The news keeps looking dire: the civil and military chaos in much of the Middle East, North Africa and the Persian Gulf; the moral morass in our media, the self-serving nature of much of our politics, and even the tacit fear that our social democracy is unaffordable in its present form, writes Rev Sydney Maitland.
It would be trite to say that human affairs have always been confused and often mis-directed. The difference now is that the scale of our transactions and relationships is global and the effects of error or miscalculation or of bad faith are less containable. The internet and the global markets see to that.
But that is not necessarily where it ends for we are more than flesh and blood. We are also spiritual, and as Christians it is our spiritual identity that defines us more than anything else. Moreover, our senses of values, of destiny, of comfort, of who we are all derive from that spiritual identity.
It should be recalled that God chose to reveal Himself in Jesus while Israel was under Roman occupation, and its temple was often corrupt and the religious teachers throughout the land were often confused, distorted and self-serving. But it was in the times of national decline and general cynicism that Jesus came into His ministry. What He found was that nevertheless there were people who had not compromised their faith, and who still looked to God, and that even those who had compromised themselves and accommodated their faith to the values and customs of society could still be renewed in faith and released in mission. In this sense Matthew and Zacchaeus were both collaborators who changed and changed radically.
When we ask therefore why does God not do something about global chaos, global climate change, global security, perhaps we are really asking that he take direct and immediate control of all global affairs. That would certainly get our politicians off the hook, as well as the media that drive them and their officials who brief them. They would be free of independent judgement and responsibility: but then would there be any need for them at all?
A God of love does not deny His people the opportunity to grow up: morally and spiritually as well as in their personal and social and economic transactions. Rather He wants to teach them how to deal with issues and questions, and that process has to start within the human heart: each of them and all of them. In looking at Jesus, we see one who indeed set the example and provided the teaching to enable us to live godly lives, and He sealed the whole revelation by offering His own blood on the cross. This was never an exercise in saying “Do as I say, not as I do.” Rather, He expended Himself to the limit and far beyond, so that we may indeed grow into the kind of human maturity that can handle even global crises.
At Christmas, it is easy to be distracted from the scale of God’s action and initiative as we look at the baby of Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph, and the attending shepherds, angels and kings. These appearances and circumstances anchor the birth of Jesus in history, but we need to go beyond this, for the Lord looks to anchor His incarnation in us today. In this the body of Christ has to be seen and it has to be active. We do not merely use a figure of speech to describe the church as the Body of Christ, for he has left us with tasks to carry out. The dimensions of our tasks are measured by the nature of God’s revelation of Himself to us in Jesus, starting at Bethlehem and ending in the resurrection appearances in the Upper Room and elsewhere. There is nothing small scale, routine or trivial about these – rather, they leave us with a sense of the scale of the love that He has for for us and the trust that He has vested in us.
In short, the work initiated by God in Jesus at Bethlehem did not stop when He ascended to heaven – it only transferred onto us, for each of us to pursue in our own callings and circumstances. And that is plenty to keep us going, even in the direst of tidings in the news.
May I wish you all a blessed and merry Christmas, and a happy and fruitful New Year.
In the few days before Christmas, Eileen and I expect to be going to London to attend a family party. Not just any old booze-up but one that has its origins in the baptism of my mother’s forebears hundreds of years ago. In what became Serbia, it was the custom that when families were first baptized it would be on a saint’s day. For my mother’s family, it was on St Nicholas’ day, which in the orthodox Kalendar is 19 December. (It is on 6 December in the western Kalendar).
At the party, a cake would be made of wheat meal, recalling Jesus’ words that unless the wheat falls into the ground and dies, it cannot grow or bear fruit (John 12: 24). And so the cake recalls to us the members of the family who have died in that sense it draws them into the party.
As for St Nicholas, he was a definite historical character: born in 270 and bishop of Mrya until his death in 343 AD. He is known for many good works, among which was the bringing of gifts to the needy. Who therefore can say that they do not believe in Santa Claus? In one sense, he is as real as my own mother!