Earlier this week I went to buy a bottle of wine for
a gift. I really don’t know much about wine so it’s always a bit of a challenge
to guess from the outside what the wine in the bottle will taste like,
especially if I want to buy something that costs more than my normal $5 budget.
As I was wondering around looking at wine labels, a man came up to me. He knew
who I was and he’s someone I’ve seen around town but I think it was our first
conversation. He told me that he grew up in the Episcopal Church and shared his
conviction that there is a benevolent being whom we might call God.
were things get sticky for him. Religion is the problem. Or perhaps I should
say religions, and their claims to exclusivity.
Jim – that’s not his real name – Jim was put off by
the idea that you have to be a Christian to be ok with God. And he’s not the
only one. This is a conversation I have quite often. Like most people, Jim is
very uncomfortable about religions which claim to have the true path. He sees
them as divisive and potentially dangerous.
It is a huge issue for us today. We see Muslims who
have literalized jihad proselytizing with guns; we hear people calling for only
genuine Christians to be allowed into the country which harkens back to the
Spanish Inquisition; and most of us know at least one person who thinks we’re
going to hell.
Yet tonight we celebrate the big bang of
Christianity – the event which keeps on and on impacting our world – the birth
of Jesus the Christ. However ambivalent we may be about the religious
implications, there is something thrilling in the coming of God in the birth of
a small child in a dirty stable in occupied Palestine…
And no one there was a Christian.
When the angels sang “Peace on earth, goodwill to
all” they were not singing to Christians; those who heard them may have been Jewish
but whether the shepherds were religiously observant Jews we will never know.
The angels’ greeting was not exclusive to one group of people, it was to all
Or was it?
You may have noticed in tonight’s Bible
reading, the angels actually sing,
to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"
Which is a little problematic. Why only those
whom he favors? And whom does he favor? All shepherds? All farmworkers? Or only
This is one of those places where the
Bible gets a little fuzzy in translation. A more literal version of the Greek
would be “Esteem in highest to God and on land peace in humans well-seeming.”
So who are the well-seeming humans?
It’s us. We are the humans that God
finds delightful. There is no indication that the angelic choir is referring to
only one bunch of humans but rather to ALL well-seeming, delightful humans –
the ones that God loves – the ones whom God created and is pleased with. God
chose to become human. Isn’t that astonishing? Would I choose to go and live as
a poor person in Palestine today? No I wouldn’t.
Yet God did. And conditions back then
were as bad, and probably a lot worse than they are now. And it wasn’t the
birthplace of Jesus back then. It was just Bethlehem, a small town in a country
occupied by the Romans. Yet the amazing, awesome and all-Compassionate God
chose to be born there as a human. To become one of us in the same way that we
are conceived and born; to be brought up by human parents in a fairly normal
human family, and to experience what it is to live in a human body with all its
joys and pains and limitations. The limitless God chose to be limited.
And because we are limited to being in one time and
place, so God had to incarnate at one time and in one place. And here we are
two thousand years later, still trying to work out the implications.
And we don’t always get them right. It is very human
to want to belong to the best family, the best group, the best nation. We
increase our security when we feel good about the people and ideals that we are
engaged with. But when we feel that the ground is shifting uneasily beneath us,
when we are afraid that the peace and civility that we are used to is being
threatened by random acts of violence, then we want to circle the wagons even
closer. We want to say that we’re right and that in order to be OK you have to
be like us, the well-seeming ones. In order for us to be the well-seeming ones
then others must be wrong and potentially bad.
But that isn’t the gospel. The gospel is that God
became human and dwelled among us. The gospel is that Jesus the Christ died
precisely because he opposed the restrictive and oppressive policies of the
religious authorities. Jesus was not founding a religion – he was challenging
the matrix of sin and violence which humans create even with the very best of
intentions. He showed that there is another way; the way of peace and
We saw an amazing example of people taking that
other way this week. In Kenya, a bus with 100 passengers was on a journey into
a dangerous area. It would usually have had a police escort, but the police car
broke down so it went ahead without a guard. Al-Shabaab militants ambushed it. Brandishing
guns, they ordered the Muslims to get out so that they could kill the
But they refused. The Muslim women gave Christian
women their hijabs and helped others to hide. They
told the militants, “If you want to kill us, then kill us. There are no
Christians here." The militants killed one man who tried to escape but
left the rest alone.
The Interior Cabinet Secretary of
Kenya, whose name I will not try to pronounce, said “We are all Kenyans, we are
not separated by religion.”
We are all well-seeming humans,
we are not truly separated by false boundaries of religion or race. We are all
beloved of God who chose to be born among us, Emmanuel - God with Us. The women
on the bus in Kenya truly followed the teachings of Christ yet they do not
identify as Christians. They understood that fear divides us and turns us
against each other, but that love binds us together in solidarity against the
very forces that Jesus came to expose as ultimately powerless.
In human terms their action was a
huge risk and an example of great bravery. In the gospel’s way of seeing things
it was an act of the reign of God. The parable of the Good Samaritan writ
large. This is what Christmas is about. The reality that God loves us, every
last well-seeming one of us. God loves us enough to become human. And “with a
love like that,” as the Beatles sang many years ago, “you know you should be
That is why we rejoice this
evening. Not because we know we’re going to heaven because we’re good
Christians. Not because Jesus is the only way to God, but because of God’s
great and unconditional love, demonstrated in the birth of the God-child.
Because God loves each one of us
and finds us well-seeming. And God loves those Muslim women in Kenya and God
loves the Al-Shabaab militants just as much.
And we rejoice because in Jesus
the Prince of Peace we have been shown another way. The way of non-violent,
peaceful resistance. The kind of resistance that was shown by Rosa Parks, the
kind that was shown by the Muslim people in Kenya this week.
“Peace on earth, goodwill to
humans in whom God delights” will remain the words to a Christmas carol unless
we have the courage to make them come true. And we can do it, we can do it
because we know that God loves us, and so nothing can prevail against us.