Well I don’t claim to be an expert on childbirth. I have some limited observational experience and it seems to me to involve a lot of effort and take a long time and is a bit messy. I was very grateful for the clean room and bed into which my children were born, and for the fact that it was handled very effectively by the medical staff. I have never been one of those who eulogised over the beautiful experience of childbirth and Wendy is grateful that Facebook had not been invented when our children were born. I have even heard that some strange people film the whole process now – which of course you can do a mobile ‘phone. So you will not be surprised that in spite of the title, I am not going to talk about the birth process. However, this was a difficult birth – the arrival of the Messiah in the world. It was difficult on a number of levels.
First of all there is the difficulty of having to make an 80 mile journey on foot through dangerous and unfriendly territory when you are pregnant and the time for the child to arrive is near. The political authorities would not have been bothered about this; after all they were just statistics and not very important. If the baby was lost, well so what; if the mother was lost, not really their problem.
Mary and Joseph probably travelled in a group, because to make such a journey on your own would not have been terribly sensible – as the parable of the Good Samaritan showed. With a large number of people on the move and converging on Bethlehem, accommodation was going to be a problem. So the fledgling family end up in an outhouse – assumed to be a stable. So the accommodation leaves a lot to be desired and is not the place for a birth or a newborn: certainly difficult. Very different to the clinically clean environment my children were born. But these circumstances are replicated throughout the world in 21st Century and there are echoes of the Syria crisis. People forced into moving around because of the political situation; pregnant mums giving birth in unsavoury and difficult circumstances. And the tragedy of babies not surviving those difficult circumstances.
The difficulty of the birth of Jesus is that we have made it like this (picture) when in reality the people God identified with through birth are more like this (picture). We have sanitised the whole thing when God entered into the mess. Quite frankly God’s way gets in the way of how we have come to view the incarnation of Christ. In fact many Christians aren’t really aware of the Christmas story, because they have relied on popular culture, Christmas cards and nativity plays.
For example, the stable is an assumption because of the mention of a manger, and so then we assume other animals; and because three gifts are mentioned we assume three kings, when actually the Bible mentions wise men. I’ve already mentioned probable travelling arrangements, but Mary and Joseph are always depicted as travelling alone. The real story gets in the way of what we have created and the carols I love to listen to and sing.
The birth of Jesus is a difficult birth because in the midst of our culture’s extravagance, we are celebrating a birth that took place in less than ideal conditions and has more in common with the refugees of the world than us. We live with this tension in a fallen world and as Christians we need to think about how we get our priorities right and present the Christmas message clearly, cutting through all that has built up around it.
Now before you think I am the personification of ‘Bah humbug!’ and must be right miserable old codger at Christmas, I will be celebrating with my family just as much as anyone else. I don’t believe that God would have us be miserable in our celebration of the gift of his Son. However, it doesn’t do any harm to recognise the tension with which we live in a less than perfect world. That is why at Christmas in particular we feel the pain and tragedy of those who are poor and destitute and charities are working overtime to relieve some of that misery so that everyone can have a moment of celebration. But let’s not forget that work after Christmas. Our offerings at the carol service and on Christmas Day will be for Sanctuary in Gravesend. If you are going to miss those services and would like to give, just put something in an envelope and mark it ‘Sanctuary’.
The birth of Christ was difficult in other ways. The difficulties are found in the words of the angel to the shepherds.
“I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
The difficulty lies in the titles given to Jesus and the place where he was to be found. He is placed in the town of David: David the successful, but seriously flawed king; David the one who brought prosperity and stability to the nation and who sought to follow the Lord, through all his faults. Then you get the titles ‘saviour’ and ‘messiah’. They stir up images of strength and courage, being chosen and appointed; under divine authority. The place for such a person is surely not a manger; surely for such an unimportant person; surely not under questionable circumstances. The concept of Jesus being the Messiah is a stumbling block: the nature of his birth, his life and his death. His death fits the pattern of those who claimed to be Messiah, but ended up being defeated by the ruling authorities and with drastic consequences for the population at large. But Jesus life was completely different from these other messiahs and his mode of operation was totally at odds with theirs. The path of obedience to death was and is anathema to many. Paul points this out at the beginning of 1 Corinthians:
Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
The obvious contrast is the Christian claim that Jesus having followed the path of obedience to death overcame it and rose again.
