Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Strangest Night of All

We were still several miles from Bethlehem when my pains began. At first I said nothing, the last thing I wanted was to give Joseph something else to worry about; he had taken so much upon himself already, and I knew that my advanced pregnancy had already made the journey slower than he had expected. And after all, what else could we do but press on? Giving birth by the side of the road was definitely not what either of us wanted. Besides, like a chord of strange music playing in the back of my mind, alien and disturbing, yet marvellously harmonic, were the ancient prophecies that I had heard since childhood, (never guessing that my own life would be bound up in them), and the prophecies clearly stated that this child would be born in Bethlehem, the city of his forefather David.

Joseph soon realised, and I saw the concern in his eyes, but we had to continue, so he tried to ease my discomfort, knowing that there was very little he could do, except find me somewhere safe as soon as possible.

But nothing was going to be easy that night, and it crossed my mind to wonder why God, who had so marvellously engineered our presence in Bethlehem through Caesar’s decree, could not have organised a room in an inn as well. I did not yet understand how totally the Messiah was going to be identified with the outcast and the overlooked. But in the end someone took pity on us and offered us room in their stable. It was a frowsty, smelly sort of place, but the straw was fairly clean, and at least it was safe and private.

I remember surprisingly little about the birth – I was in a place so overcome by weariness and the painful forces of my own body that normal thinking and perception were suspended. But I remember that Joseph’s hands were gentle, and surprisingly capable, and I remember how my child’s first cry woke something inside me, something so deeply maternal that I felt compassion for the whole world.

Yet even then our night was not over. It was the deadest hour of the night, yet, seeping through the cracks between the planks was such light, as if the stars themselves had caught fire with the glory of heaven. And music, too faint to hear clearly, but the merest note of it lifted my heart in wonder and praise, The strangeness of it all should have been disturbing, but nothing was normal that night. The veil that normally separates the things of heaven from our earthly sight and been pulled back a little, and as I held the newborn child I could feel that I was in a place where the presence of God was no longer a thing of terror, such as the prophets of old had known, but as close and as necessary as the breath of our own bodies. And all was wondrously well.

Then there came shepherds from the hills, total strangers who knew, not only that the child had been born, but who he was. They told us a story of angels – but I already understood! I had no words left though, so I simply smiled and held up the baby to their view as they knelt there, in this crazy stable, this impossible holy place, and worshipped their King and Saviour. There will never be another night like that until the world is done with its weary circles, and God, in His infinite love, comes down to re-form creation

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Invitation

They didn’t get invited anywhere very often. In fact, in many people’s eyes they were virtually outcasts. Shepherds weren’t nice polite, genteel city folk. Sheep herding was a rough, violent dirty business. You didn’t get hired to guard the temple flocks by being smooth and scholarly like a priest. Suavity and refinement were highly regarded in the temple; if a man wanted preferment and promotion there he needed a scholarly mind, smooth subtle speech, and clean, well kept hands fit to handle the scrolls. But the priests were not above getting men they otherwise despised to do their dirty work for them. Once shepherding had been respected: Abraham had flocks and herds, and King David had been a shepherd. But that was a thousand years ago, and Israel no longer wanted men who had been trained in battle by defending the flocks since they were children; this was a different age, the age of the Pax Romana; and the watchword now was peaceful coexistence, not resistance to the oppressor.

So the shepherds were marginalised more than ever, even little villages like Bethlehem were getting too sophisticated for such frontier men, such throwbacks to a more primitive age. They appreciated the lambs for their sacrifices and their Passover feasts, but that didn’t mean they had to appreciate the men who protected them from wild beasts and all manner of human thievery, the men who cared for the ill and the wounded creatures and went searching for those who went missing, knowing that every animal that could not be accounted for would be claimed from their wages.

Tonight, though,  it was peaceful out on the hills. The spring night was mild; the sheep dozed or nibbled on the fresh new grass, and the stars were frost-sharp in the sky. It felt as if the whole world was at rest, and they were glad to gather round their own small fire, content in each other’s company and the deep silence of the darkest hour. They might not be very welcome at the temple, but this was a night on which even outcasts could imagine that they belonged, and that the embrace of God was wider than that of those who spoke in His name.

But then their peace turned to terror, for it seemed that the night sky was suddenly torn apart by an intensity of light too much for this mortal world, and they hid their faces in fear. But there was one who stood in the midst of the glory and spoke to them. “Do not be afraid,” he said, “there is nothing to fear. It is good news, news of unimaginable joy for all people, that I have come to bring you. For to you,” (and he paused and looked at them, so there could be no mistaking that they were the ones he meant) “to you there is born this day, in Bethlehem, the city of David, your Saviour, the Messiah, the Lord. You will find him wrapped in swaddling bands and lying in a feed trough.” And, before their astonished eyes, the whole sky was alight with angels, and the beauty of their songs of praise overwhelmed the shepherd’s hearts.

Only when it was finished, when they looked again at each other with wonder in their eyes, did they speak to each other and say, “let’s go to Bethlehem and see this marvellous thing we were told about!” For how could they refuse an invitation that came from God Himself?

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Joseph Speaks

Lord, I never asked for this.

I am such an ordinary man,
Trying to do my job and pay my bills
Taking pride in the work of my hands;
These calloused fingers, rough from the wood’s coarse grain
Scarred from the sharp-edged learning of my trade,
Patient to smooth and straighten, to make beauty.

