Today we celebrate Christmas. Why we celebrate Christ is clarified by another name for the day: the Nativity of our Lord. That at least clarifies the reason we’re celebrating Christ is for his birthday!
Yet that still requires clarification. Mostly birthdays are about a ticking clock and a mark of getting older, as I myself notched ahead to 38 years on Thursday. Rarely from birth could we claim someone is destined for greatness or be able to predict the shape of their life much at all; observing Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, for example, is retrospective, for what he went on to accomplish and not because on the day of his birth even his family could’ve expected the Civil Rights movement or that this newborn son would lead a nonviolent revolution against racism, militarism, and extreme materialism.
Yet with Jesus, our stories proclaim huge expectations from this moment of nativity or even before: that he is a Savior bringing great joy to all people (Luke 2:10-11), a light to the nations (2:32), that he will be called great and will reign forever (1:32-33), that he will save his people from sins (Matthew 1:21), and fulfill what prophets had proclaimed of old (1:22). That’s predicting an awful lot for a baby.
But I guess the rest of us don’t have angelic messengers or a heavenly chorus heralding our arrival in the world. We get a doctor’s a-ok on 10 fingers and toes and friends and family to cradle us and say, “Isn’t he cute? She looks just like her father.”
That ordinariness, though, points to another term characterizing and best embodying this day: incarnation. It comes from the Gospel of John’s proclamation: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Incarnation is a word for en-fleshing, for God’s presence amid the meatiness and carnality and very real, bodily parts of our existence in this world. So today—with God’s presence in a flesh-and-blood birth—is a feastly celebration, a day for, indeed, meat, plus cookies and wine and tables spread, for treats from stockings, and extra goodies.
Besides feasting, incarnation means this is a day for extravagant presents wrapped with pretty paper and for enjoying companionship and great music. It’s a day for a walk to wonder at snow and birdsong. Or—given the rainyness—to curl up with a warm blanket and a book. There are so many possible delights, and Christmas—this incarnational, earthy day—is about all of them, declaring nothing is profane or secular or separated from God. All we experience is holy and blessed and touched by God.
On the other side—which we must not forget—this incarnation wasn’t only in the enjoyments of life. This birthday, this baby born into our flesh, came into life with a worn out and exhausted mother, surrounded by sheep poop (as a recent Saturday Night Live sketch portrayed so theologically accurately), with lowlife shepherds, and oppressive systems and political disappointments and the homelessness of “no room in the inn.”
Lest we missed that point on his birthday, Jesus grew up not for royal palaces and posh easy life, but to hang out with the hungry and hurting, the sinners and prostitutes, telling people they were forgiven, that their faith made illness well, that God had come near to them.
So as we hold the celebration today, the feast, the special birthday party with the richest treats and brightest lights and company, we also hold the sorrows and sadnesses of life, the suffering and longing, like our reflections did—of prison and isolation, of divisions and wars and insecurities, of disasters both natural and unnatural. These are where Christ most wants to be identified, and for whom God’s arrival in the world is most transformatively hopeful. Nothing and no one is left out.
It is with this broadest sense of life, the good and the bad, the celebrated feast and the needful holding fast that we have the full image of observing Christmas, of incarnation, of God with us.
Christmas from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Viewed from a Christian perspective, Christmas from a prison cell can, of course, hardly be viewed as particularly problematic. Most likely many of those here in prison will celebrate a more meaningful and authentic Christmas than in places where all that survives of the celebration is the feast in name only. That misery, sorrow, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt mean something quite different in the eyes of God than according to human judgment;, that God turns toward the very places from which humans turn away; that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn—a prisoner grasps this better than others. For the prisoner the Christmas story is glad tidings in a very real sense. And to the extent that he [or she] believes it, a prisoner has been placed in Christian community and is a part in the communion of saints, a fellowship transcending the bounds of time and space and reducing the months of confinement here in prison walls to insignificance.
On Christmas I shall be thinking of you all very much, and I want you to believe that I too shall have a few hours of real joy and that I am not allowing my troubles to get the better of me….When one thinks of the horrors that have overcome so many recently, then one becomes aware anew of how much we still have to be grateful for. Presumably … the children will think back on [this Christmas] for many years to come. But perhaps precisely this will reveal to some for the first time, the true meaning of Christmas. May God protect us all.
with great gratitude and love,
Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem, Maya Angelou
Thunder rumbles in the mountain passes
And lightning rattles the eaves of our houses.
