The Christmas season can be a great magnifier. While it magnifies what is good, it also magnifies the pain.
It's been a tough and distressing year in Aotearoa New Zealand: the horrific terrorist shootings in March, the "once-in-a-hundred-year" storms, the ongoing fear of environmental changes and the recent eruption on Whakaari White Island.
Add to this the alienation and rejection many in our society feel because they are homeless or refugees. Some experience the dysfunction of relationships; others the pain of loneliness and an empty chair. The depth of such emotions is magnified in the Christmas season.
Yet Christmas is a time when we hear carols like Joy to the World. We pause to think about what is good and worthy of joy. This is the strange tension in the Christmas season: between the stresses and the celebrations. How do we walk this fine line and find balance between them?
God is saying through the Christmas story: "I see you. I understand you." At Christmas, we remember that God didn't leave this country, or this world, stranded and alone in chaos. Rather, the God who crafted the stars wrapped himself in humanity to become one of us. And so, the one we celebrate today as the Son of God became, as a baby, a homeless refugee. Here again is the tension: why rejoice over the plight of a refugee baby?
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God saw this world and the depths of its wounding. Because He saw it, He left the glory of heaven to step into the mess and problems of our world. On the first Christmas night, the Angel declared that Jesus would bear the name Immanuel, which means "God with us". Not only because, in Jesus, God came near but because God also became with us, for us, one of us. Jesus, God's son, was born amongst the animals. He grew up in a family that experienced poverty. He spent the first years of his life as a refugee, eventually fleeing for his life from a wicked dictatorship. By entering into such experiences, He says to us, "I understand you".
Throughout his life, Jesus aligned himself not with the powerful but with the vulnerable. In his first sermon, Jesus declared He was bringing good news to the poor, freedom for those who were enslaved and sight to those who couldn't see. He declared that He brings hope and peace to those experiencing suffering. In other words, He sees us!
Make no mistake, this Christmas there are homeless people on our streets. There are refugees afraid in a strange city, uncertain about how to make a way in their new homeland. This Christmas, there are hungry people, there are unemployed people, there are those labelled "undesirable": not because they haven't tried enough, not because they don't want a job or a home or someone to love them, but because our world is not always fair. Not even in New Zealand.
Jesus sees and understands the homeless people and notices the refugees. His heart goes out to those who are hungry, unemployed and misunderstood.
Christians strive to honour the birth of Christ by embodying the self-giving love of God and promoting peace and goodwill for all the world. We honour God by working to bring the best elements of family into our world and endeavouring to extend that same security and belonging to those who feel excluded: those who are homeless, addicted or hungry; those who may not speak or live as we do; and those who are alone and afraid.
If we could understand God's heart this Christmas, it would be that lonely and despairing people would find a place to belong: a place where all people are seen and understood; a place where all are able to love and be loved. God doesn't have a "one-size-fits-all" family. Rather, his family is inclusive and full of diversity. It encompasses people from different countries and careers, diverse postcodes and various backgrounds, and a generational spread that includes both millennials and boomers. It includes the stranger, the hungry and the sick. God's plan is for all to experience peace, hope and love with Him.
Our country has experienced trying and shocking times this year. Christmas gives us a time to take stock and to find comfort in the fact that God both sees and understands.
The Christian Church – those who align themselves with Jesus, who said we are to lift up the poor, care for the broken and feed the hungry – has the opportunity to do what we believe God did: to step in, stand alongside, and go out to embrace those in need and invite them into our spaces as family. This family of humanity includes all those made in the image of God.
Christmas is also an opportunity for each of us to act in the way of Jesus: to invite others into our homes; to check in on a neighbour; to serve; to ensure others have a place to belong. In such ways, we are emulating the way God draws near amidst pressure, pain and loneliness.
And to those of different beliefs or of no belief: consider the many ways we can journey together in hope, peace, joy and love. Together, we can help our nation provide belonging in place of fear when we reflect God's self-giving and pragmatic love.
We can have peace in the confidence that comes with knowing that the God who made the world and entered it as a human baby will not abandon this world, or our country. Despite the unpredictability and devastation of natural disasters, and strange and unwelcome weather patterns, we do not have to live in fear.
As Auckland church leaders, we welcome you to join us this Christmas season and to reflect on the way God understands and sees you. We have services happening all over Auckland during this Christmas season. You will certainly be very welcome at a church near you.
Meri Kirihimete. Ngā mihi arohanui.
• Pastor Paul Allen-Baines, Auckland District Chairman, Congregational Union
• Rt Rev Ross Bay, Anglican Bishop of Auckland
• Pastor Tak Bhana, Senior Pastor, Church Unlimited
• Pastor Paul de Jong, Senior Pastor, LIFE
• Pastor Jonathan Dove, Senior Pastor, Greenlane Christian Centre
• Most Rev Patrick Dunn, Catholic Bishop of Auckland
• Majors Ian and Liz Gainsford, Divisional Leaders, The Salvation Army
• Rev Jaron Graham, on behalf of the Church of the Nazarene
• Rev Brett Jones, Interim National Superintendent, Wesleyan Methodist Church
• Pastor Sanjai Kandregula, Senior Pastor, AOGNZ
• Pastor Brian Kelly, Senior Pastor, Calvary Chapel
• Pastor Nich Kitchen, Lutheran Church of New Zealand
• Rev Dr Stuart Lange, Interim National Director, NZ Christian Network
• Rev Kok Soon Lee, Auckland Chinese Churches Association
• Pastor David MacGregor, National Director, Vineyard Churches
• Rev Andrew Marshall, National Director, Alliance Churches of New Zealand
• Very Rev Anne Mills, Dean, Auckland Cathedral of the Holy Trinity
• Rev Steve Millward, Moderator, Northern Presbytery, Presbyterian Church
• Pastor Bruce Monk, International Overseer for Acts Churches & Equippers
• Pastor Sam Monk, Senior Pastor, Equippers Church & Acts National Leader
• Pastor Peter Mortlock, Senior Pastor, City Impact Church
• Pastor Lui Ponifasio, on behalf of the Christian Community Churches of NZ
• Pastor Boyd Ratnaraja, National Leader, Elim Churches
• Pastor Dean Rush, Senior Leader, C3 Church Auckland
• Pastor Jim Shaw, New Life Churches Executive team
• Bishop Brian Tamaki, Senior Minister of Destiny Churches International
• Pastor Allan Taylor, Northern Baptist Association
• Pastor Ben Timothy, President, North New Zealand Conference, Seventh-day Adventist Church
• Rev Graeame White, Auckland Synod Superintendent, Methodist Church