Address - Watchnight Service 2017

The following address was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr at the Watchnight service 2017.

 Scripture: Isaiah 9: 2,3,6,7 / Luke 2: 1-20

The Christmas quiz

Don’t you just love it?

Oh yes you do…………………and for the Manse family it brings back the happy memory of great aunt Mary.

Great aunt Mary came to stay with us one festive season.

A single lady, in her 80’s, from Margaret’s side of the family, great aunt Mary was terribly polite, terribly straight-laced and quite hard work.

The meal had been eaten, the table had been cleared, and as we returned to the living room someone suggested a game of Trivial Pursuits.

So it was that much to everyone else’s relief I asked Great Aunt Mary if along with a couple of the children we could make a team.

Little did I know, little did any of us know, in that moment the game was won.

Great aunt Mary had heard about Trivial Pursuits – she had never played it – and after a quick explanation off we set.

Eventually our turn came.

One of the children rolled the dice.

A geography question – I am not sure Russell but I think the answer is…………..and so it was.

The dice was rolled again – a history question, a science question, a music question – I am not sure Russell but I think the answer is……………..she just kept going – and in no time one piece of pie was followed by another until the game was won.

You see, in everyone’s rush not to have great aunt Mary in their team we had all forgotten her working life had been spent in education – she was a retired secondary school math’s teacher – and she was of a generation when a broad general knowledge was the foundation of a Scottish education.

What was also wonderful to see was the way the years fell away as this terribly prim and proper elderly woman became a young woman once again, smiling, animated, contributing, having fun – and blowing us away with her knowledge and information.

Surprising, totally unexpected: welcome to Christmas Eve, welcome to Bethlehem, welcome to the manger – and welcome to the Cramond Watchnight Christmas quiz.

Question 1; According to the Bible, the shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks by night – so how many sheep exactly – or at least to the nearest number – 50, 100, 1000 - and don’t fall asleep counting them please?

Question 2; Who were the wise men  - were they spin doctors, Strictly Come dancing contestants or stand-up comedians?

Come on, thinking caps on please, this is serious, intelligent theological stuff.

Question 3: what were the other animals in the stable where Jesus was born - an ox, a donkey or a mouse called Michael?

Everyone doing well so far  – one more question.

Question 4: outside Bethlehem’s stable was there a Christmas tree, a robin, the Reverend I M Jolly?

Hands up if you have answered all four questions?

Hands up if you haven’t a clue?

Excellent – because that is the right answer and you can go to the top of the class.

You see, the Bible doesn’t give us much detail of the Christmas story and if we are honest, many of our best loved Christmas traditions and customs come from Victorian times.

Mark was the first of the four gospels to be written and Mark makes no mention of the circumstances of Jesus’ birth.

Mark’s gospel starts with the 30 something year old Jesus being baptized in the river Jordan by his cousin John.

It is Matthew and Luke who added the birth details to Mark’s original text.

Truth to tell, we don’t even know the exact date of Jesus’ birth.

25 December was a pagan mid-winter festival in ancient times and the festival was taken over by the early church and turned into a celebration of Jesus’ birth.

As for our Christmas carols - the cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes – obviously never tried babysitting our two month old grandson Angus!

Yet for all that the historical evidence is limited, the Christmas stories in the Bible resonate and so do the traditional Christmas carols.


They resonate because they awaken something deep within, something that goes beyond the surface of what we call the festive season, something that captures our imagination, something that awakens our sense of wonder, puts us in touch with ourselves, puts us in touch with God, puts us in touch with the heart-stopping, breath-catching mystery at the heart of the Christmas gospel.

For unto us a child is born, and unto us a son is given – and he shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.

Whatever else we discover tonight, Christianity is not some empty doctrine about a remote God, somewhere up beyond the sky.

Christianity’s claim is that God acts, and sometimes acts decisively in human history and the life of the world.

Look up into the night sky and you can feel overwhelmed by the immense majesty of it all, the wonder of the universe, the wonder of creation.

But look down, look down into the manger, look down into the face of that new born child and what do you see – you see the wonder of God come among us, the wonder of God one of us, the wonder of God’s care and love for you.

Surprising – of course it is!

Not what you expected, certainly nothing you asked for and nothing you deserved?

Good - that is how it is supposed to be – for the story of birth and new life is the story of a gift, God’s gift to you, God’s give to all.