I wonder what are the images that have stuck in your mind this year?
On a positive note, Ritchie McCaw holding up the Webb Ellis trophy again at the Rugby World Cup that certainly sticks in the mind of our sport and rugby crazed nation. One of the highlights of the year for me was being at Eden Park for the Bledisloe cup test with my two sons and being part of the crowd that spontaneously gave a standing ovation for Ritchie as he was subbed off, in his last test match in New Zealand. We are not very good at honouring our greats and heroes but there was something about that moment.
But there are others that are starker darker images that we wish were not stuck in our minds that capture the reality of suffering in the world today.
The body of a young boy dead and floating face down in the Mediterranean Sea. The people smugglers’ boat he was on had sunk so close to shore, they almost made it. It encapsulated the human tragedy and suffering of refugees fleeing civil war, ISIS and violence in Syria and the constant flow of peoples seeking safety and prosperity in the face of conflict and poverty.
Fields of flowers and banks of candles come to mind. Not where you’d expect them to be. Not in idyllic country visas, and ancient cathedrals, but as expressions of shock and grief in city streets: Outpourings of sorrow in front of the scenes of terrorist attacks, massacres and mass shootings.
A flash of flame and a trail of smoke in the sky, as a Russian fighter jet is shot down by Turkish air defence. It’s an image that made the world hold its breath: An image that sums up world super powers trying to impose a military solution, their solution, on the Middle East.
I find myself suffering a disconnection between those Images and Christmas or at least the way we portray the nativity, the Christmas story, the coming of Christ into this world. On Christmas cards and billboards it’s presented as an idyllic peaceful event. Almost unworldly, almost as if its pure fairy tale and fiction that has no possible impact or anything of value to say to the world in which we live.
But this year more than any other I can’t help but see the links and parallels between the now and what the gospel tells us of the then. We’ve had the nativity narrative read tonight from Matthew’s gospel. Jesus birth happens it tells us in the reign of king Herod. A king so determined to hold on to power that when he can’t trick foreign visitors to do his bidding resorts to sending death squads to kill all the children in Bethlehem under two, he unleashes that on his own people. Matthew’s Christmas story has gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh that we are familiar with but does not finish with angel’s songs and Christmas carols but the lament and grief of mothers crying for their dead children unable to be consoled. And haven’t we seen images of that this year…
Matthew’s gospel finishes with the story of a refugee family fleeing political tyranny to save their lives and the life of their child from violence. And are those not the images that will remain in our minds from 2015.
We didn’t have Luke’s account read to us tonight. I’m saving it for tomorrow, for Christmas day. It too does not simply present an unreal picture of the nativity. While Matthew has a feel for the local politics, Luke is a Greek and his account starts with the acknowledgment of Caesar Augustus as emperor. The romans the European superpower of the day had imposed their peace on the near east by military means, they’d used ‘boots on the ground’, and the flow and disruption of people that lead to Joseph and Mary coming to an overcrowded Bethlehem is because he had decreed a census be taken up for tax purposes. There was no room at the inns because all those who had family ties to this town had had to come home.
It’s not just that there are parallels between our twenty first century home and the first century home of this narrative. But there are parallels of this first century narrative that give us twenty first century hope.
God chose to presence himself with us, to become one of us, not in the midst of some winter wonderland or joy filled holiday, but in the midst of the messiness and terror of life. God chose to respond to evil and suffering not through the courts of the kings or the corridors of power, but by being born to ordinary people. Not in the lap of luxury but at the vulnerable edge of society. Even amidst the possibility of social disgrace, Matthew tells us that Joseph had was a righteous and compassionate man and was going to quietly divorce Mary as she was with child, until he was told in dream that Mary was pregnant by the Holy Spirit.
It shows us God’s response to the sorrow and grief and suffering in the world. It is not the assertion of power, political power or military power, although sadly down through the ages since his coming wars have been fought armies have marched in his names, and empires have used his name as a way of holding on to power. But God chose to respond with a spiritual solution. That through this child, his life, his death, and his resurrection people who sought him like those astronomers from the east would know forgiveness, would experience the healing love of God, have their brokenness be made whole again, and be enabled to love extravagantly and sacrificially in a way that with the help of the Holy Spirit would bring transformation in the world.
Two thousand years later the hope is the same. The same God offers the same grace and love and forgiveness and wholeness through his son Jesus Christ and calls all those who would come and seek and find him to be willing to allow that to be born a new in their lives.
Be it the simple reaching out and loving a neighbour. At St Peter’s here in a small way we find that God is using us to shine his love into the lives of families around us often when they experience the pain and suffering of loss and relationship break up, in the hope that God’s grace and God’s love and God’s healing may bring new life. On a wider scale one of the images that has stuck in my mind this year was middle eastern Christians setting up tents and bringing food and aid to refugee camps to help their Muslim neighbours fleeing from the same horror that had persecuted their fellow Christians. At a time when they are wondering f this is the end of Christians in the middle east, they have their boots on the ground, boot of love. Of course they don’t corner the market on sacrificial love and there was a story circulating recently of Muslims refusing to give up their Christian neighbours on a bus attacked by jihadists.
I love the candle light of a midnight Christmas Eve service, because for me it speaks of the coming of the light of God’s love into the world in Jesus Christ. Like the small flickering flame of a candle. We are so used to the bright flashing lights of our neon signs and the glare of quarts halogen that we mistake for the light of a new day. But God’s love starts with this one child Jesus, and his love and life and teaching his sacrificial death on the cross, and being raised again, it’s almost too fragile, it seems just a puff of wind could blow it out. But as people have encountered this Jesus and known this love that light has lit up their lives and the world is able to have more of God’s light and love. There are times when t seems to be extinguished and if you know the gospel there are times when people have tried to hide it, but it is the light that is hope for each of us and for the world around us and I hope this Christmas even amidst all that is going on n this world you might not disconnect but might meet and connect with this Jesus whom we celebrate tonight.