Summary: What does the Christmas story sound like, if we could hear it again for the first time? Whom would we identify with in the story? What would our response be?
[Sermon preached on 25 December 2017, Christmas Day]
Amal is a young man from Syria. He has come to Finland as an asylum seeker. Back in Syria, the authorities are after his life because he has offended the Prophet Muhamad. There is no way he could return and survive. Amal still considers himself a proper Muslim, but he is open-minded. Here in Finland, he has been outright overwhelmed by the love and care and help and compassion that Christians have shown him. Back in Syria, he was taught that Christians are the enemies of Islam, but his experience tells another story. So he decides that he wants to find out more about what Christians think about the Prophet Jesus.
On Christmas Eve 2016, he is invited to attend a Christmas Eve service in a church in downtown Helsinki. There he hears the Christmas gospel, read in a language he barely understands. A woman sitting next to him is aware of his problem and shows him the Bible passage that is being read. Amal digs out his smartphone and looks up the second chapter of Luke in Arabic, his mother tongue.
What he reads there touches him deeply. It comes to him as a great surprise that the Christmas story speaks about his fatherland Syria. A Roman governor, Quirinius, is ruling over the people. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what the people have to go through when ruled by a foreign ruler, whose primary interest is wealth, power and political career. Nothing new under the sun! Still today, in Syria it is a tyrant and a handful of foreign powers who decide over the fate of the people, not the people themselves.
When Joseph and Mary enter the story, Amal immediately identifies with them. These two young people are forced to leave their family and loved ones to make the trip to a region that is totally foreign to them. When they arrive to the town where they have been told to go, they don’t find proper accommodation. The census that the Roman emperor Augustus has decreed, has made many people travel to Bethlehem. Probably, the journey also coincides with one of the great festivals of the Jews. It would mean that perhaps 100,000 pilgrims would try to find accommodation near Jerusalem. Bethlehem is only a two-hour walk from the Holy City. Be what may, the youngsters find themselves homeless in Bethlehem when Mary is pregnant and due to give birth any time. Luckily, thanks to the hospitality for which the Middle East is renowned, they find a place to stay. But it is not an ideal place to spend the night. What they are offered is an animal shelter. Amal thinks of the reception center where he has spent his days ever since his arrival in Finland. Jesus, whom the Christians worship as a god, was even worse off than he. It is surprisingly easy for Amal to sympathize with this Jesus.
As he reads on in the Christmas story, the focus shifts to the fields around Bethlehem. There are shepherds there tending their flocks in the middle of the night. These people live in the margin of society. They do the dirty and dangerous work that most people can afford to refuse. Amal thinks of the many asylum seekers and other immigrants from the Middle East and Africa, whose only chance of earning an income is to do the dirty work that Finns refuse to accept. How come that it is exactly these marginalized and often humiliated people to whom the news about the newborn baby is told first? Why not to the owner of the animal shelter where Jesus is born? That would give him the chance to offer this special child a more honorable place to spend the first days and weeks of his life. Amal is getting really confused about what kind of God the Christians worship.
The shepherds are visited by an angel. After a while a large heavenly army joins the scene. When Amal reads these verses, to his mind do not come those blond girls with cute white dresses and with wings on their backs, singing with clear children’s voices: “Glory to God!” Amal sees nothing cute or endearing in the scene outside Bethlehem.
He thinks he recognizes the angel who addresses the shepherds. The Quran speaks about an archangel whose name is Jibrail. Jibrail is the commander of the heavenly army—just like the archangel Michael in the Bible, by the way. Amal does not hear a choir of angels singing. He hears an army of heavenly warriors uttering battle cries—or perhaps cries of victory. He has seen that so many times in Syria—sometimes the Syrian army, at other times the freedom fighters whom Syrian president Bashar al-Assad calls rebels, and sometimes even terrorist fighters from the camp of Daesh—what we call ISIS. Everything seems to communicate that there is a battle in the making. Is God planning a military intervention to deliver his people from the Roman occupation? Amal is confused. But at least one thing he knows: such a battle never materialized in history.