It was a difficult birth for Mary and Joseph, because after coping with angelic visitations and the circumstances, the prophecies given at his presentation at the temple were encouraging and worrying. Simeon sees in this child the promised salvation of Israel and that this will spread beyond the borders of Israel, because Jesus will be a revelation to the surrounding nations and to the world. This broadening of the vision to include those who were outside was something that people did find hard to take in. When Jesus pointed out in Nazareth that in Elijah’s time there was a period of famine and the prophet was sent to a foreigner; that in Elisha’s time the only one leprosy who was healed was a foreign general, they were not happy. You can imagine the crowd rankling when Jesus announces that a Roman soldier had greater faith than anyone in Israel; and then there were all those whom Jesus associated with and accepted.
This raises the question for us: who is it we find difficult to accept into the kingdom, because we have drawn our borders and set our rules? What is the culture to which we are expecting people to conform if they are really going to be accepted as Christian? These are difficult and challenging questions for us, just as they were to the Pharisees of Jesus’ time.
Let me illustrate it on a simple level. Our services are focussed around singing. When in Horley I went to the turning on of the lights on the local estate, and as I was asked to do each year introduce things and get things going and pass round carol sheets for everyone to join in before the school choir sang. As I passed the sheets around I knew I was on to a loser; when I found that I was the only one singing ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ I cut my losses and handed over to the school choir. The birth of Jesus is difficult because he challenges our assumptions, our rules and our exclusions.
The prophecies weren’t all positive, because Simeon says that he will cause the fall and rising of many and that he will be a sign spoken against. This is what happened in his ministry:
All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town,
But the Pharisees said, “It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons.”
Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”
The stark words to Mary were that a sword would pierce her soul, as it must have done as she saw Jesus die on the cross and witnessed the thrust of the spear.
This birth was a difficult birth for authority. Luke sets the birth of Jesus in contrast to the emperor Augustus who saw himself as saviour bringing in the era known as the pax romana. elevating himself to a deity and seeing himself as ‘euangelion’ – the good news. In contrast the angel announces to the shepherds that the birth of Jesus is the good news and he will be the one who brings salvation and peace. The Romans may think that they are the good news, but there is someone who is greater and over all the world.
The birth of Jesus was difficult for Herod. He was a threat and when any despot thinks he is under threat, inevitably a massacre occurs. And of course Jesus was a threat, because he came from a higher authority who will hold all those in authority to account. He came from a higher authority and therefore the demand for allegiance is greater. Why have oppressive regimes felt so threatened by those who have been followers of Jesus Christ? Not because they are poor citizens or subversive freedom fighters. It is because their first allegiance is to Jesus Christ and to live as he did, which may well challenge the values and subvert the practices of the ruling regime. Am I a Briton who is a Christian, or am I a Christian who is also a Briton? Is my allegiance to Britain and then Jesus, or to Jesus and then Britain? As I wrote on the front of Family Focus, we have a responsibility to pray for the government whoever they are. That does not mean that we have to agree with them or that our first allegiance is the government before Christ.
The birth of Jesus is difficult for us, because he challenges us to kneel at the manger, worship the Lord of life and submit to his authority as the one who has become the sin bearer all the carols talk about; the sin bearer we celebrate in communion and as we celebrate Christmas. ‘In the bleak midwinter’ finishes with the question, ‘What can I give him, poor as I am?’ It is not referring to worldly wealth, but that before the Lord of all creation we can give nothing that he could possibly want, except that restored relationship broken in Eden, to which the carols also refer. Are you prepared to kneel at the manger and submit your heart to him?
As another carol puts it:
Good people all this Christmas time,
Consider well and bare in mind
what our good God for us has done
in sending his beloved Son.
Now is the time to respond to Jesus Christ, the Saviour and Messiah