Quick Belated Thoughts on Christmas: The Shepherds (Luke 2:8-20)

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So, the shepherds.

Shepherds weren’t the most popular people back in the day. It was a despised occupation, smelly and often populated by miscreants, and, because sheep require 24/7 care, shepherds weren’t able to take part in the religious life of the nation. They were outsiders.

However, there’s a flip side to this, because in another sense the shepherds were intrinsically linked to the sacrificial system practiced in the Temple, the spiritual centre of Judaism at the time. The sheep tended on the fields outside Bethlehem were destined for sacrifice – without them, without the work of the shepherds, the sacred work of mediating between God and humanity would fall apart.

So we’ve got a despised underclass ostracised by the very religion they’re a part of. And ironically, as throughout the Christmas story, it’s the outsiders rather than priests and kings, who respond positively to the news of Christ’s birth – indeed, they’re deliberately summoned by the angels. Their being there is no accident.

(And, as this website points out, part of the job of the shepherds was to identify which sheep would make appropriate sacrifice at Passover. And given Christ’s sacrificial role during a Passover thirty years later, maybe the shepherds at the Nativity were also carrying out a ceremonial function…)

All of which raises an important issue. Who are the people currently despised by religious power and authority? And, if the circumstances of Jesus’s birth took place today, would these marginalised groups be summoned to the manger while pastors and popes spent their times defending their power to the exclusion of God?

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Advent 4: The Angels (Luke 1 & 2)

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The angels are a staple of the Nativity story – when Sunday Schools perform at the carol service, children line up dressed in white and echo the words spoken to various players in the Christmas story. It’s cute, it’s sweet, it’s tradition, but it hides something far more militant and subversive.

Luke 1 and Luke 2 both include angelic proclamations, first to Mary, then to the shepherds in Bethlehem, but these are more than simply announcing the incarnation of God himself.- the angels have a radical political message.as well. It doesn’t always come across that way, because we’re so used to associating this language specifically with Jesus and Christmas, but at the time, these messages were dramatic, earth-shattering stuff.

Around 63 years earlier, Rome had annexed Judea. 12,000 Jews were slaughtered on the Temple Mount and the region becomes a client kingdom of the world’s only superpower. Mary, Joseph, Jesus and the others all live within this political context – they’re an occupied people.

Around 27 years earlier, Augustus becomes the first Roman emperor. He’d already decided to add “Divi Filius” – Son of the Divine – to his name, and he’d inaugurated the Pax Romana, an era of peace throughout the Empire. Of course, that was fairly easy to enforce when you’re supreme commander of a devastatingly effective military machine…

The Jews, of course, weren’t happy with this turn of events.They had a way out though – they were expecting the Messiah, God’s anointed ruler, a descendant of David who would drive out the occupiers and institute God’s kingdom on Earth. He would liberate his people, with the assumption being that would mean the Romans being booted out.

Keep all that in mind, and then look at the words of the angels recorded by Luke:

“You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David…”

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah,the Lord…Glory to God in the highest heaven,and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

A promised ruler, descended from David? The Son of God bringing peace? The angels aren’t just bringing a message, they’re issuing a challenge – no, not a challenge, because that implies a conflict, and this is a statement of fact – God’s Son, the Messiah, has arrived and that means all other kingdoms and empires have to take their rightful before that.

Of course, that was Rome, an empire that’s now ruins and history. But the radical message of the angels still has relevance – after all, states, hegemonies and political structures still wield their power. Sometimes we get caught up with that, caught up with their apparent ability to change the world. If we can just get political power, well, everything will be okay and we’ll be able to get God on his throne.

As if he needs our permission somehow.

God is King. His Kingdom doesn’t look like our empires, doesn’t work to their rules, but it’s there. It doesn’t need our permission, or our legislation, or our prejudices. It doesn’t need labels like ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’. It’s bigger than Obama or Cameron or the Pope, and it certainly doesn’t need the church to become another empire – the church already has a kingdom to inhabit, and that needs to align with Christ’s teachings and actions – if it doesn’t, it just becomes another example of the imperial idolatry the angels were challenging.

The message of Christmas is radical. We can’t afford to let power and empire blind us to that.

