In Southern Africa this Christmas we are acutely aware of how leaders come and go, but also of how power corrupts. We have become aware of how easily any of us can be corrupted by power. It happens when the social power wielded by men becomes destructive and causes untold pain and suffering to women and children. It happens when the economic power wielded by those of us who have more than we need causes the majority of our citizens to become poorer by the day. It happens when the political power wielded by public officials is used to favour certain individuals and groups at the expense of the common good. It happens when the spiritual power wielded by pastors, prophets and priests makes them abuse the faith and trust of their followers instead of empowering them to be strong and dignified believers.
Amidst all the corruption and power abuse around us – and perhaps even within us – God surprises us at Christmas by showing us what humble and uncorrupted power is. If we expect God to be absolutely powerful, exalted, all-knowing and omnipresent, then the message of Christmas comes as a shock. The God revealed in the Christmas event, through the birth of a baby in Bethlehem, is not a God who enters the world from above, overwhelming us with glory and might, but a God who enters the world from the side or from below, identifying with us, taking our humanity upon the divine Self, becoming God with us – Emmanuel. Since the Incarnation, we can no longer say “God” without saying “humanity,” or say “humanity” without saying “God.” In Jesus of Bethlehem God has bound Godself to humanity in a way that can never be reversed or revoked. So the last words of the Lord Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel are: “I will be with you to the end of the age” (Mt 28:20).
God for us in Jesus Christ – his miracles and preaching, his cross and resurrection – is based on God with us. For thirty years Jesus lived in Nazareth and became part of the people of Israel, identifying with the richness of their faith and culture but also with their daily struggles and their suffering under Roman imperial rule. The Word became flesh and lived amongst us, sharing our humanity in all its beauty and all its brokenness, before doing something for us in his public ministry. This is God’s gift to us at Christmas: God’s unfailing and loving presence by our side, in our hearts, in our families, in our communities. So this is the first challenge facing us at Christmas: The call to live with God, not to do things for God but to live before God with open hearts, receptive minds, and willing hands, like the Virgin Mary: welcoming God’s plan and rejoicing in God’s promises, even if the costs are high. So this is the first surprise of Christmas: Our struggle to overcome the poisonous power of greed, selfishness and corruption does not start with anything we do; it starts with opening our lives to God’s gracious presence with us, in deep wonder and gratitude.
Such a receptive and grateful sense of “being with God” then shakes us up and mobilises us to live a life of “being with” people; not doing things for (or on behalf of) others, but genuinely with them: listening to their stories, sharing their pain, struggling with them for justice and freedom, advocating with them for recognition and respect. In this way we become more than mere recipients of God’s presence; we become active agents of peace, as we journey with God and with other people.
In 1 John 3:8 we read that the reason why the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. God became human in Jesus Christ to join us in our life-and-death struggle against the evil forces that destroy human lives. Christmas is not a fairy tale to make us kind and gentle for a few days in the year. Christ came into the world so that we may have life in all its fullness (John 10:10). He came to bring “peace on earth,” as the angels sang in the fields of Bethlehem (Luke 2:14), but the second surprise of Christmas is that God does not offer peace to the world cheaply, like a Santa Claus dishing out presents. It is dangerous to talk glibly about peace, because we distort the good news when we raise false expectations among people or piously ignore the social injustices that are making peace impossible for them. The warning of the prophet Jeremiah is pertinent: “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious – ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14). If we accept God’s message of peace at Christmas we become agents of peace ourselves, which means that we do not stick plasters on the deep wounds that people have, but share their pain and work with them to remove the underlying causes of their suffering. And, as both the Magi from the East and the Holy Family discovered, that can sometimes mean dodging the bullets of the powerful who feel threatened by the message that the Messiah has been born and that God’s kingdom of justice and peace is coming near. This is the second surprise of Christmas: the peace of God doesn’t fall on us like soft rain from above; it is like a flood from behind that pushes us to participate in God’s costly mission of peace-making among the wounded. And by becoming part of God’s movement of peace and justice, our own wounds are gradually healed.
The final surprise of Christmas is that the first witnesses of the birth of Jesus – and thereby the first agents of God’s peace movement on earth – were not the ones we would suspect. They were not the religious leaders or prominent citizens of the time, but people at the bottom end of society (like Mary and Joseph, devout but poor believers), people on the margins of society (like the shepherds) and people beyond the boundaries of the religion of Israel (like the magi, who were astrologers from Persia or India). It is by gathering together unexpected strangers and unpredictable saints that God’s movement of peace, justice and joy is set in motion in our world. It is into this surprising and exciting movement that we are invited anew this Christmas.
How does this help us to face the challenges of power abuse and corruption that we noted at the beginning? Let us stand and respond to God in a prayer of commitment and intercession.
We invite you to pray with us, your loved ones, friends, family, and congregation the following response prayer:
Merciful God, in the name of Jesus of Bethlehem we stand in your holy presence
We open our hearts and lives to you, to receive your surprising love and peace
To praise you for affirming our dignity by becoming one of us, by becoming our brother in Jesus Christ, by entering our world as Immanuel.
We welcome you, Immanuel!
Gracious God, in the name of Jesus of Bethlehem we commit ourselves to live with you
With the Virgin Mary we open our hearts to you and say “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
In response to your presence, we commit ourselves to live with one another, with other people
We follow you, Immanuel!
Mighty God, in the name of Jesus of Bethlehem we thank you for coming to destroy the works of the evil one
We join with you and with our sisters and brothers to break the chains that bind us, to remove everything from our lives that are obstacles to your peace and freedom
We covenant together to combat the works of the evil one that destroy people’s lives
Help us to protect children and women from the pain and humiliation of sexual abuse, domestic violence and rape
We open our hearts to the power of your Spirit to guide and sustain us on this journey
We strive with you, Immanuel!
God of compassion, in the name of Jesus of Bethlehem we bring before you the needs of our city
We pray that you may comfort those who grieve, heal those who are sick, encourage those who are despairing, empower those who are weak, give integrity wisdom to those in leadership, give dignity and courage to those who have been violated and stigmatised,
Be very close to those who are lonely, powerless and voiceless – orphans, widows, people with disabilities, homeless people, refugees, asylum seekers – that they may have life in fullness;
We plead with you, Immanuel!
God of hope, in the name of Jesus of Bethlehem we praise you for the joy of your gospel
Thank you for the assurance of your victory over sin and death, pain and suffering
Thank you for the daily miracles of life and breath and everything else
We rejoice in you, Immanuel!
End with a doxology