This is the sermon I preached at St Fillan’s on Christmas Day. It was inspired by something John Bell from the Iona Community said when I was on the Clergy Retreat last month. It might help to know that St Fillan’s is a small, mostly elderly congregation in the south of Edinburgh.
First of all today I would like you to shout out all the characters in the Christmas story,
whether they be animal, vegetable, mineral, human or angelic. And when I say ‘Christmas’ I mean the whole of the Christmas season.
Elizabeth and Zechariah
Anna and Simeon
What do they have in common? What do all the people in the Christmas story have in common?
They are all old. (Except for Mary.)
We see Christmas as a time for children but in fact Christmas is a time to celebrate the old and wrinkly. Now isn’t that a comfort? In fact, we are in danger of infantilising the Christmas story and that might be completely false.
Let’s look at the characters again…
We have Elizabeth and Zechariah, and Anna and Simeon as the bookends of the Christmas story.
Elizabeth, too old to conceive a child, but does. A faithful old couple. Zechariah was an old priest, Elizabeth his old wife, both upright in the sight of God and you don’t get to be upright until you’re really old.
Then the bookends at the other end of the story are Simeon and Anna, the couple we meet at Candlemas, at Jesus’s circumcision. We’re told they are advanced in years.
Simeon, an old priest, waiting for a sign, and Anna, a prophetess and now a widow aged 84. So I think we can agree that they are pretty old. Unless you’re 84 or older and still going to yoga classes in which case you’re as young as you feel.
But let’s have a look at some of the other characters we mentioned.
Let’s start with the angel Gabriel. As angels go, he is pretty old. So old in fact, he first appears to Daniel in the Old Testament and that was quite some years before this wee story where he appears to Zechariah and then Mary. (And just as a wee aside, he also appeared to Mohammed in the Islamic faith.) So Gabriel is definitely an old, old angel.
Then there’s Joseph. Older than Mary, that’s for sure. Some scholars believe he had a family before he married Mary so may have been a widower. And we know there is no mention of him in Jesus’ adult ministry so perhaps he was dead by then. We don’t know but we do know he was old.
Then there’s Herod – the old monarch. The Roman king of Judea who was not a very pleasant man. He died around the age of 75, a painful death of probable chronic kidney disease, not long after Jesus’ birth. So another oldie in our story.
And then there are the shepherds. How do we know they were old? Well would you trust your flock of sheep to young lads who are prone to falling asleep or to old men with prostate trouble who are going to be up and down all night? My case rests.
And finally, the wise men, the Magi. And how do you get to be wise? By getting old, that’s how. You don’t get a PHD at the age of 20, that’s for sure. No, you have to have lived a life of experience: seen things, done things, lived a little and then when your party days are over you get interested in astrology or patchwork or the Rainforest Alliance or whatever is your thing. Then you get to be a wise woman or man. Only when you are old.
So who did God trust with the Christmas story? You! Or people like you! God installed belief in all those wrinklies to install belief in others. When God needed things done, it was the oldies who had a part to play. And not just any old part, an important part.
When God needs things done today who’s he gonna call? Old people, that’s who! All these churches, including yourselves, who have hoped beyond hope that young people would come along and save them. Oh yes we need a Mary now and again, a good young person to say Yes to God and be obedient to his word. But we all have a part to play in this ongoing story as well.
There probably were some other people, or at least one other person, who doesn’t get a mention in our biblical narratives. And that’s the midwife. When Joseph had to go to Bethlehem for the census, it was because his family were from there. And I’m pretty sure that some of his family, or the women at least, would have been there to help Mary give birth. And guess what? Midwives in those days were old too!
And we still need midwives. When new things need to be done, God expects our encouragement. So who has God planted in St Fillan’s to get things done?
A Gabriel, an old messenger trusted by God for important tasks?
A Joseph, a good old soul?
Some shepherds with prostate trouble?
A tyrant ruler king?
Some Elizabeths and Zechariahs, good devout people?
Some Simeons and Annas, the faithful remnant?
Some wise men and women?
Who has God planted to be the encouragers, to enable new things to happen?
Who has God planted to be the midwives, to bring new things to birth?
Well don’t look at me!
I’m far too young.
God took a huge risk in this story. More than we ever imagined. In 1st century Palestine, one in four women died giving birth. And one in three babies died in childbirth. Only two out of three live but then most will have died by the age of 40. There was a huge risk of mortality.
And there were other risks too. Herod’s decree to slaughter all baby boys which led the family to flee to Egypt, a place not exactly friendly towards the Jews.
Then when he comes home Jesus’ own people pull him down to size and he is physically at risk of stoning. He allows woman who are haemorrhaging to touch him, he constantly risks disease and contamination with the people he reaches out to.
What was God thinking? This Incarnation was risky business. God risks a lot sending his wee boy to earth. God risks it all.
That little baby, all vulnerable and at risk of so many things, lying there in his swaddling clothes is put into the care of old people. That little baby, with such a future in front of him, which nobody could really guess, is put into the care of old people. It was the elderly who came to see him with their gifts because old folk are good at that. They are not so busy with their phones and tablets and games and socialising that they think they’ll maybe do it later. And I’m sure when that wee baby was born Mary asked her mum and her auntie and her older cousin Elizabeth what to do when he wouldn’t settle, wouldn’t sleep, wouldn’t do as he was told. This story is full and brimming over with folk just like you. You are part of this story.
God risks a lot sending his baby boy to be with us. God risks everything.
So, my question to you this Christmas day, is what could you risk for God?
And saying you’re too old is not an option!