Christmas • 25 Dec 2016


John 1:1-14


Rev. Chris Udy



Up in the ‘Constant Reader’ bookshop
there’s a new book
by Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari.
It follows his earlier best-seller called Sapiens –
which traces the history of human activity on earth,
from Homo habilis –
which means ‘handy man’ –
nearly 3 million years ago,
through later species including Homo erectus
and Homo neanderthalensis
to Homo sapiens –
sapiens meaning ‘intelligent’ or ‘wise’.

https://www.penguin.co.uk/content/dam/catalogue/pim/editions/29/9781910701874/cover.jpg

Professor Harari's new book
is called Homo Deus –
and its sub-title is
‘A brief history of Tomorrow’.
He says “For the first time in history,
more people die today
from eating too much
than from eating too little;
more people die from old age
than from infectious diseases;
and more people commit suicide
than are killed by soldiers, terrorists
and criminals combined.”
Professor Harari believes
that the human problems
of famine, plague and war
are now ‘manageable’.
For those with the money
and the information,
death from hunger, illness and armed conflict
will soon fade into history,
and a new humanity will be born.
And where, in the past,
religion and politics guided and ruled the world,
authority and power for this, new kind of human
will come from algorithms and Big Data.
For the first time in human history,
the divine abilities of creation and destruction
will be in the hands of those
who can understand and control
the powers of biotechnology
and Homo Deus will merge themselves
into the all-knowing ‘internet-of-all-things’.

It might sound a bit like science fiction,
but most of the things Professor Harari describes
have either arrived already,
or are almost here –
and the future he imagines
isn’t very attractive.
The world of Homo Deus
is reserved for the very few:
the techno super-rich,
the masters of the data universe.
Robots and super-machines
will continue to replace inefficient humans,
and a vast generation of babies
will soon be born into a ‘useless class’,
with no value or purpose.
Homo Deus promises to be
a ruthless and exclusive god,
and the world’s inequalities, in their hands,
can only grow more extreme.

At Christmas time we think about
God with a human face –
and Professor Harari’s Homo Deus
offers one incarnation.
He says humanity’s history and progress
can be seen as the negotiation
of a long-term deal, an evolving contract.
The terms of the contract
can be summarised into one clause:
“humans agree to give up meaning
in exchange for power”.
So the future Professor Harari imagines
is what happens when the exchange is complete:
meaning has been given up;
we live in a post-fact world
of spin and ‘truthiness’,
and all that’s left is power –
and the world that power,
that meaningless power, creates,
has little room for anything humane.

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But thankfully at Christmas time
God with a human face also comes to us
in another incarnation.
This one is born, according to the stories,
utterly powerless –
he only comes to life
because one person after another
responds to his needs with compassion
and makes room for him to live.
Mary bears a baby
whose conception was not to her benefit
and wasn’t part of her plan;
Joseph refuses to shame her through rejection
and instead he extends his love and protection
to someone else’s child;
Bethlehem’s innkeeper opens up
a hospitable space at a stressful and difficult time;
and international travellers risk a king’s displeasure
to keep the baby’s location hidden from him.
In the stories this baby
has none of the power of Deus Homo -
all he has is the compassion and concern
of ordinary people,
who choose to be humane,
who choose to give up their power
to find meaning.

The Christmas stories
don’t sound like science fiction.
Sometimes we get a bit carried away
with sentimentality and Christmas romance –
but these stories of the human birth of God
are not about miracles and wonders –
unless they’re about
the everyday miracles and wonders
of babies being born,
and parents putting life and sleep
and self-interest on hold
to love and welcome and nurture a child -
and often not their own child,
but somebody else’s.
The point of these stories
is that the human face of God is revealed
among ordinary people,
and in poverty,
in a nation under the rule of an invading power.
And as these stories continue
the God they reveal
isn’t an all-knowing,
politically, economically
and technologically connected
member of the ultra-elite –
he’s a homeless teacher,
who keeps inviting strangers and outcasts
to share the bread and wine he receives
as gifts from other people
and whose crowning achievement
isn’t finding a way to seize ultimate power
and live without meaning forever,
but choosing to make ultimate meaning
and embrace absolute powerlessness,
dying in a way that affirms
that sacrificial, self-giving love
is the shaping force
at the heart of the universe.

There are some who would have us believe
that the world is in the control
of those who are ruthless and inhumane –
and they certainly get more airtime
and bandwidth and money for their schemes –
but the Christmas stories remind us
that for most of us,
and most of our neighbours,
human life begins and grows
in love and trust,
generosity and forgiveness,
compassion and grace.
For most of us
each day is shaped
not by conflict and a struggle to control,
but by kind words and warm welcomes,
by obligations honoured
and by confidence preserved.
All around the world,
although there are some few
who choose a way of violence and fear,
even in the world’s most troubled places,
most people, most of the time,
are choosing meaning over power.
That’s why, at Christmas time,
we suspend our games of power
and we gather, where we can,
in families and in groups that give us meaning;
we provide too much food
and we give stuff away
in an utterly inefficient and wasteful display
that aims for harmony and beauty,
but sometimes has to settle
for politeness and bright colour –
and that’s OK,
because Christmas is an offering
to the human face of God,
whose features we see best
round a Christmas table.

And if we want to push a little deeper
and wonder where
the human face of God
might be most clearly seen
around the world today –
if, like those wise travellers
we wonder where there are angels
announcing the birth
of the Child of God,
it will be in places
where ordinary people,
despite all sorts of risks
to their security,
are daily choosing meaning over power,
and compassion over self-interest,
and finding ways to see
that even in these places of devastation,
even surrounded by evidence
of inhumanity,
God is with us,
and we can see
the human face of God.