Luke 2:8-14, John 1:1-14
A few years ago, I told a story about the coldest Christmas I can remember. It was while Aron and I were living in Japan – before children – and on Christmas Eve we went to church – it was the only Christmas service our church had because December 25th was a regular workday. So, we arrived, removed our layers and layers of coats (it was hovering just above 0 outside), lit our candles and joined the other worshippers to bask in the light and joy and singing, but when we got to the minister’s reflection he said, “Blow out your candles. We’re going outside into the courtyard. It’ll just be for a few minutes so don’t worry about your coats.” And we followed him out into the dark and the cold, and he spoke about this passage from John, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…” and he lit one candle. The symbol – the symbol of hope – was very powerful, but the reflection was very long. Or maybe it felt that way in the cold. Either way it is the coldest Christmas I remember.
And it is those kind of conditions that makes sense of all the liturgies and carols and traditions we have inherited from the northern hemisphere; traditions that often reflect pre-Christian concerns that at the darkest time of year the light will return, that there will be warmth again – it won’t always be cold; and that in a period of privation – the bleak midwinter – there is the hope of another year of life.
For us, of course, Christmas is always in summer, but this Christmas is the hottest I can remember. And sadly, it isn’t just my memory because last Wednesday was nation-wide the hottest December day on record (41.9C). And with these unprecedented temperatures have come bushfires, extraordinary for their intensity and geographical spread – five fire fronts in five states this week – and the poor air quality that has affected people across the country. So far nine lives have been lost and around 800 homes and 2000 other structures have been destroyed and those numbers are expected to rise significantly. Climate change might not start bushfires but it now clear that thanks to higher temperatures, dryer temperatures, dryer fuel loads and greater fuel loads it can and does make them worse.
So perhaps this Christmas and in the Christmases to come, more than ever, we need liturgies and carols and traditions that are incarnational to us. That speak of our concerns. That offer us hope and, hopefully, inspire our action.
I was thinking of this earlier this month when the ministers from Wesley and Yarralumla Uniting and myself planned a Blue Christmas service, a service for people grieving at Christmas, and we decided to use a bowl of water as a symbol of hope rather than a candle. So, I did laugh when James told me the choir was singing, ‘I will light candles this Christmas’, but I am happy to listen to anything this choir sings!
And I thought of it again two weekends ago at Carols in the Park, as we sat in the warm, smoky air singing another John Wheeler Australian carol, “The air was dry with summer heat…and smoke was on the yellow moon.”
And I thought of it as I was preparing for this morning and reading these familiar passages and something I read, that I thought at first rather extraneous information, made me realise that the shepherds, “living in the fields and watching over their flock by night” would have been able to relate to the climate concerns that we have today.
What this article said is that for just a few months of the year, the region around Bethlehem gets good rain and the grass grows, but when it stops the land quickly returns to desert. And yet Bethlehem itself sits on an enormous aquifer. Were these shepherds – often regarded as scavengers because they grazed their sheep on other people’s land – clinging to the outskirts of Bethlehem so they could find feed and water for their sheep? Were they – people who might be referred to today as economic refugees or climate refugees – the first to hear the good news of great joy from the angels, “To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord…Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!”
What we miss reading this story today is that this divine announcement made by angels was understood in the ancient world – in its liturgies and hymns and traditions – as coming from an assembly of the gods which each year appointed a ruler over themselves – there are plenty of Old Testament psalms which speak of Yahweh, the god of Israel, being king over all the gods – and which declared how things would be on earth in the year ahead. What our text dares to say is that God has declared peace on earth – not just a political peace or even a ‘pie in the sky’ spiritualised peace – but a full-bodied peace meaning rain and good seasons and food in your belly (and your children’s bellies) and right relationship with your neighbours and right relationship with God. A peace that communicates that God cares for this earth and its people.
But then God goes further. The divine proclamation goes on to state that God does not just care for the earth and its people, God has been born on the earth, among human beings, among the most vulnerable. “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” Or as John 1 says, “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory…” What is striking is that the writer does not say, as could easily have been said, that the Word – God communicating with us – assumed ‘human form’. Instead, it says that the Word became ‘flesh’ (‘sarx’ in Greek) – a word that the Bible applies to all living things. The origin of all life, the one “through whom all things came into being, without whom not one thing came into being” has become part of the life of the world.
In this angelic proclamation, in this baby born to shepherds and to us, God has not only declared God’s love for the earth, but intrinsically bound Godself with its story and its fate. God has come not to whisk us away from the suffering of creation, but to enter into the suffering and privations and challenges of our earth; to redeem it with a radical identification and a radical hope. This is the God that we are invited to come and worship this morning. This is the hope that we, like the shepherds, are invited to make known to all people.
I don’t know what the next few years and decades will hold for us here in Australia, but knowing we worship a God who loves this world, who cares for its most vulnerable and who has identified fully it, let us hold onto hope. Let us find liturgies and hymns and keep practicing traditions that speak of how our God is a source of living water in a dry and weary land. Let us commit ourselves to caring for those God cares for and for the world God loves. Amen.