Christmas 2015 -- Hugh Perry
Isaiah 62: 6-12
In the section of Isaiah we are about to read 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 is describing in history by naming important officials. In doing so he also 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.
But the angel said to them ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.’ (Luke 2:10)
Tomorrow there will be Boxing Day sales and shopping without stopping, retail therapy to ease the pain of a world of terror, high cost housing and refugees.
John Clark was just one of the prophetic comedians that connected today’s refugees with the plight of the Holy Family. A couple who made a long journey to create a citizenship issue for the new born child in a foreign land. As Clark lamented the difficulty of staging a nativity play in a parliament, with plenty of donkeys but a real difficulty in finding three wise men, his unspoken question was ‘If Christ was born in Australia today would he still have been crucified, deported or detained on the appropriately named Christmas Island?
However the real question in this world of global warming, terror and war is ‘can a child born over two thousand years ago make a difference to our world?’
In this world, where fear drives many people to acts of extreme violence, we can certainly wonder if the birth of any child could make a difference.
Family violence is a major issue in our nation and not only has owning a home become increasingly out of reach for many families rent is also becoming unaffordable. For people living in such circumstances it is hard to imagine that the birth of a child would be ‘good news of great joy for all the people.’ I certainly can’t imagine the minister of social welfare becoming ecstatic about a child born to a homeless unmarried mother whose partner is probably not the child’s father. Neither would a minister of finance struggling to give tax cuts to the wealthy be all that ecstatic either.
However it is within such circumstances that Luke sets his birth narrative and his shepherds could just as easily be locked out Affco workers or Christchurch’s homeless camped in the New Brighton sand dunes.
The reality is that no matter what the circumstances we are biologically hard wired to accept the new born as ‘good news of great joy.’
Furthermore Luke’s subtle allusion that contrasts the birth myth of Emperor Augustus with the birth of Jesus makes the point that not all people who change the world are born in palaces. Each child is born with amazing potential.
Prophets, such as Isaiah in a nation that had lost its independence, looked to a child who would provide leadership and return the nation to the glory they expected as ‘the people of God.’ In our Advent readings we have looked at the prophetic poetry that promised a new and better David.
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. (Isaiah 11:1) That verse from the beginning of Isaiah chapter eleven looks both to the royal DNA of the past kings of Israel’s and fuels what we now call messianic expectation. Messianic expectation looks to a superhuman leader who will get rid of all the bad guys and put the good people in charge. That is what everybody wants. What has always caused humanity ongoing problems, violence and war, is that we can’t all agree on who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.
Augustus brought peace to the first century world by conquest that subjugated all those who opposed Rome. However those who Rome conquered saw it as subjugation and oppression rather than peace. Furthermore as Jesus’ execution demonstrated such a peace is imposed at a very high price for those with alternative views.
In his birth narrative Luke places this expectation of a divine leader into an entirely different paradigm, peace through love. Mary’s baby brings an alternative vision to peace though victory, peace through love! The gospel writers bring us a Messiah or in Greek, a Christ, who does not beam down from heaven with an army of undefeatable warriors.
The Christ of the Gospels comes into the world the same way we all come into the world. Jesus was born and nurtured in a loving relationship. The Christ was born in love and offered unconditional love as the alternative to dominance and subjugation.
However all that is in the past and it is one thing for people of Isaiah’s generation to expect a redeemer in some distant future. The question we face is much more challenging. Can a baby born over two thousand years ago to redeem our world of pain terror, war and refugees?
Surprisingly the answer is yes. Certainly the birth narratives of both Matthew and Luke wrap the birth of Jesus in sentiment and mystery, and subsequent imagination have involved all sorts of cutesy animals and children in the story.
It was the biographical style of the first century to give exceptional births and gallant deaths to significant people. However contemporary biographers are much more critical and look to the way a person lived, the ideas they had and what they achieved to tell the story of an exceptional person.
It was indeed the way Jesus lived that changed the world along with the way the understanding of who he was that developed after his death and was passed on from generation to generation.
However the story of Jesus’ birth within the gospel spells out the very important truth that, as God was born into the world in Jesus, God is born in each of us. John’s Gospel in particular goes on to spell out that as God is in Christ and Christ is in each of us so God is in each. The amazing reality is that Jesus’ birth is everyone’s birth. Christ is born in each of us.
The song originally released by Joan Osborn asks:
What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us.
Just a stranger on the bus
Trying to make His way home
The good news of great joy for all the people is that we can find the risen Christ in the stranger on the bus trying to make his way home.
That is both the good news and the challenge. Good news because we meet the risen Christ in others and a challenge because each of us are called to be Christ to others.
In our shopping and our celebration, our family gatherings and gift giving we share the love that is born, not just on that first Christmas day, but on every day. Love that as Michael Leunig writes, may well be ‘born with a dark and troubled face’ But, as Leunig continues ‘when hope is dead, and in the most unlikely place love is born, love is always born.’
This and every Christmas we celebrate that birth, in Bethlehem and in each of us. The Christ Child, born a long time ago and at this very moment. Love that is born and filters through each of us transforming us and transforming others. Through those transformations our world is transformed.
A transformed world, not by dominance, or even by agreement at international climate conferences and dubious trade agreements and military alliances. Important as those agreements undoubtedly are.
As each Christmas reminds us the world is saved through the love that we show to each other and that indeed is good news of great joy for all the people.