Christmas Curmudgeon

I have a Christmas confession: I am not a fan of most traditional Christmas carols.

My diagnosis has two parts. First, when working my way through university, I was employed as a Santa Claus (spoiler alert!) each year at a leading retail store in Sydney. Every day for two months, force-fed almost every carol ever written, bolstered by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters singing popular favourites. Even now, White Christmas gives me a light rash.  

The second reason is more important. Many of the carols have beautiful tunes, but a lot of the lyrics paint a picture of the Christmas event as a bit of a Disney movie. Images of snow falling gently, a child who doesn’t cry, and two serene parents managing the whole situation. There’s the directive in one carol “Christian children all must be mild, obedient, good as he”. For me, it’s an extraordinary story we’ve wrapped in cotton wool.

The Christmas story which moves my heart and gives me hope is the one the Gospels tell – miracle and challenge and risk and fear and wonder. A young woman accepting an enormous challenge, risking the shame, in those days, of becoming pregnant outside marriage. A husband-to-be accepting the risk, responsibility and care for his fiancée and her child. A long journey, heavily pregnant, eventually giving birth in a stable, or a cave, or in the middle of a paddock, using a feed box as a cot. Shepherds, unwashed and usually unwelcome, are the first to see the baby, their presence proclaiming that everyone is welcome at the birth.

The presence of God fills the story from the beginning, even when the violence of empire acts, as Herod seeks to kill the child, forcing Mary and Joseph to flee to Egypt as refugees.

This is no Disney story. Our lives have mess, and confusion, and unwelcome guests, and grief and injustice. Our lives also have courage, and risk, and wonder, and people who act generously.

And Jesus is in the midst of it all. The birth of Jesus is astonishing hope, because God is with us in the midst of everything, not insulated from the world around, but present at the heart of it.  God is in it, with us, because God loves us, and gives us all God has – God’s child – to let us know our worth.

This is from a new carol I discovered recently:

Round this birth, as every other,

wars are fought and people flee;

each new mother feeds her baby

with a yearning to be free.

Mary’s song still echoes clear:

justice, hope and peace are near.

baby-jesus-manger

Not Quite What We Imagine

Did you think it would be comfortable? Did you imagine it would be nice? When you listen to a prophet, what did you expect – a gentle pastoral response?

This is the problem with the whole shebang. We imagined it beginning and ending with angels singing triumphantly, a rampant drummer boy and a pristine manger filled with little Jesus-no-crying-he-makes.

Even if we stop reading the Christmas stories in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels, leaving out the violence and the prophecies of aged disciples and just stick with the birth, it becomes uncomfortable.

God is at risk in our world, a moment almost as disturbing as it is wondrous.

It’s disturbing, because the moment we engage with the wonder, something happens. We discover that we are being transformed. We find out how valuabno-roomle we are to God, as God becomes human flesh. We discover that we are loved beyond measure and trusted beyond our imagination’s grasp.

And there it is. Because if I am, so are you. If we are, so are they. And any amount of barbed wire wreaths and evasive press releases changes nothing.

John the Baptizer believed that Jesus was coming to “sort people out”, and when there were no reports of revolution and uproar, he sent a message from his prison cell: Are you the real deal?

The response from Jesus is good news: people’s lives are being transformed.

This is where the real discomfort comes for us. We discover not only our own worth, but the worth of everyone. The implications of that are obvious for how we serve and act, for how we forgive and seek justice. But it’s also when we see Jesus declaring this to be the heart of the Gospel – that the least become valued as the most.

John doubted because he expected uproar and instead Jesus brought embrace.  Many of us doubt because we expected it to be more like what we imagined – a wondrous story in which we are embraced and left to live our lives in peace.

When we expect discipleship to fit neatly into our lives, we are wrong. We talk often about the call of God, but we neglect the next part: obedience. All forms of ministry, engaging every disciple, ask us to follow. There are moments when the call dovetails into our life, our community and our family.

And there are the other moments we are asked to leave our home and participate in the call of God in a new way.

What did you expect?accordion-boy

As the story builds of God breaking into the world as a newborn, we need to embrace this story for all the hope and life it brings.

The discipleship of Mary, then Joseph, agreeing to God’s call. The discipleship of John, even as doubts begin. The declaration of God – how much all humanity is valued and loved.

God entrusts us with his child, vulnerable at the heart of the creation. God entrusts us with his story, offered with the hope with which we discovered it.

As these weeks draw close, let us ready ourselves for the surprise of God in our world – again.

When You Let Your Cousin Preach

So, it’s the new minister’s first sermon. People have worn their best church clothes, and there are a few new hats being spotted around the Congregation. The new minister steps to the pulpit, dressed in an unusual and informal outfit, looking like she’s had one too many espressos before worship.

People do the church-what-on-earth-sidewards-glance-towards-each-other-then-the-door-mild-panic-thing. And she starts

You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

Mobiles (set, of course, to silent) are activated as people send frantic texts to each other and to the powers that be. What’s going on?

This is not the language and style – thankfully – that we usually hear in worship. But in eschewing the violent imagery, have we neglected the challenge?church in box.jpg

John the Baptist confronts those who have become complacent about their faith and their world, who have become complicit in the injustices and the broken system which pretends to govern.

John’s language is compelling; it’s Advent language. If you’re readying yourselves for the coming of Christ, what does that look like? Buying gifts for those you love? Decorating your favourite tree? Another Christmas party?

If these questions discomfort us, perhaps they should. Just as we smooth the rough-hewn cross to a comfortable veneer, and sterilise the stable so that the cattle could feed in our lounge room, we take the belligerent language of John and dismiss him as Jesus’ angry cousin.

That’s not good enough. In fact, it’s wrong.

The life we have been offered in Jesus Christ calls us to offer that life to others. But the story is not crafted in fear of what God will do, it’s crafted in hope because of what God has done.

A child in a manger, God as one of us, tells us the incredible value of each human being; God has become exactly like one of us, born as one of us. The extraordinary becomes normal and thus, the normal has become extraordinary.

What does this say for how we treat our neighbour, our enemy, our refugee, our politician, our sister in Aleppo and our brother on Nauru?

John tells the crowd there is nowhere to hide from the call of God; showing our church membership, or claiming our place in eternal life is an exercise in deception if we fail to turn our lives towards Christ.

As we ready ourselves for the joy of Christmas, how shall we serve others, how shall we act justly and how shall we honour the image of Christ found in manger, cross, resurrection – and our neighbour?