Reading Jeremiah 23 5,6
May I begin with a sort of short preface to what I want to say? It is this. We live in an age which murders the great images, which have informed the minds of mankind in the past. Adam and Eve are merely funny - the butt of jokes about fig leaves and nudity. Moses being given the tablets of Sinai - what was wrong with the old boy, was it a headache or tummy trouble - and so on. In a slightly different way, Christmas has also suffered. Nowadays, the idea of shepherds in the fields abiding conjures up a vision of Christmas plays in primary schools or maybe in church on Christmas Eve where six and seven year olds dressed in night-shirts and improvised turbans are addressed by an angelic infant sporting home-made wings, and saying in a squeaky treble voice, “Be not afraid, for behold I bring you glad tidings of great joy”. Proud parents watch, not believing a word of the story of course, but beaming and whispering to each other, “Aren’t they sweet?” - which, indeed, they are. The Magi have fared even worse than the shepherds; they have been taken over by the advertising business as product after product is promoted, on the telly or in the press, with the words, ‘Wise men give wise gifts at Christmas’ - a vacuum cleaner perhaps, or a new model of a popular make of car.
As a result, I’m going to leave the images alone. For, to many people in God’s world today, they no longer point to the heart of Christmas; instead they actually make it unbelievable; wise men, peripatetic stars, and angelic visitations, whether to virgins called Mary or to shepherds in the Judean hills, may be all right for children, but are not to be taken seriously by their elders and betters. I don’t agree with that, and in all probability you don’t agree with that, or you wouldn’t be here this evening. But even so there is much to be said for trying to get behind them - the images, that is to say - to the true heart of Christmas; for trying to unwrap Christmas, so to speak, rather as one unwraps Christmas presents to discover what is hidden in the pretty wrappings. So I hope that you’ll forgive me for treating the popular images in so cavalier a fashion. Having said which, I come to the end of my preface.
So what is the heart of Christmas? Stripped and looked at as far as possible with new eyes it is rather shocking. For it is a belief that in the obscure birth of, to all worldly intents and purposes, an illegitimate baby to an unmarried Jewish teenager - Jewish girls were normally married at puberty, and Mary, you will remember, was already betrothed to Joseph - the one eternal God irrupted into this world and into history; took flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory of the only begotten Son of the Father.
But there was nothing glorious about his birth, for he was born in darkness and obscurity in a stable, and it is impossible to imagine a more squalid and insanitary maternity ward than a Middle Eastern stable. Yet shocking as it may at first sight appear to be - we’re so used to it that we hardly notice the incongruity of it - shocking as it may be at first sight, the heart of Christmas is a belief that the obscure birth of that child at Bethlehem was the first of a series of events, culminating in his equally obscure and shocking death, in and through which two things were finally and fully revealed; the first was the true nature of God, and the second was the true nature and significance of man - a human being - a person; and both revelations were revolutionary.
I want to look briefly at both this evening, and first at the revolution wrought by the birth of Christ in man’s idea of God; and to understand just how revolutionary it was, and that we must first try to understand what it was a revolution against. Or to put that another way, how did men envisage God before the advent of Jesus? As far as everyone except the Jews were concerned - the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and other people of Old Testament times - it was not so much an idea of God as of the gods, which they carried round in their heads. Looking around at the world in which they found themselves and marvelling at the immensity and diversity of what they saw, they marvelled even more at the powers which must have created it and themselves - a logical enough conclusion and not a wholly mistaken one. For isn’t the world around us - the sun and the moon and the stars, and the earth with its spring-time and harvest, summer and winter, let alone the incredible beauty and abundance of life on this earth or ours - isn’t all that, if not a vision of the gods, a vision of the creativity and splendour of God?
I know that someone will tell me that that is a profoundly pagan point of view. But I am unrepentant. For is was Christ himself who encouraged us to “Behold the lilies of the field how they grow. They toil not neither do they spin. Yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like of of these. If God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you. O men of little faith?”
