Surprise! Surprise!

Remember Christmas when you were a kid? The stomach-churning excitement as the days ticked down towards Christmas Day. No more school. No more shopping days. It’s coming, it’s coming! And as we inspected the piles of presents beneath the tree, the most important question: is that big box near the back for me? Because big was good, remember? A big truck. A big train set. A big something. Now, perhaps small is better. Jewellery. A phone. An iPad.

Christmas itself wasn’t a surprise but the paper covering each gift ensured it remained a surprise until the very last moment. (Most perhaps, but not all . . . hmm, that certainly looks like a cricket bat, despite all the wrapping.) I wonder if you like surprises. I do. The right kind, of course. The edible is good; the wearable a risk; the driveable always welcome.

Is Christmas a surprise? Perhaps some aspects of what took place on the first Christmas, depending on what you’ve read. So, for some, here are some surprises about the event itself. Look away now if you prefer to keep your Nativity story the way it’s always been.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you . . .

Okay. Shepherds, yes, all there present and correct. Magi also, though who knows how many? Three comes from the number of gifts mentioned; there’s no way of knowing how many wisemen-astrologer-fortune-tellers were bearing them. No kings. Oh come on, we know there weren’t any kings. Clue – not one mention in any of the gospels. We have kings because Class 3A has 35 kids and hey, Tommy and the gang are getting restless and need parts to calm them down.

Mary and Joseph, yes. Virgin Birth. Well, yes, but . . . in truth, we should focus on the Virginal Conception, to use its technical name. That’s really the key moment. Not the birth. The truly miraculous moment was when the Holy Spirit alighted upon Mary and fertilized an ovum. That’s extraordinary. A divine intervention to change history, for sure. And then, yes, you’re entitled to celebrate the virgin who gives birth.

A census. Yes, although hard to pin down. We’ve got a slight problem with the dating here. It gets complicated, with Quirinius’ dates as governor of Syria causing an issue. Maybe the translation should be ‘after he was governor.’ Or was he governor twice? As I say . . . anyway, there were censuses. Quite a few, and Mary and Joseph traveled to their hometown to register during one of them.

Arriving out of breath, nine months pregnant? Nowhere to be found in the text. Evident in lots of re-telling, of course, but not in the most important source document, Luke’s gospel. Au contraire, the passage reads, ‘while they were there, the time came for the baby to be born.’ There for how long? No way of knowing. Maybe weeks or months. Who knows?

Stables and innkeepers? Sorry. They’ve got to go.

Stable. The word for stable – nowhere in the text at all. Manger, yes. Mentioned three times actually. But stable, no. So, why was Jesus laid in a manger? Because they weren’t staying at a commercial inn. So no innkeepers. They were most likely staying in a home. Joseph turns up in his familial hometown and he could have stayed at almost anyone’s home. That was how the culture worked.

So, what’s the baby doing in a feeding trough? Because ‘there was no room for them in the guest-room.’ (That comes from the NIV) Not inn, guest-room. Katalyma. Trans: place to stay. Almost certainly a room on the roof of the house, filled with another family member. So Mary and Joseph were in the main room downstairs. At one end, the animals were brought in for the night. Feeding trough available when Jesus was born. Busy time, a convenient place to lay him.

I know we’ve all heard the sermons and songs about Jesus being rejected at his birth. Sermon main point: Like Bethlehem’s inns and innkeepers, neither do we make room for him. And the point is well taken. It’s just not based on the events as they actually happened. In reality, Christ was most likely born in a simple home surrounded by women. Men were never allowed near a birthing woman. So, lots of family, lots of noise, a regular birth – extraordinary and just like any other – the most beautiful of paradoxes. Perhaps that’s the point.

The rest you can keep. The shepherds and the Magi – the coolest dudes in the Bible (Wouldn’t Morgan Freeman make a great Magi?) And then, of course, the angels. Which provoke fear. Just how terrifying were they? Take a read of Ezekiel 1. Then imagine thousands of these guys spinning around in the heavens. Breath-taking. And apparently terrifying.

I hope there weren’t too many surprises in there for you. You want to keep the innkeeper and a woman in labour wandering around late at night seeking shelter? Be my guest. It doesn’t bother me. We own lots of nativity scenes, collected from around the world and we display them all. The fact is, the core of the story remains the same. That Christ was born in Bethlehem. Surprise?

Oh, yes. A shocking surprise. So surprising, in fact, we humans are still reeling.

