Thursday, 17 January 2013

O Little Town of Bethlehem

We spent last month retelling the Christmas story. There were angels who sang, and shepherds who ran, there were innkeepers who didn’t have any room, and there was a stable which was perfect because Mary’s baby would be born soon. All this singing and running and rooming and birthing happened in the little town of Bethlehem in Judea.

But this month there is another story emerging from another Bethlehem, the one in Tauranga, the one I can walk to from my little house on the hill. The story goes like this:

In Bethlehem in Tauranga there was a school. This school sent some students, some teachers, and some parents to a school in Ma’hanga in Kenya to build classrooms and to build
cross-cultural relationships. The people of Bethlehem were in a minivan on the Nairobi-Murang’a highway in the heavy rain. The van rolled and ran into a ditch. The crash claimed four lives and bruised many others.

This story feels like a far cry from the birth of Jesus Christ – a far, aching, guttural cry of grief.

But maybe it’s not too far. Jesus is known as the Suffering Servant; “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). The birth of Jesus Christ isn’t separated from his death, it’s the same life we’re talking about, it’s the same story. The story of how God became human, the story of how God came to be with us, the story of how God came so we could be home. Christmas points to Easter, where God is bringing light from darkness, hope from despair, and life from death.

Life and death. These two stories go together, like this: life, death, life. This is true for those who died in the crash in Kenya too. These faithful followers of Christ have been living God’s story; their lives tell the tale of a God who is compassionate and generous and so full of love it overflows. Their death doesn’t change that. Life, death, life – that’s how the story goes.

But for those who remain, those recovering in hospital and those racked with grief, know this: the Risen Christ is with you, his scarred hands hold yours and his bruised body bears yours. Your story is a part of God’s story, your life is a part of God’s life. 

Behold! God is making all things new. From Bethlehem in Judea to Bethlehem in Tauranga and everywhere in between. Someday soon there will be singing and running and rooming and rebirthing.

Maranatha, come Lord Jesus.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Of Camels and Kings

A reflection on Matthew 2:1-12 for Epiphany 2013

We’re travellers, we are. Traipsing our way across deserts and wandering in wide open spaces; tracking our way through valleys and over treacherous mountain ranges. 

How we wound up here in Bethlehem is beyond me. I’m just the bag boy, packing camels and carting water. The others, they’re the smart ones – the scholars. But out on the road, out in the wilderness, we’re all travellers wandering beneath the same sky. 

The sky! That’s where their heads are – always up in the clouds, always turned toward the heavens. These scholars – these astrologers – are forever consulting scrolls and counting the stars and charting the skies. They can’t get enough of it! They’re as excitable as children, and the gods know they’re grown men, old in years, long in the tooth. 

I feel like I have to be the sensible one, telling them we need to start thinking about making camp, the camels can’t carry on much longer and look, the light is fading. Despite the long days, they’re up all night gazing at the lights beyond. By dawn we’re on the move again as the sun emerges in the east. 

The East. That’s where we’ve come from, and come for what? For the dirty, dusty streets of Bethlehem?! For the beloved City of David?! This doesn’t look like any city I’ve ever seen before, and besides, who on earth is David? 

They say they’ve come for a king, but they saw the king when we were in the City of Jerusalem. King Herod, King of the Jews, that’s what he told them. I’ve always wanted to see a king; to be in the presence of a powerful ruler, to sit with them in their splendour. Maybe I’ll get my chance on the way back. When we were there I had to wait behind the palace with the beasts and the bags. Better luck next time, I hope. 

Yet King Herod told them to head to Bethlehem, so here we are. But this is no place for a king; no palace to accommodate him, no placards announcing the news of his birth, no sign of nobility…

But look a-yonder! Can you see that star?! How could you miss it?! This is the star they’ve been talking about all this time. Each night the men point to the sky and discuss the stars, telling me their names and teaching me about navigation. But tonight, tonight it’s like I’ve noticed this star for the first time, the way it blinks and beckons.

I bump into the back of a camel and shake my eyes off the night sky. Why have we stopped? I step to the side and see the Magi still and silenced – the wise with no words to say. It’s quite a sight; legs astride, eyes surprised, mouths open wide. I let out a laugh and it echoes along the empty streets. I hold my mouth with one hand and slap my knee with the other. The men throw back their heads and their bellies shake as their joy bursts from their bodies. How undignified, how delightful! 

No one can say a word, but we know we’ve arrived. We’ve caused such a ruckus a man comes to the door, but instead of cursing us he calls us to come in. I follow, leaving the animals to fend for themselves. Inside there’s a child and his mother. She’s not much older than me, and he’s just a wee boy. 

We bow to him, and for the second time tonight I put my hand to my knee as I lower my body to the floor. My fellow travellers bring forth their treasures; gold, frankincense, myrrh – gifts fit for a king. King of the Jews, they say, the Messiah, the Christ. But this is no ordinary king, not by any means. Yet I know, here in the back of beyond, far from any palace or place of honour, I am in the presence of a King. 

His name is Jesus, she says. He will be called 'Immanuel' the Magi say, Immanuel, God with us.

I make a face and the child grins at me. I grin back. How glorious! God is with us!