Flood waters await us in our avenues.
Snow falls upon snow, falls upon snow to avalanche
Over unprotected villages.
The sky slips low and grey and threatening.
We question ourselves.
What have we done to so affront nature?
We worry God.
Are you there? Are you there really?
Does the covenant you made with us still hold?
Into this climate of fear and apprehension, Christmas enters,
Streaming lights of joy, ringing bells of hope
And singing carols of forgiveness high up in the bright air.
The world is encouraged to come away from rancor,
Come the way of friendship.
It is the Glad Season.
Thunder ebbs to silence and lightning sleeps quietly in the corner.
Flood waters recede into memory.
Snow becomes a yielding cushion to aid us
As we make our way to higher ground.
Hope is born again in the faces of children
It rides on the shoulders of our aged as they walk into their sunsets.
Hope spreads around the earth. Brightening all things,
Even hate which crouches breeding in dark corridors.
In our joy, we think we hear a whisper.
At first it is too soft. Then only half heard.
We listen carefully as it gathers strength.
We hear a sweetness.
The word is Peace.
It is loud now. It is louder.
Louder than the explosion of bombs.
We tremble at the sound. We are thrilled by its presence.
It is what we have hungered for.
Not just the absence of war. But, true Peace.
A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies.
Security for our beloveds and their beloveds.
We clap hands and welcome the Peace of Christmas.
We beckon this good season to wait a while with us.
We, Baptist and Buddhist, Methodist and Muslim, say come.
Come and fill us and our world with your majesty.
We, the Jew and the Jainist, the Catholic and the Confucian,
Implore you, to stay a while with us.
So we may learn by your shimmering light
How to look beyond complexion and see community.
It is Christmas time, a halting of hate time.
On this platform of peace, we can create a language
To translate ourselves to ourselves and to each other.
At this Holy Instant, we celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ
Into the great religions of the world.
We jubilate the precious advent of trust.
We shout with glorious tongues at the coming of hope.
All the earth’s tribes loosen their voices
To celebrate the promise of Peace.
We, Angels and Mortal’s, Believers and Non-Believers,
Look heavenward and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at our world and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at each other, then into ourselves
And we say without shyness or apology or hesitation.
Peace, My Brother.
Peace, My Sister.
Peace, My Soul.
Room for Christ, by Dorothy Day (Watch for the Light, p179)
It is no use saying that we are born two thousand years too late to give room to Christ. …Christ is always with us, … But now it is with the voice of our contemporaries that he speaks, with the eyes of store clerks, factory workers, and children that he gazes; with the hands of office workers, slum dwellers, and suburban housewives that he gives. It is with the feet of soldiers and tramps that he walks, and with the heart of anyone in need that he longs for shelter. And giving shelter or food to anyone who asks for it, or needs it, is giving it to Christ.
We can do now what those who knew him in the days of his flesh did. I am sure that the shepherds did not adore and then go away to leave Mary and her Child in the stable, but somehow found them room …
If we hadn’t got Christ’s own words for it, it would seem raving lunacy to believe that if I offer a bed and food and hospitality to some man or woman or child, and that my guest is Christ. There is nothing to show it, perhaps. There are no halos already glowing round their heads – at least none that human eyes can see. …
It would be foolish to pretend that it is always easy to remember this. If everyone were holy and handsome, with … neon lighting [shining] from them, it would be easy to see Christ in everyone.
If Mary had appeared in Bethlehem clothed with the sun [and] a crown [as the book of Revelation says] … then people would have fought to make room for her.But that was not God’s way for her, nor is it Christ’s way for himself, now when he is disguised under every type of humanity that treads the earth. …
In Christ’s human life, there were always a few who made up for the neglect of the crowd. The shepherds did it; their hurrying to the crib atoned for the people who would flee from Christ. The wise men did it; their journey across the world made up for those who refused to stir one hand’s breadth from the routine of their lives. …
[Yet] It is not a duty to help Christ, it is a privilege. … And that is the way [hospitality] should still be given. Not for the sake of humanity. Not because it might be Christ who stays with us, comes to see us, takes up our time. Not because these people remind us of Christ, … but because they are Christ, asking us to find room for him, exactly as he did at the first Christmas.
