Readings: 2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8-12, 14, 16; Psalm 89; Luke 1:67-79
Children, while enjoying Handel's Messiah, can also ask questions that draw attention to some amusing expressions in the great Christmas oratorio. 'All we like sheep', for example, begins a section about all human beings going astray just like sheep but for one child it provoked the understandable question, 'why do they all like sheep'? And 'what is the government doing on his shoulders' is another reasonable question raised by a different child, also listening carefully to the words.
In one community in which I lived there was a regular absolution on Christmas Eve from faults against the rule and for unfulfilled penances. The prayers used reminded the superior, and all of us, that he was responsible also 'for the government of the souls' of those in his charge. The readings of the Mass for Christmas Eve are about government, the kind of government exercised by God for the sake of the people.
Like all of us, perhaps a bit more than normal, King David is keen on self-government. He is keen to the extent of wanting to include God among those for whom he exercises responsibility. He will build a house for God. But through the prophet God points out to David that the government (and so the responsibility, the care) is in the opposite direction. It is God who has created David in the first place. It is God who will build a house for David. It is not so much that David will find a place for God in his world (how much that would add to David's power!) as it is that God will find a place for David in His creation (how much that adds to David's salvation!). God creates and governs all He has created. But God also allows human beings to share in His government of creation. With the birth of His Son he allows human beings to share in extraordinary new ways in God's own government of creation. 'Let what you have said be done to me'. We become participants in God's providence, not just passive recipients of it but agents of its progress in human history.
The responsibilities of government are always to ensure peace, security and prosperity for the people governed. These are the things promised in the Benedictus of Zechariah, the great canticle or prayer with which the Baptist's father hails his birth. Words are given to him again, the one who had been struck dumb by this new visitation of His people by God. The silence of the old dispensation is brought to an end and Zechariah, symbolising that old dispensation, finds words again to welcome the birth of the Word.
The constitution on which God's government of the people was established is the covenant he made with them. This founding document made first with Moses and then renewed through judges and prophets, made again with the House of David, will now, by God's mercy, be once again remembered and renewed. It is now about the tender mercy of God, God's kindness as saviour and redeemer, the grace of forgiveness and the knowledge of God that comes with being forgiven. A new covenant means a new basis for the government, a new treaty or agreement, a new relationship.
Like human governments, the care of God for His people is about peace, security and prosperity. These things are promised and guaranteed by the new covenant established now. And just as the peace Jesus brings is a peace that the world cannot give, so too he offers a security and prosperity the world cannot give. The seal of the new covenant is the blood of the Son poured out for the salvation of the world. The terms of the covenant are set by the tender mercy of our God. The terms of the covenant mean an end to rivalry between God and humanity, and a shared responsibility for the unfolding of God's purposes across history.
Through this day and on into the night we watch for the coming of the Son. Through Him God will give light to those in darkness, those who dwell in the shadow of death. He will free us from fear and save us from the hands of our enemies so that we might serve him in holiness and righteousness.He will guide our feet into the way of peace.