And if God so clothe the grass of the field and the blossom on the trees, and the clouds over the mountains, why should not both the pagans and I see evidence in this of his astonishing creativity, as I did albeit reluctantly even in my atheist days? But, however that may be, the mistake made by the pagans of God’s world was their idea that there was a multiplicity of gods; though in a way this was reasonable enough. For how could one god be both the god of war and the god of peace, the god of love and the god of vengeance, the god of fertility and the god who withheld the rain in times of drought and famine? The trouble, however with this vision of the gods in the plural was that in a world ruled by a multiplicity of gods, there could be no agreed truth, no agreed standard of right and wrong, good and evil, faith and morals; for what was right for those who worshipped one set of gods was wrong for the worshippers of different deities.
So much then for everyone except the Jews. How did they envisage God in the days before the birth of Jesus at Christmas, and why did they do so? The answer is that their idea of God was the result of a previous revolution in mankind’s vision of the divine mystery - a revolution which had taken place in Egypt. You all know the story.
In short, about the beginning of the 15th Century BC a series of events took place there, which were interpreted by some Hebrew slaves as being signs of the anger of their tribal God at the plight of his people.
Their leader, Moses - one of the great men of history - even managed to persuade the reigning Pharaoh of Egypt to agree and so to let them go. Moses led them out of Egypt; the Red Sea - the Reed Sea we are told nowadays is a better translation - dried up before them, only to return and drown Pharaoh’s troops, who had been sent to pursue them, Pharaoh having changed his mind.
A likely story, you may say. But I don’t think so; too many things resulted from the Exodus for it to be wholly legendary; and in any case both the plagues of Egypt and the passage of the Sea can be understood, at least in part, as the long-range results of violent volcanic activity hundreds of miles south of Egypt in Africa’s Great Rift Valley studded, as it is, with dozens of (nowadays extinct) volcanoes. Look at the plagues. the waters of the Nile were turned into blood, we are told, and a huge fall-out of volcanic dust and noxious chemicals could indeed have turned the Nile into a dark reddish stream of thick and toxic water; cattle became diseased and died - from drinking polluted water perhaps?
There was a plague of flies, multiplying presumably on the rotting carcases of the cattle; and swarms of locusts invaded the land - maybe driven out of their territory further south by the destruction of the vegetation; huge hail storms - a normal accompaniment of eruptions - battered Egypt, and the climax came when the children began to die too. Finally, if the plagues were the result of volcanism, seismic changes in the earth’s crust along the Great Rift, accompanied, or even triggered off, by violent volcanic activity, might well have sucked away the waters of the Sea, as new fissures opened up, only to close again and send the waters back in a great destructive tidal wave; none of which makes these events any the less miraculous.
It simply makes them part and parcel of what some have called the miracle of coincidence - of timing; the fact that Moses led his people out of Egypt to arrive at the Sea at the precise moment when the waters had been syphoned away, and that Pharaoh’s cavalry and charioteers got stuck in the mud just when they came rolling back again in a huge destructive wall of water - there’s your miracle - and it changed the history of man’s knowledge of God. How? By forcing the more thoughtful Hebrews to sit down and account for the fact that the gods of Egypt - the super-power of the day - should have proved powerless before the God of the Hebrews; and in the end they concluded that the only possible answer was that the gods of Egypt were not gods - they did not exist. There was only one God, supreme over the whole earth, the God of Israel - Yahweh - I am that I am; the final mystery of Being.
It was an enormous advance. Men knew at last that there was one God, one ultimate truth, one creator of the stars of heaven and the flowers of the desert, the mountains of Judea and the oceans of the world; and as a result some of the greatest of the Jews had a vision of the sheer majesty and mystery of God - the awe of his presence and the terror of his otherness - which has never been surpassed and seldom been equalled.
“O Jerusalem, that bringeth good tidings,” cried Isaiah”Behold your God! Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted out heaven with a span, and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance? Who hath directed the Spirit of the Lord or, as his counsellor, has instructed him?…..Behold the nations are as a drop in a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance”.
