Christ is born in Bethlehem and all are invited to the celebrations at the manger. We have had a number of chances to celebrate at SBC over the past few days, and if you've missed any of them and would like to take a pause for thought, you can catch up with some of what I shared below.
I know Christmas can be a difficult time for many, but I pray that today holds blessings and unexpected joys for each one of you, whatever you are doing and whoever you are with.
Happy Christmas and God Bless.
On Sunday morning we thought a little about welcome. This was the theme I started with when I arrived in September, and it seems an appropriate one to return to at Christmas.
After all, the Christmas story itself has elements of welcome. There is the welcome extended to the shepherds, unused to fancy invitations, but now greeted by angels and called to be the first witnesses to the birth of Christ. And the welcome given to the wise men, quite possibly priests of another religion, but called to worship the Messiah. These were not the people you would expect God to invite to his grand entrance, although who we expect God to invite perhaps says more about us than about God, but that is surely the point. God invites the unexpected because he invites everyone. Even us.
I wonder if we know how truly welcomed we are?
And yet the Christmas story also contains elements where welcome is less certain. Mary and Joseph are given shelter, but not the full hospitality of a guest room. Jesus is given somewhere to lay, but it is a manger not a crib. This new family is not wholly rejected but neither is it fully embraced. Perhaps that was their experience in Egypt too, when they fled there after Herod decreed that he would slaughter all baby boys in order to kill the new king. Perhaps they were allowed to seek a place of sanctuary, but kept at a distance because of their difference. That is certainly the experience of many displaced people today, no longer safe in the land in which they were born, treated as burdens or threats in the land in which they live.
I wonder how we can extend a fuller welcome to those who find themselves on the edge?
And there are also elements of un-welcome. The opening verses of the fourth gospel, so often read at Christmas time, remind us that Jesus came to the world but the world did not know him. And of course we know where the story is heading. We know that Jesus was rejected in his hometown, that he was betrayed by one of his closest companions, that he was persecuted by the authorities, that he ultimately suffered a criminal’s death. Jesus was not welcome because his way of love and justice and mercy was just too hard. The truth is that even for those of us who have spent our lives trying to follow him, it can be hard to accept all that he asks of us, and we can try to keep parts of Jesus out of our lives, or parts of our lives away from Jesus.
I wonder how welcome Jesus really is in our lives?
Let us celebrate the welcome that we, like the shepherds and the wise men, are offered by God. Let us extend that welcome to others, like Mary and Joseph, who are in need of a fuller embrace. And let us return that welcome to God, who we see revealed in Christ, so that we may receive all of him in all of us. Not just because it is Christmas, but because Christmas reminds us how important welcome is.
Jesus in the Dirt and the Mess
At our Carols by Candlelight service, we were graced with two beautiful performances, including a lullaby sung by Mary to Jesus. How beautiful to imagine the night silent except for the sound of Mary’s lullaby. The whole world pausing to hear her song of love, sung to love come down to earth and laying in her arms. If there was such a moment, I doubt it lasted long, but I am sure that it endured in Mary’s memory as well as in our carols.
I remember the night my own son was born, the noise of my screams and the notes of his cry, but also a moment of pure stillness, when it seemed that even my own heartbeat had stopped, caught short by the beauty of this new life. That is among the most precious of my memories, as I’m sure it was for Mary too.
Because in so many ways this birth was like any other. The same pain and blood. The same wonder and beauty. The same moment of silence between mother’s scream and baby’s cry. And yet in so many other ways, this birth was like none before and none since. For this baby was Emmanuel. God with us. The creator of the universe taking on the flesh of his dearest creation.
It is one of the great mysteries at the heart of the Christian faith, that God should dwell among us, so that we might know him better. So that he might teach us how to live in right relationship with him and with one another. So that he might suffer and return from death to show us that nothing is stronger than his love for us and all things can be made new.
But why come like this, with all the powerlessness of a child, to all the confusion of a family living in an occupied land and soon to be exiles, in all of the vulnerability of a borrowed crib? It was no accident, of that I am certain. God made no mistake that holy night. He was sending a message about who and where he is.
For just as he was born into the dirt and the mess of a feeding trough, a bed generously given and gratefully received, but still not the cleanest or most comfortable of resting places, so he is in the dirt and the mess of our broken and hurting lives. The Christmas story tells us that God is not absent from our suffering. He enters into it so that he may sit with us in the mess and walk with us through the dirt.
And just as we will soon hear that he welcomed the most unexpected of guests, those so poor they had no gifts, those so distant they did not fully understand the signs, so he still extends a welcome to all. The Christmas story tells us that God has not abandoned or forgotten anyone. He was born to us as one of us and he is still with us until the end of the age.
Jesus promised that those who seek will find, but let us never forget that the infant Jesus was found in the last place anyone would have thought to look. That’s why God had to send angels and a star as guides. We must never forget to look for him in the dirt and the mess of broken and hurting lives, with those who have felt abandoned or forgotten, for that is where we still find him.
And when we find him, we also find goodness and blessing and life and peace and joy and hope. Maybe not everything right away. Maybe there is more work to do. Maybe there is another long journey to take. But Jesus will be right there with us, and his gifts will be right there waiting for us.
Because he is light in darkness, praise in despair, comfort in pain. He is God with us in the dirt and the mess, so that we know we are never abandoned or forgotten.
This morning we worked our way back through the advent themes, thinking again about living generously and humbly and beautifully and so we found ourselves at both the end and the beginning, having arrived at Christmas and yet standing once again at the start of the conspiracy.
That seemed right enough to me, because Christmas is the beginning of a conspiracy. God’s great plan to come into our world and turn it upside down, to give us beauty in place of ashes and joy in place of mourning and praise in place of despair.
God’s conspiracy is in motion and so our conspiracy can continue. We can still live generously and humbly and beautifully. Or to use the other principles of the advent conspiracy...
We can worship fully, choosing to spend more time with God, and to be absolutely present in those times.
And we can spend less, or at least spend more wisely, buying only what we need, and buying as ethically and responsibly as we can.
And we can give more, whether that is more money or more time or more attention, to the people and things that really matter.
And we can love all, living in the world with our arms and hearts open, seeking to build relationship and act with compassion.
And so I think conspiracy is a great way of thinking about Christmas, because it reminds us that Jesus was born and died in scandal, and he created a revolution that the church continues to be a part of. Christmas is joyous, but it isn’t cosy. It is a challenge to live differently, because when God becomes flesh, everything changes.
If you want to think some more about how Jesus changed the world, or about how you might live differently, I would love to hear from you, and you would be most welcome to join us on any Sunday, as together we try to work out what it means to be a part of God’s great conspiracy.