It’s Christmas time again – how it comes around so quickly – sneaking up on us benignly and full of niceness. Family, babies, furry animals, rotund ho ho’ing Santa Clauses and reindeers with red noses. What a sweet image Christmas has become for us and the marketing gurus.
Cute, Christmas has become cute and saleable, a hedonistic binge with the credit card hangover, and almost irrelevant in terms of meaning.
Yet the event we celebrate as the first Christmas was anything but cute and it was, indeed, full of meaning. There was no hint of the Hallmark Christmas card about it.
It had all the pathos and tragedy of the persecuted and the occupied, of the refugee and the downtrodden, of the forgotten and ostracised, about it.
☺ Take Mary and Joseph.
Here was a couple, one of which Mary, was in her mid-to – late teens caught up in, not only the demands of occupation and bureaucratic name taking and counting, but in the emotional minefield of pregnancy outside a formal marriage, a strange story of an angel announcing the baby was the offspring of the God of Israel and then stuck in an unknown city without accommodation or support.
Joseph had made the very difficult decision to take Mary with him to Bethlehem him because of the problems she would face if left at home and had the baby. The response from the community would have been less than favourable for a mother with a child out of wedlock.
So, even though there was no legal reason for her to be there, Joseph took her with him to safeguard her and the baby from local persecution. They stayed on in Bethlehem after the birth for the same reason but found themselves in a year or so, at odds with the local despot Herod, and fleeing for their lives.
☺ Take the innkeeper.
Compassion mixed with the desire to make a quid may have lead the innkeeper to utilise every square inch of his establishment, even the ground floor space in the inn where he kept his and his customers, animals. Or Mary and Joseph may have found a similar downstairs space in some distant relatives home, there is no clear evidence that it was the shed out the back of the Bethlehem Hilton.
It was, though, a place that smelt anything like the birthplace of a king. Yet it was compassion on the behalf of an unknown individual which made it possible for Jesus to be born undercover and in the midst of representatives of God’s creation. Not a great place but better than a refugee camp, a leaky boat or hiding from those who want to kill you.
☺ Take The Shepherds.
Now these blokes came into town because their sheep had all headed for the hills when the angels arrived and started singing. They came down to get their story straight and to have a gander, a sticky beak, a look, just in case what the angels told them was right. What they made of it, we are not sure, but they are moved enough to show their respects and be present. Whether it changed their lives or not, we will never know. But at least they went and had a look for themselves.
☺ Take The Three Wise Men.
Arriving later than the actual birth, possibly almost 2 years later, the wise men had a profound mixture of intelligence and innocence. They had divined through the stars a king would be born and quite rightly wanted to come and confirm that they were correct. They travelled, depending on where they came from, many thousands of miles to be there. Despite their obvious intellectual abilities they seem not to have been politically savvy and let the cat out of the bag to the tyrant ruler Herod.
Their arrival unleashes further carnage on the people in the area, “Herod slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under” (Matt. 2:16). As a result, Joseph and Mary become refugees in a foreign land just so Jesus survives.
As I said before, the story is not cute, it is real. Jesus, God Incarnate, God amongst us, did not avoid the nasty reality of humanity at its worst. He came right in the centre of it. God, being God, could have ordained an entirely different scenario, which was his prerogative. But he didn’t.
He came in the person of a vulnerable baby, to two lost and alone people, estranged from their families, in the midst of violence and powerlessness, and became a refugee fleeing with his family to safety in Egypt.
This is a modern story and it is the modern story we need to embrace. Is our world, the world we live in any different to that in which Jesus found himself? Have we addressed the issues that impacted on Jesus, his family and his people?
I fear not.
A quick glance across the newspapers, the tv news and the internet will confirm those issues are alive and well in the world today.
☺ More than 74,000 Africans, fleeing civil war, political instability, poverty, famine and drought in the Horn of Africa, crossed the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea on smugglers’ boats and reached the shores of Yemen this year. This figure represents a staggering 50 per cent increase over last year’s 50,000 arrivals, itself a record.
☺ Livestock farmer flees deadly drought and insecurity in Ethiopia and Somalia only to face climate change-linked flooding in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camps. The climate change which destroyed his livelihood through drought is now destroying his future through flood, alongside the violence of vigilantes and terrorists.
☺ Zimbabwean teenage asylum-seeker learns the high cost of freedom. All 17-year-old Tsitsi wanted to do was go to school and earn a living – but the men transporting her to a better life had other plans for her, they raped her and she now finds herself the mother of an unwanted child, no job and no place to go home to, ostracized by her own family and the society she finds herself in.
Sound familiar? What went wrong? Wasn’t that why Jesus came into the world, to bring peace to all, to make peace possible, to bring about the kingdom of God?
But it’s a shared kingdom. We have a role in this kingdom as well. Remember the words of the angel, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!”
Jesus makes it possible, we make it present.
Ian Cutmore, my Salvation Army Training College principal once said, ‘If it’s not happening where you are, it’s not happening’.
Jesus makes it possible, we make it present!
Jesus makes it possible by his birth, his example as found in the New Testament, by his death on the Cross and by his resurrection.
We make it present by our acceptance of that birth, life, death and resurrection in a way that radically changes how we live and how we relate to others; in how we celebrate Christmas; how we respond to those who are less well placed than ourselves, how we respond to refugees, the poor – how we respond to the other.
It is not about being guilty about how we are, who we are or where we are in this world. Guilt does not lead to the kingdom of God. What leads to the kingdom of God is the honest reflection on how we live on earth as peacemakers, as bringers of hope to others, and ourselves, as people who take seriously our place in this world.
If life was about individuals, if it was all about us, there was no need for Jesus to be born. There was no need for God to come into the world. We could just go on the way we always had.
Yet it is not about you or me as individuals. It is not about us. It is about what we do and become together. It is about how we respond to the carnage of global warming, the violence of the fundamentalist, the appealing lure of possessions and stuff we seek for ourselves – it’s about what we value and what gives us value.
Jesus was born an unlikely revolutionary, a vulnerable baby who survived because others, mostly unknown others, took great risks to ensure that he did.
The measure of our world, and of each of us, is whether we are prepared to take such risks everyday. It’s the only way the Kingdom of God will come.