My Advent 2012 posts:
Mary

Joseph
Zechariah and Elizabeth
The Angels

Advent 3: Elizabeth and Zechariah (Luke 1)

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The Christmas story is dominated by the birth of Jesus – virgins and shepherds and wise men and angels. With all this going on it’s easy to forget the other miraculous birth six months earlier. John the Baptist is a major figure early in the New Testament, but it’s also worth remembering his parents, whose story is told in Luke 1. In it we see two potential responses to God’s work in the world.

Zechariah is a priest ministering in the holiest part of the Temple when he’s confronted by an angel – even though he and his wife are elderly, even though they’ve spent decades dealing with childlessness, they’re now going to have a son who will act as the forerunner of the Messiah. Unfortunately Zechariah doesn’t buy this news and ends up being rendered mute for nine months.

Ironic he’s a priest, isn’t it?

Here’s one of the spiritual leaders of Israel. Here’s one of the few people chosen to minister before God in the most sacred part of the Temple. When he’s in there a little longer than was expected, a nervous ripple must have gone through his colleagues – after all, the priests were dealing with sheer, terrifying holiness, and so maybe a part of them was expecting a rerun of Raiders of the Lost Ark with fewer Nazis. Of everyone involved in the miraculous births of that first Christmas, you’d think Zechariah would be first in line to receive the blessings. Not so.

I guess he’s an early example of the tension between Jesus and the religious authorities, where the Messiah ends up being followed by tax collectors and prostitutes while priests and Pharisees completely miss the point. Here’s a man who should be leading Israel, but instead his disbelief silences him until he gets with the programme. I guess Luke’s first few paragraphs hint at a conflict that runs throughout the Gospels.

But I can’t be too hard on Zechariah. Yes, he’s a man who has been praying for years that God would give him a son, and yet when it actually happens he’s full of doubt and disbelief. Easy as it would be to condemn him, I share his attitude at times – far too many times. Praying with words is easy, but genuinely believing there’ll be a response? That can be tougher. Believing in God is one thing, but it’s all too easy to think that the transcendent happens to other people.

But while that attitude is more common than I’d like to admit, someone else in this story gives us a better example. It’s interesting that the women come out of all this better than the men. Mary and Elizabeth may have been a little overwhelmed by events but they went along with what God was doing. Joseph needed a push in the right direction, but ultimately he did the right thing; Zechariah, on the other hand, is the reluctant believer, the one who, even when confronted with an angel, was dismissive of the idea that a man his age could become a father.

Elizabeth is part of a long line of miraculous mothers: the aforementioned Sarah, Hannah, Samson’s mom… It’s important that she’s in this continuity because her son is a bridge between the Testaments, the last of the prophets and the herald of the Messiah – her baby’s going to be a big deal (when Zechariah finally gets his voice back, his song makes this clear). And yet here’s the apparent difference between her and her husband – Zechariah effectively snorts, arrogant enough to question the angel’s message; Elizabeth, on the other hand, responds with humility. She’s a relative of Mary, and when they end up staying together, there’s a powerful recognition of a shared destiny: “But why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

She’s a woman whose childlessness has rendered her an outsider; maybe Zechariah’s position of authority promoted a little arrogance? He’s one of the ultimate insiders, and yet the people who recognise what God’s doing here are the outsiders and the marginalised.

Because that’s worth noting – Elizabeth, whose years of childlessness would have been a cause for pity and gossip, whose decades of heartache and disappointment, of possible anger at herself and her husband, nevertheless find her in a place where she’s overjoyed at what God is doing. After all, that’s going to bring her happiness and fulfilment; others in the story, like King Herod, see the children born here as nothing but a threat.

And that’s one of the key messages of Christmas – one of grace, one in which God becomes human and hangs out with the dispossessed and disregarded. And it’s not that he’s rejecting the religious and social elite, it’s that they’re rejecting him. The point has comprehensively been missed. That could be an epitaph for the festive season, but also for faith as a whole – sometimes we can get so bound up in our dogma and ideology that we miss out on something God’s doing, something that those we’ve marginalised can see way before we do.

This Christmas, let’s pray that our religion doesn’t blind us to the reality of Jesus.

