Psalm 96 (11)
Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)
I was listening to the radio last week. I was driving home late and they were replaying part of one of the morning shows.
The talked about the kind of year it’s been:
Syria. Turkey. / Berlin. Brexit. / Trump. Putin. / Clinton. Climate. Cohen. / Pipelines. Prince. / Bowie. Bombs.
You have to appreciate their attempts at alliterations, brightens up the bad news a bit.
I then learned that Merriam-Webster’s chose “surreal” to be its word of the year. And a little while later they talked to people in the streets of Winnipeg. Maybe you heard it too.
It went like this:
“When I watch the news, I feel depressed. There’s a lot of war and conflict and it’s just sad.”
“With all this going on in Syria and the election of Trump, a climate change disaster every other week, I’ve just had it. To my kids I say, “Turn off the TV. Turn off the computer and go read a book.”
My personal favourite is this, probably the editor’s as well, because they played it last:
“I feel like I don’t want to watch the news because it’s all negative. I do yoga and be around positive people. [laughs] And that’s certainly going to be my plan for 2017.”1
Some things we have a choice in, others we don’t. It’s probably not possible to surround yourself exclusively with positive people, and it is certainly impossible not to be affected by what’s going on the world, not for as long as we’re in the world. And it is not possible to prevent the Trump presidency now.
So it comes back to that old prayer, though I am not even sure that that cuts it. You know the prayer that asks God to help us accept the things we cannot change, for the courage to change the things we can affect, and for the wisdom to know the difference.
But some things we don’t want to accept, not even on Christmas.
I will admit that I do not have a lot of good memories of my childhood Christmases. The reason they aren’t so good is perhaps not so much that my family was not a happy family (which it was not) but because at Christmas we all pretended we were, even though we were not.
I don’t think I thought about this theologically when I was a child, but I knew that pretending was for play, for imagination. And imagination created things and worlds, and ideas and solutions. But pretending that there’s nothing troubling in the world or in my life has little to do with a festival that celebrates the birth of a Saviour.
For the very idea of a Saviour supposes that the world or something needs saving.
Now the interesting thing about the Saviour whose birth we celebrate tonight is that he did not whisk us away, that there was no “Beam me up, Scotty,” that this Saviour is not about away but about here.
And so Jesus is born to a poor unwed couple, in a forgotten corner of the Roman empire. The one who is said to be king is not born in a palace but born in a stable for like for many people today, there was no room for him. He and his family were soon persecuted by a paranoid ruler and would find themselves living in a refugee camp in Egypt. The Bible tells us this story and it is not half as cute as it sounds when we hear it today, because for us the story has been romanticized and we can see the Christmas tree, hear the carols, and almost smell the turkey as we hear the story.
You see, the anxiety we may experience over the things going on in our world, over which we appear to have no control, is nothing new. Not only did our grandparents and our parents experience the same, more or less, but Jesus was born into a world that made little sense. His parents were commandeered around by the Roman occupational force, they were young and unwed (and great stigma was attached to it in those days), and there was no room in the inn, not for the Holy Family nor for many others.
These are important parts of the story, not romantic adornments, and not coincidences. Wouldn’t you think that if Jesus is the One scriptures and church declare him to be, that he could have been born at any time and in any place, not into poverty in some backwater town among some obscure people.
We may at times be blind to what goes on in the world, or choose to be, but God is not. God chose that time and place and God has chosen our time.
And so our celebrations are no an exercise in denial, in “doing yoga and surrounding ourselves with positive people” but our celebrations focus on the God who was born and lived at the margins, who knows our potential for conflict not only on the global stage but also with one another, and who made all things new not on turning away from the world but by coming into it and dying on the cross and overcoming all the forces of death.
And so our celebrations and our singing are an exercise of protest and imagination.
Protest because we not only protest the ways of death in our world but also because in our worship and our singing we give witness to another realm, another way. We sing of Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, who,
though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name …
Maybe you know these words. The are from one of Paul’s letters to the church, written almost 2000 years ago. And these words are part of an encouragement to Christian imagination, so that we would not stick our heads in the sand but that we would live that Kingdom that Jesus embodied and proclaimed, and that through us and our lives a different world is made visible.
To celebrate Christmas and to celebrate worship is an act of protest and of imagination, and it is what we engage in tonight.
1CBC The Current, How to manage anxiety post-2016, 21 Dec 2016, http://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/the-current-for-december-21-2016-1.3905467/december-21-2016-full-episode-transcript-1.3907614