We are coming to the end of a year of shocks. Brexit was one obvious one, as was the outcome of the American election. Fellow EU citizens as near as Italy experienced death and devastation as a result of the appalling natural shock that is an earthquake.
Getting a shock is dramatic, unexpected, unpleasant. A minor unintended experience of electric shock is a frightening experience to be avoided.
The manger scene, which so easily becomes a source of sentimental wallowing, is meant to be
utterly shocking. At an instant everything previously assumed about how God engages with the world is thrown upside down. Poverty, dirt, unplanned teenage pregnancy, disreputable visitors from the hillside …all the ingredients are there for a story which should cause the observer to be thrown off course and to recoil. This is a quite shocking way for God to do business.
We religious types don’t like the look of it at all. The wise men who turn up a bit later try to make it decent with their gold and incense. By the time they appear and address the shocking smell and the poverty the story is becoming slightly sanitised, almost suitable to be read out at a carol service in a warm church among stylishly dressed people.
But forget the gold and the incense and the style for a bit. Try this Christmas to look hard at the crib and be shocked. Above all think of what Mary’s obedience really cost her in terms of pain and risk.
And ask yourself…have you ever done a single thing in your life by way of obedience to God that has shocked anyone? And if the answer is no, you are failing to embrace the spirit of Christmas, to be true to the God who entered a manger in order to be shocking and to capsize the values of the complacent.
I don’t know as a mere bishop what I have ever done to walk in the footsteps of the shocking God.
I should look at my own life before I lecture others. But perhaps I would be a little less shocked by external matters like Brexit and Trump if I tried to live a bit more shockingly myself.
It should probably be my resolution for 2017.
How do I, for God’s sake, shock more effectively? How do I thereby become more authentically Christmassy?
I can only make a start this year by bringing the church I purport to lead away from
the safety of the sanctuary and back to the manger – where God lives and loves, and proclaims that in truth a lot of what now dominates my excessively churchy life is pretty unimportant.