My Advent 2012 posts:
Mary

Joseph
Zechariah and Elizabeth
The Angels

Advent 2: Joseph (Matthew 1:18-25)

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The unsung hero of the Nativity sleeps fitfully, thoughts racing through his head. This is a man used to building, constructing, working with his hands. He’s not a priest, not a prophet, he feels out of his depth. Is God drawing near, or is Mary’s story just a tissue of lies wrapped in pious language? The situation is hard enough as it is, but everything feels much worse in the quiet of 3am.

And then Joseph of Nazareth, an ordinary man from an ordinary town, dreams of angels.

It’s interesting that, throughout the Bible, encounters with angels are accompanied by the words “Do not be afraid”, the whole experience being so awe-inspiring and overwhelming that the participants need to take a moment to simply calm down enough enough to receive a message. The same words are used here, but Joseph is less afraid of the angel and more afraid of the future.

You can’t blame him. His relationship with Mary has seemingly just collapsed, his head swimming with thoughts of betrayal and love and rage and anguish. Sure, Mary says this is all of God, but is she hiding something? Has she been with another man? Has she been raped? What’s really going on?

I’m surprised Joseph slept enough to even have a dream.

He’s a good man though, a righteous man. He knows that Mary’s life is in his hands, that one word from him could get her stoned for adultery, or at the very least ostracised from the community. He wants a quiet divorce, to spare Mary from humiliation; his only other option is to go through with the marriage, leaving his reputation in tatters as well: either people believe he’s the father and he’s been sleeping with Mary before he should, or he’s not the father and he’s a naive fool taken in by a sinful young girl.

And then he has a vision that tells him to not be afraid, that Mary’s telling the truth, that God is at work, and he accepts that, goes along with the plan regardless of the cost to his reputation. He stands by Mary, gets her to Bethlehem, finds her somewhere to give birth.

Somewhere to give birth. They end up amongst the animals because all the decent rooms are gone. If either of them have any living relatives in Bethlehem then the Bible is silent about any support they received; we’re left with the impression that they’re effectively on their own.

And so Joseph, who expected to be a husband but not a father just yet, may well have been going through all the fears and insecurities fathers experience – Can I provide for my family? Can I even cope with all this? Look, I’m supposed to be looking after my wife and baby and the best I can give them is a stable. Great.

How did he feel when he first saw Jesus, saw Mary cradling the new-born? What thoughts went through his mind in the relative calm before shepherds and Magi and fleeing to Egypt?

How did he feel when Jesus was growing up? Did he teach him, play with him, yell at neighbourhood bullies, work until stupid-o-clock to put food on the table? He was a skilled labourer, so did he get contracted to work on one of the Herods’ great construction projects? Did he help with the carpentry on famous buildings, forever on the fringes of history?

Did he teach those skills to Jesus, hoping that the boy would follow in his footsteps, while paradoxically hoping that his son would go on to greater things? Did he understand, really understand that Jesus was the Messiah? Did he lie awake some nights, remembering what had happened to others who had claimed that title, fearing this whole situation would end badly? Or did he believe, down to his bones, that Jesus would one day liberate mankind, allowing himself some hope, maybe even some pride in his son?

And how did he feel when Jesus went missing for three days at the age of 12? Did he understand that the Temple was an appropriate place for the young Messiah to hang out? Or did the words “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” come as an unintended punch to the gut?

All these questions. We have no answers, of course, because Joseph disappears early on in the narrative. The assumption is he died, but we have no details. Some say it was simply old age, that he was already elderly during that first Christmas, that Mary was actually his second wife because how else could you explain Jesus’s brothers and sisters if Mary was a perpetual virgin? There are other potential explanations if you don’t buy that – illness, construction accident… One theory is that he ended up an innocent victim of the intermittent clashes between Romans and radicals. We just don’t know.

I know what it’s like to lose a father though, and so I see Jesus, a young man trying to hold it together for the sake of his family, grieving, crying, escaping for some time alone. Was there a greater burden on his shoulders though? Was he aware, at that point, of his authority over life and death and cancer and injury? Was this one of his earliest temptations, to save his earthly father, even if it wasn’t the right time for miracles to start the countdown to the Cross?

