"Do not be afraid; for see - I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people " (Luke 2.10)
St Luke recounts the story of the heavenly host of angels who announced the birth of Jesus to shepherds in the fields near Bethlehem; it was to this group of people sleeping rough with the animals that the angels of light, joy and beauty first announced the frightening but great and good news "A saviour is born , rejoice, rejoice!".
So the shepherds left the hillside and visited the baby born amongst the animals in a stable.
And then, Luke tells us, they made known to others what they had seen, and all who heard them were amazed at what the shepherds said. Amazed, no doubt, because it was shepherds, very ordinary folk, bringing this good news; shepherds, despised and excluded by their own society because they looked after animals and slept rough in the fields.
But the shepherds have been transformed; they become messengers, they become "angels", for the original meaning of the word "angel" is messenger.
Excluded by that ancient society, the shepherds in Luke's Gospel speak to us across the centuries and into our own time of the many people we exclude in our societies today.
The shepherds do not change their appearance but they do become angels. Their encounter with Jesus profoundly transformed them. They were filled with a message of hope and joy and truth. These excluded, impure shepherds are truly transformed into angels. They shared their news, people in the town listened to them, heard the message and knew that things had changed. and that ancient society in Bethlehem and the whole of human history were transformed by the encounter of the shepherds.
"God, in your grace, transform the world" was the prayerful theme of the WCC Assembly that took place this year in Porto Alegre in Brazil. Gathered together from across the world people from the WCC's 348 member churches shared their stories - in the plenaries, at the assembly Mutirão, in the theological café, through music, dance, encounter and prayer.
The Assembly heard powerful stories from many different messengers. Many spoke of the hope but also the challenges of peace. It heard a challenging presentation on the tragic and violent situation in Northern Uganda. The Assembly heard how difficult and yet essential it is to protect children from the scourge of war. Essential because ensuring protection for our children and investing in their education and development is among the most important and effective means for building durable peace and justice in society.
As we left Porto Alegre so our prayers for the transformation of the world through God's grace have continued, as has the witness of churches in situations of conflict. An ecumenical delegation visited Lebanon, Palestine and Israel in August to show solidarity with the churches and people during the armed conflict in that region. The WCC continues to support the African churches' long-term commitment to peace in Sudan and to bring the situation of the peoples there, especially in Darfur, to the attention of our constituency and the world media. At our recent central committee meeting in Geneva we again expressed concern at the extra- judicial killings in the Philippines of church leaders who speak out for justice.
These messages speak of the church's painful witness to the love and peace that Christ can offer.
Luke's gospel story encourages us to see that if shepherds can become angels, then there is hope for each of us also to become angels, witnessing to how God's grace is transforming the world.
The Word became flesh when God's son was born in a stable. Christ's incarnation is an invitation to each of us and all of us together: to receive this profound message of grace, of celebration, of justice; and to share that message with those around us in the hope that the whole world shall be transformed.
So even when we feel excluded
from joy by our grief,
from meaning by our doubt,
from celebration by our exhaustion
from commitment by our riches
from inclusion by our difference
the message of God with us, Emmanuel, is also for us, and it allows even us to become angels.
"The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had
heard and seen, as it had been told them."
I wish you God's grace and God's rich blessings this Christmas, in sharing part of the message of the Porto Alegre Assembly, which is also a prayer.
God of grace,
together we turn to you in prayer, for it is you who unite us:
you are the one God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - in whom we believe,
you alone empower us for good,
you send us out across the earth in mission and service in the name of Christ.
Open our hearts to love and to see that all people are made in your image,
to care for creation and affirm life in all its wondrous diversity.
Transform us in the offering of ourselves so that we may be your partners in transformation
to strive for the full, visible unity of the one Church of Jesus Christ,
to become neighbours to all,
as we await with eager longing the full revelation of your rule
in the coming of a new heaven and a new earth.
God, in your grace, transform the world. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit;