Thursday, 23 December 2010

Do Not Be Afraid (Luke 2:10)

Angels appear throughout the Christmas story, and whenever they appear the first thing they say is "Do not be afraid." This happens four times during the events of the birth of Jesus. When an angel appears to Zechariah, to inform him that his elderly wife is going to have a baby boy (John the Baptist), who is going to prepare the way for the coming Messiah, he first says to Zechariah, "Do not be afraid."

When the Angel Gabriel visits Mary to tell her that she is to bear a child, who is to be the son of God, he says "Do not be afraid."

When the angels appear to the shepherds to declare the birth of Jesus, they say "Fear not."

And when an angel appears to Joseph in a dream, he says "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit" (Mt 1:20)

If there is one message to take from the Christmas story, a message which we need to hear today, it is this: "Do not be afraid".

We live in a world where there is great uncertainty, and where people are concerned about the future.

There are growing tensions between North and South Korea, and ongoing violence in Afghanistan and Iraq. Closer to home, there are fears about the state of our economy and terrorism. As we slowly emerge from one of the worst recessions in living memory, the Government has been forced to make painful cut backs, which affects us all. Many people have been made redundant, and many more are anxious about their futures. We have seen students taking to our streets, in protest to the increase in tuition fees, and there is the prospect that we may see more scenes like this in the coming year. And in our own personal lives too this year will have been marked as all years are by the usual mix of joy and sorrow of triumph and disaster.

So the words of the angels to "Do not be afraid" are very relevant for us today.

But why should we not be afraid? The angels go on to say "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." (Luke 2:10-11)

This is the incredible message of Christmas. The creator of the universe, the eternal and everlasting God came into the world as one of us. Born not into wealth or power but squalor and poverty. Majesty in the midst of the mundane. Holiness in the filth of sheep manure and sweat. Divinity entering the world on the floor of a stable, through the womb of a teenager and in the presence of a carpenter. A more lowly place of birth could not exist.

The all powerful, all mighty God, in one instant, made himself breakable. He who was larger than the universe became a tiny infant. And he who sustains the world with a word chose to be dependent upon the care of a young couple. Emmanuel, God with us.

Jesus' birth, reminds us that God came to the world in order to make himself available, to be accessible to everyone.

And the promise Jesus gave to us was that he would be with us always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:20). This does not mean that life will be plain sailing, or that we will be protected from disappointments and setbacks along the way, but it does mean that God is with us in those situations. God loves us, and is with us no matter where the journey takes us, taking our hands and walking beside us, guiding and sustaining us. There is no better news. There is no greater security.

Just as God is to be found in a vulnerable and helpless child, shut out in the darkness and the cold and the grime of a stable, so he is to be found in any situation. In whatever circumstances we have to face, he is always saying to us: 'Do not be afraid. I am with you'. When we realise this, it helps to bring new life and hope to our lives, as well as the promise of a new future.

The message of the angels to us is 'Do not be afraid! To those living with the fear of war, do not be afraid! To those who are struggling to make ends meet – do not be afraid. To those who have lost their jobs - do not be afraid. To the hungry, homeless, sick and suffering in our world – do not be afraid. To the lonely and grieving – do not be afraid. Why? Because Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

And his shelter was a stable

Every Christmas, in schools, and playgroups throughout the country, the inn keeper in the story of the nativity plays an important role.

In one nativity play there was a boy who was very disappointed about not being chosen to play Joseph in the school nativity play. Instead he was given the role of the innkeeper instead, and over the weeks leading up to the play plotted his revenge. The day of the performance came. Mary and Joseph came to the inn and knocked on the door. The innkeeper opened the door a crack and looked at them coldly. "Can you give us a room for the night?" asked Jospeh. Then the innkeeper flung the door wide, beamed at them and said, "Come in, come in! You can have the best room in the hotel!" There was a pause. But Joseph was a quick thinker. He looked over the innkeeper's shoulder, then turned to Mary and said, "We're not staying in a dump like that. Come on, Mary, we'll sleep in the stable!"

The image of the manger and inn has firmly established itself in our imaginations, in nativity plays, and on Christmas cards, we have this picture of innkeepers and cattle gently lowing. But there is very strong likelihood that it never happened like that at all.

Here is what Luke says,

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.' (Luke 2:4-7)

But the truth is that Luke may not have meant 'inn' at all. The Greek word he uses is Kataluma which has been translated as 'inn', is more accurately translated as guest room, or spare room, or anywhere you might put visitors. 

Luke uses the word kataluma twice in his gospel: once in this passage and once to describe the room in which the Last Supper took place; the 'upper room'. In Luke 22:11 two disciples are told to go and ask, 'Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?' No theologian, suggests that the last supper took place in an inn. In fact, the whole tone of Jesus' preparations for the Last Supper indicate a concern to find a private space, a space away from threats and interruptions and away from the vast crowds in Jerusalem for the Passover. 


When Luke does come to talk about an inn, he uses an entirely different word. In the story of the Good Samaritan, the victim of the thief's is taken to an inn, and here Luke uses a different Greek word pandocheion.

This indicates that either Luke is being inconsistent in his choice or words, or he didn't mean an inn at all. Luke is however someone he likes to get the details right. So Luke says, not that the inn was full, but that there was no room in the guest room, or spare room. 

This actually makes more sense of the story, because for Joseph to return to Bethlehem for a census indicates that he had strong links there – and probably had relatives living in Bethlehem. It would therefore make sense that he and Mary would have stayed with them. 

And just because Joseph travelled for the census doesn't mean that a lot of other people did. There may have been compelling reasons for him to escape Nazareth for a while, to escape the rumours that must have circulated regarding Mary's pregnancy. Certainly Luke gives no indication that Bethlehem was full. 

This means that sadly for schools and playgroups everywhere, the story of the hardhearted innkeeper who grudgingly opens the stable round the back may well be a misreading of the story. 