All these questions. I guess I’m asking them because I’m a new step-dad myself, and so Joseph’s story raises similar hopes, fears and insecurities. He’s the unsung hero of the Nativity, the man who stood by Mary, protected Jesus, who did his best in a strange and unprecedented situation, who was a righteous man and, I believe, a great step-father. And yet he remains an…

I was going to say he remains an enigma, but that’s not appropriate – it’s too mysterious, too grandiose. In reality his story is that of millions of working-class fathers throughout history, who worked hard and did their best and loved their families, who remain unrecorded by the history books because they weren’t GREAT MEN even if they were great men. Joseph’s in every Nativity play but he gets sidelined once shepherds and kings show up and he sometimes gets less lines than the sheep. That’s history for you.

But I pray to the one who lived and spoke and played with Joseph that I too can be a good father. Because as I suspect Joseph realised, our children are more important than the history books.

My Advent 2012 posts:
Mary

Joseph
Zechariah and Elizabeth
The Angels

The Woman at the Well (John 4:1-26)

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So I was listening to a radio programme during one of my epic, flood-aggravated commutes this week and that got me thinking about the story of the woman at the well in John 4.

It’s effectively a story of division. Jesus is a Jew in a Samaritan area, and a Jewish rabbi speaking to a woman, on his own, in public. He’s in hostile territory and he’s breaking a social taboo – the whole reading starts to take on a new edge when we see how Jesus is operating in the context of religious division and gender politics. And beyond that, maybe there’s another fault line affecting the conversation.

See, the well wasn’t just the centre of the community, it was the centre of the local female community. Women would go to collect water early in the morning, as happens in communities throughout the world, and so the well would be a place of gathering, gossip, friendship and unity, especially in a woerld where male and female societal roles were more clearly defined and enforced than we’re used to.

And yet here’s a woman at the well on her own. She’s an outsider, ostracized for reasons that are revealed later in the reading. She’s gathering water during the hottest time of the day because visiting at any other point would invite ridicule and rejection. Even now she’s stumbling from one scandal to another, because she really shouldn’t have been engaging in conversation with Jesus either.

Of course, this is Jesus, so the conversation isn’t really scandalous – or at least not in the tawdry gossip sense of the word. They find themselves having a discussion about the differences in Jewish and Samaritan theologies and Jesus introduces the theme of living water. The woman is impressed by this – she wants to learn more. “Sure,” Jesus says, “Just go get your husband.”

Ouch.

Because it turns out that she hasn’t got a husband and somehow Jesus knows this – she’s had five husbands in the past and now she’s with someone she’s not married to.

The gossip in me wants to know more – is she just living with someone or is she the Other Woman in an affair? And what happened with the other five blokes? Jesus remains tactfully silent on all this – all we need to know is that this is another set of divisions that’re being navigated. And yet ask yourself what happened a few hours early, when the local women gathered around that same well. Did they gossip about this woman? Was she an object lesson in how not to live? Did they make jokes about how many husbands she’d got through, talk about her current man and what drove him into her arms? And did the lonely woman at the well know exactly what people were saying about her, every time she looked at her partner while he slept at night and she was silent with her thoughts?

That partner never turns up in the story, of course – as with the woman caught in adultery, the man involved in this remains conspicuous by his absence; it’s the woman who’s important in this narrative. We know she’s done wrong, but we don’t leave it there. She’s overcome by this encounter and runs into town to tell everyone that they have a prophet in their midst.

The town finds out about Jesus because he broke through barriers and spoke to an ostracized woman, putting his own reputation on the line for the sake of someone who, by the social conventions of the time, should have been avoided like the plague. We don’t know what happens a week after all this took place, but for now the divisions are being healed – the woman is being listened to again.

It’s not the last time a woman of dubious reputation is the vehicle for news of Jesus, but this is a moment in which communities start to be healed. Will the woman be welcome at the well tomorrow morning? Who knows, but for now, look at her running from neighbour to neighbour, amazed and liberated by meeting the Messiah. The divisions are starting to break down because Jesus amde the effort to talk to someone polite society thought he should have made a pariah. Thankfully Jesus doesn’t play by those rules..

And so I guess the question I’m left with is, am I creating barriers or knocking them down? And what’s more important, judgment or grace? Who do I need to meet at the well?