The Dark Side of Christmas (John 1:1-14) Christmas Eve 2007
O Little Town of Bethlehem
Imprisoned you now lie.
Above thy deep and silent grief,
Surveillance drones now fly.
And through thy old streets standeth,
A huge illegal Wall.
The hopes and dreams that peace will come
Are dashed in this year’s Fall.
O morning stars together,
Look down upon this crime.
The people sing to God the King
But justice, who can find?
Yes, Christ was born of Mary,
God’s love remains supreme.
But mortals sleep as children weep,
Their pain is never seen.
How silently, how silently,
The world and Church protests.
As checkpoints grow and towns confined,
As settlers steal and rest.
No ear may hear the outcry,
As Israel’s Wall is built.
While meek souls muse, Apartheid rules -
We speak or share in guilt.
O Holy Child of Bethlehem,
Give strength to us, we pray.
Cast out our fears and open eyes.
O give us voice today!
We stand against injustice,
The Occupation must end.
May justice rule our Lord’s birthplace,
May now Christ’s peace descend.
Did you find that adaptation of “O Little Town” by Stephen Leah unsettling or even shocking? Then it is probably because of the way Christmas was sentimentalized in the 19th Century. Many of our popular carols were written then. If people in the 19th Century sentimentalized Christmas, people in the 20th Century trivialised Christmas. Naïve romanticism led to cynical commercialism. What will happen to Christmas in the 21st Century is really up to you and me. This evening I want us to explore “The Dark Side of Christmas”. I want us to discover the raw, authentic, genuine, real, true Christmas - in Bethlehem then, Bethlehem now and Bethlehem here.
1. Christmas in Bethlehem: Then
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not
overcome it… 9 The true light that gives light to everyone was
coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world
was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came
to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. (John 1:5, 9-11) The
Christmas story begins in darkness. Pitch darkness. Darkness comes in various forms.
There was first of all the darkness of occupation
The Roman occupation of Palestine was ruthless and unforgiving. The Israelites were terrorized into submission. They were a defeated nation. Palestine was occupied territory. Travelling from Nazareth to Bethlehem, even on the orders of the occupying power would be a long and dangerous journey, especially for a young pregnant woman. The roads were littered with the corpses of those who had resisted the occupation, hung from crosses for mile after mile as a warning to others. There would be roadblocks, checkpoints, spies, rebels, bandits. Mary and Joseph would have travelled with others for safety. The darkness of occupation.
There was also the darkness of exploitation
The Roman occupation was maintained by ruthless discipline and overwhelming force. The Romans were not prompted by altruism. The conquest led to the exploitation of the conquered. The developments which they fostered in agriculture, in mining, their grand irrigation schemes, their impressive new cities and seaports, aqueducts, roads and fortresses - were prompted by one single, all consuming goal. To maximize the revenue sucked from their empire. Heavy taxes were laid upon the Israelites. Huge levies on agricultural produce - to feed Rome’s appetite - and forced conscription of men to serve as slaves, seaman and soldiers - were ruthlessly enforced, impoverishing the people. The people paid dearly for their own colonisation. Indeed it was the despised Roman taxation system which brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem on that first Christmas night. The census declared by Caesar Augustus was intended to identify the value of his assets in Palestine and increase the revenue for his empire.
The darkness of occupation led to the darkness of exploitation.
There was also the darkness of disillusionment
That is why there was an ever-increasing number who felt that violence, not faith, was the most effective path of resistance. Where was the coming Messiah long promised by the prophets? Hence the rise of the zealots, the resistance movement of freedom fighters. There were the Sicarii (or dagger men), who were bent on liberating Palestine from occupation by violence. They assassinated fellow Jews who collaborated with Rome. On that first Christmas night, the mood in Bethlehem was one of despair, violence and resignation. There was darkness. The darkness of occupation, exploitation and disillusionment. Christmas in Bethlehem: Then
2. Christmas in Bethlehem: Now
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…” (John 1:5)
Let me introduce you to three Christian
friends, relatives of Jesus living and working in Bethlehem. They are an
endangered minority threatened with extinction. I’m going to let them speak to
you about the meaning of Christmas.
First, my friend Wisam. Wisam Salsaa is a Tour Guide from Beit Sahour. Beit Sahour is literally the Shepherds Fields to the East of Bethlehem.
