Luke 2.1-20, Isaiah 62.6-12, Titus 3.4-7
Journey to Freedom
Earlier today I checked the news and saw that on top of all the travel problems caused by the wind and rain that a cable fire means that trains are not running between London and Gatwick airport. It’s not an information article for those of you dashing off to catch a flight after this service just an acknowledgment of the misery this will cause on top of so many other travel problems including fallen trees and flooding making roads impassable, flights cancelled and delayed and loss of power to many areas, including part of Gatwick airport should anyone eventually be able to get there.
No doubt this will leave lots of families anxious about whether they can get together in time to share Christmas Day, after all who are they going to argue with if they don’t make it.
I guess we are used to relatively civilised travel most of the time so how distressed we get with delays is relative to what travellers are used to. I read one account of a traveller stuck in a traffic jam in Cairo where apparently no one ‘walks like an Egyptian’, they all drive. Not only are there more cars than road, there are more people in each car than there is space for with distorted faces pressed against windows. The constant sound of car horns irritated him at first but after a while he concluded that with so many crammed in each car one body part or another was bound to be pressing against the horn.
Back in Great Britain the official advice is not to travel unless it is absolutely necessary. It’s hard to define ‘absolutely necessary’ journeys, especially when it’s likely to involve distress and hardship.
In Luke’s gospel we heard that Caesar Augustus clicked his fingers in Rome, demanding a census of his empire, probably for taxation purposes. This caused hordes of people to get on the move including Joseph and Mary making the ‘absolutely necessary’ journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Now the people stuck in airport lounges and train stations have my sympathy but their surroundings would seem luxurious compared to the 80 mile journey Mary and Joseph would undertake. A Polish carol has Mary plead ‘please go slowly, Joseph…look what a load I bear…’ Yet the journey is made, despite the inconvenience, the discomfort, the primitive accommodation available, there’s a sense of the journey being obediently completed to achieve God’s purposes.
It makes you think, doesn’t it, not just about travel delays but about life’s journey we all know that it’s not always plain sailing, parts of the journey involve pain and difficulty, there are times we feel progress is slow and it’s easy to lose sight of the destination we hoped for.
Of course many of our journeys at this time of year are made to spend time with people we love. Church congregations change as relatives move around to share Christmas with families and the commuter traffic has gradually disappeared from London’s roads as many who work there return home to other parts of the country, or to their home country.
As I lay awake in the early hours of this morning listening to the howling wind I couldn’t help but think of the words ‘silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright’ and wonder if an angel were to descend to shepherds on a hillside in this weather whether they could avoid being blown away, or whether the shepherds would shout out ‘I’m sorry but we can’t hear a word your saying in this wind!’
Obviously in more peaceful conditions God is announced to lowly shepherds, people looked down upon by the orthodox Jews as they were unable to maintain ceremonial laws, particularly relating to all the meticulous hand washing. In stark contrast with the imagery brought to mind of young children in nativity plays with tea towels on their heads shepherds were banned from many towns and their testimony was not admissible in court, they were classed as outcasts and the Pharisees spoke of them in the way they also spoke of tax collectors and prostitutes.
We’ve all seen individuals and groups shunned and excluded by society stop caring what people think, turning inwards on their small world and giving up hope of anything better. So when they realise that God has not given up on them, in fact he has specifically chosen them to spread his message of joy, it’s no surprise that the shepherds are shocked and terrified.
It’s clear that the shepherds journey to see Jesus is one of trust in the message they received, motivated by love of the Saviour and new hope for the future.
After a long journey, particularly a difficult one, we look forward to some comfort whether it be a relative’s house or a hotel room, something that clearly didn’t work out for Joseph and Mary.
The best welcomes have to be those where we don’t have to ring the doorbell and wait but where the host is expectantly looking out for our arrival. Excited children have been known to stare impatiently out of the window willing the guests to arrive and rushing out to hug them before they have barely got out of the car, and I don’t mean just at Christmas when they arrive bearing gifts.
There’s a similar sense in our Old Testament reading of watchmen eagerly looking for the salvation Isaiah speaks of, people who call out to God to restore peace and security. He tells of Jerusalem being restored, the city doors being flung open and a highway being made clear in order that it’s easy for the lost to return.
For the excited people in Isaiah and Luke’s shepherds the message is that God has brought freedom. Paul’s letter to Titus reminds us that the freedom God offers is not something we have to earn, but that it is a freely given gift available to us all.
As we each ponder where we are on life’s journey we start to see that God draws us towards him and the freedom he offers.
There are clues to God’s nature in the way that Jesus, the new King came into the world in unexpectedly humble surroundings suggesting that God is prepared to meet us wherever we are on life’s journey, not where we wish we were with all the accompanying regrets, not where we kid ourselves we are or where other people see us but where we really know ourselves to be.
The author Margaret Silf illustrates the everyday falsehoods we have to live with when she describes her manager calling her in for the annual appraisal, an important factor in career progression and salary review. The manager asks ‘how do you see the job developing over the next three years?’ She considers two possible answers.
‘I hope to be leading a team in three years and taking on more responsibility.’
Or, ‘I hope that in three years I’ll be able to afford to get out of all this and do the things I really want to do with my life.’ Here, I hasten to add, that I’m not offering career advice!
The point is that there is often a tension between how we are living and where we feel drawn to be. It will apply to numerous aspects of our lives but by acknowledging and sharing these tensions with God we begin to see that God is where the truth lies.
Contrast the falseness of having to put a brave face on a miserable situation against the truth of the feelings inside you when you first fell in love. Contrast the drudgery of tasks that have to be completed against the passion we feel for work we love, maybe art, music, sport. It’s not that the first isn’t important but the latter is where we find our true selves and a spirit of freedom.
Many of us expend a great deal of energy maintaining the façade of being in control, showing no fear, or being happy with a situation when we would be far better off admitting to God where we truly are because that’s where God most wants to meet with us.
So we are invited to take a breather on our journey this Christmas and consider where we will spend it both physically and spiritually. The food and wine, decorations and gifts should all be enjoyed but let’s also make some time for quiet reflection and be honest with God about where we truly are and where we truly see him at work.
We all know the truth is that right now many are sad as they see family and friends suffer declining health, we know it is true that mourning of loved ones lost is brought into sharp focus at this time of year as they are missed at gatherings and we know it to be true that some people are so down that they have given up on God all together.
These are the very places into which we invite the Christ child this Christmas secure in the knowledge that this is exactly where he will feel most at home.
This is what makes sense of our Christmas celebrations and gives authenticity to our praise when we sing ’glory to the new born King’.
Christmas Eve/Christmas Day 2013