Many years ago, when I was at school, there were these people that we called headmasters. My perception of them is that they were distant, very stern and seemed most concerned with discipline and in particular punishing those who strayed from the path of acceptable behaviour. Now I stress that this was my perception of them, but isn’t that how God seems to come across in the Hebrew Scriptures – distant, frequently absent, especially in difficult times and mostly concerned with discipline.
Now that isn’t how God is, nor of course is it how head-teachers are is it Simon? Head-teachers are ever-present, kind, accessible and caring, supporting staff and pupils and helping them to achieve their potential, are they not? (And I’m sure that’s how they really were when I was at school)
So how could God change that negative and unhelpful perception that the people of Israel had? The solution was elegant in it’s simplicity. God became human and dwelt among us, to experience life from a human perspective.
In my day there was a strict hierarchy in schools with the headmaster at the top and everyone else knew their place. But again that isn’t how God sees the world. When God became human, it was all upside down, it wasn’t properly organised, neat and tidy with everything in it’s place. It certainly wasn’t those in power (or anyone else) who was in control and in our day it isn’t the great and the good, the Church and especially not the clergy and other leaders who hold the secrets of the mystery of God.
Richard Holloway puts it beautifully when he writes:
“The word becomes flesh in all its uncertainty and awkwardness. Grace come to us through weakness. The traditional account of the nativity, purged of its Christmas card glamour, captures this paradox. There is the uncertainty that surrounds the conception. There is the confusion and incompetence that characterises the birth. Yet somewhere the angel sings, because God’s grace has found another of the despised to dwell with. Grace uses every available weakness to pull down our might. It undermines the cruelty of our strength by throwing us on the mercy of our weakness. It is by our sin that we are saved, because through it we reach for the grace that alone sustains us. That is why we should have a special regard for the despised, those on the outside, the impure and the untogether. It is through them that God speaks to the Church. Through them the Church is evangelised.”From “Limping Towards the Sunrise” by Richard Holloway
Who were the first people to be told of the arrival of God into our world? It wasn’t kings, princes, governors, clergy or headmasters, it was humble shepherds in the fields. He wasn’t born of well-to-do parents, but to an unmarried working couple and the scandalous truth is that Christ Jesus came into the world as a helpless baby:
“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
The incarnation marks a new relationship between God and humankind – ever-present, kind, accessible and caring, supporting all manner of people and helping them to achieve their potential, even if that’s not how our society sees it.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined.”
Christmas can be a time of complex emotions and no more so in these strange times that we’re living through. For the Queen, it’s the end of the year in which Prince Philip died, after a marriage of 73 years together. As she faces her first Christmas without the man about whom she has said: “He has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years.’, I suspect that many of us will have faced one or more such ‘first Christmases’ after the death of someone who we’ve loved deeply and who we’ll always miss, especially at this time of year.
The present pandemic has made meeting up with other people and especially those who we love, less easy than it used to be. This has perhaps shown us the importance of all the relationships we have with others and also with God – the God who we now know is constantly saying to us “Don’t be afraid. I’m here. Your prayers have been answered.” And perhaps we need to emphasise this more than ever in these times.
As human beings we have an incurable tendency to write off the present as unsuitable or inconvenient. We keep looking forward to some ideal future when things will run more easily and smoothly, things will be better. So when we find our lives disorganised and full of makeshifts, we fondly imagine a future when everything will be sorted out and our lives will be full of nothing but peace and beauty and joy and we’ll be able to settle down again. We could be waiting a long time, perhaps for all eternity, for that to happen.
What God is saying to us in this season is
“I’ve given you my Son, I’ve given you everything that I have. Lift up your eyes and see that my redemption now, it’s all around you. What else are you waiting for?”
In past times the headmaster God spoke to our forebears through the prophets, but in our times the head-teacher God speaks to us in his Son and in all those around us through all their faults and all their weaknesses. Yes it is that messy.
So let me wish you a Joyous Christmas, made all the more joyous through its imperfections and the memories of Christmases past and all the people that we’ve known and who’ve shaped us as the people that we now are.
Emmanuel, God is with us.