The complexities of life can be overwhelming. In recent weeks I have experienced something of the complexity and internal conflicts of various organisations (– and lives). I have experienced something of the questions, uncertainty, fear, hope and struggle that people within our many organisations, institutions and agencies wrestle with. There are the complex array of legal requirements, along with various compliance and risk assessments, the many concerns that leaders and people within organisations have to consider. It can be overwhelming and absorb large amounts of time and energy.
I have heard stories from within the agencies responsible for fighting fires or having oversight of particular tracts of land and how sometimes competing interests or ideals get in the way and create more stress and strain, often interfering with the work on the ground. As governments, their departments and agencies develop policies and strategies around all manner of issues, there are competing interests and needs and inevitably those who will suffer and struggle from decisions made. Economic ideals seem to dominate so many decisions and determine what is ‘right and wrong.’
Life and the world is made more complex by our access to increasingly more knowledge, available at any time through mobile phones and other technology. Such technology is also the interface for many of us with much of the world each day. It is through this technology that we communicate, hear versions of news, relate to and meet people. Technology increasingly controls more aspects of our lives and reduces the human component. The new Metro trains are driverless and there is a growing move towards less human involvement in transportation and other industries. Technology is deemed more reliable and able to acquire data and ‘make decisions’ more effectively than humans. We rely upon technology more extensively across the breadth of our lives.
Into the midst of this increasingly complex world, we await Christmas and its simple message and stories seem so far removed from the complexities I have met with over recent weeks. This week we read the very simple story of Jesus’ birth as presented by Matthew (Matt 1:18-25). It isn’t the story we usually hear, with shepherds, angels, a journey, cattle stall and a manger… – that basic story comes from Luke’s version. Matthew’s story is about Joseph and his dilemma at discovering his fiancée is pregnant. He receives an angelic message through a dream that all is strangely, mysteriously okay and God is at the centre of this critical event and he is to be reassured that all is as it should be. Joseph is presented as a good man, a righteous man who has felt cheated by another man and the cost of adultery is divorce. Joseph will not pour more humiliation on his wife to be but sets out to ‘quietly divorce’ her before the intervention of the angelic dream.
So, what do we do with this story? How does Joe’s story and dilemma, good actions and journey touch our lives or the complex world in which we live? As I have wrestled with this story and tried to tell and retell it over the years, I have recognised that this is not such a simple nor irrelevant story. In the suburbs and cities of our nation and world, there are countless relationship struggles and tensions, many hidden behind closed doors. Many will result in domestic violence and some in death. Others will result in growing tensions and conflicts that tear relationships apart. Children will be born and brought up in homes where love is absent, and life is tense and harsh. People will break, hurt and feel crushed.
For Joseph, there are many different implications in terms of inheritance, ownership of land and future well-being of his family, if another man has fathered Mary’s child and that family has claims on Joseph’s land. There are honour/shame issues and trust. Matthew presents his story of Jesus with this more complex array of possibilities hidden within its simple form. Only then is there the revelation that God is involved in this child’s birth. God appears in the midst of the confusion, questions, doubt and chaos. It is a strange story where God’s alternate possibilities emerge within the mess rather than beyond the mess. That is the key to Christmas and how God works in human life.
For our modern world where we consider ourselves more sophisticated, we wonder about this story and its poor science (the male seed was implanted into the woman and became a child – she only the incubator). We wonder what this means, and what we do with it. We ultimately turn to anything else for salvation and help. We turn to technology, economics, consumerism, medicine and science, politics, or anything else that makes some concrete promise of well-being or hope. Christmas becomes a succession of parties, tinsel and lights, a world covered in colour and bright music, lots of food and drink and ‘happiness’ – well, for some and only until it fades into new year.
If we are willing to sit with this story we encounter the presence of the Living God who comes! This God comes in human form, vulnerable and dependent – everything Roman Emperors and modern-day ‘gods’ aren’t. God doesn’t break in with power and authority, promises or words, but is revealed in weakness amidst good people who are simple and poor. The name of this child is ‘Immanuel,’ which means ‘God with us.’ This is the counter-cultural and vital message we need to hear – God is with us! God embraces human flesh and is revealed in a baby in the Christmas story. God is also revealed in a young girl who is caught up in a profound blessing that threatens her honour through scandal and shame. God is revealed in a man who is good and tries in every way to do the right thing – he ultimately trusts his fiancée and the dreams he receives. God is revealed as being ‘with us,’ in our midst and present to us in ways that technology cannot be. God does touch us and communicate through technology, I’m sure, but ultimately through a human face and sits with us in the mess of life as we question and struggle. God is with us!
As I listened to the struggles in various agencies overseeing the fighting of fires, I recognised that God was/is revealed most fully in the fire-fighter, the SES person, the chaplain, the neighbour, the simple person providing somewhere to stay or food to eat. I realise God is revealed in the simple acts of kindness and love between people in messy, chaotic and painful situations. God is present in the lick of the dog or the simple flower spreading colour and perfume. God will be present in the rain when it comes but sits with us in the desolate dryness of the land, dry, burnt and struggling. God is present to hold us and walk with us when everything falls apart and we feel lost, alone and hopeless.
We may often wish for an interventionist God who will respond to our desires, fears, and hopes in a way we want or need. That isn’t the way of the world where human choice and freedom is a gift. Looking into the organisations and institutions recently, I have to wonder whether we always know what is right or good for us and our world. We try and believe but don’t always know, so, God is with us, in the mess as the presence of Love!