The Impossibilities of God in a Broken World, the story of Christmas, Meditations:
Jn 6:38 I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.
Genesis of an idea: Every year Advent arrives and I think, “Well, I have written about Christmas several times before, there’s not a lot left to say. What shall I write about instead?” (A rather short-sighted approach for you can, I believe, look afresh at the same Scripture time and time again and see something new). Anyway, the same thing happened at the beginning of December this year, but then I was sitting in the worship of a Sunday morning service and had a strong sense of a different view of the events in respect of what we now call ‘Christmas’. I don’t know what caused it but I suddenly found myself thinking about all these things that go to make up the Christmas story and saw them as simply impossible – in human terms – and yet things that happened because God was stepping down onto this broken world.
A Micro Thought: A little while back I started writing what I called ‘Micro thoughts’, short writings on my Facebook pages that were short, sharp and to the point, making a single point each time, written every three or four days, and when we came to December I focused them as ‘Advent Micro Thoughts’. Here is the first one I wrote then: “Why, before all else (1 Pet 1:20), should the Godhead have planned for one of them to leave the wonder, the beauty, the glory, the peace and the harmony of heaven to come to the war-torn earth where human beings abused and enslaved one another, fought one another, argued with one another, allowed their minds to be distorted and twisted and warped in self-centred godlessness? Why would he come down (Jn 6:38) into all this in total vulnerability, almost hidden from view, utterly reliant on a teenage mother and questioning father? Why? Love.”
Silent Night? There is a Christmas carol that starts, “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright,” and it conveys this beautiful picture of what was taking place two thousand years ago, as if everything was wonderfully peaceful, but the truth is very far from that. It is a beautiful romantic picture conjured up by that carol and the first verse goes on to speak of the crib scene: “Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child. Holy infant so tender and mild, sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.” It’s a beautiful carol and I have lost count of how many times I have sung it over the years, but really and truly, when you start thinking of the circumstances that make up the Christmas story, peace is the last thing than comes to mind! We’ll see that as we go along.
Context – Ben Hur: Perhaps to understand something more of what I have just been saying, it might be appropriate to think about the film ‘Ben Hur’. I realize I haven’t seen the 2016 version and so you must put up with my comments about the 1959 film starring Charlton Heston. When people speak about that film the thing that usually comes up first in conversation is the deadly chariot race, but the images that always stay with me are those of Judah Ben Hur as a slave on a galley, chained in position with absolutely no hope whatsoever of his life as a slave ever changing. That is the world of two thousand years ago under the domination of the Roman empire with possibly one of the most disciplined armies of the world, disciplined by fear (because punishment for disobedience was either death or worse, slavery) and triumph (being part of a totally successful army).
Life in General: But life in general – although we may view it through the lenses of life today – was nothing like life today. When sickness struck, the odds were against you. If there was a bad harvest, you would know the pangs of hunger and fear of food running out. If you travelled it was either by foot or possibly by donkey, horse or camel, depending on how rich you were. There were no social security benefits so you took whatever job was available and if your father was a carpenter, you probably followed in his footsteps. Money came from work – your work. If your family didn’t have a trade or business, you worked as a servant, or even slave, for someone else. If you were a woman, you cared for the home and had children. Life for most was entirely parochial, you just didn’t travel. The word ‘holiday’ was probably unknown for most. If you had a disability and could not work, you begged and relied upon charity of passers-by or of your family. Because of the Roman presence, sometimes you worked for these overlords, perhaps collecting taxes for them and as they were not too concerned, just that you collected sufficient, it gave you space to be less than scrupulous in your dealings with the ordinary people. Yes, they may have disliked you but who cares, you are in the place of power and power means wealth and wealth means comfort in this often-uncomfortable world.
Why this world? Perhaps most people were too busy surviving to bother thinking about such issues but for us today we have space to ask the big questions, why is this world like this, why did you allow it to be like this God, why don’t you do something to change it? Security comes from an ordered life, and for a Jew living in the land we call Israel, order came through following the Law of Moses, hoping for a Messiah to come one day to bring us freedom as the prophets hinted, attending Synagogue on Saturday and entering into the life of our local community. As long as you kept the rules you were acceptable. Those who collaborated with the Romans were despised, and some had jobs that put them outside the ambit of community life, like those who were shepherds and who had to live out on the hills looking after their master’s sheep. Why was life so tough? Why did God make it like this? Why didn’t He do something to change it? Those are some of the questions we’ll pick up along the way in these days ahead.
Meanwhile, back in heaven: Some have the view that Jesus first came into existence when he was conceived in Mary but such people clearly have never read John’s gospel. Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, certainly did appear in human form for the first time two thousand years ago, but the Son of God had existed with the Father from before time began and was there with the Father bringing the material world into being (Jn 1:3, Heb 1:2, Prov 8:27-31) and there he existed as the glorious second person of the Trinity (Jn 17:5,24). From there the Son ‘came down’, “I have come down from heaven.” (Jn 6:38)
And to Christmas? Unfortunately so often, in our thinking, we have relegated the Christmas story to nativity plays in schools where the baby Jesus gets accompanied by angels, sheep, penguins, lions and anything else that takes the school’s fancy, just helping the reality of what really happened drift further and further away from our understanding today. It is actually a harsh and difficult story, with occasional bursts of glory, but it is the story of God coming to do things which most people consider impossible – the first being that Almighty God, who sits on clouds in many people’s imaginations, comes to earth in the form of a baby. How ridiculous – but true!
The reality: Perfect God coming to a very imperfect world, perfect God coming to very imperfect people: that is what brings hope for you and me, and that must be one of the primary messages of Christmas, that God acted on their plan to leave the wonder, the beauty, the glory, the peace and the harmony of heaven to come to the war-torn earth where human beings abused and enslaved one another, fought one another, argued with one another, allowed their minds to be distorted and twisted and warped in self-centred godlessness. That is the wonder of Christmas and if you’ve never seen it like that, perhaps you’ve missed the reality of this story. But it’s not just a story, it is history, facts of time-space history, and it is, together with the story of Good Friday and Easter Day, the most incredible and wonderful story ever to be declared on the earth. It is only, I suggest, when we see the impossibilities confronting these people and the harshness and difficulties that they went through, will we truly see the wonder of these events.