Reflection for Williamstown Uniting Church
Christmas Day, 2015
Today we celebrate the birth of a baby. That’s wonderful enough in itself. You may have noticed that I’m quite fond of babies. I’ve been lucky enough to hold quite a few of them in their first few hours of life, and each time I’ve been overwhelmed by wonder and awe, by a sense of the miraculous, and the great gift that God gives us in every newborn child. Today, we celebrate all that wonder.
But there aren’t many babies whose births we continue to celebrate some two thousand years later. We continue to celebrate the birth of this particular baby because the story we listen to today, the beautiful Christmas story of angels and shepherds and a baby wrapped in bands of cloth and placed in a manger, is only the beginning. The story of Jesus’ birth is a wonderful one, and we read it and sing about it and remember it, but it really has meaning because of what comes afterwards.
Unusually among world religions, Christianity sees the revelation of God primarily in a person. While Jews find the revelation of God in the Torah, and Muslims find it in the Koran, Christians find God not primarily in the Bible, but in the person whose birth we celebrate today.
The baby whose birth we celebrate today became a man who brought good news to the poor; proclaimed release to the captives; recovery of sight to the blind; and freedom to the oppressed.
The baby whose birth we celebrate today became a man who told his followers, when I was hungry, you gave me food, when I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink, when I was a stranger, you welcomed me, when I was naked, you gave me clothing, when I was sick, you took care of me, when I was in prison, you visited me – because just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.
The baby whose birth we celebrate today became a man who showed us who God is and how God loves us; who told his followers that no one has greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends; and who then demonstrated that love on the cross.
We celebrate the birth of Jesus not just because it is a beautiful story, and not just because the birth of a baby is always to be celebrated as a gift from God. We celebrate the birth of Jesus because in this story of an ordinary birth among ordinary people we see the revelation of God. Jesus was born so that we might live, fully and abundantly, as God’s children. Jesus’ birth tells us that God loves us so passionately that God became human. That is worth celebrating!
In this country we are able to celebrate the birth of Jesus in safety, free from fear. We didn’t have to make time for going through checkpoints to get to church, and we didn’t have to go through metal detectors to get into this building. We didn’t have to worry about being attacked; about our church being bombed or burnt down. We were able to advertise this service on a billboard in the street and in the local papers. We take all this for granted, but many Christians around the world don’t share our freedom to celebrate Christmas.
In Somalia this year Christians are allowed to celebrate in private but in not in public, apparently partly to prevent Muslims from joining in and partly in the hope that this will mean that the Islamist al-Shabab group won’t commit any acts of terrorism.
In Brunei Christians have been told that they may celebrate, but not ‘excessively and openly’, again apparently to prevent Muslims from joining in. Muslims in Brunei who do attend Christmas celebrations face five years in jail, so there will be no more joint Christian-Muslim house parties.
I could go on, but you get the picture; we are safe and free while many of our sisters and brothers around the world are under attack. As we celebrate today, let’s remember and pray for them, and commit ourselves to working for a world in which everyone may worship freely.
We have a part to play in creating that world right here in Australia. I will never forget how shocked I felt the first time I visited a synagogue in St Kilda and discovered that it has round-the-clock security guards to prevent anti-Semitic graffiti and attacks. I had had no idea that such attacks happened in Melbourne, but of course they do. This year we have seen public protests and planning appeals against proposed mosques in Bendigo and Melton. In Indonesia’s Aceh Province planning laws are used against churches, with many churches demolished for being ‘unauthorised’. This year three churches were set on fire by extremists because the extremists thought that the authorities were taking too long to condemn them. It’s been appalling to see people try to do the same thing here in Australia – use planning laws against places of worship because they oppose the religion. Luckily in Australia appeals against the building of Bendigo’s mosque have been dismissed. But they are a reminder that we can’t take religious freedom in Australia for granted. Celebrating the birth of Jesus means living as Jesus commands, and that includes loving our neighbours of other faiths and doing to them as we would have them do to us.
Christmas sermons are a time for clergy-people to pontificate on how we can truly celebrate Christmas. I think that for us to truly celebrate Christmas we need to support Australians of other faiths as they celebrate their festivals.
Today we celebrate the birth of a baby. But we celebrate even more the adult that baby became, and the message he brought us: to love God, our neighbours, and our enemies; to care for the poorest in society; to welcome those society most excludes. When we do that, we will be among the people to who the angels sing: ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favours!’ Amen.