Benediction Online

Friday, January 04, 2008

Christmas Eve

‘In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.’ The historian Josephus tells us that this happened in about 6 or 7 CE. The census was probably carried out in order to provide a basis for new taxes as the Romans were now ruling the area directly. Perhaps not surprisingly it led to an uprising and the beginning of an ongoing insurgency led by the Zealots.

Luke, who wrote the birth narrative we heard to night, made a big mistake. He used the census as a way to explain how Jesus came to be born in Bethlehem, but he got the year wrong. In his story the census must have happened about ten years before it did. In addition, contemporary historical accounts do not mention people going back to their ancestral homes.

If Luke got that wrong, what else did he get wrong?

Is there any truth to the Christmas story or are we all here under some kind of illusion rather like the stories we tell our children about Santa?

Is it time we grew up and realized that at the center of the Christmas story there is just a nice story which means nothing?

This year several people have published books arguing just that. There is no God. Religion is a fraud, or perhaps it is just a stimulation of part of the brain, or a genetically transmitted need to worship. Many people have focused on the negative effects of modern religion and concluded that we’re better off without it.

So why are we here tonight? What made you decide to come out this evening to sing and listen and pray? Are we all here because we’re gullible enough to believe a lie?

It depends, I think, on what we mean by truth.

There’s truth in the sense of facts. Like the historical fact that Quirinius was a Roman senator who was appointed by Caesar Augustus to be the governor of Syria; or the fact that our thoughts effect our behavior.

Then there’s truth in the sense of meaning. This is truth that cannot be ‘proved’ or sometimes even grasped by our logical minds, but which is nonetheless true. It is our intuitive grasp of this kind of truth which makes us more than computers. As scientists probe the further edges of the universe they start to use language which sounds more like poetry than science.

Because hard data only goes so far. The great truths are ones which can only be glimpsed, which can only be expressed in poetry and story. Luke knew that and he wrote a great story about Jesus’ birth. A great story that continues to inspire us two thousand years later.

It doesn’t really matter that Luke’s history wasn’t good. His use of the census immediately places Jesus’ birth within the context of conflict between the people of Judea and the Roman occupiers. Jesus’ birth happens in the midst of conflict. God becomes human not in easy circumstances, but in the middle of a conflict which would later flair up into war, in a place meant for only animals to sleep, without a midwife and with only shepherds as worshippers.

Why was there no room in the inn? Were Joseph and Mary rotten parents who didn’t think to book in advance? Possibly, but it’s more likely that Luke is pointing to the contrast between the busy inn where people are partying, talking and transacting business and the stable where no-one would think to look for God. This is not a mainstream God. The God whose human birth we celebrate today offers an alternative to the rat race; an alternative to the insecurities and fears which drive our society.

That is the truth behind the story that Luke tells. That is the reason we are here. That is why we continue to retell and celebrate the Christmas story even though the facts have been in question for well over a hundred years.

We long for something more. We long for an alternative world where we need not fear, where we need not be constantly striving; a world which is not based on competition because all are equally loved, all are equally valuable. We long to be able to be truly ourselves and to act and live with the integrity that comes from being a whole, complete person.

This is the promise of Christmas. All that we long for in the deepest part of our being is possible. God does not answer prayer. Not at the Santa Claus level of ‘please bring me an Ipod nano’ nor even at the level of ‘please cure this cancer’ but at the deeper level of ‘God meet me, feed me, heal me, transform me’ - at that level God always answers. There is no magic formula of words you have to use nor of the response that God will make. God’s relationship with each one of us is totally unique. But when your longing for meaning, your longing for spirit leads you to God, God always answers.

The child in the manger. God made flesh, God become human. The birth and rebirth of God in your life may not seem like much. There may not be choirs of angels singing, there may not be a great spiritual high. You may not get shepherds banging at your door late at night. Because this is a different world. This is God’s world where the most amazing things happen so quietly that you might not notice them if you weren’t paying attention.

The people in the inn didn’t hear the angels sing. They were too busy. The shepherds were out in the night, sitting in the dark. Sometimes it takes a lot of sitting in the dark before we realize that God is sitting quietly beside us. Perhaps that’s why so many spiritual leaders, for example Moses, David, the Prophet Mohammed, the Hindu Lord Krishna, were all shepherds. Spiritual maturity requires the cultivation of solitude.

I don’t want to give the impression that God was not present in the inn. Jesus’ birth tells us that God is fully present in creation. Wherever we are, whatever we are doing, God is present. But because Spirit has this habit of being so quiet that God is easily overlooked and because we see God not with the eyes of our logical rational minds but with the eyes of the heart, we have to learn to be quiet enough ourselves to cultivate the knowledge and experience of God’s presence.

How silently, how silently, the wondrous Gift is giv’n;
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His Heav’n.
No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.


Post a Comment

<< Home