On top of this, there may not have even been a stable as well! Luke records that Jesus was placed in a manager, and animals feeding trough, but this would not have necessarily been in a stable.

We have to remember that Mary and Joseph were poor. When Mary receives news that she is going to give birth to the Messiah, she sings a song full of delight that the poor and hungry have been blessed by God. "He (God) has brought down the powerful from their thrones," she sings, "and lifted up the lowly, he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich empty away." (Luke 1:52-53)

This song makes no sense at all unless Mary – and the man she was to marry – were 'lowly', poor, and even hungry. The language is full of the idea that God has chosen to bless the oppressed, rather than the oppressors. Mary herself was clearly lowly, she was probably only about 16 years old at the time she gave birth to Jesus, because most Jewish girls would have got married around this age. And Mary and Joseph were clearly poor, we know this because Luke records that when they went to the Temple to offer a sacrifice following the birth of Jesus, they sacrificed a 'pair or turtledoves or two young pigeons.' – which was the sacrifice you gave if you could not afford to sacrifice a sheep. 

Given this information, we can assume that Joseph came from a simple, poor background, and simple homes did not have stables!

The homes of ordinary poor families of the time were frequently built on two levels: there was the lower level where everyday living took place, and an upper level where the family slept. Or if they lived in caves, as many people did, the family would have slept in the central part of the cave, with the animals kept at the entrance, where they would have acted as a kind of primitive central heating!

So what Luke may be saying is that there was no spare room in the residential part of the house. The place was packed out. So they had to go to the lower level, where the animals were kept. This would explain why a stable is never mentioned. There wasn't one, the animals were kept downstairs in the home; what happened was that Jesus was put downstairs with the animals, because the rest of the house was full. 

What difference does this make, apart from ruining many a nativity play? Well for one thing it shows the truth of the incarnation, of Jesus becoming man. It brings alive the fact that Jesus was born in a very specific place at a very specific time. And that place was a cramped peasant's home in the tiny town of Bethlehem.

We can see that Jesus was born into a lower class family. It blows apart the cosy Christmas card picture of a nice warm, clean stable, with golden straw illuminated by the flowing halo round Jesus' head. In many ways it's a much more 'ordinary' scene. Although in Jesus' birth was highly unusual: very few births are announced by angelic choirs, in other ways it was almost painfully normal. The home was an ordinary peasant dwelling; the first cot an animals feeding trough. In some ways, as well, the birth is more shocking. The Son of God is laid, not in some kind of rustic cot, but in the place where usually the animals ate. He slept in hay full of ticks and fleas, in a home that was small and cramped. His parents were poor, his mother was only a young teenager.

The Renaissance paintings which inform our view of the event were painted for rich, wealthy patrons. They did not want to see conditions of slum like poverty, even had the artist managed to interpret the text correctly. So we have become conditioned to see a roomy stable full of colourful characters. We have sanitised the unsanitary stable. We have swept it clean from the dirty straw, given the animals a wash and brush up, spared a bit of myrrh around to cover the unsavoury smell of sweat and animal dung.

To do so is to miss the point. The point behind Luke's depiction of the birth of Jesus is that it WAS dirty and smelly and poor and cramped and hard and utterly, utterly, wonderful.

And this is surely the more wonderful deeper truth. The mystery of Christmas is that God sank himself into our flesh. That the one who is beyond all space and time, who is uncreated and eternal, became one of us. Majesty in the midst of the mundane, holiness in the filth of sheep manure and sweat. Divinity entering the world born on a dirty floor, through the womb of a teenager and in the presence of a carpenter. And the message of Christmas is that God in Jesus still comes to us, to our complicated, messy, broken lives, and by the power of his love can change and transform in ways we can hardly imagine. 

Herod & the Wise Men: Matthew 2:13-23

If you have ever attended a performance of a nativity play, chances are that whilst it featured shepherds and wise men, it probably didn't include the story of the what is often referred to as the 'slaughter of the innocents', the brutal murder of children in Bethlehem by King Herod. This event is an integral part of the Christmas story, but we tend to ignore it because it doesn't sit comfortably with the nice image that we have of the birth of Jesus, of angels, shepherds and wise men. People often say 'Christmas is for the children', but we clearly feel that this part of the story isn't for them.


This part of the nativity story, the visit of the wise men and King Herod's subsequent attempt to destroy Jesus, is uncomfortable and disturbing, but shouldn't be done away with.


There is a great contrast between the reaction of the wise men to the birth of Jesus and Herod's reaction. So what do we know about the wise men and Herod?


The Bible tells us very little about the wise men, or as Matthew refers to them, magi. It doesn't even say how many there were, or who they were. All Matthew tells us was that they had seen a special star and had travelled from the East. The likelihood is that they were astronomers, who would have been extremely important in an agricultural society, because they would have predicted the best times for planting crops, would have known maths and calendar systems, and would have been able to navigate using the stars. Although someone did observe that they must have been male, because if they had been wise women they would have asked for directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, brought a casserole and given the baby much more practical gifts!


In contrast to the wise men, we know a lot about King Herod. Herod was born around 74BC and died in 4BC, and ruled Judea for 34 years, with the backing of the Romans. Herod could be extremely brutal, for example he had his wife and two of his sons killed when he feared they were plotting to over throw him. The Jewish historian Josephus wrote that Herod was so concerned that no one would mourn his death, that he gave orders to have distinguished men killed at the time of his death so that the displays of grief that he craved would take place. But Herod also left behind another legacy, during his reign he oversaw many great building projects, some of which we can still see to this day. Amongst his 'greatest' achievements was the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem.


The response to the birth of Jesus of the wise men and Herod could not have been more different.


