Have you ever read a murder mystery novel, or watched a detective programme on television where you don’t find out whodunit right until the very end? There are clues along the way which hint at the guilty party, many red herrings to be distracted by, and with any number of suspects, until eventually at the climax of the story we discover who was responsible. When the culprit is finally revealed, the rest of the story makes sense. All those aspects which initially seemed confusing or suspicious fall into place, and the convention is usually that all the loose ends are tied up.
But have you then tried re-reading, or re-watching the story, knowing what happens in the end? It completely changes the way you understand what is going on. The story falls into place much more easily, because you have the key piece of information which explains everything else. And once you have that information, you can’t forget it, or put it to the back of your mind, and it becomes impossible to read the story, or watch the programme the way you did the first time. It’s like seeing the world after having laser eye surgery, you can never go back to viewing things the way that you saw them before.
As the nights draw in, the temperature drops, and winter begins, it can be easy to feel jaded as we hear again the story of Jesus’ arrival on Earth. We all know how the story goes, we all know what happens to each of the characters, and we all know how it ends. And knowing what happens makes it almost impossible to hear the story the way that we did when our hearts were captivated by the bravery of Mary, the loyalty of Joseph, the pilgrimage of the shepherds and the Magi, the glory of the angels, the jealousy of Herod, and wonderful paradox of the infant saviour of the world lying vulnerable in the place where animals feed. Familiarity, as they say, can breed contempt.
But, of course, being swept up in the emotion of the narrative is only half of what is going on here. Because although this nativity story marks the beginning of the story of Jesus’ life among us, it is the plot twist in the story of God’s relationship with all humans, which is a rather longer tale. Here’s how that story goes…
God creates the universe, and everything in it, and gives humans a special place in that creation. He asks them to look after the planet, and live peaceably with one another. But humans decide to turn their back on God. They spurn God’s love, and they treated one another badly. So God gives them a set of laws to help them stay on track. When people break the laws, God sends holy men and women, prophets, judges and kings, to lead people into holier ways of living. But they are ignored, or turn their back on God themselves. There is a gap between God and the people, and no matter what God gives to the people to help them come back, they always seemed to mess it up.
So God did what only God could do. He becomes one of the people. Not a powerful one, he isn’t born rich, or into royalty, and he doesn’t have a powerful family. Instead he comes as an outcast: poor, homeless, of no social standing, the tiny frail body of a newborn child. And he lives a life of humble obedience, preaching a Gospel of boundless love and unlimited forgiveness. A life which the least in society can imitate far more easily than the greatest. God shows humans the way to live, and how by following that example, ultimately we could be reconciled with him. God became like us so that we could become like God.
It’s a story which never gets old.