One of the most exciting and essential parts of this Christmas story is usually overlooked or unmentioned on Christmas Eve. We’re so involved in the sweetness of a mother and baby, in the pastoral sereneness of barnyard animals, in the mysterious glory of angelic choirs, that we avoid the hard, vital honesty that this is a protest story.
It’s not just telling us that Jesus was born in such-and-so way, which was coincidentally charming for carols and fitting for greeting card images. Rather, the details of this story right from his get-go place Jesus against expectations, against a dominant and domineering culture. Identifying this birth with God’s presence very directly locates God in a place where most would not have claimed—and most would still not claim—that God would be present.
Actually, backing up a notch, these shocking details revealing God with Jesus were arising even before his birth: that the angel Gabriel was sent to a girl. Probably the same age as girls in our Confirmation class (which they were sort of horrified to learn). Beyond the biology of it, it is a meaningfully shocking detail that God came to Mary, a poor, young woman. By typical criteria, she sure wouldn’t be identified with God’s presence; God was supposed to be mighty, in palaces and buddied up to rulers. Even in the Jewish temple, God sat at the center, amid restrictive hierarchy of the elite male high priest having closest access, where women were kept exclusively to an outer courtyard. But in this case, God moved out to visit Mary, to work in conversation and collaboration.
And, for her part, Mary realized this was extraordinary and radical, even if difficult. After Gabriel’s visit, she sang a song about how God was turning structures and systems on their head, lifting up the lowly while casting the mighty down from their thrones, filling the hungry with good things but sending the rich away empty.
This is more directly embodied in the birth of Jesus and this Christmas story. Again, it’s placing God’s presence away from the powerful, not in a castle or cathedral, but where there wasn’t even room in the inn, officially announced to shepherds in the field, guys who couldn’t hold a job with regular hours. And what could be more vulnerable than a baby’s birth?
Even if we claim this is a newborn king, still that title subverts the usual claimants to the throne. Most particularly, the story challenges one directly: Caesar Augustus, the emperor of Rome. As he conquered most of the Western world and spread the empire around the Mediterranean, claiming allegiance and claiming tax revenue and claiming slaves from these beaten regions, he was also making claims for himself, that he was Lord, was divine, the son of god, that he was the bringer of peace and savior of the world.
Those terms and titles sound awfully familiar because you’ve heard them applied not to Caesar but to Jesus. Claiming them for Jesus contradicts Caesar, saying that the authority, the godly dynamics, the real presence for what matters didn’t reside in the capital of the empire, surrounded by soldiers and in control of the Senate. This Christmas story is a direct protest against the occupying forces of Caesar.
Now, that protest served mostly in subversive encouragement, because there’s no head-to-head contest where Jesus would win. He’s born out in the boonies. As far as Caesar is concerned, it wasn’t the Holy Land, but an outpost of an outpost, far at the edge of his empire. Even Jerusalem was scorned by Caesar, and this was a Podunk suburb of Jerusalem. The only claim Bethlehem had was as the birthplace of an ancient bygone king, of David, who had ruled a millennium prior. You see faded signs in small towns commemorating the softball team that won the Division 3 state title twenty-some years ago, and the nostalgia of Bethlehem’s best victor was exponentially longer.
Still, there’s something setting up our attention in Jesus about that king. David, after all, was the underdog who used his sling to slay the giant, to take down Goliath and stop the oppressor. But this new Goliath from Rome would be harder to slay. Jesus would have no opportunity to confront Caesar in a duel. Rather, his peculiar victory we are still celebrating and still deliberating is that Jesus confronted Goliath and died, gave himself up on a cross, his final protest and the shocking embodiment that God wasn’t with the mighty authorities, but identified with one who suffered unjustly in scorned death.
His faithful protest continues. We’re singing next “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” envisioning small streets of the unimportant village 2000 years ago when a homeless baby was born, shut out from warmth and yet identified as the center of God’s presence, and then the song sees those same streets in Bethlehem today.
