Parking under the wrong tree – Christmas Eve

 

Luke 2:1-20

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. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

A fellow preacher http://seeingmoreclearly.blogspot.com/ has likened preaching at Christmas to wringing out laundry in the days before spin dry cycles on washing machines. Two people would grab opposite ends of then sheet and then twist the material to try and squeeze every last drop from it before hanging it on the line. The point is that preaching at Christmas can be as exhausting as wringing out the laundry. You just can’t seem to get the essential and hopefully unique drop! This analogy of Don’s is one I can relate to, and yet it also struck me that the story really finds its power in the simplicity of the narrative.

It is a story of a pregnant couple who have been displaced by socio-political forces completely beyond their control. The difficulty of their journey to comply with the demands of the authorities is of little interest to those who decreed the displacement. Rules are rules and must be obeyed. The universality of this cameo is that it is being playing out in real time in Darfur, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Southern Africa and the Mexican border with the USA.

The second scene of this archetypal drama finds our couple unable to be accommodated in the “inn” (In Greek kataluma. This could also mean place reserved for guests or “guest room”). So not only are they displaced but they are now further marginalised by being rendered homeless.

Let’s forget the nativity play with the inn keeper dialogue for a moment and read the text more closely. “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” I find no cosy backlighting here. No cattle lowing, and fresh straw. I find a marginalised and homeless teenage girl, having to give birth, God knows where, and then putting the child in a feed trough presumably so that she can attend to herself and her post natal recovery. Once again any third world disaster area will suffice as a modern day setting for this drama. Who was it who said, “The rich get richer and the poor have babies”?

The third and final scene of our story, is of another group of unsheltered, and by their profession, unclean persons. Shepherds who are under the stars and who receive a message and a manifestation about God’s glory (The Greek “doxa” is the opposite of episte’me’ (epistemology) knowledge and is realised not from reasoning but from realising) The unrighteous subsistence farming shepherds are the ones to whom the revelation of what is really happening is given.

They in turn become the ones who go and explain the mystery to Mary and Joseph and leave Mary with food for thought if not food for her family. “ all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” I would like to speculate that now the message of Gabriel began to have real application. Mary now needed to know, “… the Lord is with Thee” Yes Mary even in the extremity of this moment, “ the Lord is with Thee”

I am not sure we have any clue, any more about the transforming power of this narrative which we ritually repeat year after year. We who have homes, hearths, and heaped plates, what do we know about political displacement, marginalisation, and homelessness?

If we have become jaded by the mall mania, the credit-card crisis spending, and the bloated botulisms of our wasted food; perhaps we need to listen again to the invitation of the shepherds. “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

Let’s go to Bethlehem now in 2010, behind its concrete wall of Zionist and Palestinian isolation and begin to understand what it means for God to be present in the suffering of simple people.

But let’s not stop there, now that global travel is so much easier, let us also go to Indonesia, Iran and Ethiopia and look into the earthquake rubble, let’s go to the flood ravaged Ukraine and Panama.

Let’s go where God seems to be found incarnated and present. Not in our tinsel decked trees but in the trauma ravaged suffering of the poor and the powerless around the world. Let us go there, and see these things that the Lord has made known to us. I don’t feel that I have to wring some new cute angle from this ageless story. I think the story speaks for itself. If we can’t find God this Christ Mass, maybe we are parking under the wrong tree.

Disturbing Tourists – Epiphany Year C

Matthew 2:1-12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

I don’t know about you but I don’t like being disturbed.   Especially when it has taken me a while to get everything just the way it should be, and I can finally settle down into the comfort of the conditions I have created.   Whether it be the way my office administration operates, or something smaller like settling down to have a cozy evening read; I dislike disturbance.

On this feast of the Epiphany Matthew tells us that Herod and the whole of Jerusalem were disturbed.   It was all because some exotic Eastern mystics, called Magi, who drifted into Jerusalem, wanted to know where the child was who had been born as the king of the Jews.

I am puzzled as to why this should have made troubled Herod, and why Herod’s perturbation should have been so infectious as to disturb all of Jerusalem with him?
But when I remember how I dislike being disturbed I begin to understand Herod’s agitation.  He had built himself a comfortable kingdom that worked for him.   Obsequious enough to Rome, he was rewarded with “homeland” rule, much like the puppet leaders of the old South African regime were rewarded for their loyalty to the Pretoria Nationalists.

The mere thought that there was another “king” out there who could threaten Herod’s comfort was cause enough to disturb him.  The fact that the whole of Jerusalem was agitated too, is testimony to the fact that there are very few societies that embrace change.  Despite the graces of  a Gandhi, Mandela or Obama, we still find change from our familiar power bases disturbing.

As we read on into this chapter however, we are given deeper clues as to the reason for the agitation.  Herod like so many power players was agitated because at a deep level he knew that there were ethical issues at stake.

The research that Herod commissions from the scholars yields an interesting piece of prophecy, ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.

It would seem to me that Herod’s agitation is deepened into murderous intent when he realizes that this is no mere political opponent he is going to have deal with.  I infer this because of the phrase, “a ruler who will shepherd
Shepherding is not associated with political power is it?

Rulers rule. Presidents preside. Leaders lead. Executives execute.
They don’t shepherd!
Shepherding implies compassion, care and a courageous life-sacrificing quality that few powerful people would understand or want to practice.

Yet this had always been the basis of Godly rule from the inception of the monarchy in Israel.  The very first king David was called from the flocks to be the shepherd king, an archetype which was espoused and fulfilled in Jesus the good shepherd.

Herod, power player and man of maneuvering, could not begin to think of his leadership in those terms, and even though his scripture scholars may have pointed out that this was the scriptural paradigm, Herod knew that this was not how he came to power, and this was certainly not how he was going to stay in power.

So he turned his focus to bloodshed and destruction and is forever remembered as the butcher of the Bethlehem innocents.

I wonder how we are reacting to the reality that there is one amongst us who challenges our illegitimate power bases? This holy child whose birth we have totally over-celebrated, once again, last week.

Do we also want to “put him away” this Epiphany?  Of course not  in butchering bloodshed!  We are too subtle for that.  No we can simply pack this shepherd king away with the Christmas tree and lights, as we dismantle them on the twelfth day of Christmas and assign them to the musty cupboard till next Advent?

Are we also agitated and troubled by the thought that allowing this child to continue to grow in our “homelands” may cost us too much, and disturb our comfortable kingdoms more than we care for?

Herod hid from grace and terrible destruction was the fate and fruit of his life from then on.
Could we do it differently?

The mystical magi are knocking on the door.  They speak of stars and destiny, and shepherd kings who can lead us to God.

Will we allow them to disturb us enough that we might join their caravan of change?