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Happy Christmas 2017? 


Can we really say ‘happy Christmas’ when there are so many grim stories around the world? Well, the Christmas story is set in such a world as ours... and is essentially about putting it right. By Nick Megoran




Christmas hope705



Can we say, happy Christmas, this 2017? It is a year in which our newspapers have been filled with grim stories from around the UK and around the world of terrorist attacks, genocide, sexual abuse, war, and refugee flows.

With all this, how can we say ‘happy Christmas’? What has the Bible story of mangers and shepherds and angels, got to do with our world, the real world?

Well, actually, quite a lot. At the start of the Christmas story in the Gospel According to St Luke, which will be read in carol services all over the country this month, the author begins: “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” These words aren’t just a prologue, they invite us to ask: what on earth were these men doing ruling Palestine? Rome was an imperial power, which had seized the Jews’ land by force, extracted wealth from it, and ruled by a reign of terror imposed by its dreaded legions. That’s what the census was about. A census was an imperial tool, telling the Jews ‘you belong to us, you are resources in our inventory, data on our dashboard.’  

The first Christmas story of a heavily-pregnant woman being forced to make a difficult journey at the whim of arbitrary male political power, and then having to flee as a refugee to Egypt to escape Herod’s genocide, is as contemporary as it gets: ask any Rohingya mother.

Terrorism, racism, abuse, and other scars on 2017, are symptoms of a world gone wrong. The Bible calls all this ‘sin’, which is a way of saying we haven’t treated each other properly, we haven’t lived up to the high standards expected by our Creator, and are suffering the consequences of that. The Christmas story is set in such a world as ours, and is essentially about putting it right. Indeed, the name ‘Jesus’ means ‘Saviour’ – someone who will rescue us from the mess and mire we are in.

But the Christmas story tells us that that rescue doesn’t happen in ways we would expect. The helpless babe in the manger is God’s answer to the raging tyrant in the royal palace. Tyrants and terrorists seek to use force to sort out the world’s problems. That is a natural human response. But Jesus’ answer to the problems of his age was strikingly different. Rejecting the temptations of coercive political power, he instead created an alternative community of men and women who love God, each other, and their enemies, who share their possessions freely, and practise forgiveness. In growing up to live a life that modelled love for all, and in dying on the cross and rising again, Jesus paid the penalty that our sin deserves, and created a new, international, inclusive community of peacemakers. As the Apostle Paul declares in one of the Great New Testament passages, ‘In Christ there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free – all are one.’

And what of those strong-men like Herod, Quirinius, and even Caesar himself, who claimed to be the son of God? I am reminded of their fate every day, for my city of Newcastle is littered with the remains of Hadrian’s Wall. As local singer Sting put it in one of his songs, “the empire crumbled, ‘til all that was left was stones the workmen found.” We call our children Mary, Luke, John and Paul, and our dogs and our salads, Caesar.

No one put this truth better, or embodied it more authentically, than the Revd Martin Luther King Jr, the Baptist minister whose historic visit to the UK to receive an honorary doctorate at Newcastle University we have been celebrating this year. The hope of Christmas was central to Dr King’s his life and work.

Fifty years ago he preached his final Yuletide sermon, the justly famous ‘Christmas sermon on peace’ which is perhaps the best record of his mature thinking. He recalled the classic ‘I have a dream’ speech, spoken on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, and how this dream had turned sour with the Vietnam War abroad and the racist backlash against the Civil Rights movement at home. He asked, is it still possible to dream? His answer was – yes, because of Christmas. As he concluded his sermon:

 


“I have a dream that one day men will rise up and come to see that they are made to live together as brothers. I still have a dream this morning that one day every Negro in this country, every coloured person in the world, will be judged on the basis of the content of his character rather than the colour of his skin, and every man will respect the dignity and worth of human personality… I still have a dream today that one day war will come to an end, that men will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks, that nations will no longer rise up against nations, neither will they study war any more. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when there will be peace on earth and good will toward men. It will be a glorious day. It will be a glorious day, the morning stars will sing together, and the sons of God will shout for joy.”



Because of that first Christmas, and because the babe in the manger grew up as a model of the perfect life, and died on the cross; and because he rose again and will surely return, Dr King’s vision is not just wishful thinking or a series of inspirational soundbites. Rather, it is a sure and certain future hope whose light we can live in today to work to create a fairer, kinder, more peaceful world.

Therefore, even in 2017, we can truly say: happy Christmas, peace on earth, goodwill to all.

 

Image | Shelbey Hunt | Creationswap



Dr Nick Megoran is a Reader and Honorary Chaplain at Newcastle University, and co-convenor of the Martin Luther King Peace Committee. This was originally preached as the Newcastle University carol service, St Thomas’ Church.



 
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Baptist Times, 20/12/2017
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