First Sunday of Christmas

It seems the volume is up on many people’s frustration or anger control. I am hearing lots of views about politics – Brexit – the EU – and, wider still, the global machinations of China, Russia, and the US. Everyone has a view and a villain. People have ‘solutions’ – or at least what they’d like to see happen next – but there is also almost a resignation as people comment that they are ‘just one person’ or this is now in the ‘control’ of the parliamentarians and there is nothing they can do about it.

Christians have always had to negotiate citizenship. It is different around the world and it has been different in the past. There are simply a wide range of parliamentary systems, no precise definition of democracy or one that is universally accepted. There are differing views on and systems of voting. There are different rules and legislation around referenda, rights, policies, appeals, and the like. Christians need to know what applies to them where they live. (And we generally have the ‘default’ that the political system in which we grew up is the ‘best’.)

I don’t know how many people are politically active n society but there is a perception often that where people have the necessities of life – relative safety, law and order, food, home and work – many people are almost apolitical. Knowing civics and citizenship is about being a ‘good neighbour’ to those around us. We see it bluntly in taxation and how Christians (cf. Romans 13) are expected to pay their lawful taxes because it is intended to benefit others. Negotiating citizenship is about recognising that God’s Law – his intentions for human societies – can be understood politically (remember Confirmation and the law as ‘fence’ or ‘curb’ – the first use of the law?) – and then seeing how the laws of the land help reduce chaos and increase the ‘common good’. Negotiating citizenship is meant to remind Christians that this world isn’t our home in the big scheme of things but where we find ourselves we are to be active in serving our neighbours.

In my view this sort of service involves firstly praying for those who have civic authority over us and then being politically active as befits one’s time and talents. No matter the time or the place, Christians need not feel like a leaf in a storm but rather we can stand next to the Lord of Everything, Jesus, and survey the landscape, trying to gauge the future and bring it to the Lord in prayer. This is part of the scene in Revelation 5. (I know it can be tough to believe when there is fractious politics, civic unrest, war, or when we are persecuted.)

Attributed to Karl Barth, the preacher should read the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. I’ve heard similar sentiments from other Christian traditions. For me, the advice makes sense for preachers but it makes even more sense for those who pray. In praying we bring ours and our neighbours’ needs to God and doing so over time ‘attunes’ us, I think, to seeing things with a confidence that God still works for good whether society makes brilliant or woeful decisions – and that, in turn, guides how we live. Yes, like two Christians on adjoining farms praying for opposites – rain or sunshine – I can imagine Christians bringing differing ‘solutions’ to God for how the UK should proceed but what happens in our regular praying for those with civic authority is that we grow in our trust in God not to abandon us. Then we live out – serve – our citizenship where we believe God leads us. Fascinating being a disciple of Jesus, isn’t it? GSChristmas letters are a literary genre all to themselves it seems to me. Ours have changed over the decades – less words and more pictures. In the early days of our family we’d write a summary of the year’s happenings – and either speak for the children or ask them for some highlights (which we’d edit … until they woke up to that) and Charlotte would draw cartoons to go with the letter or we’d add a photo or two. Although the children have long left home, our Christmas letter still contains where they are and what they are doing (but no cartoons).

So I’ve been thinking about words and family this week. We can describe a moment in great detail or summarise a year with a single word. The same with families. Words can reveal what is inside of us and how we see the world. That is why many of our words are about ‘outside’ things – facts and figures, celebrations and commemorations – because, I think, they take less words and we make a safe – but often false – assumption that everyone on the inside will be the same as us. Words are so important – and need to be truthful – because without them it is very hard to know anyone.

Families come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Any reading of history shows the ‘newness’ of the ‘nuclear’ family. I am always a father once I have children. And I am a son – albeit an orphan – as well as a brother as well. While the relationships always exist, the living arrangements can and do vary greatly. And yet the Christmas letter can bring everyone under the one ‘roof’ or piece of paper again. And it doesn’t matter that my children can now write their own Christmas letters with their own children’s news.

Of course families are more than just biological relationships and it is the quality of those relationships that usually gets spoken about or written about … or not if there are problems or difficulties. Nevertheless there do come times when the awkward and the difficult, the shameful and the arrogant do peek through and might even be glimpsed at in the photos. Generally, however, we don’t put in Christmas letters too much of the ‘dark side of life’.

I can understand that. We all, culturally, want Christmas to be upbeat and happy, merry and festive so too much ‘real’ family or ‘honest’ family mightn’t be appreciated. Yet at Christmas – the first one – the baby Jesus lying in a feed trough one – if this isn’t a story about a family doing it tough in all sorts of ways, then I’m pretty sure we haven’t heard it right. Can you imagine Mary and Joseph’s first Christmas letter? If they wrote the truth, who would believe them? If they ‘softened’ things, who would have not tapped their nose, winked, and come up with their own version of things? The lead up, the birth, and the things that happened afterwards all point to a tough life and, if you peer carefully, to a cross on the distant horizon.

But this story of Christmas is actually one in which all families – no matter their Christmas letters – or their circumstances – can find hope and support. God in Jesus has entered our world as one of us and not with a silver spoon in his mouth. Jesus comes into our world in poverty and apparent shame and scandal. A God who does that, I think, is worth getting to know, as are the reasons for his doing this. And this story can shape not just Christmas letters but each
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day of our life. This story can draw people following Jesus together and who can also act as family to each other. This story is worth hearing and knowing well. GS