A world of venal rulers and corrupt officials, self-interested religious leaders and an occupying army seemingly at liberty to do what it liked, writes Rev Sydney Maitland. No authentic voice of faith for 400 years and believers a beleaguered minority, easy meat for any and all kinds of abuse.
This was the Holy Land in the 1st century but it could be almost anywhere in the modern world, which seems to know only one reality: power, and asks only one question: how to get it and keep it? Thoughtful people might ask where is God in all this, and resentful people may not really care so long as there is an easy scapegoat to abuse and humiliate. Just how things work, and how they may be made to work better is not really of much interest. The prospect of the ritual humiliation of some out of favour character is more enticing than a rational assessment of the relevant issues. That is definitely BORING.
Yet in two words, St Paul gave the whole paradox another perspective: BUT GOD. It is there in Romans 5: 8, and in 1 Corinthians 1: 27. Where evil and corruption did abound there did the love and mercy of God abound even more, right next to these abominations. He did not use thunderbolts to excise the evil, not even precision-guided ones. Rather He moved to act at the root of the evil – for it is there that these things find their life and sustenance. It is within the human heart and will, of which social and economic and political structures are only the external expression. These cannot be effectively reformed without renewing the human heart itself. Change the heart and you can change the world, one life at a time. Proclaim that this is possible and you then threaten its power structures and so you stimulate its opposition. Act to make it possible and all hell can and will open up to prevent it.
These were the global and cosmic issues that confronted God as He resolved to act, decisively and for all time to accomplish a rescue and a redemption that humanity could not even imagine, let alone achieve unaided. Here God stepped outside the box of normal human understanding and did what the fictional Edmund Blackadder later proclaimed as his own doctrine: ‘If you want something done properly, do it yourself.’ Here God resolved to act as none other could. He gave Himself, totally and without reserve.
This is what the birth of Jesus is about. Emmanuel, ‘God with us’. Jesus is begotten of God, not created or imagined or contrived. He is of the whole character of God, even when contained within a human body and life. What God had said, Jesus would express, and what God had ordained, Jesus would achieve. That included the means of reconciling a humanity, alienated in its self-absorption and self-destruction from the love and mercy of God. He would do it by living a fully human life, with a human birth and childhood, a human mother and a human education.
He would see both the grossness and the subtlety of human manipulation. This is both of the human conscience and of human relations with one another. He would see the depth of rebellion and of self-promotion, far beyond the simple demands of personal survival. He would live within a society which had turned its own sense of God and of holiness inside out, and He personally put Himself in the place of condemnation on behalf of all.
This is what Jesus’ birth was about, and what happened in that stable in Bethlehem was both the climax of the prophets and the beginning of a new era in which the mercy of God would be proclaimed to all mankind. In short, Jesus is not just for the church – He is for all the world, without limit and without borders.
That is what Christmas is about, and nothing less will do.
Every blessing this Christmastide,