To love as never before
In this season of Christmas, may I begin by wishing you all a safe, joyful and happy Christmas? There are unlikely to be many more years like the one we have experienced so these words all have added meaning: safe and joyful. I do pray it will be so for you and your families.
I’m very conscious of those who have paid the heaviest price during the pandemic. Those who have lost their lives, those who are grieving, those whose pattern of life, so disrupted, has left them feeling bewildered and those who have been isolated because human contact has been so limited. Anything we say beyond this must not ignore the simple fact that this year has been wretched and challenging. Nothing can be said which glosses over the impact this has had on our communities, country and indeed the whole world.
There is a way of telling the Christmas story of course which might do precisely this. We aren’t helped by the romanticizing of a story that is a good deal more brutal than the cards and pop up decorations suggest. But even a straight rendering of the story could be seen as an attempt to minimize or soften the blow of the effects of Covid-19. Stories need their interpreters who connect the message with our own so that we can make sense of what is happening or at least think about how to navigate some difficult terrain.
And so I want to pick out two things from this story so well known which speak to me afresh this year. The first is how God spoke: to shepherds out in the open fields minding their own business. And a God who can communicate like this, has something to say. In this case it was good news of great joy that would shape everything in history from this moment forward. Someone said of these hill workers ‘God goes to those who have time to hear him—and so he went to simple shepherds.’ There is no reason, if we have ears, to hear why anyone should be left out of the loop.
Christmas then is about the God who will not stay silent but speaks into the very fabric of this world. Such a God must have something to say about everything that is taking place. I don’t mean by this that we should attempt to see some hidden purpose as though everything will one day become clear and we will say ‘Ah, so that’s why’. But the God who comes into the thick of life, into the life of a young couple and to the dust of a small town in a remote part of the world, cannot be ignorant or impervious to what has befallen our world.
And this brings us to the next thing on which I wish to focus our thoughts. This child brought God. His coming ushered in the Kingdom, the way in which all we believe to be true about God becomes real and manifest wherever the rubber hits the ground. So in the gospels we read how the lost were brought home, the sick were healed and the hungry fed. We see how Jesus had compassion on people and, if you like, modelled what a fully human life should look like.
The issue of values has been thrown into the spotlight by Covid in a new way. It’s made us ask questions not only about resilience but what should characterize life in society. Dr Mark Carney, formerly the Governor of the Bank of England, is currently delivering the Reith lectures for 2020 and examining the issues of values in the light of Covid. Perceptively he observes that values, once related to the activity in question are now interpreted mostly through the eyes of market and money. He says the ‘spread of the market can undermine community; one of the most important determinates of happiness’.
Dr Carney’s point is that market thinking has infected the way we understand values. We attach a price tag to most things and make judgements on the basis of their subsequent costs. Interestingly one of his solutions is the crafting of a new humility across all society.
But the Child-King was born so that all of life might be invested with a goodness and Godlikeness that blesses and transforms, that is free of money-judgement, which is largely selfless in character. For Christians especially being enfolded in this love creates new desires to serve. Those shepherds could not contain their joy at the news they received and shared it with others: good news like this should not be squirrelled away. So too the blessings of all creation: these are not meant for the few but the many. And when the church understands how it is loved by God, liberated to serve, it can learn what love looks like.
I wonder if one of the things we must learn from this period, is that we are to love as we have never loved before? The outcast, the marginalized, the lonely and isolated? If love for Jesus burns within us this Christmas time, ought we not discover how this can radiate into wonderful acts of kindness and mercy?
I began by describing what this year has held for many and now suggest that our best response, not to explain or justify any of this, is to learn one of the most fundamental of lessons which Jesus taught and it is the power of love which overcomes. ‘By this’ he said, ‘shall others know you are my disciples if you have love for each other’ (John 13:35). Where love begins is less important than where it ends and here we turn back to that story and the angels message and the shepherds wonder but captured too in the words of St John: ‘God so love the world that He gave his only begotten Son.’
If this is how God loved us, so we ought to love the world he came to save.