Reverend Rebecca Newland
25 December 2006, Christmas
Well Merry Christmas to you all!! But isn't Christmas a season of paradoxes and contradictions? I mean Warnie has just quit!? and right before Christmas! In amongst all the paradox, confusion and stress of the silly season, after we have planned and shopped, wrapped and baked some of us find time to stop and wonder what it is all about anyway. I know I do! Some of us who would not normally step inside a church throughout the rest of the year come along at Christmas time to hear one of the most famous stories in the world. For some it is like a walk down memory lane and conjures up a nostalgic childhood.
Indeed Christmas seems to have become an event exclusively for children and our nostalgia for youth. Perhaps this is harmless. But I wonder. It seems to me a focus on becoming childlike at Christmas is guaranteed to skew the real message of the birth of Jesus. The Christmas story is really an adult story with very adult implications. I want to spend the next few minutes explaining what I mean by that. However when your first look at the story it looks as if nothing much is happening at all. There is a beautiful poem that goes:
This was the moment when nothing happened.
Only dull peace sprawled boringly over the earth.
This was the moment when even energetic
Romans could find nothing better to do
than counting heads in remote provinces.
And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect
Walked haphazard by starlight straight
into the kingdom of heaven.
When this simple story takes place Rome is the center of the known world. The emperor's title is "Son of God" and acting as the Son of God, Augustus declared that his whole realm should be counted, measured. This was an act of supreme control and power coming out from Rome. And it causes Joseph to go to Bethlehem, which was frankly in the international scheme of things, nowhere. It would have been like going to Ivanhoe — know where that is?
One of the most famous lines is scripture is "there was no place for them in the inn." Later in Luke's gospel we will read, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." In the gospel of John the author writes: "He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him." It's in the nature of the Messiah that he is always the one left out, always the one in the out-of-the way place. He is the stone the builders rejected. That there's no room in the inn is not incidental to the story; this is what the Messiah is. There's no room in Rome, so go to Israel. There's not room in Israel, so go to Nazareth. There's not room in Nazareth, so go to Bethlehem. There's no room in the inn, so go out to the shed where the animals are.
Out, out, out, out… The Messiah is the one left out, the one at the very outskirts of earthly power and might. The Christmas story is a story of the Son of God beginning his life on earth in poverty and unimportance and obscurity. He ends in the same way — tortured, dead upon a cross. The messiah is not only on the outside, right away from the centre. The messiah is also found where there suffering, exclusion and pain of all types. The messiah is found away from the glitz and glamour of new shopping malls, away from all our delusions of wealth and economic growth. The real truth breaks in on you when you recognize the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone, the cornerstone of a new way of looking at the world.
The resurrection of Jesus, to which the angelic chorus of Hallelujahs points, is the climax to the story. The resurrection is the whole point to the Virgin Mary, the shepherds, angels and wise men. Always the nativity leads to Easter and then to the renewal of Pentecost. Christmas is just the beginning of the story of a baby born in obscurity, who grows to teach a radical and new way of living, who died for each one of us and yet rises and loves and forgives through it all.
And who first gets wind of this? It's the shepherds. We have to shake free of some of our Christmas piety about innocent shepherds. This is not some nice little pastoral scene. Shepherds in the first century represented something like bikers, socially. They were the unwashed, unscrupulous, hard blokes around town. People locked their doors when they came into town. They had the lowly social mark of Hell's Angels (no offence to Hell's Angels — I've met a few).
Perhaps in our context the shepherds are like illegal asylum seekers or even legal ones. To such as these the angels appear. No wonder Mary and Joseph are surprised at what the shepherds tell them. Who would have thought angels would appear to such people!
Luke always turns the social order on its head: He is always interested in those on the margins. The Gospel message turns how we see things upside down. It speaks of forgiveness of enemies, sight for the blind, and freedom for the oppressed. It speaks of the love of God reaching out to those the rest of the world has abandoned. If we don't see this we are not getting it. If it doesn't challenge us, make us rethink our beliefs and actions we have missed the point. If it doesn't inspire us to confront injustice, distortion of truth and our own self-justification we haven't heard the message.
And finally the baby Jesus is found in a manger: a feeding trough, a place where the animals come to eat. At the end of the gospel, the disciples of Emmaus find Jesus in the breaking of bread, at an eating place. At the Eucharist we come to find Jesus, around the altar, in the sharing of bread and wine, amongst ourselves, in each other.
The theological word that goes with Christmas is incarnation. It literally means to be 'in flesh'. God becomes flesh, like us in everyway, so that we might find our way to God. In year 8 religious classes at Radford College I used to ask the question "If there is something more than what we can see, hear or touch, the physical world, and some being from that place wanted to communicate with humans how would they do it?" Predictably I always got answers like dreams, visions, imagination, angels and prophets. But then always some bright spark would get it and say "well if that being really wanted to talk to us they would become human like us".
And being human is no small task. I have read somewhere that the angels are in awe of humans and what our existence is like with its pain and suffering, its' depths and heights, yet being human means that we can grasp the mystery and wonder of God. We can feel and bleed and love and learn, something a purely spiritual being can never even approximate. We need to be human to create like God, to make music that sours to the heavens, and to feel joy and sorrow.
In the Gospel we heard that Mary pondered in her heart the things that had happened. Not in her mind or her feelings, but in her heart. In the end that is what we must do as we leave this place. Find time to ponder the great story of Christmas in our hearts. Let it sink in and do its work of transformation. Let the Christ within us come to birth in our lives and transform the way we look at and respond to the world around us. Let the Christ within help us to grow up. This is the challenge in Christmas, perhaps the most important challenge we face. It is the challenge to take on this earthly life as Jesus did. To not run away from what disturbs and confronts us, to not slip into illusion and fantasy, to not escape through addiction, to not let fear drive our choices and actions. To be fully incarnated ourselves, to be fully present in the moment. That means to be in our flesh, feeling life and loving fully. Growing up is about becoming fully human, fully alive, fully awake to the Christ within — and taking our part in transforming the world.
If we look and listen carefully, if we ponder deeply, we realize that like the shepherds we too can walk "haphazard by starlight, straight into the kingdom of heaven." Amen