Last Christmas I was given a Fitbit in the vain hope that I might walk more. Walking is not only good for your health I was told but it has a biblical imperative! The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, so says the prophet Isaiah. The truth is that the people of God did an awful lot of walking. They walked all over ancient Israel sharing the good news of God’s love, offering hope to those who suffer, proclaiming freedom and liberation to all who are oppressed. But the trouble is that often it is hard to walk well when you have a rock in your shoe1.
When there is a rock in your shoe, it digs into your foot and makes every step a bit painful. It can cause you to limp; it brings frustration. And so, on a long journey, when you realise that you have a rock in your shoe, what should you do? You need to take that stone out of your shoe. And once it is gone, then you can continue on your way – then you can walk forward free from the stone that causes you pain, and slows down your progress.
The problem is, we often carry stones in our shoes, as it makes it harder to follow Jesus. We are supposed to be on a journey of faith. We are supposed to walk forward in love. We are supposed to stand on our own two feet and travel along the paths of faithfulness. But there are these stones in our shoes, and they cause us to stop. To sit down. To give up. The stones in our shoes made it hard for us to fully follow Jesus.
And, as we approach Advent and Christmas, we are reminded that, in the Incarnation, Jesus, the Christ-child, the Light of the world, came to liberate us from the stones in our shoes so that we can work for the liberation of the world. We need to be freed from the stones in shoes so that we can bring freedom and hope and love and peace into a troubled world. We need to find God’s liberation, God’s freedom in our lives so that we can be messengers of that liberation in God’s world. Perhaps, this year, in 2016, we need to hear that especially this Christmas after the year we have had: wars, earthquakes, elections and exits to name but a few.
This Christmas, we will once again sing with yearning hope, for we live in dark and fearful times. Nation invades nation, leaving terror and destruction in their wake. Our hearts go out to the people of Syria. Angry mobs attack each other on streets and give birth to still more bitterness and fear. Parents run themselves ragged trying ensure that it is not them and their families who fall through the cracks into redundancy, poverty and despair. The dark, dark world is constantly divided into winners and losers, and the losers are sacrificed for the security and glorification of the winners. And anyone who shines a challenging light onto the dark violence of it all is denounced as a threat and a loser and is destroyed. Dark and fearful times. But the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in the land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.
So here we are – living in light or darkness or to use the metaphor of stones in our shoes – living where the sins and lies hold us back from walking in the light. First of all, we need to tell the truth. There is violence and pain in our world. Power is being used in abusive and terrible ways. We are living in systems of injustice and oppression. We need to acknowledge the truth.
Secondly, we need to look at ourselves. Where are the stones in our shoes? Do we have a fear of people who are different than us? Do we allow fear to control interactions with other human beings? Do we allow prejudice, racism, judgement to stop us from offering the Love which came down at Christmas?
Or is it a desire to be liked? We are so afraid of hurting people’s feelings that we do not speak truth about injustice, racism and violence. We want everyone to like us, so we refuse to do the radical work of following Jesus. Or is it selfishness with money and time? We don’t want to truly invest in the kingdom of God. We don’t want to fully offer our time and money to changing the world. Or is it something else? What other stones, keep you from finding the Christ-child?
The story we celebrate this Christmas is not a safe one. From the very beginning there were few who could accept it. Every version of the story attests to this. John says he came to his own but his own people did not accept him. Luke says that even as he was being born, no room could be found for him. Matthew says the very mention of him threw the king into a murderous fit, and the child and his family had to flee.
Perhaps we have stood still in darkness for so long that we need to move out into the light to which Isaiah attests. We need to walk towards those who are oppressed and hurting. We need to walk towards those who are excluded and shunned. We need to walk towards those who are hungry and thirsty. We need to walk towards those who are different from us. And in order to do this walking, we need to get rid of some stones. Then we will find ourselves born anew, born of God, as children of God, full of grace and truth. And if we begin to do that, if we begin to approach the world with the same humility and the same astonishing refusal to meet violence with anything but outrageous mercy and resilient love, then the light will grow brighter and the darkness will retreat a little further. And as we continue to walk in hope on unhindered by the stones in our shoes, we will indeed be hastening the long awaited day when the child born for us will rule in endless peace, with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.
Come, Lord Jesus.
Be born in us this Christmas.
With Advent and Christmas blessings,
Revd Nicola Furley-Smith, Synod Moderator
1 Thank you to Revd. Kari Nicewander, a UCC minister, with whom I walked in faith this summer, for the imagery of the rock in my shoe.