This past year, I passed a milestone, which I passed while looking in a different direction. Fifty won’t be a number I remember with much fondness. And as the Christmases arrive and pass on, I even become familiar with the paradoxes which at first seemed so stirring when first I became aware of them. The Good Shepherd surrounded by shepherds. Magi bearing gifts, laid before the Gift; wise men bowed before Wisdom. The eternal Word, brand new. The powerful powerless to feed himself. The mighty one bathed in humility.

So how can a scene so unutterably beautiful, become familiar? Dare I say it, routine.

Because we grow up? Because we hear the story so many times, we know all the best lines? Because it’s no longer a surprise?

How foolish. Like many, I desire to know instead of trust. I am in the Garden desiring knowledge and control, instead of trusting and loving. It is undoubtedly true that surprise is in essence a dramatic shift from the unknown to the known. But what a risk! Surprises are great – but hold on, because this one here might be more lime green socks from Auntie Beryl. Like last year. Like the previous three years. Not much of a surprise there. Does that woman have no imagination?

Perhaps, then, it’s partly about the timing. Because surprise is always at the behest of the surprise-giver. The gift-giver. He chooses when to surprise us. We don’t. We’re not in control, which is why we’re so stressed so much of the time.

Kids, on the other hand . . .

Who loves surprises the most? Children. They are in a constant state of excitement over what’s coming. Christmas is coming. But what exactly does that mean? I don’t know but last year it was fab because I got a bike and I can’t sleep because I want to see Santa and I’m fairly sure he’ll know I want a puppy. Or at least a camera or a skateboard . . . or . . . I’m feeling sleepy now. Ooh, I wonder if grandma will put £20 in with her card like she did last year. Hmm . . I’m sure if I stay awake long enough, I’ll see Ss. . . zzzzz.

Is Christmas a surprise? It certainly can be. So, some Scripture for jaded souls.

Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.

I’m a child. Created by the will of God, according to St. John. And my Lord affirmed the importance of children in a society in which they were often ignored.

Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.

Children possess a trait, so clear and unvarnished, it simply beams out of them. They trust. Oh yes, they do. Just look at that toddler waddling towards you, arms outstretched. Without faith, it is impossible to please God.

Receive the kingdom like a little child.

Ooh, I wonder what surprises lie under the tree, in the kitchen. Next week. Next year. Whoa, starting to feel anxious – not enough money, exams coming up, medical bills . . . oh, I’m tired. Of the worry. Of the effort expended in trying to lasso the unknown.

Frankly, I don’t know what next year will bring.

Surprise me, Lord.

And teach me how to trust.

Amen.

© Richard Collins 2014

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Afterword: Christmas is a time for giving, of course. And top of my Christmas list is a publisher for my book. You probably can’t help with that, but you could give me a FREE gift. Re-blog or share this page with your friends. Especially if you’ve followed this blog for the latter part of this year, that’s a gift I’d really appreciate. And it’s a gift that keeps on giving. Many thanks.

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RIP Nelson Mandela – Reflections on a life

Nelson Mandela is dead. RIP Tata Madiba, a great man.

It’s hard today even imagining the world as it was back in the 1980s and before, when apartheid was the hot topic on university campuses. In the car on the way to school this morning, my daughter asked ‘what’s apartheid?’ reminding me of my age (not a good topic!) as well as the huge change which has occurred since those years. Much associated with the work of Nelson Mandela. At Exeter where I attended, our student union voted to boycott Barclays Bank because of its connections to South Africa. As a result, the Barclays branch on campus was closed, the space given to a different business. I also remember singing with gusto the song ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ by The Specials. It contains the lyric, ’21 years of captivity, are you so blind that you cannot see?’ As it turned out, it was a full 27 years before Mandela was released from Robben Island. Yes, he was guilty of sabotage, helping to destroy some of South Africa’s infrastructure as part of the struggle. I remember a close relative of mine who described him back then as ‘a terrorist.’ His actions raise the intriguing moral dilemma, ‘when is it justifiable to act violently for a just cause?’ There would be few today who would begrudge him some justification in the light of what we now know about the policies of that apartheid state. I remember also attending a play in those days simply called ‘Biko.’ It followed the arrest, imprisonment and beating of Steve Biko, a fellow activist with Mandela, who faced injustice and eventually death at the hands of racist thugs in a Port Elizabeth cell. In South Africa, they called them policemen. The words of Jimmy Kruger, the then-minister of police are chilling to read even today: I am not glad and I am not sorry about Mr. Biko. It leaves me cold (Dit laat my koud). I can say nothing to you … Any person who dies … I shall also be sorry if I die.