“We live in a hunting zone - The last 7-8 months have been the worst months in our lives. Before the new government took over, people were able to struggle and to eat; now everyone is tired, and some cannot find food to eat. People are so desperate... we are feeling our weakness, and the weakness of what they call justice in this world. Look at the new maps and the settlements - over five hundred thousand settlers are living in the West Bank so far – The wall is going around us, … a stranger may think it is a zoo or a national reserve – but it is not. Zoos or national reserves are protected. But we are not! The Israeli army attacks Bethlehem often to arrest or to kill! We live in a hunting Zone. Bethlehem is completely surrounded with settlements… The Israelis understand that very well, and now after completing the wall, they are able to manage the conflict for many years with very little effect on their own people, until they reach their goal. With all of what is happening in the world, talking about a real comprehensive peace in our region could seem like a dream… we are too far from this dream at the moment. But I have a dream to make peace with ourselves, with our neighbours and friends, to make Palestine a liveable place for Christians and Muslims despite all of the challenges. This is possible.”
Zoughbi is also a good friend. – Zoughbi is the Director of Wi’am Conflict Resolution Centre, Bethlehem.
He said this recently, "Bethlehem is going down, so we need compassionate listening because in hearing there is healing. We need prayers and exchange visits as the Palestinians are being collectively punished for their democratic choice. Our hope is in you - we see God in your faces, in your prayers, in your words. I shiver with hope when you come. In Bethlehem, we are hostages to fear and paranoia. Less than 0.05 per cent get permits for travel; consequently there is no freedom of movement and therefore no freedom of religion. Displacement of anger is increasing domestic violence and 80 per cent of children are showing signs of trauma. There are many psychological problems and not enough psychiatrists. Over 500 families have left Bethlehem in the last 5 years (i.e. 3,000 people) and Israeli fundamentalists are creating more and more settlements. We live in a pressure cooker, which is a recipe for transfer, i.e. conditions to make you leave if you can. In the long run the Israelis want the land without the people.
There were over eighty shops nearby most of which have now closed. The wall is squeezing everywhere and land is being taken. Banks are refusing to channel money and now we can only get money through Jordanian banks. We don’t get post in Bethlehem, or if we do it is severely interfered with. For instance, we had some Disney videos sent from the States for the children – they didn’t arrive for months; when they did arrive, only the boxes came and the videos were taken out. When we asked the reason, they said it was 'for security’. Israel worships the new Golden Cow of security, meanwhile the ethnic cleansing of a people is going on, and so in Bethlehem we will end up a museum. We call for the world, especially the Christian world to recognise its collective responsibility for Bethlehem and what is happening to the West Bank and Gaza. “Despite the difficulties in our lives, we will rejoice at the birth of Christ at Christmas. Taking our inspiration from the story in the Bible of Herod's massacre and the flight to Egypt of the Holy Family. The inspiration comes from knowing that despite being born into those dark days, amid the harsh Roman occupation, and despite the fear that must have gone with the family as they escaped to another country, Jesus did return and was able to spread his ministry of peace and love. We are living in a similar situation 2000 years later, behind the Apartheid Wall and under the harsh occupation, many Palestinians are escaping to other countries. But we are persevering and will celebrate Christmas with the message of hope and deliverance that Christ has planted in our hearts. We pray that through the miraculous birth of Christ we will see the Wall go and change into a bridge of understanding between the two peoples living here. Our prayer is that through mutuality, inclusivity, and reciprocity, the road to reconciliation will conquer all kinds of fears, paranoia, and injustices and the Holy Land will once again be the source of hope and light.” Zougbhi Zougbhi (Director of the Wi’am Conflict Resolution Centre, Bethlehem)
Finally, let me introduce you to my friend Naim. Naim Ateek is a Canon at St George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem. It is unlikely he will be in Bethlehem tonight. Born and raised in Jerusalem, like many other Christians in Palestine, he is nevertheless forbidden to travel the six miles to Bethlehem. He cannot celebrate the birth of Jesus at the Church of the Nativity because his country is under occupation. The road to Bethlehem is blocked by checkpoints, armed soldiers and the Separation Wall. Naim wrote this reflection last week, comparing the similarities between Bethlehem then and Bethlehem now.