Our travel group met residents of those streets this fall and continued to realize the old difficulty: they are facing a Goliath, and they have practically no chance of slinging the right stone that will bring down the giant and end the oppression and occupation. That’s because their Goliath isn’t just one big baddy but is a spreading, lurking, cancerous system that tracks their every movement and watches what they put on Facebook and keeps them from traveling to see family and puts up walls that separate them from their livelihoods and establishes laws to shut up life and keep them curfewed and close off possibility at every turn.
Yet we saw Bethlehem’s protest, the proclamation of God’s presence and the celebration of life even while the authorities claim that’s not where it should be found. They dance, they play sports. They cook and grow vegetables. They create artwork, like angels from shards of stained glass shattered by tanks. They speak truth to power. They graffiti messages of hope and humor on the wall that’s there to confine their wellbeing. They worship, they cherish community, they care for their young, teaching peace in schools. All of this, which may sound as normal as the birth of a baby and as low wage workers on the late shift, this is all transformed into a protest, when living itself requires courage and existence is resistance to the Goliaths of empire, just as that first Christmas.
This is a time when we may need to be reinforced in those practices ourselves. You may need to hear the protest of this Christmas story. You may need the examples, the witness, the martyr of others engaged in subverting authorities and resisting oppressors, of toppling terror and restoring righteousness, of hope over fear.
I’m going to end this message of reinforcement with words by my favorite artist. I’ve certainly never quoted him in a Christmas sermon, but maybe now that he’s a Nobel laureate Bob Dylan’s got some additional credibility. Or maybe you can just hear these words from 50 years ago as a blessing and hope amid the darkness, echoing why Jesus was born, to strengthen you this evening. Bob said: “Nowadays there are crueler Goliaths who do crueler, crueler things, but one day they’re gonna be slain, too, and people two thousand years from now can look back and say, Remember when Goliath the 2nd was slayed?”
Take courage, dear people, and be not afraid. This is the world a baby was born into, the world God so loved, the world that needs you.
- O little town of Bethlehem, 2. O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see thee lie! the organs still do play
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep of Jesus in a manger
the silent stars go by; and angels on the way;
yet in thy dark streets shineth our music and our singing
the everlasting light. is louder than a gun,
The hopes and fears of all the years and church bells in their ringing
are met in thee tonight. remind us we have won.
- O holy child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray;
your love bring down on David’s town;
drive fear and hate away.
Awake the ire of nations,
let justice be restored.
Rebuild the peace in silent streets
where once your love was born.
Let’s do some Christmas ABC’s.
We begin with A—Adorable, but not because baby Jesus is so darned cute. We adore and bow down before him not just as a precious infant, but first for identifying God’s presence in him.
That’s more shocking because of our letter B—Barn. “Were you born in a barn?” is a condescending question, but tonight it ascends to the highest point. The one born in a barn is identified with God. God isn’t located in halls of power or the fortress tower, not identified in lifestyles of the rich and famous. God is marginal, left out, when there was no room in the inn. Yet in that kind of birth is where God wants to be found.
Which brings us to C—Christ, the title that gives us the name “Christmas.” We already had our letter A, but the English word for Christ is Anointed. The Hebrew is Messiah. It’s a term about being chosen by God, to accomplish God’s work. Generally in the Bible, priests and rulers and prophets were anointed for their chosenness to do God’s tasks. For baby Jesus, it’s not about recruiting him for one of those specific godly jobs. Calling him Christ means his entire life is revealing God for us, showing us how God works and what God is up to.
But we note he’s not the only Christ. With those holy workers of old, you are also Christ-like, or—in a term I prefer—you’re little Christs. Anointed in baptism, you’ve also been chosen to receive and embody God’s presence.
Which raises the obvious question: what is God up to, then? What is God’s work for and through you? What is Jesus showing or proclaiming about God as he lies there asleep in the hay? What should we know about God’s presence?
