Recently I was wandering around one of those Christmas markets that have become trendy in recent years and was not in the mood for buying any presents. All I could really feel was extreme cold and a sense of irritation at terrible songs being played one after another over the tannoy, which blotted out an actually quite talented group of buskers.
I remember asking my friend “Does Christmas give us an excuse to be extra cheesy?”, to which the answer was along the lines of “of course, why do you ask?”. I don’t really know why I was asking, but I got thinking about how cliche a lot of things become at this time of year. Don’t get me wrong, I find a lot of it pretty fun, for example I love to eat turkey and watch Elf on TV. But I do wonder whether there’s some things we can make fluffy and cute “because it’s Christmas”, whilst forgetting much of the often difficult reality other people continue to face.
And I wonder whether we are in danger of bringing the birth of Christ down to this level.
A Nice Story?
Sometimes in the carols and Christmas cards, we can portray the birth of Christ as a nice story, with a meek and mild baby resting peacefully in a comfortable bed of straw surrounded by fluffy lambs underneath a perfect starry sky. Let’s actually recap some of the key details about Jesus’ birth before we go any further.
Mary, a teenage girl became pregnant after being told she was carrying God’s son by an angel. She was clearly happy enough about this to write a song of praise in Luke 1:46-55. But as well as this, there were several hurdles to overcome. Firstly, she had to explain to her fiancée Joseph that she was carrying a baby that wasn’t his. I’ve watched Neighbours enough times to second guess what his reaction would be, and his attempt to call off the wedding showed just how convinced he was by her story that the child was God’s.
Thankfully God intervened by sending an angel, and Joseph went on to support her in a very admirable way. Nevertheless, she’d have lived with the embarrassment of a rather obvious bump in a small community where everyone knew she wasn’t married. A community where the penalty for adultery was stoning. It’s fair to say it wasn’t the easiest of nine months for her.
Then there’s the discomfort of riding a donkey whilst heavily pregnant, and when Mary fell into labour the only place available for her to give birth was a stable. This was not a warm, cosy stable with fluffy gentle animals like we see on Christmas cards, but more likely a cold dark shed that stank of animal dung and was filled with strange noises and flies. There’s a clue as to how basic the circumstances were when the only place to lay the baby down was in the trough used to feed the animals. It makes lines in carols such as “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes” sound a bit ridiculous.
A Difficult Situation
The birth of Jesus was not a pretty or cute situation but one that was tough, demanding and difficult. However, as soon as the baby was born all those problems didn’t matter one bit. The pain and difficulties that Mary and Joseph had been through were in one moment replaced with a deep, genuine joy. A joy that through all the hardship of donkeys and cold stables their baby had been born. And a joy for all of us, that this baby was the Son of God and saviour of the world.
God was not afraid to work through these difficult circumstances. He didn’t hide from the embarrassment of an unmarried pregnant girl having a difficult chat with her fiancée. He didn’t choose a comfortable, rich family to give His son a problem free birth. He chose ordinary people with everyday problems. He didn’t hide from this but used them to bring out the greatest hope the world has ever seen. As Paul says in his letter:
But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. 1 Corinthians 1:27-29
It’s exactly the same today. No matter how religion can try to dress up God and dictate what he likes and approves of, we can see in the Christmas story that he isn’t interested in any kind of grandeur but in the lives and issues faced by ordinary people. He looks beyond our obvious, outwardly visible problems and into the depths of our hearts.
Apart from Mary and Joseph the first people to hear of Jesus were the shepherds. Shepherds were pretty ordinary people, without any kind of status or power. God chose these ordinary people to be on the receiving end of an amazing vision of angels. They were asked to go see this baby, which is great but… their livelihood was in their sheep. In those days there was no safety net – if they lose their sheep then they lose their job and their family starves. They can’t realistically take a whole herd of sheep with them. What do they do?
Luke 2:16 tells us that “they went with haste”. This means that they would have left their sheep, risking everything to obey the angels and see the baby. They had to place their trust wholly in God and that He’d look after the sheep. By doing so they managed to share in the joy of seeing the baby Son of God. Taking that risk was definitely worth it.
The shepherds were the first of many people to leave their comfort zone to meet Jesus. God is continually calling us to Him and it often will involve what appears to be a risk. But if we place our trust in Him, then we know that as all things are possible with God, He’ll be able to look after the sheep in our lives better than we ever could tend to them by ourselves.
Trust in God
I know that sometimes I’m not very good at trusting God with my sheep, that I worry about the consequences of service to Him and how it can fit into the rest of my life. Often it can be difficult to be like the shepherds who didn’t just not worry about fitting the visit to the stable into their lives, but by leaving their sheep made service the very function of their lives.
This can be a big challenge to us today. But the Christmas story shows us that if we are prepared to trust God to look after our lives and if we choose to follow Him, then we will experience unimaginable joy. A joy found in all sorts of circumstances and in people that can be all too easy for us to turn our noses up at, but are loved by God as much as any of the rest of his children. A joy that isn’t sentimental, fluffy or cute, but can genuinely change lives and give a real hope for the future.
Let’s celebrate this joy today. Happy Christmas!