverns, and the stars went back to just being there.
What happened to those shepherds a year later, a decade after? Did they still remember, and keep that sense of wonder, and wait in hope for the child to grow and become their Messiah?
Were any of those shepherds still living thirty years later when one baby had become a prophet in the wilderness and the other a humble preacher from Galilee?
You and I still live and walk tonight under the stars, those same stars the shepherds saw. We may not see the stars if it’s cloudy, we may not see them beyond our scattered artificial light, our polluting presence on the planet that hides them. But just because we can’t see the stars doesn’t mean they’re not there.
If you can, go sometimes to a darker place where you can see the stars, and wonder. And when you do, remember the shepherds in their fields.
And remember too that you have come here tonight, to a light which isn’t above us but is around us and within us; you’ve been drawn like a moth to a light you can’t see but nonetheless is still here, the light which gobsmacked the shepherds on a night two thousand years ago, a light which still calls to us in wonder and glory, calls us to the presence of God with us in the world, to the love and glory of God in the person of Jesus Christ.
And like the shepherds, like Mary, remember, and treasure these things in your heart – and be changed.