Friday, December 30, 2005

Christmas message

See Matthew 1:1-6.

We went to separate performances of three separate Christmas productions for each of our three children. In all of them there were tinsel halo-brights (as our youngest called them for a while). There were angels – mostly but not always girls in long flowing robes – not so much the sort of angels that would terrify you – as they terrified Mary, Zechariah and the shepherds – but the sort of angels that would make you say, “aaaaahhh!” There were reluctant innkeepers. There were multi-ethnic wise men or kings from the east; there were shepherds, there were a variety of animals, and there was a doll in a crib with straw in it.

Such is the pattern of the preparation for Christmas. The effect of all this is that people think that Christmas is just for the children – or at best for parents. It's lovely to see children dressed up in sparkly clothes, and stumblingly reciting versions of the words that we half-remember from when we went to school – but really, it has nothing to do with real life – nothing to do with me – and it's a bit of a nuisance and I could really do with getting back to sort out the Christmas cards, make sure the oven's come on and open some more presents.

But the reality is that the Christmas stories are very grown up. There's the obvious fact that Mary finds herself pregnant when she is not married – we tend not to explain to our children what “virgin” means, even when in the school play we get a seven-year old girl to say, “how can this be, since I am a virgin?” Mary and Joseph are probably very young – Joseph is a carpenter, but he evidently doesn't have much in the way of resources yet – they can't afford to sacrifice a lamb when Jesus is born, only the minimum offering of two small birds. How many people and families do we know today who face financial difficulty as they start out? We live in an affluent area – a lot of people only get married when they have a house already, and only start a family when they have paid loads of money into investments so the children can afford to go to private schools. If we heard about people in Mary and Joseph's situation, we would probably roll our eyes, and think to ourselves, “Vicky Pollard types! Why can't they be more responsible?” They are just the sort of family that would have Daily Mail readers asking “What is this country coming to?” And childbirth – well, again, we tend to go straight from the innkeeper offering some space in the stable to Mary and Joseph standing by the crib with straw in – but childbirth is anything but a nice experience – it's not the sort of thing that you really want children to know the details of until they have to.

There's the fact that Palestine finds itself under the rule of an indifferent occupying power, the Romans, and Mary and Joseph travelling to Bethlehem is just one small example of this power's complete indifference to the welfare of its subjects. In how many countries today are there people living under the authority of oppressive regimes? How often do we hear about how military or security forces have behaved in indifference to the welfare of civilian populations around them? In how many countries are there insurgencies that, in their desire to get back at occupying powers or the legal government, aren't bothered if there are civilians who suffer at the same time? Iraq – Afghanistan – Somalia – Eritrea – Columbia – Indonesia. Northern Ireland – the Basque country – Northern Nigeria – Saudi Arabia. Mary and Joseph's political situation finds echoes in that faced by people around the world today.

And then there's King Herod – who is happy to use his power to ethnically cleanse a town if he thinks that it will do anything to wipe out a pretender to the throne. Troops are sent into Bethlehem to kill any boys under two years old – an act of apparently random and callous violence. But Mary and Joseph slip away to Egypt – and become asylum seekers or refugees. I don't suppose they were able to escape with much, I don't suppose they were able to find out much about their family whilst they were there, I don't suppose that they felt that they could really return to Bethlehem when they came back, and I don't suppose the lot of foreigners in Egypt was particularly pleasant when they were there – but they were safe from the tyrant who was seeking to kill them. Again, aren't refugees and immigrants part of our experience today? There are people everywhere who know that it would be difficult for them to return to their home country because of the hostility of the regime. We have other people who have come to this country with the encouragement of this country in search of a better and more secure life. But the same is the case all over the world – this is a world in which people are moving around in search of a more secure future – or escaping from vicious regimes – or in some cases just exploring – many people cut off from parts of their family, from their heritage, unsure what the future will hold in the long term.

