A couple of weeks ago I was striding across the Marketplace late for staff prayers when my head was lifted by the sound of a man shouting across the square to another. They were both in scruffy groups of older men who had, maybe, seen better days. Today wasn’t one of them.
The conversation went a little bit like this:
Man from group one: “All right mate?”
Man from group two: “Different day, Same shit!”
Now work with me here when I say that this exchange was in the minds of all the gospel writers. “Different Day, Same Shit” could easily have been the motto which prompted them to write, though perhaps with a less fatalistic outlook and maybe using a greek word for shit which doesn’t sound so bad.
I say that because 2000 years ago people were saying the same thing across busy Marketplaces. “Different day, same shit” was a description of the life people thought they were stuck with. The rich get richer, the powerful more powerful and the mass of us exist only to be faceless fodder to generate wealth for others and to do their bidding. The world is full of violence and exclusion and we’re all invited to join in.
The gospel writers knew of this world. The Old Testament prophets knew such a world. And yet, they had hope. Hope that God was coming with a new day. Hope that the status quo was going to be turned upside down. Wild bearded Jewish prophets in the desert tried to paint word pictures about this moment, not knowing when it would come but telling anyone who would listen to look out for it.
The poor, the abused, the addicted, the losers, the afraid, the slaves, the disabled, the old, the forgotten all have a saviour and a new world that welcomes the likes of them. The people walking in darkness have seen a new light. On the shoulders of this saviour rests the foundations of godly community. All of those who follow this King join in a cosmic revolution where the undeservedly rich, the privileged, the corrupt, the war mongers, the abusers will lose their power.
We laugh a nervous laugh because it just might mean having our lives turned upside down too. We notice that we fit the list of the deposed better than we do the list of those being elevated. It might mean fighting battles that look impossible to win. And maybe if we are honest, we’re not quite sure this way of Jesus will really win.
But then God gives us little glimpses.
You would have to have been in a total media blackout to not know that Nelson Mandela died recently. He was not a great administrator or reformer. He didn’t make the economy better, didn’t make people richer. He didn’t wipe away the townships or the racism.
So why all the fuss? Because he did one thing right which was almost miraculous and which you and I in a million years would not expect from a national leader. When he left prison he had a choice: he could follow the world’s rules and make demands, seek revenge, punish the whites for their evil satanic system, threaten violence all day long against a regime that really deserved it.
Or, he could see that there was new way that had to be tried. The only way SA had a future was to forgive, to recognise the evil that had taken place, to name it, and lance the boil of poison. His demand was that as a nation, SA had to do things differently and try different rules or they would be utterly destroyed. He chose the hard path and our jaws dropped. It was a rare isolated moment where someone tried the godly thing and it worked. It’s just a shame no one had the faith to follow through and try some more.
The decision he made was one which we can make in miniature every day. Mandela’s greatness lay in making that crucial choice when it mattered. And the gospels tell us that Jesus has been trying to tell us that since he was born. The crucial act is not the obvious nor the easy one and it is best made by ordinary people in ordinary circumstances.
That is at the heart of the new age that Jesus brings. We give a great gift to others. Love your neighbour as you love yourself and you will find that Marketplace motto gets changed very quickly. You find that little miracles happen all day long. However, we often have to learn that lesson ourselves because there are very few who can tell you that from experience. To paraphrase GK Chesterton: “It’s not that loving our neighbour has been found to be too hard so it was abandoned. It’s because it has looked too hard and therefore has never been tried”.
So here is my challenge to you. If you truly believe that the heart of Christmas is the celebration of God doing something awesome in our midst and making radical transformation possible, then give the gift of yourself in tribute to him giving the gift of himself. Offer yourself as the possible answer to someone else’s’ prayers.
Today is a different day. What kind of day will you help it to be?
(editor’s note: the author’s wife wisely pointed out that while the S word may sound big and clever it would probably require a lot of apologies for the rest of the year and runs the risk of being the one and only time ever that a load of children came to midnight communion so maybe he should use a different word in the pulpit. Wise woman indeed.)