Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Christmas Day 2021
O sing a new song to God, sing to God all the earth. Let the heavens be glad, let earth rejoice, let the sea roar and all within it, let the land and all it bears rejoice.
There are two opposing reactions to pain and fear and disaster. One reaction is to turn inwards, to circle the wagons around out family, our community, our nation. The other is to look outwards, to recognise that all of us on this fragile blue planet hurtling through space are part of one single community. The Bible contains examples of both ways of thinking, but the readings for Christmas Day encourage the latter. This is unsurprising, because the message of the Christmas is that the baby born in Bethlehem of Judea two thousand years ago was born for all of us, everyone, of every time and every place.
The Prophet Isaiah was writing at a time of national anxiety, of deep darkness. To understand just how radical Isaiah’s prophecy is, we need to know that at the time the kings of Damascus and Samaria were besieging Jerusalem, and the king of Judah had turned to the Assyrians, paying them to fight fire with fire, to meet military power with military power. But Isaiah said that God’s way was different. Light would indeed shine on the besieged people of Jerusalem, but their peace would not come through the boots of trampling warriors. Rejoicing would replace lament, and victims become victors, not through the imposition of force from above, but through justice and righteousness growing from below. It was not a mighty warrior who would bring God’s endless peace, but a new-born baby, who would be named ‘Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace’. God’s ways are not our ways, and while we might think that only power and might can break the oppressor’s yoke, the zeal of the Lord of hosts offers a different way.
God’s different way is to come to dwell with us, as one of us, not with power and might as a violent warrior or an angry judge, but as an infant lowly, born to insignificant parents in an unimportant city, whose birth was first announced to shepherds in their fields. Luke tells us that when Jesus was born there was no room for him, and his mother Mary had to lay him in a manger. Matthew tells us that from the moment of his birth he was threatened with death by King Herod, and only recognised as king by non-Jewish visitors from the East. God came to us as a holy, helpless thing, born in vulnerability and poverty, and yet the birth of this child, poor and in the manger, was, as the angels told the shepherds, ‘good news of great joy for all people’. Jesus was born to us and for us, all of us, and in his birth God chose to dwell among the least and the lost. If we want to celebrate Christmas as the faithful, joyful and triumphant, we will recognise that all of us, all the families of the peoples, all the nations, including the most vulnerable and those most in need, are part of one single community.
Covid19 has reminded us of this, if we needed the reminder. Early in the pandemic the UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that none of us would be safe until all of us were safe. Wealthy countries like Australia did not really believe this. We thought that if we closed our borders to those from overseas and then vaccinated all our people we would be secure. But we live in an inter-connected world in which borders cannot simply be sealed shut, and first Delta and now Omicron have shown us that if we concentrate only on vaccinating wealthy countries, new variants will just continue to develop in countries with low rates of vaccination. In southern Africa, where the Omicron variant first appeared, only four per cent of the population is vaccinated. This is not just dangerous for Africa; it was dangerous for all of us, as the Omicron outbreak here in Melbourne has shown us. The message of Christmas is that God came for all of us, not simply for the people of one nation, to bring justice and peace for everyone. Covid19 has shown us that the unity of humankind, and the importance of universal justice and care, are not simply nice sentiments to be paid lip-service at Christmas time, but plain, down-to-earth, common sense.
So we gather to celebrate the second Christmas of the covid19 pandemic. We have experienced four waves of infections, two years of lockdowns, anxiety and isolation. We have seen thousands of people die in Australia; millions of people die around the world. We are uncertain of what the future will bring, but we know that the only way through this pandemic is together. And we know that the God who was born into a time that was just as dangerous and threatening as is this time, will be with us through it all. I want to end with a poem by Madeleine L’Engle that encapsulates the hope Christmas offers us. It is called ‘First Coming’.
He did not wait till the world was ready;
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.
He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was great and deep.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine. He did not wait
till hearts were pure. In joy he came
to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.
He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait until the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!