Imagine the scene in the control room. There’s a major government census going on. No online stuff: everyone’s got to go in person to their place of birth. There are people on the move everywhere and the force is stretched to the limit. Military intelligence are on your backs about a group of foreign leaders who’ve crossed the border – on camels would you believe. There’s some weird phenomenon in the sky in the Bethlehem area that’s all over the media, and the local patrols are keeping a close eye on a bunch of shepherds camping out nearby: rogues the lot of them.
So how exactly would you devise a policing strategy to cope with that lot? And that’s before the angels appeared.
Thankfully you don’t have to. Her Majesty’s Constabulary won’t be invented for another two thousand years or so, though thank goodness it was and thank you for all you do as part of it. But that Bethlehem scene draws us in all the same. It was meant to. And not just as officers or onlookers, but as participants. We do not come to the crib in role as bishop, commissioner or constable: we come as David, Douglas or Tim, and we are touched.
So let’s look at the scenario in a different way. The question this time is not how would you police it, but where would put yourself in it? Perhaps you are the innkeeper, doing a roaring trade. If you like travel and finding stuff out, you’d probably get on with the three wise men. Maybe there’s a bit of the rogue in you – completely honest of course – and you fancy camping out with the shepherds. And many of you will know what it’s like to be at the cribside as a new mum or dad. You get the idea. Just pause for a moment and imagine yourself into the scene. I wonder what it would have felt like. I wonder what you would have done?
There isn’t really time now to do the exercise properly. It’s actually a form of prayer that St Ignatius who founded the Jesuits recommended and you need to stay in the scene and let yourself enter into it. Perhaps it’s something you could do later, perhaps reading the story from Luke’s gospel again, or looking at a painting of the Nativity on a Christmas card, if there are any left these days that still use one.
For now, though, let me suggest that there needs to be a little bit of the shepherd in all of us, if we are to really engage with the reason for the season, and the whole point of having not just a drinks party but a Carol Service at Christmas.
The shepherds did three things. They receive the report carefully; they act on it promptly; and they follow through on it wholeheartedly. Despite their reputation for dishonesty and rough living, they’d probably have made good officers. In this case, though, it’s not the report of a petty crime. It’s the life-changing news that God himself has come to intervene in a world which left to its own devices is going downhill fast. It’s the information of angels pointing them straight to the place to find him. And it’s their own eye-witness evidence that cannot be suppressed.
In the same way let me invite you this Christmas to come to the crib, see for yourself, and if you will, find that something of Christ’s life is born again in you as well.
Sermon preached at the Suffolk Police Carol Service at St
Edmundsbury Cathedral, Dec 2014