The magi on seeing the star that signalled the birth of Jesus travelled a great distance to find Jesus. It would have been a long, arduous and potentially dangerous journey that would have lasted many weeks. We are accustomed to thinking that the greatest gift of the magi was gold, frankincense and myrrh. It wasn't. The greatest gift they brought was their devotion, their willingness to endure whatever it took and to search for this new king. Their physical gifts paled in comparison. Maybe this is the most important lesson that we can learn from them. There must have been moments on their journey when faced by cold, hunger, danger, or simply the enormity of the journey ahead of them, that they thought about giving in, and returning to their homes, but they didn't. They kept on searching for Jesus until they found him.

When they eventually arrived in Bethlehem, after first stopping to see King Herod in Jerusalem, what they discovered was a small child and his parents, not surrounded by the trappings of wealth, power or privilege that you would normally expect royalty to have, but living in very humble ordinary surroundings. But despite the outward appearances, they recognised Jesus as the Messiah, and kneeled down and worshipped him.

The magi show us what worship is really about.
To worship something, is to that thing worth, it literally means worth-ship. So when we worship God, we give him the recognition that he deserves. If we look in Scripture we see that the central understanding of worship is to homage and submission to God, it is about service to God, it is therefore all encompassing, it is about our whole life, and it is about reverence for God. This is why Paul in Romans 12:1 writes, "Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual
act of worship." Our worship to God is expressed in the way we live.

The contrast between the response of the magi and Herod could not be greater. Whereas the magi were prepared to travel hundreds of miles to worship Jesus, Herod, could not be bothered to travel five miles to pay him a visit. Instead on hearing about the birth of the new king of the Jews, Herod was disturbed. Herod was hated in Israel, although he bore the title King of the Jews, he was in fact a puppet of the Roman Empire, and was generally despised in Israel for his cruelty. And so, on hearing about this new king, Herod probably feared for his own safety, he was more concerned about maintaining his power and his influence. Herod probably recognised that the Jewish people held little loyalty to him, and so he perceived this new king as a threat. And so rather than worshipping Jesus as the Saviour of the world, he sent out to destroy Jesus, by ordering that all children in Bethlehem under the age of two be murdered.


Herod's response to Jesus was one of hatred and fear, hatred of anything and anyone that threatened his self-centredness. The great tragedy is that there are people like Herod still in the world to this day, who are more intent on destroying Jesus and his followers, than coming to worship him. Someone wrote, "If we leave Herod in the Christmas narrative, we can address the shadow of evil hovering over Christmas to this day. Herod still stalks the earth. He may be disguised in the military fatigues of a dictator. He murders street child in Brazil by sending death squads when darkness falls. Herod sells Thai children as prostitutes to wealthy westerners. He detonates a car bond that kills innocent people." But it is Herod's whole sale rejection of Jesus, which is the tragedy which continues to this day. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor writing in a book called 'Faith in the Nation' published last month, claims that the rise of secularism has led to a liberal society, hostile to Christian morals and values, in which religious belief is viewed as "a private eccentricity" and the voice of faith groups is marginalized." He goes on to say, "There are now "serious tensions" between Christians and secularist society, he says, in which atheists are becoming more "vocal and aggressive." We see in Matthew's Gospel the consequence of Herod's rejection of Jesus, and I believe today as a society we are living with the consequences of what happens when people reject God, with the break down of social cohesion in many of our communities, of many young people living without a moral compass to guide and direct them.


What in many ways was even more surprising than Herod's rejection of Jesus, was the response of the Jewish chief priests and scribes. They knew their Scriptures and had no problem in answering Herod when he wanted to know where the child would be born. But did they go to greet him? Did they lift a sandal? Not at all. They knew it all, but they did nothing. Their response, or lack of it, is surely a warning to us all. Their apathy hardened into outright opposition to Jesus as his ministry developed. Their response to the news of the birth of the messiah acts as a warning that knowledge is no substitute for obedience.


There is a great contrast between the response of the Magi and that of Herod to the birth of Jesus. The magi's faith, their insight and their whole hearted search and adoring worship of Jesus is something that should humble us all. Once the magi found Jesus, their lives took a different direction, one that is responsive to and obedient to God's call. So as we move away from Christmas and into the New Year, are we willing to seek him out and be led in a different way, like the wise men of old? Wise men and women still search for Jesus, will we do the same this year?


Wednesday, 15 December 2010

The Nativity


Last year when I gave the Christmas address I talked about Christmas traditions. This year I would like to talk about one of the most familiar scenes of the Christmas story, the nativity scene. 

We are all very familiar with the nativity scene from Christian art, and school and church nativity plays. One of my earliest memories was of taking part in a church nativity play, where I was given the role of being one of the sheep. I was obviously a very reluctant sheep, because instead of going to the front of church with the other sheep and shepherds, I tried to escape by running down the aisle and heading for the exit! 

Origins of the first nativity scene

The first nativity scene dates back to 1223, when St Francis of Assisi recreated the scene of Christ's birth in the town of Greccio. St Francis was worried that ordinary people had no real grasp of what had happened at Christ's birth. So he secured the assistance of a rich patron and set about recreating the original scene. He used a life size figure of the Christ child, live animals, a manger, straw and so forth. He and his friends played the parts of Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, and the Magi. People flocked to see this scene, and it helped bring alive the Christmas story.

My wife comes from the city of Torun in Poland, and around the city you can find many life size nativity scenes on display. One of the most interesting nativity displays is found in St Catherine's Church in the city. Their nativity display is a full size stable, which is constructed around the altar, so that the altar is in the middle of the stable building. But what makes it so special, is that they have real animals in the stable, including chickens, rabbits and even a donkey.

The Bible's Depiction of the Nativity

The nativity scene takes its inspiration from the accounts of the birth of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

Luke's narrative describes an angel announcing the birth of Jesus to shepherds who then visit the humble site where Jesus is found in a manger. Whereas Matthew's narrative tells of Magi who follow a star to the place where Jesus dwells, which indicates that the Magi found Jesus some time after his birth, maybe weeks or even months later. Matthew's account does not mention the angels and shepherds, while Luke's narrative is silent on the Magi and the star. However both Matthew & Luke's account of the birth of Jesus tend to be brought together, to form the nativity scene that we are familiar with, so we have the shepherds and the angels of Luke's account, meeting together at the manger with Matthew's Magi and the star.

