Sunday, 24 December 2017

Family values?

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” Jesus asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” Mark 3:33-35

… to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God… John 1:12

When it comes to Christmas I am not (please believe me!) the “Bah! Humbug!” type. Not at all. A spot of fun and laughter, some nice food and drink, a present or two, not to mention some crackers and silly hats – you can count me in, no problem.

But I must admit that there are one or two things that I get a bit fed up with.
One of them is an over-emphasis on family. Anyone would think that the whole point of Christmas is the big jolly get-together round a table heaving with food, with at least half-a-dozen generations represented. This image is projected on card after card, in advert after advert, and on television show after television show.

Fair enough, Christmas does have a bearing on families. The story in the Bible is precisely the story of one – the family of Jesus. And, fair enough again, there can be great joy in families coming together to share a special time.

But if it gets out of hand, this emphasis is simply wrong. And that’s exactly what often happens. Painful questions arise…

What about people who have no family? I know someone, now in old age, who has never had, so far as she is aware, a single relative. How do people like her feel?

What about families where there is a painful gap, an emptiness? – someone has gone away, or has to be in hospital, or simply has to be at work. Or, of course, someone has died…

What about the single, the divorced, the widowed? – rendered acutely aware of their solitude, their outsider status, in this merry atmosphere.

And what about families which are full of tension and even animosity? I knew a family once who had a door-mat with the message, not “Welcome to our home” or something similar, but “Oh no, not you again!” Only a joke, of course (they were lovely, welcoming people). But isn’t that exactly how many people feel as Christmas draws near and they face the prospect of having to be falsely nice to someone they really don’t like?

And, of course, reality never measures up to expectations. You eat and drink too much, so you get bloated, sluggish and tetchy, someone is felt to have taken the Scrabble game a touch too seriously, that bracing afternoon walk becomes a duty (insisted on by an infuriatingly bright uncle) rather than a pleasure – and the weather is cold and damp anyway. Oh dear…!

In the Bible, families are certainly important. But they are not all-important. Christianity is often mindlessly said to “uphold family values” (whatever they are). But is that really true? Not if we take the words of Jesus seriously – look back at the verses I have quoted from Mark 3.

And what about the boy Jesus in the Jerusalem temple? He spoke about “my father’s house” – but it wasn’t Joseph he was referring to. Worst of all (so to speak) are his words in Luke 14:26 – I’ll leave you to look them up; but be warned, the word “hate” appears in the context of family. Family values?

Yes, families matter: marriages matter, parenting matters, the mingling of different generations – all these things matter. But the family the Bible mainly focuses on is of a different kind altogether. It is “the family of God”, to which all who love and trust in Jesus belong. “To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,” as John 1:12 puts it.

Those two words – received and believed – are key. Literally, indeed, they are the key which opens the door into God’s eternal kingdom, God’s family which know no bounds.

So… if you are part of an ordinary human family, I do of course wish you great joy this Christmas. But if your family is far from the kind of ideal portrayed on the cards and in the adverts (and, in fact, even if it is that perfect), I remind you that you have a loving Father in heaven. He wants you to be part of his great family here on earth – and he has sent his own Son to make that possible.

Thank God for happy families! But thank him still more for his own wonderful, world-wide, eternal family.

May you and all yours – yes, including the grumpy ones – know God’s love and peace this Christmastime. Amen!

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