Birth pangs of the Kingdom - the first steps after Christmas
Well, Christmas is sort of over. At least for the secular world where the focus is now well an truly on the new Year parties and the annual game of reviewing the previous twelve months and making promises or resolutions that the next twelve months will bring a new us.
Of course in the Christian Calendar, today is the first Sunday of Christmas. So we still get the chance to sing Christmas Carols and to consider the immense action of God who we are told in John 1 v 14 in the message version, “became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood”
The two readings today help us to reflect on the particular nature of Christmas; Psalm 148 is cleverly set up mirroring the Genesis order of Creation; so we see God praised in the heavens and then on earth, in the sea on the land, by plants, animals and finally humans. The key is the linking together of heaven and earth. All that is in heaven praises God, and everything that is on earth praises God. The Psalmist is clearly telling us that God is not an absent caretaker, holding court in some distant heaven whilst we get on with things down here. No. God is Lord of both heaven and earth such that all creation praises him. That is why we sang Jesus is Lord earlier.
We might of course, sometimes, look around us and wonder about that at times. With all the sadness in the news and fears of terrorism, not to mention more individual stresses such as job insecurity, family upsets, illness or even death, it is easy to think that God is no longer active. Why do bad things happen to people, why does the Middle East always seem to be the place where war kicks off. We are told that our own country is recovering economically, but who is this benefitting the most. For a lot of people, life remains very tough. In the middle of this suffering both small and large in scale it is only understandable that we might have difficulty in being sure that God is indeed King of heaven and earth. However, if we take time to reflect on the scriptures it is clear that from God’s perspective this is indeed the case. We need to look beyond the veil.
The psalms reveal to us a true perspective on our attempts to talk to God. They don’t hold back from talking about how hard things can be. They often speak of existence in which sometimes God doesn’t seem to be close at all! Consider Psalm 6: “Can’t you see I’m black and blue, beat up badly in bones and Soul? God, how long will it take for you to let up? Or Psalm 22 “ My God , My God why have you forsaken me?” or Psalm 73; where the psalmist is looking at a society fractured by material inequity with some very rich and many very poor people. Perhaps with some of those problems faced by our ancestors, we might consider that it is worth looking at how they faced trials and problems very similar to issues we still face today. For in the midst of the darkest of times, the Psalms reflect a deep faith in the sureness and the reality of God, in no way as some absent figure on a cloud, but as an intervening Lord and King.
And surely, Christmas is about the intervening Lord embarking on the greatest and most far reaching intervention yet. Of course, as the God of surprises, He arrives in the most vulnerable and fragile form imaginable. The Lord of the universe is born to a poor young couple – we know they are poor because of the sacrifice they made. A pair of doves was only given (and bought no doubt in the temple courtyard) by those who couldn’t afford a proper sacrifice. It is a token. Jesus is the firstborn male for Joseph and Mary, and Jewish Law, Exodus Ch 13 tells us that the first born male is given over to God. Animals would normally be sacrificed in this manner, whilst first born male Children would often be sent to study in the Temple. Perhaps even in this very early story of his Gospel, Luke is making a direct Link between the wonder and majesty of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth whilst pointing ahead to trouble. This is certainly echoed by Simeon’s speech to Mary talking about Jesus, presented in the Message version as “A figure misunderstood and contradicted– the pain of a sword thrust through you. But the rejection will force honesty as God reveals who they really are” This early suggestion of underlying threat and danger is echoed in Matthew who has Jesus being spirited away by his parents to Egypt to avoid Herod’s vengeance, whilst John reminds us that Jesus is the light of the world but that the darkness cannot put it out. Both stories are indicative of struggle even at the very beginning of Jesus’ life. The point to be taken from John’s introduction is that the darkness tried, and it would do so very hard.
The evangelists are giving us a picture of the vulnerability and fragility of these first few steps. These are the birth pangs of the Kingdom.
Like any child, Jesus would need warmth, protection, food, drink and love; just like us. He will grow and face a hostile environment of infections, just like us. He will need to learn new skills; He will need to learn how to talk, to walk without falling over, to read, to listen; just like us.
It is in Jesus, then that we see, truly see, what God is like. Our Lord and King certainly, but not one robed in purple with a crown, sitting on a throne as in some pictures. Where we have made a caricature of Jesus, making him into something close to our version of a King or Emperor. Rather God comes as one of us, fragile, delicate and most of all vulnerable.
Why? So that we can relate to him, so that once again, Eden can be opened up so that we can walk with God here on earth. For this is the truth of the Good News. You don’t have to wait until you are dead to meet God. \with Jesus, birth, life, death and resurrection heaven and earth are once again joined.
It is thanks to what God has done for us that we can meet with Jesus and know the Holy Spirit now. We can experience heaven; albeit through a mist most of the time; but the kingdom is no longer a mustard seed. It is growing. The fog is slowly clearing. That is the true gift of Christmas. This is what Christmas is all about. It was worth the birth pangs. God made himself vulnerable for you, are you willing to do the same for Him?
In Jesus name. Amen