Christmas Eve 2015
Isaiah 9: 2-7
The original context of Isaiah’s poem of hope we are about to read talks about release from oppression by the Assyrians.
However we can also understand how the gospel writers used it to frame their narratives and to give meaning to Jesus, particularly in the birth stories of Matthew and Luke.
We also live in a world where people are oppressed, both by military powers and corporate economic power and the message of the gospels is that liberation from such domination is not by opposing force by force but through love that is born among us.
Luke begins chapter two by placing Jesus’ birth in time through naming important people, the emperor and the governor of Syria. He also places the events geographically and explains the movement of Joseph and Mary that took them from their hometown Nazareth to Bethlehem, a town that better fits the prophecies associated with messianic expectation.
However there is meaning below mere history and geography in mentioning the Emperor Augustus. Augustus was the adopted son of Julius Caesar and according to his birth myth he was conceived through the rape of his mother by one of the Roman gods.
Furthermore Roman imperial theology maintained that, as unifier of the Roman Empire and imposer of peace and civilisation by bloody conquest, Augustus was without doubt lord, saviour, redeemer, and liberator, divine, son of god, god, and god from god.
So beneath the seemingly straightforward details of time and place Luke is saying to his readers, ‘forget about the long dead Augustus and his successors and pay attention because I will give you an ordered account of ‘the one’ who is indeed ‘True God of True God, Light of Light Eternal, born the king of Angels!’
Fred Craddock also makes the point that Luke portrays Augustus as an unknowing and unwitting instrument of God.
Craddock therefore makes the point that there does not have to be a miracle or an unusual event for God to be at work in the world.
All sorts of people from biblical scholar Dominic Crossan to comedian John Clark have linked the current flood of refugees to the Holy family.
Certainly Matthew’s account of the flight into Egypt to avoid Herod’s desire to kill the infant Jesus would put them in the same category as today’s refugees from Syria. (Matthew 2:13-15)
We could also speculate on Matthew’s account of Mary’s pregnancy (Matthew 1:18-20) and suggest that as Joseph resolved to stay with Mary in spite of her unexplained pregnancy Joseph and Mary were cultural refugees. There is plenty of biblical evidence that the penalty for a woman becoming pregnant out of wedlock was death. Furthermore our understanding of Middle Eastern and a number of other cultures would indicate that the death of an unmarried pregnant woman is the only way her family’s honour can be restored. So the journey to Bethlehem could well have been about saving the life of Mary and her baby rather than any imperial census that is difficult to place historically.
Therefore we could argue that the innkeeper who put Mary and Joseph up in the stable preserved the life of the savour of the world.
What would have happened if the Egyptian border security had sent Mary, Joseph and Jesus back to King Herod? What would have happened if the innkeeper refused even the most basic accommodation and Jesus was born in the open on a cold desert night? That might have complied with Bethlehem’s freedom camping bi-laws but the saviour of the world could well have died of exposure.
Such speculation asks some very serious questions about the worlds current refugee issues and various nation’s responses to them.
The place of refugees in the history of New Zealand and Australia is well known and the recent television series The DNA Detectives highlights the amazing genetic diversity and incredible journeys that brought some high profile New Zealanders into existence.
It is also ironic that the series was hosted by Richard O'Brien, the writer of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. O’Brian has a statue of him in the Hamilton CBD as Riffraff a character from that show. There is a serious question that The DNA Detectives asks that is relevant to the present flood of stateless people. It is also relevant to the gospel birth narratives.
How much of the unwanted riffraff that has traversed the globe in the past has not only provided the DNA of today’s high profile citizens but contributed in one way or another to the quality of the human condition?
The follow up question is of course: What will be achieved by those refugees so much of the world currently views as stateless riffraff?
Canada seems to be one of the nations that is asking that question and is pushing forward with a pledge to resettle 25,000 Syrians fleeing conflict by the end of February.
The Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has recently welcomed the first plane of Syrian refugees as they arrived in Toronto.
One of the first men to arrive off the plane with his wife and daughter expressed his gratitude through an interpreter. ‘We really would like to thank you for all this hospitality and the warm welcome and all the staff—we felt ourselves at home and we felt ourselves highly respected,’
Trudeau replied: ‘You are home. Welcome home.’
Probably Trudeau’s defining statement was that this was something they are able to do because Canadians define a Canadian not by a skin colour or a language or a religion or a background, but by a shared set of values, aspirations, hopes and dreams that not just Canadians but people around the world share.
As we focus our thoughts on the birth of Jesus, the family with no place to stay, refugees on a donkey.
They were riffraff camped in a stable and welcome by homeless shepherds let us remember that it was that baby that grew to offer hope, healing and open hospitality in a world of domination and extreme cruelty.
It was Jesus, and those who followed him, who pulled an empathetic understanding from Hebrew tradition and gave the future a set of shared values, aspirations, hopes and dreams.
Jesus was once a tiny baby born among the riffraff of first century Palestine but still is the Risen Christ who is very much the kind of God our world needs today.