For that, we get to D—Don’t. We have a pretty strong sense that approaching God comes with “don’ts,” with rules to follow of stuff we shouldn’t do. For example, during college when I told friends that I was going to be a pastor, their first reaction was always to apologize for swearing around me. There’s some sense that connections to God mean Don’t Swear. Beyond that, we also presume: Don’t Cheat. Don’t Lie. Don’t Fight. Don’t Be Mean. Don’t Abuse. Don’t Drink Too Much. You probably in your mind can keep adding to lists of Don’ts, of what we imagine are God’s expectations of our actions.
But the Don’t we hear tonight is: Don’t Be Afraid. Don’t Fear. Do not worry or be scared. This is the primary definition of God’s work, what Jesus is arriving to enable us to trust, the good news of Christmas.
Don’t Be Afraid is a hard message to believe, though, isn’t it? Our fears stretch from tiny and silly to unfathomably complex, from being afraid that we won’t get what we want for Christmas on to being afraid our lives won’t turn out how we wished. We may fear we won’t get what we need—food, a warm bed, the next paycheck, an effective medical treatment, resolution to an argument, home safely. And yet the angel has the nerve to tell us Don’t Be Afraid.
It gets worse than those individual concerns. We’re overwhelmed by fear in these days, of what will or won’t change with the next President and the next budget cycle. We’re afraid of tragedies caused by racism and immigration, from xenophobia. We worry about homophobias that undermine people’s wellbeing. Our societal phobias stretch on and on. There are wars and rumors of war, irrational fears of getting caught amid terror attacks or being shot. We have reason to be terrified of climate change. This all nearly incapacitates us, immobilizes us, silences, shutters us and shuts us down, almost forcing us to surrender when things go wrong.
That may be why God announces so definitely and defiantly Don’t Be Afraid. Because our fears confined us, but God wants us to be both free and open to each other. More, God operates in our capacities, the sharing of abilities that join to make this world good and better.
That is so important that I got away from our alphabet for a minute there. Let’s get back to it with E—Everybody. This is also core to the proclamation. It’s not just about people who make it to church often enough. It’s not a Christian deal. It’s not those behaving to follow the religious rules (because, remember, there weren’t rules; the only Don’t was Don’t Be Afraid). It’s not just for shepherds who were in the right place at the right time or a blessing one can claim more of. The angels announce this is for everybody. The good news, calling an end to fear, this birth, the arrival of Jesus is for me, for you, for your family who’s far away, and the dude at the gas station tonight, and folks waiting in hospitals and nursing homes, and those sadly infected by violent thoughts, and ladies wearing headscarves, and guys refusing this celebration. For everybody. No one should feel or be separated from this.
F—Find. In order to trust that amazing, extravagant message, you need assurance. “You will find a baby,” the angel says, wrapped in warm pajamas and snuggled in a feed trough, as a sign, an indicator. This isn’t hypothetical good news leaving you to speculate whether it could really be true. This verification you find first in baby Jesus. And extending that forward, as you follow him, you’ll witness the fulfillment of the promise. In him you may know and trust God’s work is happening.
G could easily be God or gospel or grace, good churchy words. G could be government, since this story confronts the given order. But for Christmas, let’s say G is Gifts. The Christmas presents you give are symbols of sharing and practice at cherishing and caring for each other, just as we already said God’s work is found in our living together in community, building each other up and supporting everybody. In these broadest views of sustaining life, we should especially recognize here on Christmas we are able to give because of what God chooses to offer. God adores you and wants full and abundant life, so all you have is a very good gift.
H—Home. That’s distinct from H—Heaven. Christians sometimes claim heaven is our home and this world isn’t. But God’s work isn’t kept for afterdeath experiences somewhere else. This story tonight places God in our midst and surrounded by livestock. We find God’s gifts here and now. Jesus is born so we may know God dwells among us; the home of God is among mortals. God’s presence is here on earth, in our lives, in the places where you’ll return (just as the shepherds do), at the tables you’ll gather around, in beds where you’ll lay your own heads to rest (just as baby Jesus did). God is with us, in the very ordinariness of it all.
Realizing, then, that this story can only be fulfilled when you leave church to go back with many other good things to do in those places of home, I’m going to leave you the rest of the alphabet to fill in on your own, as a gift of one more H: Homework. You’re welcome, and Merry Christmas.
sermon for 3rd Sunday of Advent
With the unexpected expectations we’re encountering during Advent, the twists and turns and surprises to heighten our hope, today we find ourselves on an offensive highway.
