A birth and life that can change things, if we take time to notice!
My Christmas Day Sermon – 2013 (Karen )
Just recently I went to Bali for my brothers 60th birthday. We initially spent a few days on Lembongan Island, a paradise just off the mainland which has great surf that my boys loved, and then went to Legion for the party with the rest of my family. The holiday was really great, but it was strange to be somewhere that did not have all the trappings of the Christmas season. Bali is basically a Hindu country, the people are gentle and peaceful and not the least bit interested in Christmas. They tried hard and the occasional restaurant had a small Christmas tree, or a few decorations but there were no Christmas carols being played in the shops, no reminders of how many days until Christmas and no pressure to buy presents for those lost aunts and uncles you may see once a year. In fact there was none of the commercialization of Christmas that might cloud the reason we celebrate it in the first place.
It was actually like a breath of fresh air on a very humid day. That’s because the reason for Christmas has pretty much been lost in western countries. I know that many would say that Christmas is a time of family, of plenty of food and presents and of communities sharing with one another. But it is not just about this, in fact it isn’t really even about a baby or a manger or a star or shepherds. It’s about a man called Jesus, who, regardless of how our society now depicts him, was actually incredibly faithful and brave, and his message very political and subversive. A message that we should all listen to carefully, because the message is just as relevant for today as it was 2,000 years ago. A message that has the potential to change how we and our society works and what we value.
Dominic Crossan is a New Testament scholar and Catholic priest who has spent all his life exploring the historical Jesus.
Crossan has dispensed with much of the baggage that is attached to the stories in the bible. Pared down, the whole bible, from Genesis to revelation is about justice, about establishing justice. Crossan believes Jesus came at a time and a place that needed justice and came from a Jewish tradition steeped in it. For him Jesus came at a time and a place offering an alternative vision of living, not elsewhere, not in another life, but in this life. He presented a stark choice to people, a choice between the Roman Empire and God’s kingdom. A kingdom of violence and hate or a kingdom of love, compassion and deep joy irrespective of race, religion, class, gender or age. But more importantly he challenged the Emperor himself, Caesar Augustus, who claimed to be Son of God and Lord of all. It was Jesus who revealed God, not Caesar, and that was treason. In the end it was inevitable that he was crucified, just as those who cry out for justice often are.
Crossan describes Jesus as a nonviolent revolutionary who practiced non-violent resistance to the powers of injustice unto death. And in doing so he revealed most fully the creative and life giving presence of God in this world. It was a Kairos moment, a moment when things break in to change direction and to highlight new possibilities. This is the Jesus who stands before us today, not as a baby but as a man.
So what then do with the birth narratives?
We have to remember each year that the birth stories of Jesus are an amalgamation of stories written about him after his death. In fact the birth stories are quite late, and do not feature in all the gospels. Neither Mark nor John say anything about Jesus’ birth. Christmas day wasn’t even celebrated on the 25th December until the 4th century as a Christian counterpart to the pagan festival call Sol Invictus, the Unconquerable son. It marked the change when winter was defeated, the days would become longer and the light would increase. It seems actually rather fitting that this festival was chosen, as it represents the life of Jesus, who came when history was at its blackest for the Jewish people. He came in the least expected and least obvious place and shone the light of God into the darkness.
So what are the Christmas stories then, if not history? They are what many call parables, calling forth all they know of the life of Jesus found in the gospels. They weave together fantasy, mystery and reality to bring a message of love and hope for the world.
If we examine them with new eyes we will see that they reflect the gospel message in miniature. They challenge the Roman Empire. Jesus is seen as a defenseless baby whose family can’t find accommodation and when they do it is a stable with no bathroom. The poor shepherds of the hills are the ones who hear the message of his birth, rather than kings or rulers. There are lots of animals, not there for the children’s amusement, but to show that all of nature is included. We have in the story a woman, Mary, and the Magi, who are foreigners of varying age, and who come bearing gifts. In fact Jesus and Mary themselves are refugees escaping persecution. We see a powerful and ruthless King Herod, a threatening presence. And we have the angels singing about peace on earth and goodwill hovering over the whole scene, representing the God of all creation, of Jesus and the hope that this represents for all of us.
Beautiful, evocative and very subversive stories. They give rise to a different type of God, and a different type of Jesus than the world expects.
In Jesus the God of the universe is revealed in someone who actively worked for others, so that their lives would be better. In Jesus we see someone who, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer described him, was a man for others. He taught and demonstrated that to find meaning in life one must learn to live for others. His teaching was and is universal and grounded in the indwelling spirit of God that guided his life. Lorraine Parkinson says it well, “although crafted 2000 years ago, in the 21st century Jesus’s teaching addresses not Jews only, or Christians only, or men only, or people living then only or rich only or poor people only. Instead it has resonance and compatibility with the lives of all human beings of all time.”
More than 600 years ago a male Catholic mystic, and theologian asked “What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the Son of God 1400 years ago and I do not also give birth to the son of God in my time and in my culture”
So the question now for us all, is what to do with the message these stories represent, which is a little different from the message of the shopping malls and the cries of spend, spend, and spend. It is a time to entice people to see Jesus the man and his life and then see beyond Jesus to the God of the universe. To translate Jesus’ love and Gods presence into something concrete, into a different way of living.
The Church and the world is at a crossroads today. We are at another Kairos moment, a crisis hour, when new possibilities need to emerge out of the old. It marks a time to take back the voice and way of Jesus, and gather together as one for the sake of the world. Because make no mistake, in our time and culture we have dictators who rule with power and fear and who think they are God, we have governments who rule for the rich only, we have wealth concentrated with a few who hoard it like thieves, and a world where those who are poor are getting poorer. We have massive poverty in many countries and unending wars in others. Many of us ask, where is the humanity, where is the love and compassion. Where is the hope? Our hope lies in Jesus. The battle between the kingdom of Caesar and the kingdom of God which looked lost at Jesus’ death is won anytime anyone of us follows his call to love one another. All those who love and include others, are displaying the universality of God’s spirit. It is this spirit which guides us to create a better more just world, a better more just society, a better more just community, and to love and respect one another in our day to day interactions
This is the promise and the provocative challenge of Jesus. For this kind of world is not only about personal peace of mind, tinsel, Christmas pudding and presents. It is also about peace and justice on earth for everyone.
As Jesus said, why do they call me lord, and do not the things that I say.
Today let us celebrate the Christmas season, because hope and light has come into the world. Let us follow that light in whatever way we can because it has the power to change and transform both us and our society.
Thanks to John Dominic Crossan and all those who seek to keep the message of Jesus alive.