For many of us 2016 has been a difficult year. More than ever, it feels as though we live in a divided and unhappy world.
We have witnessed a backlash against the establishment from disillusioned voters across Europe and the USA with de-stabilising results; we have watched helplessly as a cruel war unfolds in Syria in which thousands of innocent women, men and children have suffered death or the destruction of their homes; we have seen on our TV screens the continuation of terrorist attacks from a ruthless enemy and worried, ‘Could it be us next?’
And it is not just international and national issues that worry us: some of us face challenges in our own families: unemployment, illness, bereavement and concern for those we love and care for, be they younger or older. It is harder than ever to be a teenager or an older, vulnerable person today.
All in all, a bad time; and we can only hope things will get better in 2017.
We can only hope. What does that mean for us today? Is hope merely the naïve optimism induced by the temporary jolliness of the Christmas season, a glass or two of Christmas cheer, or is there something more to it than that?
Jesus of Nazareth – the child of an ordinary working-class couple dislocated from their home in first-century Palestine – was also born at a chaotic time. He was born into a country occupied by the forces of an imperial dictatorship and governed by corrupt local politicians. His parents, Joseph and Mary, were forced to leave home before he was born and fled abroad to escape a genocide perpetrated against children. It all sounds depressingly familiar.
And yet Christians believe the birth of this child – and later his death and resurrection – brings hope. Not a temporary sense of well-being induced by time off work and a few drinks at Christmas, but something much more profound. A real hope. A permanent hope. A world-changing hope. A hope that changes the meaning and purpose of the lives of people of all times and places, and even the planet on which we live.
In Jesus Christ we see a life and death in which God gives us the opportunity to re-establish peace in the world, peace with our neighbours and peace in our own hearts.
It may not seem much like that this Christmas. But the message of Christmas is that in that baby asleep in the crib we see that God has come to us and is with us. God is here, whatever we are facing personally or as a nation or in the world. God in Jesus has come to share our lives, with all their joys and sorrows.
In coming to earth in this child, there is nothing in human experience that God does not know or understand.
And in that solidarity, we see the beginnings of what the angels sang about at the birth of Jesus: peace on earth and goodwill to all people.
All that is needed for this to come into reality is for us and all humankind to join in with God’s work of loving him and doing the best we can for those around us – even if they are not people like us.
I wish you all a hopeful and a peaceful Christmas.