Many of our most cherished Christmas memories do not seem to have much to do with the Christmas story itself. They are not about the carols or the Christmas Day sermon, but about things – happy and sad - that were going on in our lives and the world at the time. Who will ever forget Christmas 2004, when, in the middle of the season of goodwill, the tsunami struck?
But that is part of the paradox of this time of the year. On the one hand is the Christmas story, which we like hearing again and again. On the other hand we have the real world; things going on for us, our neighbours and friends; things on the news, new cookers not turning up, people in prison, people being born too soon, people being ill, or dying. The real world.
But that is the whole point. Christmas is actually much more about the real world than it is about a lovely story of far off places in far off times. It is about a young unmarried mother. And our country has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in the European Union. It is about a homeless couple and their young child out in the cold. Look on the streets of our cities. Think of the television pictures of refugees.
It is also about shepherds, who did not go to church and were not all that respectable, being there to witness how God was doing something new - while the churchgoers and the religious leaders were not there.
It is about wise men looking for a new king and finding him not in a palace, but behind a pub.
It is about Mary and Joseph having to escape with their baby, as sanctuary seekers. Who is to say they would not have been desperate enough to hide themselves in the back of a lorry coming through the channel tunnel in their attempt to save their precious son? And what kind of a welcome would they have received here, in 21st Century Britain?
And for those who did not escape, it is about innocent children being brutally killed. You do not get much more real than that! And for Bethlehem in 2009 you could also read Baghdad or Afghanistan.
Christmas is about the real world – as we know it. And it is in that real world – at times very cruel, painful and dangerous – that God acts. Not in heaven. Not even in the temple. But right in the middle of human life at its toughest. People being born, people dying, people on the run, people with nowhere to go, people for whom there is no room.
Remember the meaning of the name Immanuel in Isaiah’s prophecy? God is with us. That is the central part of the Christmas message. God is with us. And behind and within the lovely Christmas story, is the truth of God with us in our world and in our lives. In good parts and bad, joys and pains, hopes and fears.
Remember, too, that some people will not be able to suspend normal life for a few days over Christmas. If you are literally starving; if you are a refugee or a sanctuary seeker; if you are a child being abused in your own home, worried sick that your dad is going to be around more over the next few days – you cannot suspend normal life, however much you would like to.
If the gospel is really the good news it claims to be, (and I believe it is) then it has to be good news for the hungry, the hurting, the oppressed, the abused. Good news. God is with us.
(c) David Gamble is President of the Methodist Conference. This is an excerpt from his Christmas message 2009. www.methodist.org.uk/