Recall slippy or blocked roads you traversed to get here on this snowy day. Or picture that Beltline with a traffic jam, lanes closed for construction and then you see flashing lights around an accident because a deer ran out. Yet even as those agitate your nerves, they aren’t the offensive highways. Remarkably, that comes with Isaiah envisioning the opposite of those stretches of road, though it will take us another moment to get to why it’s offensive.
Isaiah’s vision of a lovely highway starts with a roadside beautification project, a barren area brought to bloom, a sunbaked desert expanse turned to a lush oasis of crocus flowers, and what had seemed drably lifeless instead filled with abundant joy. Already that scenic highway is a different picture than the monotony of some long car trip on an interstate.
Still, it’s no byway in Isaiah’s vision, not just for those looking for the pleasant diversion of a side trip. No, this road is for everyone. Since we’re accustomed to hopping into a car to take us most anywhere, it has lost some shock, but for ancient people who traveled only by foot, it’s astonishing that the blind would be able to find their way and the lame would have strength for the journey.
For a sense of that promise, I read these verses in the surgical prep room before Dorothea Torstenson’s knee surgery, and you’d better believe she heard this as good news: “make firm the feeble knees, be strong, do not fear! Here is your God who will come to save you. Then the lame shall leap like a deer.” Sure, Dorothea had still been able to get around, but this sense of mobility that might enable her to get back onto a bike and to visit museums and even to stand around to chat after worship, this is exactly the promise she yearned for. She even joked about dancing like a deer in worship today to illustrate it!
That’s a sense of Isaiah’s envisioned highway. To go a step further, he says you don’t need GPS on this trip or even how to read a map. In another of my favorite Bible verses, Isaiah proclaims “no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.” There’s no way to get lost, no risk of falling off this route, even fools.
In Isaiah’s time that was extraordinarily good news for a people who had felt abandoned, with no way home for generations. These people had suffered first under the Assyrian Empire until 300 years later in 587 BC they were defeated, destroyed, carried away, and held captive by the Babylonians, with no way to return home, to their temple and their cultural practices and the life that they so longed to have. Dreaming of home wasn’t the good ol’ days but ancient history, receding ever further into the past.
Home. An extraordinarily good word. A release from what imprisons and a return to life. We might have sense of that longing for college students far away and returning for winter break and getting to be back amid familiar and comfortable places. You may long for bygone traditions of a family that has fractured and found other ways of celebrating, wishing for restoration and resuming what you miss. Or it’s in the song “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams,” written from the perspective of soldiers stationed overseas during World War II.
But from that bittersweet tune crooned by Bing Crosby, it’s still a long way to offense, so we need to turn from Isaiah’s proclamation of abundant homecoming, a celebration so joyful that the land itself will excitedly welcome exiles home and so insistent for all that none will miss out on the journey or even need roadside assistance, from there we turn to the offense of the Gospel reading.
John the Baptist had sent messengers to ask about Jesus. Jesus replies his mission has been what Isaiah envisioned: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
But there’s a distinction, as Jesus concludes: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Isn’t this extraordinarily good stuff? Who would take offense? Well, John the Baptist for starters. Last week we heard John’s proclamation in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord, making paths straight for the coming Anointed One. He was setting expectations that the Christ would come with a raging fire, burning the chaff, clearing the threshing floor, chopping trees out of the way. Instead Jesus came not to consume and clear but to heal and share freeing good news, for the sick and hurting and poor and outcast. That subverted John’s expectations and maybe caused offense. That wasn’t the Messiah he made way for or the kind of Lord for whom he was preparing.
Jesus then rubs in the offense with a pretty heavy backhanded compliment: “no one is greater than the John the Baptist; yet (!) the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than” John. What does that mean? Well, Jesus started his first sermon with these words: “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3). So much for John’s greatness; even if you are spiritually inept and lacking in any holiness or one of those fools who would tend to lose the highway, still the kingdom is yours and (ipso facto) you’re greater than John the Baptist.
