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Sunday, 20 December 2015


Today's Advent Liturgy in the New International Version reads, in part:

“He will stand and shepherd his flock
    in the strength of the Lord,
    in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they will live securely, for then his greatness
    will reach to the ends of the earth. And he will be our peace
    when the Assyrians invade our land”

I don't know about you, but I find that prophecy strangely comforting in these dark days!

“He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.” “And he will be our peace when the Assyrians invade our land.”

However, as we all know, a text without a context is a pretext, so rather than just taking the words as a lovely Christmas prophecy – which of course, on one level, they are – let's look a bit deeper and find out a bit more about Micah, and what he was talking about.

Micah was a prophet in 8th-century Judah, more or less a contemporary with Isaiah, Amos and Hosea. As with so many of the prophets, the book starts off with great doom and gloom.He prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem,particularly because they were simply dishonest and then expected God to cover for them: “Her leaders judge for a bribe, her priests teach for a price, and her prophets tell fortunes for money. Yet they lean upon the LORD and say, Is not the LORD among us? No disaster will come upon us.” But Micah said, “Well, actually....” As one modern paraphrase puts it: “The fact is, that because of you lot, Jerusalem will be reduced to rubble and cleared like a field; and the Temple hill will be nothing but a tangled mass of weeds"

An archaeologist called Roland de Vaux has excavated village sites only a few miles from where Micah is thought to have lived, and he has something very interesting to say: “The houses of the tenth century B.C. are all of the same size and arrangement. Each represents the dwelling of a family which lived in the same way as its neighbours. The contrast is striking when we pass to the eighth century houses on the same site: the rich houses are bigger and better built and in a different quarter from that where the poor houses are huddled together.”

During those 200 years, Israel and Judah had moved from a largely agricultural society to one governed by a monarchy and with a Temple in Jerusalem. The distinction between the “Haves” and the “Have nots” had grown, as it does still today. But Micah tells the powerful ones – the judges, the priests, the rulers – that God doesn't prop up any so-called progress that is built on the backs of other people. For God, justice and equality matter far more than progress or growth. But God's people disagree, and they try to stop Micah, and other prophets, telling them God's truth; they only want to hear comforting, agreeable prophecies about how their crops will flourish and there will be plenty of wine!

But when Jerusalem has been destroyed, when her people have been carried off into exile, then a day will come when a new leader will be born to them, a leader who will “stand and shepherd his flock in the days of the Lord”, and “who will be our peace when the Assyrians invade our land.”

I expect you realise that these prophecies were often dual-purpose; they did and do refer to the coming of Christ, of course, but they also often referred to a local event, a local birth. We don't know who Micah was originally referring to, who would be born in Bethlehem, but we do know that, for us, these prophecies refer to Jesus.

“He will be our peace when the Assyrians invade our land.” These days we worry rather more about Syrians than about Assyrians – whether we are concerned about the number of refugees seeking asylum here, or whether we are more concerned, as we should be, about how relatively few our government is allowing in. Some people, I know, worry that we shouldn't allow them in in case they turn out to belong to Daesh and want to commit acts of terrorism, but those are the tiniest of tiny minorities among those fleeing Syria.

We call them “migrants”, lumping them all under one umbrella. The term is supposed to be neutral, less laden with emotional baggage than “refugee” or “asylum seeker”. It isn't, of course, because people then talk about “illegal immigrants” or “economic migrants”. And it's noticeable that if we Brits go to live abroad we aren't called migrants – I did the whole economic migrant thing back in the 1970s, when I went to work in Paris for some years after leaving school, but nobody called me a “migrant”, economic or otherwise – I was an expatriate! And people talked about cultural exchange, and our young people learning about different lifestyles, and so on, and it was all considered a Good Thing.

And, of course, many of your families, and perhaps some of you are the first generation who did so, many of you came over here to work and contribute to our society and learn about our way of life – and have enriched this country beyond all measure! Maybe you can remember the bewilderment of arriving here, not too sure of your welcome, not too sure what life in this cold and rainy land was going to be like.

Even if someone does make it across the Channel, their problems aren't yet over. They aren't allowed to work while their claim for asylum is being processed, and although they do get an allowance, it really isn't very much. Not really enough to live on, and certainly not enough for a comfortable lifestyle. And if they are found not to be in imminent danger of death back home, they are thrown out again, and if that's on their records they can't really go and try their luck somewhere else in Europe.

I don't know what the answer long-term is. The politicians will have to work that one out between them. But we need to pray for all migrants, and do what we can to help. That may be only donating a few pounds to the Unicef appeals that we see daily on our televisions, or we may be called to do something more “hands-on”. Whatever, though, we mustn't think of it as someone else's problem!

Because Jesus will be our peace, so Micah tells us. If we believe Matthew's account, he was himself a refugee for awhile, when they fled to Egypt to avoid Herod's troops. As I understand it, God won't necessarily keep the bad times from us, or protect us from what lies ahead, but Jesus will be there with us in the midst of it all. And I, personally, find that reassuring.

Our Gospel reading, too, told of someone who badly needed reassurance. Mary has just met the angel and been told that, if she will, she is the one who will bear God's son, and she has said “Yes”. But it's early days yet – there aren't any physical signs that she is pregnant, she has never slept with a man, what is it all about? But one thing the angel had told her, that she hadn't already known, was that her cousin Elisabeth, surely far too old to be having babies, was six months gone. So Mary goes off to see Elisabeth – incidentally this, for me, is one of the pointers that she was living in the Jerusalem area at the time, whether at Bethlehem or Jerusalem itself – tradition has it that she was ­one of the temple servants – because she would never have been able to travel all that way between Nazareth and Jerusalem on her own.

Anyway, she arrives at Elisabeth's front door, and there is Elisabeth with a large bump, and Elisabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, confirms all that the angel had said. And Mary bubbles over into love and joy and praise, and even if the words of the Magnificat are what St Luke thought she ought to have said – rather like Henry the Fifth's speech at Agincourt being what Shakespeare thought he ought to have said, rather than what he actually did say – even if they are not authentic, they are probably very close to reality! We sung a metrical version of her song just a few minutes ago. And it reminds us that God is turning accepted values upside-down by having His Son born to a virgin mother in a small town in an occupied land.

“Tell out, my soul, the greatness of his might!
Powers and dominions lay their glory by.
Proud hearts and stubborn wills are put to flight,
the hungry fed, the humble lifted high.”

In the culture of the day – as in ours – it was thought that prosperity was a sign of God's blessing, and poverty rather the reverse. But no, that was not what Jesus was, or is, all about. Instead, he himself was born to an ordinary family that, within a couple of years, was fleeing for its life into exile, and when they did dare go home, they didn't dare go back so near Jerusalem, but moved up to the provinces.

Mary was so brave, saying “Yes” to God. I don't know how much she understood, but of course Joseph could – and seriously considered doing so – have refused to marry her, and then where would she have been? But the angel reassured Joseph, and Elisabeth reassured Mary. All was not totally well, but God was with them.

And that's the message to take into this Christmas, isn't it, as we stand on the brink of another war, against an enemy we cannot defeat – for even if we destroy Daesh, as we destroyed Al Quaeda, there will be another group, and another.... all may not be totally well, but God is with us. And God's son, Jesus, will be our peace when the Assyrians invade our land. Amen.