‘We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside the font,
But he is with a million displaced people
On the long road of weariness and want.
For even as we sing our final carol
His family is up and on that road,
Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,
Glancing behind and shouldering their load.
Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower
Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,
The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,
And death squads spread their curse across the world.
But every Herod dies, and comes alone
To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.’
Refugee, by Malcolm Guite.
Christmas has always been my favourite time of year, the carols, the colours, the warm nostalgic feeling of just once, just for this season, there being hope for peace on earth. Everything is warm and cosy and wrapped in red ribbon and gold tinsel.
Where this red ribbon and gold tinsel came from I do not know, they weren’t there at the first Christmas, and neither was peace on earth. Far from it. God’s chosen people had been through wave after wave of invasion and were now under the brutal oppression of the Roman empire. And as they looked up to heaven, there was silence. Their temple stood empty, empty of God. They had emptied their hearts of Him and so had emptied their temple of His presence. Silence. After the Patriarchs, the Judges, the Kings, the prophets of old, after all the years of God’s wrestling partnership with Israel, with human beings, then there was a silence. Nothing.
It may have felt like abandonment, it may have felt too long for the people of the promise, but it was not an empty silence. It was the calm before a storm, the storm of God’s boldest battle move yet. Forget Samson, forget Elijah, forget David’s mighty men and Moses parting the red sea. In boldness God sends his strongest most strategic warrior yet… Himself… as a baby.
And God’s great battle cry is the high pitched cry of an infant, His bold stroke, the flailing arms of a newborn babe.
And nobody saw it coming, though Isaiah fore-saw him coming and Anna and Simeon were waiting for his coming. Into the silence He slips unseen and wraps himself within the womb of an insignificant teenager in the backwaters of nowhere; ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ (John 1:46).
And by virtue of being born to to a previously unwed young mother He puts her at the bottom rung of a pious society’s social status ladder and the mercy of religious retribution by stoning. When Mary said “yes” to God she said yes to social disgrace and yet she said yes anyway. With haste she fled to visit Elizabeth in the hill country (Luke 1:39) and then travelled to Bethlehem with Joseph. It was not necessary for her to make the journey to Bethlehem, only the male family head was required for the census. And the physical stress of making such a journey while heavily pregnant, nothing but shame and fear could have induced such unnecessary behaviour.
Had the disgrace not been there, had she not felt the social pressure and disdain motivating her to leave Nazareth for the relief of anonymity on the dusty roads of Israel would she have been in Bethlehem at all? Was the very shame, the pain of it all the hand of God ensuring the fulfilment of the prophecy? Ensuring His son, the true King of Israel, the true King of the universe would be born in the city of Kings.
‘But you Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
Are not the least among the rulers of Judah;
For out of you shall come a Ruler
Who will shepherd My people Israel’
Matthew 2:6 (Micah 5:2, Hosea 11:1, 2:18, Jeremiah 31:35)
But how can shame and pain and poverty and rejection and no room at the inn, how can this be the setting, the backdrop for the coming of the King of the Universe?
Babies born in Israel took their first breath surrounded by supportive relatives and assisting midwives. Male babies were greeted with music and rejoicing in the off-chance that Israels much anticipated Messiah had just entered time and space.
Jesus first breath was in an animal stall with no family and only the arms of his teenage mother and bewildered earthly father to hold him. No community chorus heralding his arrival. The true Messiah arrives unseen, into the dank world of poverty and want.
But there was a song, there was music and rejoicing. Mary and Joseph experienced only the want and the no room at the inn. And the powers of the time, the religious leaders heard not a whisper of His arrival. The King of the universe arrives and their lives go on untouched. The coming of the true Messiah, who is it first announced to? Not to the ruling empire, not to the elite sophisticates, not to the religious establishment… but to the poorest of the poor; The shepherds, the outcasts on the hillside who are too uncouth to even be allowed passed the outer courtyards of the Jewish Temple.
‘And there were shepherds living out in the fields near by, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. 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. This will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.’
Luke 2:8-14 NIV
And the sign the Angels speak of, to find our way to this King? ‘You will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger’.
His poverty was the sign! The sign the celestial messengers gave to the poor shepherds to find the King of all the spinning Universe, the same King who spoke light and life into being, the same King who breathed out stars and set the world in place. His poverty was the sign. He was to be found in an animal food trough wrapped in rags.
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for their’s is the Kingdom of Heaven.’ Matthew 5:3
The King of the Universe became destitute, the one to whom all worlds belong and through whom all things were made became a helpless baby, a child of socially-questionable birth circumstances and soon after a refugee in Africa. God sends his son, Himself, into the poor country communities of a failed state occupied by an oppressive Roman regime and a corrupt puppet King. There was no red ribbon and gold tinsel in Israel during Jesus’ childhood. Only the gold glint of Roman metal and the red blood of babies slaughtered by twisted ambition. Before He could speak full sentences Jesus became a refugee in Northern Africa and when He returned to the promised land as a child, He returned to the poor communities of Galilee, to Nazareth, a community notorious for nothing, nothing good anyway.
But how can all this shame and poverty and political violence and no room at the inn, how can this be the setting, the backdrop for the coming of the King of the Universe? How can this God who parted the red sea, dwelt in fire and cloud and thundered from Mt Zion, how can this same God return to walk again with His people in the muck and mire of poverty, the grit and grime of human ambition, the darkness of humanity’s in-humanity to one another.
‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’) Matthew 1:23
He didn’t come to be with us in our comfortable and convenient homes. He didn’t come to be with us in our neat and tidy church buildings. He didn’t come to be with us in our righteousness and wealth. He came into our poverty, our want, our pain, our fear.
And this is who He is, who He has always said He is…
‘This is what the Lord says: ‘Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
Where is the house you will build for me?
Where will my resting-place be?
Has not my hand made all these things,
and so they came into being?’
declares the Lord.
‘These are the ones I look on with favour:
those who are humble and contrite in spirit,
and who tremble at my word.’
Isaiah 66:1-2 NIV
He is the lamb upon the throne. All empires, all Herod’s are under His feet. All power is His. But He wields His power in ways we barely fathom and dwells with the humble in the humblest of circumstances.
This God, He begins as He means to go on. No more going on as the world had been carrying on, no power-plays, empire-building, regime-changes. No more wealth winning and might makes right. His Kingdom operates differently and God meant to make this clear right from His very first breath through infant lungs.