The Nativity Scene & Art

Over the centuries the nativity scene has been portrayed by countless artists. I want to focus today on just one painting, entitled 'Adoration of the Kings' painted by the Rennaisance artist Jan Gossaert in about 1510, and which can be viewed in the National Gallery.

Gossaert sets this picture not in a stable, or straw, but in the ruins of a grand building. The characters in the painting aren't dressed in the clothes of 1st century Palestine, but of the early 16th century Europe.

Ox & Ass

If you look careful you can spot an ox and an ass in this picture. When we see a nativity scene featuring an ox and an ass, we tend not to think very much about it. First of all it Bethlehem is 80 miles away from Nazareth, it would have been a long walk for someone who was pregnant. So we tend to think that maybe Mary travelled on a donkey, so it is logical to see a donkey in the nativity scene, although the Bible doesn't tell us how Mary travelled to Bethlehem. 

But what the Bible does tell us is that when Mary gave birth to Jesus, 'She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.' (Luke 2:7) A manger is of course a feeding trough, which would have been in the area where animals would have been kept, so it is therefore logical to depict animals in the nativity scene.

However, there is also a special symbolism to the ox and ass in the nativity scene.

In Isaiah 1:3 it says, The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master's crib; But Israel does not know, my people do not understand. Isaiah lived 700 years before the birth of Jesus, but these words have been understood to relate to the coming of Jesus.

Considerable symbolism is attached to the ox and the ass. The ox traditionally represents patience, the nation of Israel, and also the Old Testament sacrificial worship (thus pointing ahead to Jesus' own sacrifice on the cross). While the ass represents humility and readiness to serve.

Interestingly the ox and ass appear in some of the earliest depictions of the nativity, as can be seen on this 4th century Roman Christian sarcophagus.

Wise Men

The other people that we see in this scene are the wise men, who form an essential part of the Christmas story. The Bible doesn't tell us how many magi there were, but there are usually three portrayed, because they brought three gifts to Jesus.

Three young children were playing the parts of the wise men in a school nativity place. At one point they came to Mary and Joseph at the manger and said the following:

Magi 1    Here, this is gold

Magi 2    This is myrrh

Magi 3    And Frank sent this.

The gifts that the wise men brought are of course highly symbolic. Gold was a royal gift, which signified Jesus' kingship. Frankincence, is a fragrant gun resin which is burned as incense, and this denoted Jesus role as priest – the one who mediates between God and his people. Myrrh is an aromatic resin, which was used in perfumes, anointing oil, medicine and embalming. This gift for-shadows Jesus' death on the cross. Years later when Jesus was crucified, he was offered wine mixed with myrrh as a palative (Mark 15:23), and when he was buried his body would have been anointed with myrrh (John 19:39).

Like the ox and the ass, the visit of the wise men appears to have been predicted by Isaiah, who writes.

• Isaiah 60.1,3,6

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. … Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. …A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.


In this painting there is also a reference to Moses. It is not at all obvious, but if you look careful you can see a staff at the feet of Jesus, which is engraved with the name Moses and the Ten Commandments.

Moses predates Jesus by 1300 years, so what is he doing in a nativity scene? The answer is that in the Bible, Moses was the law giver, he was the one to whom God gave the Ten Commandments. But with the coming of Jesus, the law has been superseded by grace. The apostle John writes "And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. … From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The Law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." (John 1:14, 16-17)


There is another important Old Testament figure that appears in this picture, Abraham. Again it is not easy to see, but at the top of the column behind Mary's right side, there is depicted the story of the sacrifice of Isaac – which is understood to foreshadow the sacrificial nature of Jesus' death. It is a difficult story to understand, because God instructs Abraham to go and sacrifice his only son Isaac, the son who God specifically gave to Abraham. Abraham obeys God's command, and just as he is about to sacrifice Isaac, we read that 'the angel of the Lord called to him and said, 'Abraham! Abraham!..., Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.' (Genesis 22.11&12) This story prefigures the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, because Jesus is prepared to offer his life for our sins. In John 3:16 we have the famous words, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."


There are a few other interesting details in this painting to notice. For example what looks like a star parting the clouds, is not just the guiding star of the wise men, but represents the light of God breaking through into the world. 


We can also see a dove in this picture (see above), descending from the star, from God, which is a symbol of God's Holy Spirit, and a reminder of Jesus' baptism, when the Spirit of God descended like a dove onto Jesus.

Neil MacGregor in his book Seeing Salvation writes, "Making an image of God who has become man is… a tricky business. Artist's attempting it have to negotiate a series of specifically visual problems, unknown to authors. Paradox is easy to write, but hard to paint. The Gospel tells us quite straightforwardly that the helpless, swaddled infant is in reality God incarnate, but how do you show that it is God in nappies, that the purpose of this child is to redeem the world by his death? How can a painter make clear that the man brutally being put to death on the cross, to every human eye a man completely ordinary and like any other, is also totally divine; that limitless power has chosen absolute submission? … Gossaert's picture does not show us the birth of Christ: it paints a meditation on the meaning of the birth of Christ and why it matters to us now."

The Real Nativity

This painting and other depictions of the nativity, have a large degree of artistic licence.

In most nativity plays, the inn keeper has a small but very important role to play. There was a little boy who was really disappointed about not being chosen to play Joseph in the school nativity play. Instead he was given the role of the innkeeper instead, and over the weeks leading up to the play plotted his revenge. The day of the performance came. Mary and Joseph came to the inn and knocked on the door. The innkeeper opened the door a crack and looked at them coldly. "Can you give us a room for the night?" asked Jospeh. Then the innkeeper flung the door wide, beamed at them and said, "Come in, come in! You can have the best room in the hotel!" There was a pause. But Joseph was a quick thinker. He looked over the innkeeper's shoulder, then turned to Mary and said, "We're not staying in a dump like that. Come on, Mary, we'll sleep in the stable!"

