Why did God choose the place and the time and the people?
Rt Revd John Dennis, 31 December 2017
Isaiah 61: 10–62: 3; Luke 2: 15–21
Well, we’re only a few days into Christmas, which began on Christmas Eve, but try and tell that to the shops! We’re well now into that great British festival of the January sales. However, Christmas isn’t over; and yet, how much more is there that can be said about it all, today?
People sometimes say to me, ‘Why did God choose the place and the time and the people?’ There is that quip which I say in brotherly love of our Jewish brothers and sisters, how odd of God to choose the Jews. But how odd of God actually to choose Palestine at all, and how odd of him to choose the time he did choose. Or was it?
I thought perhaps this morning we might spend a few minutes just thinking about that, because it’s the hand of God doing his work in his world for the sake of his world. Some people come up with the answer, well, the Roman Empire was the nearest thing to a sort of extended Common Market in its day, where all the borders were open, it was all ruled by one empire and news could travel very quickly along specially made motorways – or ‘walkaways’, I suppose they would have to be called – roads. And certainly it is true that the reason why the gospel spread so quickly in the first half-century or so at least was because of the ease of communication – not only of roads, but of ships and of established trading routes. That, probably, is part of the answer.
But I think the answer is actually much deeper than that. I think, for me, it is all found in that other beautiful Bible – I was going to say the other half, but actually it’s the other three-quarters – what we call the Old Testament and what the Jews call the Hebrew Scriptures. Because what the Old Testament is really about, with all its ups and downs and its ins and outs, is the recording of a particular people, chosen by God not to be better or posher or anything else than other people, but to be used by him in his great purpose, and educated, polished – sophisticated, if you like – in their understanding of the nature of God and of what the response is that God expects from us. That’s what the Old Testament is really about.
You can see that quite clearly, for instance, in the way in which, early on, the Jews believed that their god was a hill god, and other gods ruled over other hills and plains and rivers – that their god was one amongst many. And slowly came the realisation that, if there was a god (and that wasn’t in question), there was only one god. That god was their god. And you can see that growing.
One reason why it is so tragic, I think, when people use the Old Testament as a sort of quotation – you know, pull something straight out and say, ‘It says in the Bible that …’ – you’ve got to say: who was it said to, by whom was it said and when was it said? How far along this process of revelation did it actually happen?
You’ve heard this said before, I’m sure: you can start in very primitive society with the idea that if your daughter is killed by somebody from another tribe, you go down and kill those who have done it, and the whole tribe. So the idea of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ was a revelation of considerable charity; in other words, you don’t kill everybody, you just match what’s happened to you. Your daughter’s been killed; kill one of their daughters. That sounds horrible, but it’s much better than its predecessor.
The idea of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ was a revelation of considerable charity … but then, as we move on, it changes into something much nearer to love, to forgiveness, to renewing.
But then, as we move on, it changes into something much nearer to love, to forgiveness, to renewing, to starting again. So I think, for me, one reason why God chose what he did choose is because he had got the Jews ready. They had been polished, so to speak. They were ready for the coming of the Messiah. The fact that only some of them accepted it was perhaps the way human nature always is. Anyway, that’s two reasons, if you like.
I think there’s a third one. I don’t know how true it is – none of us does – whether there’s ever been a period in world history when everybody was at peace with everybody else. We certainly aren’t now, and maybe some of the reason we’re aware of that and say, ‘It’s worse than it used to be’, is because communications have changed, haven’t they? We know at once what’s going on somewhere on the other side of the world or in the Far East or in some Pacific island, or whatever. I think in past generations we just didn’t know. If we were at peace, well, that was alright, everybody must be at peace! I rather doubt whether that really was true. And it isn’t true now, and it’s hardly true when we look back in history that we do know anything about, and it certainly wasn’t true in the world into which Christ was born.
He was born into a real world, not a Fantasia of a world with bunny rabbits running about. No, the world that he lived in was horrific. When you think about it, the Roman Empire – okay, they ruled, but they ruled with a rod of iron. Did you hear the Iranian ‘thought-police’, I’d want to call them, are talking about hitting with an iron fist now? Well, Romans always hit with an iron fist. And crucifixion is the worst possible sort of way to die. Just because we’re so used to knowing about it for Christ, we hardly stop to think about it.
But in the story now, the Christmas story that we’ve just heard, last weekend we slid over it, but the truth is, it was terrible. The Massacre of the Innocents – as soon as Herod knew that a child was due to be born who some people thought was to be the Messiah, he moved in heavily, didn’t he? Not just sending out his troops to find this child; but, just to make sure, find every child in the concerned area under the age of two and finish them off.
All I’m saying really is that Christ, when he came, came into a world like that. And maybe it’s because it’s always been like that. But certainly part of it must have been because that was the world he came to redeem. Not a fancy, polished world where the sun always rises and children make daisy chains and everything is sweetness and light, but a world full of tragedy, cruelty, selfishness, all the other things.
The reason why Christmas is such a joyful occasion is not because that was the world he came to, or that that to some degree is the world we live in, but because his birth brings hope, brings promise. It brings the reality of love. It brings the challenge to us to live a loving life and to spread love around us. And it brings with it the promise that, in the end, in the words of Julian of Norwich, ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’.
I’m going to read a little bit of poetry. Poetry sometimes just says everything, and very simply. They’re both by Malcolm Guite; I don’t know if you know him – some of us know him a little. He’s chaplain to Girton College, Cambridge. These are two sonnets, and they come out of a book called Sounding the Seasons: 70 Sonnets for the Christian Year.
We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside the font,
But he is with a million displaced people
On the long road of weariness and want.
For even as we sing our final carol
His family is up and on that road,
Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,
Glancing behind and shouldering their load.
Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower
Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,
The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,
And death squads spread their curse across the world.
But every Herod dies, and comes alone
To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.
Christmas on the Edge
Christmas sets the centre on the edge;
The edge of town, the outhouse of the inn,
The fringe of empire, far from privilege
And power, on the edge and outer spin
Of turning worlds, a margin of small stars
That edge a galaxy itself light years
From some unguessed-at cosmic origin.
Christmas sets the centre at the edge.
And from this day our world is re-aligned
A tiny seed unfolding in the womb
Becomes the source from which we all unfold
And flower into being. We are healed,
The end begins, the tomb becomes a womb,
For now in him all things are re-aligned.