The Flight to Egypt: God on the run (Matthew 2:13-15)

20131229-135741.jpg

45.2 million people.

That’s the worldwide number of forcibly displaced people, based on UNHCR statistics. To put that into some sort of context, it’s like telling the entire population of Ukraine to go find somewhere else to live. The figures are staggering, so staggering, in fact, that they’re difficult to comprehend as anything other than faceless statistics. Humanity gets lost among debates over immigration and international intervention.

The counter to this is to tell stories, to incarnate the statistics. So groups like Refugee Action are giving displaced individuals a voice and a space in which they can tell of their experiences and emotions. It’s an important project.

Today’s the Feast of the Holy Family. It’s a commemoration of Jesus, Mary and Joseph as a family unit, but to see them as haloed icons does them a disservice. Even with four gospels full of events from the life of Christ, do we risk reducing him and the people around him to paintings and statues a and platitudes?

When Jesus was just a toddler, he received a visit from three wise men who brought with them strange gifts and looming danger. That night, the holy family went on the run, heading for Egypt to escape the psychosis of a jealous king. We’re presented with a refugee saviour, and God goes on the run.

(Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, God reminds his people that he’s the one who brought them out of Egypt. There’s a certain irony and vulnerability in the holy family being forced to retreat to that same country.)

This year I’ve been drawn to the who’s and wheres of Christmas, and so as we head out of the season, it’s worth noticing where Matthew’s gospel places Jesus as the stories around his birth conclude. He’s not studying with the wise men, he’s not hanging out with royalty. He’s a refugee and an asylum seeker; God incarnate stands alongside the displaced and the stateless, the vulnerable and the homeless. It’s a radical statement of where God’s priorities lie and the people who Jesus lives alongside.

20131229-190615.jpg

That may be a challenge to our churches. It may be a challenge to our very conception of who God is. But Jesus is present in refugee camps sand homeless shelters as much as cathedrals or palaces, maybe even more so. When news reports from places like Syria focus on the massive numbers of displaced people, that fact should drive us to our knees.

Because the Refugee Saviour is still King.

Christmas 2014: What we might see at Christmas

20131225-210032.jpg

7:30 on the evening of Christmas Eve and we’ re dropping off Christmas biscuits at a local church’s homeless shelter. It’s a cold and blustery night, winter weather, but despite this, the volunteers we briefly speak to on the door are friendly, welcoming, smiling; the sort of people you’d want looking after a shelter on Christmas Eve.

Maybe those volunteers, men and women giving up their nights to play their part in mitigating the effects of poverty and austerity, in a time when being poor is characterised by those in power as a moral failing, maybe these people offer us a way of seeing God this Christmas.

In many ways, this is what Christmas is all about – God’s incarnation as a human being, tiny and vulnerable for those moments in Bethlehem, challenging and gracious and world-changing thirty years later. Spirit becomes flesh and moves into the neighbourhood. Human beings – friends, family, enemies, neighbours – get to see God.

This is the controversy of Christmas. God – holy, majestic, ineffable, awe-inspiring – becomes a baby. Later we can talk about what happened when that baby grew up, but for now look at the scene. A child born in poverty becomes the centre of a story that relegates kings and emperors to the fringes of the narrative. God with us, a God that can be seen by shepherds and wise men.

And, of course, if God can be seen, that means he’s present. “If you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father,” Jesus once said, and that’s a huge claim. In Jesus, God cries, burps and bleeds. This isn’t a God who keeps us at a distance. Instead he becomes a part of our lives.

So maybe what we saw when delivering biscuits was a reflection of that, a glimpse of glory bouncing off those who follow him. Christmas is a good time to look out for that sort of thing, the divine making itself present in the midst of concrete and streetlights. Because it’s there if you’re willing to look for it.

Going into Advent this year, I wanted to see if there were ways in which I could see God’s presence more clearly. I’m not sure how successful I was – it’s a busy season, and busyness is often the enemy of the spiritual – but I think I’m more aware of how I need to be open to seeing Jesus day-to-day. Because that’s the beauty of a God who joins with humanity – his fingerprints are visible and his light still shines.

Advent 2014: Do Not Be Afraid

20131222-180738.jpg

There are times I think I shouldn’t be writing this blog.

I love doing it, and it’s a way of stumbling towards God. But I’m aware of my limitations – I’ve never been to seminary, and I’m not going to pretend I suffer from hypocrisy more than I should. Does the world need another imperfect voice adding to all the noise?

But it’s still Advent, we’re still finding our way to the stable. And I noticed something today that I’ve not picked up on before.

Joseph was a righteous man, we’re told by Matthew’s gospel, and we expect that to have certain connotations. He should hold true to the tenets of his faith, right?

So when he discovers his wife-to-be is pregnant, knowing he’s not the father, there are rules to be followed. And while the rules would end very badly for Mary, at least the moral standing, the religious integrity of the community would be maintain. Joseph was a righteous man, the Bible tells us, so surely he followed the rules.

Well, no. He decides to quietly end his relationship with Mary so she’s not disgraced (or, you know, stoned to death). He doesn’t follow the rules, and yet he’s not called righteous in spite of this; he’s called righteous because of this. Don’t forget, this is before he knows the truth of the situation, which he learns in a vision in which he’s told not to be afraid.

When the angels appear over the hills of Bethlehem, they don’t proclaim the arrival of the Messiah to the respectable and the reputable. They home in on the despised and mistrusted, one of the professions that wasn’t even allowed to give testimony in court. The shepherds are sent straight to the baby – no ritual, no rites, just go.

“Do not be afraid,” they’re told.