So the world in which Mary and Joseph lived wasn't a world full of tinsel halobrights, sweet angels and farm animals that looked like children. It was a violent, politically complicated world, in which people had to do what they could to make the best of their situation. Jesus – Immanuel – God with us – doesn't step into the world in a particularly nice, safe era with cuddly sheep and a round of applause from the audience. God comes into the world in a hint of scandal, to a family that will seek political asylum from a nation that is subject to an indifferent empire and under the rule of a vicious, paranoid tyrant.

And when we look at those first few verses in Matthew, we find something surprising. We find from Jesus' family tree that this isn't the exception, but the rule. Four times, women are included in the genealogy – and in each case, there is a story of scandal.

Tamar – I won't go into detail, but this is a scandalous story – Genesis 38 – the bit we skip over when we are telling children the story of Joseph – which is pretty scandalous in its own right, but won't lead to quite the level of embarrassing questions that the story of Tamar will. And yet, there she is – an ancestor of Jesus – God brings about his purposes through a family scandal.

Then there's Rahab – the mother of Boaz, who is the father of Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of King David. Who is Rahab? Well, she's a prostitute – she lives in Jericho – but she realises that God is coming in judgement against the city, and she trusts that God is able to save and protect her. And through her faith in God, she becomes a part of the people of God, and she is given an inheritance with them in the land – and in fact becomes part of God's plan to send Jesus into the world. If you want to read her story, see Joshua chapter 2 and the end of Joshua chapter 6.

Then there's Ruth – the wife of Boaz. She's a Midianite – the Midianites were God's enemies – they were people that the Israelites weren't supposed to deal with. But we know already how Naomi and her husband and sons leave Israel to escape the famine that is God's judgement on the Israelites – and how Naomi returns, bitter with God, with just her Midianite daughter-in-law some years later – and yet how God restores their inheritance through Boaz the redeemer. If you want to read more, read the book of Ruth.

And then we have mention of the wife of Uriah. Uriah was the general of King David's army that he arranged to get rid of to cover up the fact that he was having an affair with Bathsheba, his wife.

These awkwards details of the Christmas story, then – the bits that somehow don't get mentioned in the school nativity plays – we find that they are echoes of what has already happened in the line of Christ. We have refugees, illegitimate children, foreigners where they aren't supposed to be, kings misusing their power and so on. They are all there in the first few verses of Matthew's gospel – they aren't inconvenient details in the story to be quickly skipped over, they are an integral part of how God is at work amongst human beings.

So what? What difference does it make?

Firstly, does Christianity have anything to do with real life? Is it just sweet stories for the kids? Is it just myths that we can keep them happy with, like Father Christmas, whilst we get on with the hard work of sorting out everything that happens over Christmas?

No, it's not. Christmas is about God becoming involved in humanity. God getting his hands dirty. How much does God care about us? Does he care for us only enough to do things that frankly a child could do? No. The Christmas story tells us that God cares so much about humanity that Jesus was born to Mary – with Mary and Joseph putting up with the raised eyebrows and pursed lips of disapproving onlookers, because they both knew how God was at work. Jesus was born to a race oppressed by a foreign power. Jesus spent time as a stateless person. Jesus – God, in human form, knew from the start what it was to not fit in – to be unwelcome in the world.

And of course, as he was God in human form, this unwelcomeness grew, and led ultimately to the world putting to death their creator. Jesus faced all the hostility that the world could throw at him – and yet he lived and died in obedience to his Father's will. God brought about his purposes in the teeth of the rebellion of humanity – facing both the indifference of the world and its deliberate hostility, God came into the world to pay the price for its sin, to redeem it and bring it back to him. And that's what we celebrate at Christmas – not the “real meaning” of Christmas as some sentimental experience – but God loving us so much that all the opposition of the world, from the time of Adam to the time of Jesus, wouldn't deflect him from his purpose of redeeming people.

And the Christmas story brings us up to date, as well. Because I'm not an innocent child, that people will say, “Aaaaah!” over. I don't have a halobright over my head, and neither do you. My life is a mess. Things have gone wrong in it. The Christmas story tells us that God is involved in the lives of real people, with real problems in personal, economic, and political spheres. And that is what the angels sang about.