The most engaging stories draw us in.
In the telling, we find ourselves no longer listening on the sidelines, or holding the book in our hands, but standing within the tale itself. The fear, the excitement, the confusion, entice us so that, without notice, the story becomes our own.
We know that the story of a child at risk catches our eyes and hinders our heartbeat, because it is one of the deepest fears we have as a human being. A child at risk of harm.
The Christmas story holds incredible risk, but we can miss it amidst the wonder and celebration.
In Luke’s Gospel, a young, unmarried, perplexed woman becomes pregnant; an angel comforts Mary, but in Matthew’s gospel, we hear the uncertainty, even fear, of her fiancé. An angel reassures Joseph in a dream, but the shadow of social risk, accusation and blame have already fallen across the story of God.
The gospels are clear: God has chosen this path. Our reaction is equally clear: God is at risk in the world. Consider the possible cost to Mary and Joseph and her parents, while understanding what people will think (and say) about her, all of them, as the story unfolds.
A long journey, an unstable birthing room, and all the hazard of giving birth with only each other in the vicinity. Angels announce Jesus’ birth to a mob of stock workers, and the sign of God breaking to the world is proclaimed – a baby, wrapped, and lying in a feed trough.
The shadow and danger in Matthew’s story are cast into sharp relief by an effulgent star, disconcerting the local monarch and enticing foreign astronomers. But the shadows do not entirely depart, as the infant Jesus’ family flees into the night, and the refuge of Egypt. When dictators are threatened, people die. Even children.
Let me remind you: God has chosen this path; this is no accident.
The shadows and risk seek to impede Jesus throughout the gospels; they find their completion, then defeat, decades later with a cross and empty tomb.
We find ourselves caught up in this message, because it hints at something of our own. God, deciding to be born, just like us. God deciding that the most common event in human history, childbirth, would be the mark of God’s engaging in our world.
And like the best of stories, whether told by Milne, or Dostoevsky, or Rowling, we ask ourselves what we would have done, what we might do. The gospel never simply allows us to be spectators, but having invited us in, asks us the question.
What risks, what challenges might we take as a reflection of God’s risk for all creation?
In a world constrained by compliance, control and calculations of risk, we consider what it means to love our neighbour, to love our enemy, and even to love ourselves.
We place ourselves squarely in the midst of our community, seeking to serve them at our own cost, because that is discipleship.
We will be offering Christmas meals to those who are hungry for food and friendship in towns and suburbs across Australia. We will have compiled hampers and gathered gifts, so that people’s celebrations have an added dimension of hope.
We risk ourselves in debates about human worth, about addiction and marriage, about refugees and human life, seeking to live out the message of a God who gives life, offers forgiveness and embodies hope.
We place ourselves at the forefront of disasters, offering support where hope seems fragile, or even lost.
When human beings are measured as political pawns in offshore camps, or as collateral in war, or as throwaway lines in the speeches of political leaders, we assert that even those who hate us have value in the eyes of God.
We speak – and act – for our earth, even as it cries out in suffering.
It is not always popular; we are always imperfect; we learn from God and each other as we go, as disciples on the way.
We do all this because God has risked life with – and for – us.
A baby, born.
God, for us, for creation.
Wonder, beyond wonder.
And this is the God of history, of creation, revealed in Jesus Christ.
Emmanuel, God with Us.