There’s a moment, thirty years after the stable, when Peter is confronted with a miracle and he falls to his knees and begs Jesus to leave, because Peter’s a sinful man and Jesus is divine.

And how does Jesus respond?

“Don’t be afraid,” he says, and Peter becomes a disciple.

There’s a danger in making faith all about managing sinfulness, even more so when it’s about managing the apparent sinfulness of everyone else. Christmas is about something bigger and more compelling than that; it’s about drawing people towards God, not because of their own personal righteousness but because of God’s boundless love and grace. We sometimes want God to be a judge, a disciplinarian, an agent of wrath and vengeance, but Christmas doesn’t play by those rules. We’re constantly told not to be afraid, and that’s not just of the circumstances but also of the God behind them. The stable is inclusive; don’t drive people away; bring them in instead.

“Do not be afraid.” The barriers between God and humanity are breaking down; Bethlehem leads to the cross as God reaches out to us, not because of our goodness but because of his. Go to the stable; you’re still invited.

Advent 2014: Walking Into the Dark

20131221-161236.jpg

No-one knows when Jesus was born, whether the census and the stable took place in November or August or June, whether the Messiah took his first breath in summer or against a winter chill.

And so we celebrate Christmas in December, because there’s a solstice in December, and humanity has always celebrated with the seasons and the sun and the rhythms of the world.

Four sleeps before Christmas is the shortest day, when the sun sets at its earliest and the hours of darkness are at their peak. And we know this is nothing more than the turn of the planet, but still, there’s something evocative and maybe intimidating about the idea of the longest night.

This morning on Twitter, the Reverend Sally Hitchiner proposed a new Advent tradition – using the day of greatest darkness to remember the times in life when the light seems far away, when hope and optimism and celebration seem far away. For a church that’s often bad at lament, the idea of an Advent mourning is a powerful one.

And so maybe today’s as good a day as any to remember the darkness of Christmas, the mistakes and the murders and the implications about which no-one writes carols.

Maybe it’s a time to remember a refugee saviour and those displaced by conflict and prejudice and violence, those who are running for the border or simply to get out of the front door before it’s too late.

A time to remember the soup kitchens and homeless shelters and refuges and food banks, these and the people who now rely on them for safety and security and square meals.

A time to remember the unemployed, the sick, the mocked, the oppressed. A time to remember those made to feel less than human, those named as The Enemy by those with politics and doctrine on their side.

As the sun goes down and we walk into the longest night, remember that Christmas isn’t all about baubles and Bing Crosby, that if the story of the baby in the manger has any power at all, it has to be able to confront corruption, to bring comfort in the midst of heartbreak and loss.

Christmas has to be a flickering candle in the dark and a light at the end of the tunnel, balancing the hope of freedom and peace with the image of the Holy Family running from Herod’s death squads. Let’s mourn with those who mourn, weep with those who weep, and hold each other’s hands through the night, waiting for the sun to rise.

Advent 2013 (3): Christmas vs Authority (Luke 1:5-25; Matthew 2:1-12)

THE MAJI CONSULT WITH KING HERODThe thing with Christmas is, so many people get it wrong.

Take Zechariah. He’s a priest, rooted in the traditions of his people. He knows the rituals, the sacrifices, the stories. He knows the stories of miraculous births, especially how he and those around him are descended from an elderly couple well beyond child-bearing age.

And yet, when he receives a vision and the same promise given to Sarah and Abraham, when he’s told that he’s going to be a father, even though that’s medically impossible, he doesn’t believe. He hits the angel – the angel – with his scepticism. “How is that possible? I’m an old man.”

And so this priest, whose job it is to speak liturgies and blessings over the people, to intercede between God and man, has his voice taken away for nine months, until the miracle is there for all to see and the threat of doubting words is no longer a problem.

The Wise Men, on the other hand, have an excuse. They’re outsiders, not part of the traditions of Zechariah and Mary and all the others standing in the stable. But then again, they have a star blazing in the heavens, a star that seems to be leading them to a specific destination. Maybe there’s an echo here of the Pillar of Fire leading the Hebrews through the desert; however it works, God’s leading these men to the Messiah. All they have to do is follow.

And yet they end up in Jerusalem, not Bethlehem, because they’re following their assumptions rather that their star. And it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that their assumptions ultimately get children killed. They’re immortalised as the Three Wise Men, but their wisdom fails with tragic consequences.

It’s not directly their fault, I guess. They just blundered into the middle of politics and power. They interfere with the fragile structures that hold Israel and Rome together, bringing news that threatens alliances and national security. Herod knew that God’s Messiah had been prophesised long ago, but that was in the writings of ancient seers, not current political realities. He could have seen fulfillment; instead he sees a threat, and kings know how to deal with threats.

These are priests, academics, leaders. These are the authority figures. And, pretty comprehensively, they all get it wrong. Meanwhile, a teenage girl and and a barren old woman and a working class carpenter and a bunch of despised shepherds get it right.

This isn’t an assault on authority, although it’s tempting to read it as such. It’s more about recognising where authority sits, and who’s really sits on top of our hierarchies. God is in charge of this plan throughout, it’s just that the poor and uneducated and marginalised realise this and follow the plan, while the authority figures trust in their own knowledge and positions and power. Instead of trusting God, they actively get in the way.

And so, the question this Advent is, do I trust in my own intelligence, my own power, my own place in the world’s hierarchy? Or do I accept that God is king, God is in charge, and that he’s more interested in my humility than my authority?

How do I, in short, make sure I’m not getting in the way of the holy, not acting as a stumbling block to the miraculous?