It is a magnificent passage; and so is that describing Elijah’s flight from Jezebel, and his encounter with God. “Elijah came to a cave and lodged there; and behold the world of the Lord came to him, and said to him, “What are you doing here Elijah?” He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken the covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets; and I, even I only, am left; and
they seek to take away my life.” And he said, “Go forth and stand upon the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and mighty wind rent the mountains, and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake, a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire, a still, small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold there came a voice to him, and said “What are you doing here, Elijah?” There cannot be many visions of the majesty or the mystery of God greater than these.
But there was another side to the awareness of the Old Testament Jews of the greatness and otherness of God, for they were also acutely conscious of his remoteness - of his absence. During the childhood of Samuel, it was said - and I quote - ‘The word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision’’. Similarly a century or two later, Jeremiah cried in distress, “Why dost thou forget us for ever? Why dost thou so long forsake us?” And he was echoed by Isaiah: ‘Verily, thou art a God that hidest thyself.’
Even so, they never doubted that God would be faithful to his promises. Had he not brought them up out of Egypt, and sworn to look after them, as long as they responded to his action on their behalf with gratitude and faith. But since in Old Testament days they did not believe in an after-life, they could only conclude that God would look after them in this life, delivering them from their enemies, as he had delivered them from bondage in Egypt; and the trouble was that he didn’t do so. The Philistines trounced them, they were lugged off into captivity in Babylon; Antiochus Epiphanes, the Seleucid ruled over the whole Middle East after the death of Alexander of Macedon, conquered and suppressed them. Since these disasters could not possibly be attributed to God’s unfaithfulness - for how could God be unfaithful - they were forced to see them as evidence of his anger at their own sinfulness. Thus they came to envisage God as a jealous God - just but very severe - rather like an absentee landlord determined to insist that his tenants should pay their dues, and occasionally sending ferocious messengers - Elijah, Amos, Jeremiah - to warn them what would happen if they were late in paying their rent of trust and worship, or remiss in keeping his commandments. But despite their fear of offending God, they never doubted his faithfulness and so never doubted that one day he would intervene again in history, as he had in Egypt, coming in person to their aid, and destroying their pagan enemies, burning them up like chaff.
Well, they got it half right and half wrong: or so, as Christians, we believe. They were right to believe in the utter faithfulness of God, and right, too, to believe that one day he would intervene in history, coming in person to their aid; but they were wrong in other ways. For instead of coming in power, he came in weakness. Instead of coming on the clouds of glory, he came in darkness and obscurity, born in a stable alongside the beasts. Instead of being greeted as the Son of God, he was despised and rejected by men: a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Instead of burning up the heathen like chaff, ‘he came unto his own, and his own received him not; but to all who received him gave he power to become children of God.’ Instead of insisting on the death penalty for sinners, he died that, they might live, taking the whole cost of their human blindness and unfaithfulness upon himself, and paying for it with his life. And in a final upside-downing of human religious expectation, instead of promising to save us from the various disasters which pepper our mortal lives, as we should like him to do - the deaths of those whom we love and our own deaths when they come - he promised salvation beyond disaster, life beyond what the world calls death.
In other words, the birth of that child at Christmas in squalor, obscurity and weakness was the first of a series of events, culminating in an appalling and shameful death in darkness at noon, which was destined to revolutionise man’s idea of the divine, turning what he had previously thought to be his knowledge of God radically upside down.
For, if the religious quest is not that of man searching in fear and trembling for God, but of God seeking out man, not in terrifying splendour but in great humility, not in power and glory but in weakness and obscurity, loving him and redeeming him for an eternal destiny, the picture of God as remote, severe, and jealous of his rights and privileges is no longer credible. Instead - and this in a different way is also astonishing to the point of being shocking - instead, we are left with a picture of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans of God, the one eternal source of being, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible, sharing our weakness and our mortality, seeking us out where we are lost, and coming to us when and where we least expect to meet him; in moments of great darkness like the darkness of that first Christmas night, in the depth of our failure when, with nowhere else to turn, we turn to God without much hope of any result, and at the hour of our death or the death of those whom we love, when we reach rock bottom - and find him waiting there to greet us. The initiative is God’s. the love is God’s, the coming is God’s and his advent is perpetually unexpected. Watch, therefore, for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning, lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say unto you, I say unto all. Watch.