I wanted what most normal men desire:
The wife I loved, her smile to light my days,
Small children with her eyes and my strong bones,
In time a son to learn my trade from me,
And Galilee was all the world I knew.

And then you came
Like the whirlwind that met with Job, tossing my life around,
So I no longer know what stands up straight:
The girl I love is bearing God’s own son,
And I walk humbled by this miracle,
Stumbling confused, nigh too afraid to touch,
Amazed, confounded, wondering who she is
And what my part is ..

How do I raise my God?
How do I keep the Lord almighty safe?
Of what stuff am I made to walk this path?
And must I teach the Saviour of mankind
The way to properly join two beams of wood,
And ask his hands to hold the nails for me?

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Leaving Home

It was the pattern set when the first couple had to leave the garden. The tearing pain of departure was written into the very fabric of humanity, and so it continued down through the centuries. Some left willingly, called by faith or excitement, others left reluctantly, or in fear and anguish, but the pattern continued:

The man who killed his brother and had to flee to the east of Eden.

The man who was called forth, together with his whole family, to seek a country he had never seen, promised by God to be the inheritance of descendants he did not yet have.

The man who fled his brother’s wrath after stealing his birthright and blessing, and encountered a vision of angels in the midst of his desolation.

The man who was sold into slavery by his brothers, was taken in chains to a foreign land, rose to great prominence and eventually saved those same brothers from starvation

The man who was first taken from his birth home to be raised in a palace, then forced to flee into the wilderness to escape charges of homicide, only to return, many years later to be the leader of his people

A whole nation escaping from slavery, and from the only land they had ever known, but unable to progress to a new home because they still carried their slavery in their hearts.

A child taken from his mother’s arms to be raised in the home of an aging priest, where he encounters God whom the priest cannot hear

A shepherd boy sent to the palace of a sad, mad king, only to become a fugitive from the king’s jealousy and living as an outlaw in the wilderness

A whole nation sent into exile amongst the alien Babylonians, and discovering, in the very throes of their hearts’ hunger that they do have an identity as the people of God.

And then, because he loved us more than his own life, the Son of God came down into our humanity, leaving behind absolute glory to walk the muddy, desperate paths of our brokenness, confined to the clumsy powerlessness of human flesh. For thirty three years he entered into our exile; always carrying with him the elusive fragrance of immeasurable grace. But that was not far enough for God to go, he plunged the depths of our separation, right down to the furthest reaches of death. There was nowhere further than hell that he could go, so he did, and then returned in victory with the promise that he would bring his people home.

And still, for two millennia since, his people have left their homes. Oh, some have done it literally – forced from their homes by persecution, or voluntarily leaving home so that those who are not their own people can learn of a hope and a promise and a love that breaks through the boundaries of this world and will not be stopped.

But, really, all his people are homeless, for the shadowlands of this world are no longer enough for them, and their true home has not yet been revealed. So they wait, strangers and pilgrims, seekers after a city which is to come, and their exile has become their glory

Saturday, December 07, 2013

They Hoped

From the very beginning they were looking forward. The story was passed down how that, on the very day that the world was blighted, God had promised that one day the seed of their enemy, the serpent, would be crushed by the seed of the woman. Some forgot, or didn’t care, but others remembered, and, around the fire at night, or when they paused in the heat of the day’s toil, sometimes they would take out that old story and wonder what it meant. They never doubted it meant something.

Centuries passed and wickedness grew, until the time of the flood. Then, after that time of terror, God gave them another promise of mercy and sealed it with a rainbow. Again, they took heart and fresh courage from the promise.

Then there came a man called Abram, old and childless, and called by God to be homeless as well. To this man God promised offspring through whom the whole world would be blessed. Abram in faith believed, and a new chapter of hope for humanity began in the empty desert spaces.

The years passed and the promises multiplied. To the descendants of Abram, now Abraham, would come one who was anointed by God for a task of redemption that no one else could accomplish. He would be a king like David, a prophet like Moses, the secret arrow polished by the Lord. He would bring in a kingdom that could never fail, he would be despised and rejected, he would come to set the captives free. And some cared nothing for these promises, but others hoped and trusted that one day the Consolation of Israel would arrive.

And he came, and the world esteemed him not, but others would be able to say later that they beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth. And he died and was buried, and rose again from the dead and ascended to the Father, leaving behind him a new hope: that some day he would come again, and in that day there would be a new heaven and new earth, and every tear would be wiped away forever. And meanwhile? Death had been overcome, sin had been atoned for, and the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, had come to dwell in their hearts.

And so they hoped, and for 2,000 years they have continued to hope. They have hoped in the midst of persecution – thrown to the lions, executed by machine gun, enduring every cruelty that those who hated them could conceive. They have hoped in the midst of plenty, when the siren song of this world’s satisfactions almost drowned out the whisper of their praise; they have hoped in the midst of scarcity, praying desperately for daily bread for themselves and their children. They have hoped as they had to make stark moral choices, and as they blundered through mazes of moral uncertainty. They have hoped resting quietly in the sure love of the Father, and they have hoped as their old enemy whispered in their ear that they were forsaken. They have hoped in their laughter, and hoped in their tears, and hoped yet in that grey, exhausted place where neither laughter or tears have any meaning. And in hope they have persevered, they have loved, they have learned to forgive and be forgiven. And in hope they have prayed, down through the centuries, the same heartfelt prayer: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done ...”

Who are they? Most of them are nobodies in history, and the world has passed them by. But in eternity they are known, each one, by name, for they are the glorious saints of God.