“During this Christmas season as we reflect on the message of the angels, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace...” we can only understand it against the peace which Caesar gives. God’s formula for peace is juxtaposed with Pax Romana. For Caesar, peace is imposed by the might of empire. This is evident when occupied people are forced to give homage to Caesar, when they are coerced to pay taxes to Rome, and when they accept Rome’s sovereignty and unquestioned domination. It is against this kind of peace that the radical message of Christmas comes to us, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace...” Peace comes when the sovereignty of God is acknowledged rather than Caesar’s. For people living under occupation or oppression, Caesar has become a symbol of the evil that crushes and enslaves. The message of the angels stands for God’s kingdom. In the kingdom of God, glory and sovereignty belong to God and not to Caesar. God’s peace is not achieved by crushing and eliminating others but by embracing them. Caesar’s empire is built on violence and military might, God’s empire is built on justice and mercy. Caesar’s peace enslaves and humiliates, God’s peace liberates and restores dignity to the oppressed. Caesar builds walls to separate people, God tears down the walls of separation to join, unify, and reconcile them one with the other. Caesar’s peace is exclusive for a chosen few, God’s peace is inclusive for all regardless of their race or ethnicity. Ultimately, peace will come not from the Caesars and all those who trust in their military might and in the arrogance of their power but from the meek that put their trust in God.
It is the meek who will inherit the earth. Peace will come from the labour, toil, and hard work of all those who do not glory in their riches, or in their power, but glory in their love and service of God, and in their love and acceptance of others. God’s message of peace still rings true, not from Annapolis that represents empire, but from the small town of Bethlehem, Palestine that still suffers under occupation. The peace that the Caesars of the world give is largely false and deceptive, and it cannot last. Only the peace that God gives, the peace that is based on justice and truth will survive and prosper. May the New Year bring us closer to the peace we hope for; and let us continue the struggle together for the achievement of God’s peace for all the people of Palestine-Israel.”
Christmas in Bethlehem then. Christmas in Bethlehem now.
3. What about Christmas in Bethlehem: Here?
How are we to celebrate Christmas here? Now? Tonight? How, in the darkness that is just as pervasive today as it was that first Christmas? We may not suffer the darkness of occupation or exploitation. But there is around us the darkness of spiritual ignorance. There is the darkness of moral blindness. There is the darkness of malevolent evil. The darkness is real. But because of Christmas, it will never get so dark that we can't see the light. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…” (John 1:5)
Into the darkness, God sent an eternal light. As you walk home this evening, notice that the darkness does not intrude upon the light. No, it is the light that intrudes scattering the darkness. Light is always stronger than darkness.
And the forces of light are stronger than the forces of darkness. Tonight we have faced “The Dark Side of Christmas” in Bethlehem then and Bethlehem now. I said I wanted us to discover the raw, authentic, genuine, real, true message of Christmas. That’s what we find in John 1:11-14.
“He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. 14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:11-14)
The coming of the light of Christ divides people, as it cuts into the darkness. We learn that
Some will Reject
the Light of Christ – and they face the judgment of God
“He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (John 1:11) Does this verse burden you? The presence of evil, of oppression and injustice in our world, won’t end tonight, however much we pray for peace on earth. Why? Because, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” (John 3:19)
Until Christ returns, our calling is to bring light into those parts of our world consumed with darkness. Our message to those who reject Jesus, and cause darkness, in love, must therefore be one of warning. Repent because judgment awaits them.“Whoever believes in him is not condemned. Whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” (John 3:18). Some will reject the light – and face the judgment of God.
Receive the Living Christ – and become children of God
“Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1:12-13)
Does this verse assure you? Do you know that you are a child of God? If not, then become one tonight. The Son of God was born this night so that you might be born a child of God tonight. Repent of your sin, and receive him as your Lord and Saviour and have the assurance that you are a child of God. If you are not sure what that means, then join our Christianity Explored course starting Thursday 17th January. Some will reject the Light of Christ and face the judgment of God. Some will receive the Living Christ and become children of God.
Some will Rejoice
in the Lord Jesus Christ – and proclaim the glory of God
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:11-14)
this verse excite you? If you are a Christ follower, it will. This night of all
nights we will sing of the glory of God.
No, we will not be discouraged by the darkness any more than our brothers and sisters in Bethlehem tonight. In Jesus Christ, we have found a life that overcomes death, a love that conquers hate, the truth that prevails over falsehood, and light, light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never, ever, overcome it.
Whether in Bethlehem then, Bethlehem now, or Bethlehem here. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…” (John 1:5)