However there is a possibility that there may not have been an inn or a stable at all. The Greek word which Luke uses in his gospel, and which we translate as 'inn' is Kataluma. Kataluma can mean 'inn', but it can also just as easily can mean guest room, or spare room, or anywhere you might put visitors. 

Luke uses the word kataluma twice in his gospel: once in the passage about there being no room for Mary and Jospeh, and once to describe the room in which the Last Supper took place; the 'upper room'. But in the story of the Good Samaritan, the word that Luke uses to describe the inn is a different Greek word (pandocheion).

A better translation of what Luke is saying is not that the inn was full, but that there was no room in the guest room, or spare room – which is a subtle but important distinction.

Luke tells us that the reason Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem is because Caesar August issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world, so everyone had to go to their own town to register. It therefore would be logical to assume that Joseph probably had relatives living in Bethlehem.

Most poor families at that time would have either lived in a cave or a simple home built on two levels. The lower level was where everyday living took place, and also where the animals would have been kept, and the upper level would have been where the family slept. So what Luke might be indicating is that there was no spare room in the residential part of the house, the place was packed out. So Mary and Joseph had to go to the lower level, where the animals were kept. This would explain why a stable is never mentioned in the Bible story. So the friendly inn keeper, that is such an important part of so many nativity plays, may not have even existed. What happened was that Jesus was put downstairs with the animals, because the rest of the house was full.

What difference does this make, apart from ruining many a nativity play? Well for one thing it shows the truth of the incarnation, of Jesus becoming man. It brings alive the fact that Jesus was born in a very specific place at a very specific time. And that place was a cramped peasant's home in the tiny town of Bethlehem.

In many ways it's a much more 'ordinary' scene, it reminds us that Jesus' home was an ordinary peasant dwelling. The Son of God is laid, not in some kind of rustic cot, but in the place where usually the animals ate. He slept in hay full of ticks and fleas, in a home that was small and cramped.

Renaissance painters like Jan Gossaert tended to paint for wealthy patrons. They did not want to see conditions of slum like poverty. So we have become conditioned to see a roomy stable full of colourful characters. We have sanitised the unsanitary stable. We have swept it clean from the dirty straw, given the animals a wash and brush up, spared a bit of myrrh around to cover the unsavoury smell of sweat and animal dung.

But if we do this, I think we miss the point. Because the birth of Jesus WAS dirty and smelly and poor and cramped and hard and utterly, utterly, wonderful.

I want to finish today with a reflection by Max Luxcado (adapted).

The stable stinks like all stables do. The stench of urine, dung, and sheep reeks pungently in the air. The ground is hard, the hay scarce. Cobwebs cling to the ceiling and a mouse scurries across the dirt floor. A more lowly place of birth could not exist.


Wide awake is Mary. Her head rests on the soft leather of Joseph's saddle. The pain has been eclipsed by wonder. She looks into the face of the baby. Her son. Her Lord. His Majesty. At this point in history, the human being who best understands who God is and what he is doing is a teenage girl in a smelly stable. She can't take her eyes off him. Somehow Mary knows she is holding God. So this is he. She remembers the words of the angel, "His kingdom will never end."

He looks anything but a king. His face is prunish and red. His cry, though strong and healthy, is still the helpless and piercing cry of a baby. And he is absolutely dependent upon Mary for his well-being.

She touches the face of the infant-God. How long was your journey!

This baby had overlooked the universe. These rags keeping him warm were the robes of eternity. His golden throne room had been abandoned in favour of a dirty sheep pen. And worshipping angels had been replaced with kind but bewildered shepherds.

Majesty in the midst of the mundane. Holiness in the filth of sheep manure and sweat. Divinity entering the world on the floor of a stable, through the womb of a teenager and in the presence of a carpenter.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Repentance Matthew 3:1-12

Sermon preached by Penny Wheble, at St Martin's Church, Walsall on the 5th December 2010.

A man volunteered to paint the church steeple. With great difficulty, he hoisted himself up onto the steeple with a can of paint and a bottle of water.After painting half the steeple, the man realised that he was running out of paint, so he added some of the water to the paint. He was almost at the top when he realised even more paint to complete the job, so he added yet more water to the paint, and mumbled, 'No one will ever know'. When he finished painting, he began to lower himself off the steeple. Just then, the skies darkened, a loud clap of thunder was heard, and a deep voice from above said, 'Repaint, repaint, and thin no more!'

Today, we're thinking about repentance. J.R.Packer, the theologian says, 'The New Testament word for repentance means changing one's mind so that one's views, values, goals, and ways are changed and one's whole life is lived differently. The change is radical, both inwardly and outwardly; mind and judgement, will and affections, behaviour and lifestyle, motives and purposes, are all involved. Repenting means starting a new life.

C.S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia Chronicles says, 'We have a strange illusion that time cancels sins, but mere time does nothing either to the fact or the guilt of sin. The guilt is washed out not by time but by repentance and the blood of Jesus Christ'.

So let's look at today's passage -
John the Baptist appeared during that time in the wilderness of Judea, with the message, 'Turn from your sinful ways, for the kingdom of heaven is dawning.'

People flocked to him from Jerusalem, Judea and the entire length of the River Jordan, in which he baptised them as they made confession of their sins.

The people had asked John what they should do, they were aware that something was radically wrong and he tells them straight 'You brood of vipers'! – no flattery or feel-good element here.
But people respect him and seek him out. He's been through it, he's emptied himself of privilege, just as Jesus did, dropped out of the temple, and headed for the wilderness to find God. These people want authentic leadership, and he gives it to them.

