25th December 2017 Christmas Morning -Hugh Perry
Isaiah 62: 6-12
In the section of Isaiah the prophet looks to a new restored Jerusalem following a time of exile. As Jerusalem was the home of the temple and the focus of religious and political life Isaiah’s poetry sees the restoration of God’s people and the restoration of Jerusalem as the same thing.
After the destruction of the temple the followers of Jesus began to see the Risen Christ filling the role of the temple for the new people of God whose access to God is through the image of God we have in Jesus.
Luke 2: 8-20
In the opening of Chapter 2 Luke places the events he describes in history by naming important officials. In doing so he draws our attention to his parody of the official biographical myth of Emperor Augustus. Luke appears to be saying, ‘You call the Emperor Lord and Saviour.
But this is the story of the real Lord and Saviour whose birth inspired choirs of angels to tear open the heavens and announce the birth to shepherds’.
That makes an interesting contrast to the powerful people Luke names because, at this time, shepherds were on the bottom of the social strata.
Because I suffer from hay fever there is shredded paper rather than straw in the manager but this is certainly a time when babies are in danger. Furthermore I certainly hope that at least some shepherds are possessed by the folly of love because a number of metaphorical shepherds who are supposed to lead the nations of the world seem mainly focussed on every day badness.
Our story from Christian World Service this morning focuses on a refugee camp that was established in 1949 to accommodate refugees fleeing northern Palestine. It now also caters for those fleeing the civil war in Syria but the Presedent of the United States seems to have decided to reignite the tension between Israel and Palistine by recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moving the United States Embassy to Jerusalem. The problem is that Palestine claims East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state, and according to the 1993 Israel-Palestinian peace accords, its final status is meant to be discussed in the latter stages of peace talks. The Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called Mr Trump's announcement ‘deplorable’, saying the US could no longer be a peace broker. It seems that bringing the United States and North Korea to the brink of nuclear war is not enough for Donald Trump and the folly of wealth and power is a stark contrast to the peace we hope for in the folly of love.
The whole region where Christianity began is aflame with violence and babies are as much in danger today as they were in the first century. UNICEF New Zealand reports that the suffering of the Syrian children has not stopped since the war began 6 years ago and refugees face a constant nightmare as winter bites. Tens of thousands of children fleeing war on foot are facing plunging temperatures, freezing rain and brutal snow storms, with no way of keeping warm.
The terrible clashes of ethnicity and culture in our world in fact echo the world into which Jesus was born and the world that brought the Jesus movement into existence. This is highlighted by Burton Mack, who is the John Wesley Professor emeritus in early Christianity at the Claremont School of Theology.
In his book Who Wrote the New Testament Mack talks about the collisions and demise of cultures in Palestine at the time of Jesus. With the uncertainty of those times some people, both Jews and Gentiles, saw hope in a new way of organising human society that the Gospels call ‘The Kingdom of God.’
This Kingdom of God movement was definitely countercultural, and Luke makes that point by having nomadic shepherds as the witnesses of Jesus’ birth. The status of these shepherds draws attention to the huge difference between rich and poor. That is highlighted by Jesus being born away from the family home of both Joseph and Mary suggesting some sort of family dysfunction, which even today is a feature of poverty. That is even more apparent when we take into account the fact that there is no record, other that the Gospels, of the census that supposedly made Mary and Joseph homeless at the time of Jesus’ birth. We often refer to the Gospels as ‘good News’ but although we might creatively ask questions of their historical accuracy they are certainly not ‘fake news.’
The gospels are about meaning rather that historic accuracy and the birth narratives of both Luke and Matthew tell us that whatever else we believe about Jesus he was a human person who was born like the rest of us. Even though John’s Gospel has the Word with God in creation his coming among us was by the usual method and underlines our Trinitarian belief that Jesus is both fully God and fully human.
What we understand as the ‘Christmas Story’ is an amalgamation of Matthew and Luke with some cutesy animal stories thrown in. But Christians are beginning to understand that each gospel has something unique to say about the meaning of Jesus. In that way we find relevance in the Jesus story for us and learn that Christ is indeed risen and transforming our lives.
The lack of cultural certainty at the time of Jesus is certainly reflected in our own world of wars, collapsing states, refugees and migrations.
The diversity of cultures is certainly noticeable in New Zealand along with family dysfunction, homelessness and a growing gap between rich and poor.
We could easily write a nativity play for our own time where a pregnant Mary flees from an abusive family and meets a caring Joseph when they were both given a meal by the Salvation Army. Together they look for better accommodation but eventually end up sleeping in Joseph’s car on a vacant lot and the baby is born under the glare of the security lighting and surrounded by stray cats, dogs and drunks. Being the middle of the city there are no shepherds but a police patrol calls the ambulance and three wise social workers get the family temporary accommodation and put them on the waiting list for a state house.
My mother told me that we kiwis believed that every child, regardless of circumstances, deserved an equal chance so the Jesus in that story would be fine in my mother’s view of a just society.
But we no longer live in the New Zealand Mum hoped our society was or would become.
I can certainly imagine some people who would feel it was wrong to support the baby born in a car because his parents should have acted more responsibly. That is probably how the rich and famous would have felt about Jesus if they even knew he was born. When he grew up and started disrupting their world with a group of nonconformist and anti-social ideas about a kingdom of God they took notice and crucified him. But Jesus’ followers began to understand him as God and that understanding transformed and is still transforming the world.
Joan Osborne’s song asks: What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us, Just a stranger on the bus, Tryin' to make his way home?
And the whole essence of what it means to be Christian is to say yes indeed to that proposition. Christ lives in each of us and we find Christ in others by being Christ to them.
On one level our Christmas is a time of sugar-sweet sentimentality. A time of parcels and wrapping, father caught napping, and children awake in the folly of love. But Christmas is also the time when we remember that, amongst all the power and wealth of the world, the person who has made the greatest difference to the world of humanity was born in a stable amongst the poor and marginalised of his world.
In our world where wealth has the power to turn nation against nation, science can create weapons of mass destruction and corporate greed can ignore the destruction of the environment, the folly of love still brings God into our world. Each new birth in a palace of a disused car in a wrecking yard has the power to transform our world.
The stories we tell, the tabloids we enact and the fanciful nativity scenes we create all remind us of the most profound truth of our faith in the Christ in and around us. Reminds us of the profound fact William Robertson expressed in a baptismal hymn, A little child the Saviour came The Mighty God was still his name.
 Hymn 305 The Scottish Psalter 1929 (London: Oxford University Press) p.379.