And what about the day that Nelson Mandela was released? Blanket news coverage of the kind that only occurs with a royal birth, death or major disaster. He emerged heroic and determined to live well for his country. And of course, that is what marked him out as a great man. He did indeed face injustice with grace and dignity, but it was his actions after his release which set him apart from other world leaders. It is the reason why he is revered the world over as a modern day saint. What did he do? Teach, preach forgiveness. Work for reconciliation. This is a path which Christians recognize and which resonates deep in our souls. Reconciliation is a major theme not simply in our lives but in the Bible, a book about the means by which God becomes reconciled to man. I have found it more than a little curious listening to the news presenters this morning talking about reconciliation. They recognize it as a wonderful thing, but for the life of them, they don’t really understand it. You can hear it in their voices. The world as a whole doesn’t operate in such a way. The capacity to forgive an oppressor is seen mostly clearly, of course, in the Lord’s passion. His words, which resound through the centuries, are still with us, faithfully recorded by the gospel writers. Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do. Even as he suffered for us, he possessed the ability to reach out to those whose only thought was evil and cursing. Mandela, in our time, followed a similar path and for that we are grateful. He reminds us of our God.

These past few months, we have also been celebrating the life of Martin Luther King, a similar historical figure to Nelson Mandela. His letters from Birmingham jail have been variously discussed and debated. He too charted a course of reconciliation, yet was denied the opportunity to see out the mature fruits of his work. The struggle against injustice achieves a very great and noble goal. It reminds us that in our time of post-modern wishy-washy ‘whatever you think is right for you is right for you’ thinking, that there exists good and evil. Right and wrong. No, it is not context which defines good and evil. It is absolute whether it fits your ‘don’t want to offend anyone’ philosophy or not. In South Africa, there was no room for relativistic nonsense. The stories of Mandela and King are stories, quite frankly, about the triumph of good over evil. No, I don’t mean that these leaders were perfect, I mean that their cause was right and good. It is right that black and white should be treated equally, for human beings are created by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. The American Constitution is right. We did not invent this. It is discovered by us; it comes from God. It is also wrong to oppress an entire racial group on the basis of skin colour. That is categorically wrong and if you disagree, then while you are entitled to your opinion, you happen to be mistaken. Profoundly mistaken. White oppression is wrong. We feel it. We know it. It is discovered intuitively. We love to see good triumph over evil and we cannot stop telling stories about it. It is in our movies, in our books, on TV. It is everywhere. It is the longing of our hearts. And it’s not a surprise, since our longings are derived from the greatest story of them all, the triumph of good over evil by our God. This is why Mandela’s story stirs not simply Christians, but all men and women. We all know inside that when good triumphs over evil, we are witnessing a story which echoes our heart’s desire.

Mandela’s legacy is rich but there is one final comment worth making. In spite of all the good will in the world, he was unable to solve South Africa’s woes. South Africa is still awash with injustice and poverty. He could lead his nation but he certainly could not save it. He could inspire it, but he could not change the human heart. His family, who surrounded him at his death, were already engaged in bickering over his legacy, even before he had passed away. He could not change the hearts of his nearest and dearest and he certainly could not prevent the infighting which has dogged the ANC since his retirement. His country still suffers. It still needs saving, as we all do. Human beings, even inspirational ones like Nelson Mandela, can only highlight our desperate need for a Saviour. We cannot save ourselves. We long for a day when all racial hatred is ended, when peace and reconciliation are not simply assigned to a commission, but reign in the hearts and minds of all humankind. So his deficits, his inability to effect change in the way he would have wished, is a signpost to a greater truth, a truer hope. That no human being can save us. Mandela was a great man, a super . . . man; but he was no Superman. We need a bigger man, a greater man than him. At Christmas, we remember him as the baby in the manger. Immanuel. God with us, our Saviour, who has the power to change human hearts and bring about true and lasting reconciliation. And one day, he will bring about the full restoration of his beautiful creation, when good will finally triumph over evil, and there will be no more torture cells in South Africa and no more whips in cotton fields, when tears will run no more and the agony of our world will be a distant memory.

If it is a memory at all.

We celebrate that Hope this Christmas.