I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling a bit like Charlie Brown myself at the moment. Christmas in Japan always feels a bit strange. I don’t have my family around, it doesn’t look like it’s going to snow, there won’t be a big turkey Christmas dinner this year, and I haven’t really done all that much Christmas shopping. So in a sense, all the things that I celebrate instead of celebrating Christmas have been stripped away from me. We did an English club in Maibara last week, and I asked the students there why they celebrated Christmas. And one of them said “It’s when Jesus Christ was born.” And I was feeling a bit naughty, so I said “But Japanese people don’t believe in Jesus Christ, why do you celebrate his birthday?” And there was an embarrassed pause for a bit until one of them said “Japanese people don’t really care much about religion, but they do like to celebrate.” I thought yeah, we’re probably the same actually.
But when you take away the family and the snow and the turkey, what are you left with? Well, I was certainly left with an opportunity to take a fresh look at Christmas. I think you know by now I take a bit of a sideways look at things, so here’s my sideways look at Christmas.
Everyone knows that the Christmas story starts with Mary and Joseph leaving Jerusalem and going to Nazareth. They were going to register for a census, which was being carried out by Quirinius the Roman Legate of Syria, on the orders of the Emperor, Augustus Caesar. Why did he decide to have a census at this time? Well, Augustus Caesar was the first emperor to unify the Roman world. He was a pretty harsh ruler, and found ways to get around his enemies and solidify his power. He was responsible for securing all the territories that the Romans had invaded, and also for extracting taxes from them to keep the Empire running. So this census that Mary and Joseph had to go to register for was actually their income tax registration. The Romans were pretty nasty to the places they invaded, and they set an income tax of 80 to 90% on their territories. Needless to say, people were not too happy to pay these taxes, so the tax census was a time of rioting and unrest. It was a time when the Israelites realised all the more that they were not in control of their own country. It was a time that reminded them of the hardships that they faced under Roman rule and how they wanted someone to set them free.
Let’s go back to Augustus for a moment. Actually his name wasn’t Augustus, it was Octavian. Augustus was a religious title - it means “the one who makes things increase.” Augustus basically set himself up as the God of the Romans. His father was Julius Caesar, and the Roman Senate had declared that Caesar was a god. So he went around calling himself “Emperor Caesar, the son of god.” Christians who came along later saying that no, Jesus was the son of God, were committing treason against Rome.
Who else turns up in the Christmas story? King Herod. Now Herod was a nutcase. He was utterly power-crazed. He had his mother-in-law, his brother-in-law and one of his sons killed because he thought they were plotting against him. And he was kept in place by the Romans to be the ruler of Israel. His title was “the King of the Jews”. So Christians who came along later saying that no, Jesus was the King of the Jews were committing treason against Herod. To be a Christian was to stand up against the powers of the world and say “No. This authority is not yours.” It was a revolutionary thing to do then, and it still is now. Christmas is a political event!
We can talk about the shepherds, homeless people living in the fields. We can talk about wise men, foreigners from Iran or Iraq, probably priests of an astrology religion. But I want to think about Mary and Joseph. How was their Christmas? Joseph probably had to take two weeks off work to travel the 90 miles to Bethlehem and back by horse and cart. No work means no income coming in, just at the time that he has another mouth to feed. And the only reason he’s having to make this journey is because his country is occupied by a foreign power which is going to take almost all of his hard-earned money and take it away to benefit the Romans. So I guess he’s probably not feeling too happy about his situation.
But he’s going to be a father. Surely he’s happy about that, right? Well, apart from the fact that he knows he’s not the real father, Mary is not actually his wife yet. They’re only engaged. So he’s taking his heavily pregnant girlfriend to his home town. How is this going to go down in conservative Jewish circles? Well, we know it goes down pretty badly because when he gets to Bethlehem, nobody is interested in them. Bethlehem is his home town, where his family and friends are - but they let Mary give birth in a stable, in a cave? I think if I had to think of one word to sum up how Joseph felt about being a father it would be this: shame. Shame on himself, shame on his family, shame on his son. And the fact that he didn’t do anything wrong doesn’t help. Who do you think would believe him?
This is the situation that God chose to come into. He could have come any time. He could have come when Israel was doing well, when it had its independence. He could have come to a wealthy family, to a married couple, to a society which actually wanted him to be born. But he didn’t. He chose to come at a time of great shame to the people of Israel, to a family covered in shame. He came at a time when people were expecting a strong, military saviour to come and give them freedom. Luke talks about Augustus and Quirinius and all the Roman problems, and then he talks about the shepherds seeing “a great multitude of the heavenly host.” What does that mean? We’re used to hearing “heavenly host” when it comes to angels and Christmas, but what does it actually mean? Well, the word “host” actually means “armies”. Why does Jesus need armies? Is he going to free the Jewish people? If Jesus is going to save his people, how is he going to do it? Why is Luke talking about this now? Is there a connection between how he will save people, and how he was born?
I think there is. I think Jesus came to be with the suffering and to transform the suffering. He came to experience not the best of this world, but the worst of it: the suffering and the pain and the shame. Before he was born, they said that his name would be Emmanuel: God with us. God with us when things are going wrong. God with us in the worst of times. God with us when we feel ashamed or oppressed or weak. God himself choosing to come and share all of that with us. And you know, if God himself can go through all that, then so can I. Jesus transforms our problems not by taking the problem away but by taking the effects of the problem away. If God himself can become an illegitimate child, then no illegitimate child need ever feel ashamed again. He deals with our shame by becoming our shame. He deals with our suffering by becoming our suffering. He deals with our sin by becoming our sin.
When we take away the snow and the family and the shopping and the turkey, we’re left with a baby who challenges the powers of this world: the powers to claim authority and to oppress and to destroy, the powers of shame and suffering. And he challenges them by coming into our world and our life and giving us a new way to live it. That’s what Christmas is: God going through life with us, and a chance for us to go through it with Him.