Texts: Gospel Reading: Luke 2.1-20
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Such a familiar story as the Christmas story can start to sound like a fairy tale, a story which washes over us in what we like to think is a season of goodwill. Yet without this story, nothing makes sense. Without the baby in the manger, Christmas is empty of meaning. Celebrating Christmas without Christ is like celebrating a birthday without inviting the birthday boy. Yet I’m more and more convinced that the story of Christ being born at Bethlehem upends so many of our preconceptions about faith, God, and the world. Especially it upsets the sense that many people have that God is not really involved in the world.
I studied in Glasgow, and then the city was my home for a number of years. So when I heard the first reports of the horrific bin lorry accident in Glasgow I could visualise exactly where it hall took place- I’ve been there many a time. Then I heard that one of those who died was a student at my alma mater, the University of Glasgow. And then I heard that she was one of three members of the same family, from Dumbarton, the town where I was born. And it turns out that members of my family know them.
When you have some kind of connection to tragedy, you feel the pain all the more. A week or two ago the Pakistani consul in Glasgow said that people in Scotland seemed to connect to the grief of people in Pakistan after the horrendous school attack because of what had once happened in Dunblane (certainly for me the attack in Pakistan brought back memories of Dunblane).
If I have a connection, I feel the pain. Yet tragedies I have no personal connection to are no less painful for those involved. I have often wondered about people who say they have given up belief in God because something bad has happened to them. I want to ask, ‘What about all the bad things that are constantly happening to other people- didn’t that try your faith?’ For we can, with only a little imagination, step into the shoes of others and feel their pain.
This morning there was an item on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, about the fate of Christians in the Middle East at the moment (listen from 02:32). Canon Andrew White, the amazing Church of England priest in Baghdad, seemed almost in tears as he spoke of what Islamist extremists are doing to Christians and other minorities. He spoke of the thousands of refugees, driven out of Syria and Iraq to places like Jordan, whose despair is beyond description, and worried whether the small Christians minorities who have lived there for centuries might soon disappear. No-one, I think, could not be moved by his words.
If we make a connection with someone, we can all feel their pain, and it’s good that we do, so that people don’t suffer alone. Sometimes we can do practical things for people in need, but sometimes it’s just a matter of being there and listening. If you are spending time with family members or friends you don’t see very often this Christmas, make sure you take time to listen to them. If you do so, if you make a connection, then that might be hard, because you will make yourself vulnerable to their pain. But it might also help.
And that, I think is why the story of the baby at Bethlehem is so powerful. A saviour is born, God comes into our world- and not into the palace in Rome of the Emperor Augustus’s, or into Quirinius the governor’s mansion. Instead, God is born to a peasant couple, and is laid in a manger because there is no place for them in the inn. And the good news is announced by angels, but not to King Herod or the High Priest in Jerusalem, but to ordinary people working a cold and dangerous night shift, shepherds up in the hills looking after sheep. The shepherds come to visit the bairn, and afterwards his mother is left to ponder what it all means.
Years later, Mary will see her son crucified by the Roman occupiers at the insistence of her religion’s leaders. For in Christ, God connects to the world, to us- bone and bone, skin and skin. The message of Christmas is that God does not just emphasise with our pain, but by coming among us experiences it, shares it, takes on himself. And there, you see, is the hope. God could have chosen just to offer us sympathy. Instead, God make a deep connection to us, and shares our joys and our pains.
A few days ago it seemed incongruous that the Christmas lights in George Square were still flashing as the emergency teams dealt with the dead and injured. By the next day they had been switched off. There are many places where it will be hard to celebrate Christmas this year. In West Africa, Ebola means that many will not be able to go to church. And in places in the Middle East, even to attempt to celebrate Christ’s birth would be to risk massacre, rape or slavery.
But by Christmas Eve the lights were back on again in George Square, and although they had decided to close the funfair until after Christmas, you could get into the square and visit the nativity scene which is always part of Glasgow’s Christmas display. A nativity scene so close to the scene of a tragedy reminds us that true light of Christmas is never incongruous, but a source of hope for the future. St John’s Gospel says of Christ that he is ‘the light that shines in the darkness, that the darkness can never put out’. God has made a connection with our lives, God sufferes and rejoices alongside us, and therefore we can hope- there is a light which will not go out in the darkness.
On the radio this morning, Canon Andrew White, speaking of the possibility that Christianity could be wiped out in the Middle East, nevertheless told us that the leader of his group caring for refugee Christians was a doctor who is a Muslim. ‘So we’re not without hope’, he added. Which is as good a way as any to sum up what the Christmas story means for Christian: ‘So we’re not without hope’.
Ascription of Praise
Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and peace on earth to all in whom God is pleased!
Luke 2.14 (GNB alt)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2014 Peter W Nimmo