John the Baptist is all about judgement and truth. Now judgement isn't popular particularly among liberal Christians, and truth is pretty hard to swallow.  John the Baptist is clearly in the tradition of the OT prophets, the prophets who were there to tell people where they were going wrong. And we need to listen to John the Baptist, over and over again. We need to know that the world we live in is in a state of sin. We need to know that we must repent. We need to understand that things must be different.

So, what is John's challenge to the people who come to see him? What does he actually say?
To those who have accumulated wealth: 'If you have two coins, give one away.'  To the tax collectors, those who are living and working in a corrupt system: 'Stop being corrupt.'
To soldiers, 'Stop bullying.'

Now that's for the people who gathered around John the Baptist in the first century, but how might he speak to us today?

To those who come to John today, knowing their lives are empty, despite their credit cards and all their retail therapy, John says: 'Stop trying to bolster up your own worth by accumulating material goods – give things away.'

What about the tax collectors of our time? - the loan sharks, the rip-off shops offering easy credit, preying on the poor - or the World Trade bureaucrats? We are told that 2/3rds of debt in developing nations has been written off, but in fact only 10% has been written off, and even then, in terms of what governments actually have to pay back, this makes very little difference to the lives of poor people. For every £1 we, in the western world give in aid, we take back £2 through unfair trade.

To the loan sharks and World Trade bureaucrats, who recognise the inequality of the system, but feel powerless to know what to do, John the Baptist says: 'The system is corrupt – get out!
And what does John say about our crazy so-called war on terror and the increasing militarisation of our? What does John say to the young men and women who are caught up in wars, joining the military through lack of alternatives? Surely John speaks to those young soldiers who arrive home with troubled minds and dreadful memories of what they have done? John says, 'Do not torture, do not abuse'.

Moving on, John asks us to step into the River Jordan and be washed clean of our complicity and involvement with empire and exploitation. And then he points to Jesus. 'Behold, the Lamb of God'.

John prepares the way and then Jesus steps in. In Jesus we are given something that's beyond prophetic, that's beyond simple honest judgement and truth-telling. We are given someone who points to models of the Kingdom, not to an end world; who says to all those who feel things are wrong: Look at the poor widow who puts her coin in the box. Look at her. She is the kingdom. Look at this man, a leper, who has such faith despite what he has faced. He is the Kingdom. Look at this child. This child is an image of the Kingdom of God. Look at this woman because she is 'unclean', she has such faith; she is the Kingdom of God'.

Jesus says, 'Look at these people and see and learn and know what God is about. Look at me: Look at me on the cross and understand that we are not talking about a God of power. We are talking about a God of vulnerability and love. Meet me in the resurrection. Meet me despite your violence. I offer you a new relationship – more than just an opportunity to start again. Don't fear condemnation. Hear the judgement, hear truth, hear wisdom – and know my reconciliation, which is the way of love. Be filled with my grace. Stop. Choose. And step into my love and be empowered by grace. I am here to show you a God who turns the world upside down - a world that you can turn upside down too'.

There's no condemnation there. There's certainly judgement, but it's judgement matched with grace. When you hear Jesus' judgement there's no need to shy away in guilt and fear. You are filled with grace in order to live the truth, - to be witnesses to his love.

That's the coming of the Kingdom: living out the love and justice of God as shown in Jesus. The Kingdom, as John said, is nigh. The end of the world, as we know it is only an action away. When we act, filled with God's grace, for love and justice, when we step into changing our world, the end of the world, the Kingdom has come – in our hearts, in our actions.

The end of the world as we know it comes in our acts of compassion and justice and love. It comes when, open to Christ, we are full of the Spirit of the upside-down Kingdom in our hearts and live it out in our lives.

Closing prayer

Gracious God,
Come and work within me as you will,
Not just today but every day,
Until you have finished your new creation
And my whole being proclaims your glory. Amen.

To consider

Is it possible to be sorry about something if you don't attempt to put it right?
Are there things you know to be wrong in your life that you confess but do nothing about? What does this say about your confession? Are you deceiving yourself? Do you imagine God can be deceived?
Do you agree that a genuine desire to amend one's ways is more important than succeeding in doing so? Do you sometimes use this as an excuse not to change, or do you make the opposite mistake of being excessively hard on yourself when you fall short?

Monday, 6 December 2010

Christmas Traditions & The True Meaning of Christmas

For me Christmas is a very special time of the year, but one of the things I feel quite passionate about is trying to distinguish between the traditions that have develop around Christmas, and the true meaning of Christmas. 

So much of what we now associate Christmas with, has very little to do with the actual true meaning of Christmas.  For example I take assemblies regularly in schools, and if I ask the children what Christmas is really about, the answer I get is that it’s about Father Christmas and receiving presents.  The Christmas play at my son’s school this year was all about how toys come alive at Christmas, and last year it was about a winter hedgehog.  What concerns me is that many people today don’t even realise Christmas has anything to do with the birth of Jesus.  In a survey conducted a number of years ago, people were asked about which person they most associated with Christmas.  Cliff Richard came fourth in this survey, and the Vicar of Dibley came tenth.  They were the only people who had any kind of association with Christianity in the top ten answers.  The trotter family came first (from Only Fools & Horses) and Morcambe and Wise second.  As someone said, if you take Christ out of Christmas, all you’re left with is M&S. 

I used to live in Carlisle, and one Christmas two boys were overheard talking just outside the church.  One of the boys pointed to the church and said, “That’s where Santa Clause lives.”  For many people today Santa Clause is more of a reality that Jesus is. 

Do you realise that if Santa Claus was real, she would be a female and not a male.  The reason why Santa has to be a woman is because:
·        Men can’t pack a bag
·        Men don’t think about getting gifts until Christmas Eve, when it’s too late.
·        Men refuse to stop and ask for directions when they get lost

I like the quote from Shirley Temple who said “I stopped believing in Santa Claus when I was six, my mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph.” 

