As we wait for the celebration of the nativity of Jesus, I’m reminded that Christmas can be a difficult time of year for many. We’ve found this to be true in the newly planted Baptist church, 57 West in Southend-on-Sea. The church emerged from a context of rough sleepers and low-income households, for whom a fairy-tale Christmas can accentuate feelings of loneliness and the unjust consequences of poverty.
‘No room at the Inn’, Mary and Joseph were told. The nativity story resonates with our present day situation. It could have been the homeless man being moved on: ‘not welcome here’. It could have been a family from Syria, fleeing the war and seeking refuge but hearing ‘no-room here’. All seeking safety, welcome and refuge.
So what can a nativity story of singing angels and visiting wise men speak into a context such as 57 West? If the nativity is reduced to a feel-good fairy tale, it’s detached from the harsh reality often experienced within real life. A fairy tale reduces God to a fairy god mother. This couldn’t be further from the truth. We must look at the nativity again, not forgetting or glossing over the parts that make us feel uncomfortable. The gritty parts: the birth in a dirty stable, King Herod killing thousands of children, Mary, Joseph and Jesus fleeing for their lives, becoming refugees in Egypt.
Seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, Isaiah prophesies: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. Immanuel meaning ‘God with us’. Indeed, God so loved the world that sent his Son to earth, exchanging the glory of heaven for the life of a refugee, as a homeless man, who had no place to rest his head.
It is this reading of the nativity story that gives us hope at 57 West. That ‘God with us’ knows what it’s like to seek welcome, refuge and safety. Jesus experienced the harshness of life. He escaped mass-murder, fleeing to a foreign land, living as a refugee. Perhaps it was these experiences that influenced his later teachings: ‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me’.
The Nativity is a reminder that God breaks into our chaotic world. The birth of Christ heralds in a new way of life, a new kingdom. The Bible prophesies Jesus’ birth:’For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders’. Where justice and righteousness will be established. Where oppression, pain and poverty will be no more, or as Jesus states, he was sent: ‘to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, to comfort all who mourn; the oil of gladness instead of mourning’.
As we prepare at 57 West to celebrate the birth of Jesus, we remember that God is with us, in our sufferings, in our homelessness. God is with us with no food on the table; as we grieve for lost loved ones. God is with us as we welcome refugee families fleeing for their lives, like Mary and Joseph. God is with us as we search for welcome, refuge and safety. It is Immanuel – God with us, who gives us hope this Christmas.