There are clearly a lot of people with too much time on their hands, because someone has calculated that if Santa did exist, he would have 34 hours to deliver his gifts across all the time zones, which would mean he would have to travel at 650 miles per second, 3000 times the speed of sound.  In addition Santa’s slay would probably have to weigh 500 thousand tons in presents.  And because a conventional reindeer can pull no more than 300 pounds, Santa would need approximately 360,000 reindeer to pull the slay! 

The real origins of Santa Claus are found in Saint Nicholas, who was the bishop of the Mediterranean city of Myra.  He was born to rich parents in about 270AD.  His parents died while he was still young, and as a young man he inherited a large fortune.  There are many stories about Nicholas, but the most famous is that he heard about a poor man who had three daughters.  This man could not afford a proper dowry for them.  This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment would have to become prostitutes. Hearing of the poor man's plight, Nicholas decided to help him but being too modest to help the man in public, (or to save the man the humiliation of accepting charity), he went to his house under the cover of night and threw three purses (one for each daughter) filled with gold coins through the window opening into the man's house.  The depiction of Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, does have some echoes of this great saint.  For example the colour of his outfit recollects the red of the bishop’s robes, and of course we still continue the tradition of secretly giving gifts on Christmas Eve. 

There are many other traditions we have at Christmas time, which we associate so much with Christmas, have very little to do with the actual true Christmas story.  In fact some of these traditions pre date the arrival of Christianity on our shores.  For example, whilst many people would see Christmas as being the most important Christian festival after Easter, but do you realise that the birth of Jesus is only mentioned in two of the four Gospels, Matthew and Luke?  The Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John make no mention at all of Jesus’ birth.  Christian’s only started to celebrate Christmas in the third century after Christ, but it was not until the fifth and sixth centuries that Christmas became a wide spread.  Christmas was originally celebrated not on December 25th, but January 6th, which is the date the Orthodox Church continues to celebrate Christmas on. 

December 25th happened to be the day that pagan’s celebrated the winter solstice.  For the Roman’s the winter solstice indicated that the winter was over and that spring was on its way.  And so the winter solstice was a time of great celebration.  The light of the sun (SUN) had conquered the darkness of winter.  And so the Emperor Aurelian in AD 274 officially declared December 25th as the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun (SUN). 

The early church was quick to seize upon the significance of this, because Jesus had said that he was the light of the world, so the early church regarded this as an appropriate time for a celebration of the birth of Jesus.  So December 25th moved from being a celebration of the SUN to a celebration of Jesus, God’s SON. 

The reality is that Jesus wasn’t born in the winter at all, but in the Spring (March or April) or maybe in September.  The reason we know this is because in Luke’s Gospel we read that “there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.” (Lk 2:8)  Shepherds would not have been out in the fields with their sheep during the winter.

There are many other traditions that we have at Christmas.  For example the tradition of hanging mistletoe over doors originates from the days of the druids, because it was believed that mistletoe possessed mystical powers that would ward off evil.

Likewise holly and ivy was used in pre-Christian times as well.  Like mistletoe, holly and ivy was thought to be associated with warding off evil powers.  When Christianity came to Western Europe, the holly and the ivy were turned into Christian symbols and used in Christmas celebrations, with Christian meanings attributed to these symbols.  So the prickly leaves of the holly were thought to symbolise the crown of thorns.  The berries were seen to represent the drops of blood shed by Jesus.  And ivy has to cling to something, so this is seen to symbolise our need to depend on God. 

Another symbol that we associate with Christmas is the Christmas tree.  Again the origins of this are pagan.  The modern Christmas tree dates from the 8th century, when St Boniface was converting the Germanic tribes.  The tribes worshipped oak trees, decorating them for the winter solstice.  Boniface cut down an enormous oak tree that was central to the worship of a particular tribe, but a fir tree grew in its place.  And so the evergreen became a symbol of Christianity, which the newly converted Germans began decorating for Christmas.  It was of course Prince Albert, who then introduced the Christmas tree into this country after his marriage to Queen Victoria in 1840. 

There are other things which we associate with Christmas, but we no longer remember their original meaning.  For example a popular food item at this time of year is the mince pie.  Mince pies were originally filled with meat such as lamb.  They were made in an oval shape to represent the manger that Jesus slept in as a baby, with the top symbolising his swaddling clothes.  And Boxing Day began in England during the Middle Ages.  It gets its name because it was the day when the alms boxes were opened in parish churches so that the contents could be distributed to the poor. 

For me, one of the challenges is about getting back to the heart of Christmas, which also means pealing away the layers of myth and tradition and also sentimentality that surrounds Jesus’ birth.  The Bishop of Croydon, Rt Rev Nick Baines was in the news recently attacking some of the "nonsense" lines that are found in Christmas carols.  I have to confess I agree with him.  I realise that I’m probably in a minority with these views.  Take for example the carol ‘Away in the manger’.  It has the lines “The cattle are lowing the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.”  As the father of young children, the one thing I know about babies is that they cry – sometimes a lot.  

Another very popular carol is ‘Once in Royal David’s city’ which has in it the lines ‘Christian children all must be, mild obedient good as thee.  Again I’ve always had an issue with this line, as the Bishop of Croydon said, it smacks of Victorian behaviour control!

The reason why I have an issue with some of these carols is that they water down the reality of what Jesus’ birth was really like, making them appear more like fairy tales that reality.  And therefore I’m left wondering, how does the story of the birth of Jesus relate to us, and our sometimes messy, complicated and painful lives?   Just for once I would love to see a Christmas card which showed a picture of a harassed and tired looking Mary and Joseph trying to calm down a screaming baby, because that is an experience many people have!   

Most people’s view of what happened at Jesus’ birth is based more on fantasy than fact.  A great deal of what we remember, sing about and celebrate at Christmas is actually not in the original script. 

For example let me ask you some questions:
·        How did Mary travel to Bethlehem? –The Bible doesn’t say, but in nearly all our nativity scenes a donkey is portrayed. 
·        What did the inn keeper say to Mary and Joseph? There is no account of the inn keepers words.  In fact there is no mention of an inn keeper in either Matthew or Luke’s accounts – we infer the presence of an inn keeper from the text.
·        Where in Bethlehem was Jesus born?  The Bible doesn’t actually say – only the manger is mentioned.
·        How many wise men were there? The Bible doesn’t say – but we know they were men, because if they had been women, they would have arrived on time, helped deliver the baby Jesus, and brought much more practical gifts!

I hope that these questions just illustrate how the nativity story has taken on a life of its own, and shows why one of my passions is to try and strip away the myth and tradition to get back to the true story.

I think nativity plays and nativity scenes have in part led to the way we perceive Jesus’ birth.  For example, in every school nativity play there has to be an inn keeper – even though the Bible doesn’t mention one. 

There was a little boy who was really disappointed about not being chosen to play Joseph in the school nativity play.  Instead he was given the role of the innkeeper instead, and over the weeks leading up to the play plotted his revenge.  The day of the performance came.  Mary and Joseph came to the inn and knocked on the door.  The innkeeper opened the door a crack and looked at them coldly.  “Can you give us a room for the night?” asked Jospeh.  Then the innkeeper flung the door wide, beamed at them and said, “Come in, come in!  You can have the best room in the hotel!”  There was a pause.  But Joseph was a quick thinker.  He looked over the innkeeper’s shoulder, then turned to Mary and said, “We’re not staying in a dump like that.  Come on, Mary, we’ll sleep in the stable!”

Another discrepancy that we have with nativity scenes and plays and the account of the birth of Jesus as recorded in the Bible is the visit of the wise men.  The wise men (usually three of them) turn up at the stable where the new born Jesus is lying in a manger, to offer him their gifts.  Last week I was taking an assembly and I asked the children what gifts did the wise men bring to baby Jesus.  To which one of the children answered, gold, myrrh and Frankenstine.  But if you read the Bible account carefully, you will realise that the wise men didn’t visit Jesus until a long time after his birth.  By the time they saw Jesus, Jesus could have well been up to two years old.  The reason we know this, is because the wise men first visit King Herod in Jerusalem.  And Herod enquires of them when they saw the star which accompanied Jesus’ birth.  Later on Herod, perceiving that this child could be a threat to his own power, order than all children up to the age of two should be killed.  This also indicates that Mary and Joseph probably spent quite a significant length of time in Bethlehem, where there was a very good chance Joseph would have had relatives. 

So what does Christmas mean for me?  Christmas for me is a very special and joyful time of the year, and it is the birth of Jesus, and what this means for the all of us, that makes it so important for me. 

Having three small boys, it is wonderful to see their joy, wonder and excitement about Christmas, and it helps me to remember how I used to feel as a child at Christmas time.  Like all children, mine are very exited about the presents they will receive on Christmas day.  For me, Christmas is about celebrating the greatest present of all, the gift of Jesus Christ. 

My oldest son celebrated his sixth birthday last week, and unfortunately several of the presents he was given didn’t last long before they were damaged, broken, or he had lost interest in them. 
Jesus is a gift that has eternal value and usefulness.  There is a Christian evangelist called J John, who said this “At Christmas time, when we receive presents we don’t really need, God offers us a gift we cannot do without. 

In the Bible names are very important, what someone is called, tells us a lot about them.  At Jesus’ birth he was given two very important names.  The first name is the one I have been using throughout this talk, Jesus.  The name Jesus literally means “God is salvation”. So when Joseph was told by the angel that Mary was going to give birth to a child, the angel's message to Joseph was "You shall call His name 'God is salvation,' for He will save His people from their sins." That name tells us exactly why Jesus came into the world.  That through him, God was going to save humanity.  The other name Jesus was given was ‘Emmanuel’ which means, God is with us.   

This is what makes the birth of Jesus so extraordinary.  I had no choice about when and where I was born, but God did, and he chose a stable.  Christian art has made the nativity scene gloriously hygienic.  But the truth is, the stable or cave where Jesus was born would have been smelly, dirty and untidy.  Life can be like this too.  Life can be messy, rather than neat and orderly.  And so the message of Christmas is that God came into the world, as a small, and very vulnerable baby, born into extreme poverty and humility, and revealed himself to us.  God choose Mary, a very young, unmarried teenager (possibly as young as fourteen) to be the mother of Jesus.  This would have caused huge scandal in Jesus’ day.  And the witnesses of Jesus’ birth, where not the people you may have expected for the birth of such an important child.  They were shepherds, who in Jewish culture were considered very much to be outsiders, people of little account.  But it was to these people that the news of Jesus’ birth was declared.  And then there were the wise men, foreigners from a far off land.  This shows us that Jesus came not just to the Jews, not just to the religious, not just to those who have their lives all sorted, but to each one of us. 

The US astronaut James Irwin, only one of twelve people to stand on the moon, was asked after returning to the earth what he felt the most significant achievement of our age had been. He said this: “The most significant achievement of our age is not that man stood on the moon, but rather that God in Christ stood upon this earth.     

So for me, the message of Christmas is the message of God’s love.  It is the message of hope, for all the world.  And at Christmas time, I am challenged once again to consider how I am going to respond to the gift of Jesus Christ.  I came across these two quotes as I was preparing for today’s talk:

“You can never truly enjoy Christmas until you can look up into the Father’s face and tell him you have received HIS Christmas gift, Jesus Christ.” 

And this: “Christmas is based on an exchange of gifts: the gift of God to man – his Son, and the gift of man to God – when we first give ourselves to God.”
I said a bit earlier that there are some carols, whose words I am not so keen on.  But I want to close this talk, by quoting one of my favourite carols - ‘In the bleak midwinter’, because the closing words of this carol sum up for me what  Christmas is all about: 

What can I give Him,
poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd,
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man,
I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him:
give my heart.