Jesus ends that first bit of preaching in the Beatitudes reiterating: “blessed are those who are persecuted, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:10). An obvious fact is that if you’re being persecuted it means someone’s against you, trying to claim you’re undeserving, and certainly not great or holy or blessed by God. So when Jesus stands on behalf of the persecuted, the poor in spirit, or (maybe slightly less apparent to our perspective) the sick and hurting, he is offending the offender. He rejects the persecutor. He upends our expectations.
As Jesus stands on your behalf, in spite of your poverty of spirit, he is causing offense to those who have been striving to enrich their spirits and were feeling proud of their piety. In bringing good news to the poor, he contradicts those who claim that wealth is a blessing from God. In curing disease and healing Dorothea and all who need health care, Jesus stands against those who write us off in our disabilities and our aging or who would claim we need to earn our own strength and wellbeing or say that our weak flesh is corrupt and cursed by God.
As we go with Jesus on this way toward home, toward the will of God, down a beautiful highway lined with celebration and accompanied by those who need the work of seeing, hearing, cleansing, freeing, life out from death and good news amid poverty, this way is bound to offend. That this is God’s highway is offensive to those who don’t want God to do these things, who want it to be their way on the highway. But, as Isaiah saw, God’s promise is uninterruptable.
Now, we may find ourselves on both sides of that message, occasionally resistant to the bounty of blessing, and occasionally overflowing in joyful gratitude that we are the fools who won’t be left lost or manage to go astray from God’s extraordinary goodness.
Two closing examples for that split, that dichotomous pairing where God’s highway goes right through our society: UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank was the keynote speaker at the Wis. Council of Churches annual meeting this week. Amid adverse state budgets, she talked of defending the university and advocating for the faculty, when being hired for “thinking is not always an appreciated activity.” If that seems sadly laughable, she also noted that for every $1 the public invests through taxes, the university returns $24 to the economy of our state. It should be a no-brainer, the obvious way to go, and yet some still find education offensive.
Second example: in preparation for that meeting, I was reading a book by Chancellor Blank. She’s a committed member of the UCC and describes how important her faith is as a framework amid difficult decisions. She helped write the denominational statement on economics back in the 1980’s and the book I’m reading is called Do Justice: Linking Christian Faith and Modern Economic Life. In it she presents another of these offensive conundrums for us, with the words of Mary we’re singing during this Advent season. She writes, “Those who have worked hard to achieve economic security respond very differently to the news that God feeds the hungry without charge and sends the rich away empty (Luke 1:53) than do those who are struggling with unemployment or discrimination” (17).
This is God’s broad highway, inviting us all along to make the world more beautiful and filled with celebration. It’s an invitation for when we need it, and also for when we’re part of society’s foolish resistance, which maybe means we need it even more.
sermon for 2nd Sunday of Advent — Isaiah11:1-10; Matthew3:1-12
In his book about growing up on a Wisconsin farm in the 1930’s called The Land Remembers, Ben Logan writes about George the mailman occasionally showing off his two-headed rattlesnake. He’d tried to turn it in for double the 50¢ bounty the state was, at the time, paying as reward for killing snakes. But that was for the rattle. Since this wasn’t a two-tailed snake, the state would only pay one bounty. George protested, saying, “Don’t that beat hell? Ain’t that just like a politician? Don’t even know which end of a snake bites!” (p66-7)
The surprise and humor of that dead snake maybe eases us into the idea today of playing with serpents. I know straight off this won’t appeal to some of you. Snakes may give you the creeps, even talking about them. You may figure the best policy is avoidance, so you’d not be in favor of the prophet Isaiah’s suggestion that “The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the viper’s den.” You may just figure that’s careless, bad parenting, rather than a legitimate promise from God.
Actually, I hope you react that this is a weird idea. I’m expecting we have reservations and could still see the reason for a bounty, in trying to get rid of the danger of venomous fangs, keeping our kids safe, and if we happened to kill some not-poisonous snakes in the meantime, ah well.
This perception of serpents goes back to our very beginnings, somehow inherently of confronting a symbol of evil. Whether the feeling comes from Genesis or Genesis picked up on a pre-existing human tendency, that serpent in the Garden of Eden, labeled as “more crafty than any other wild animal” (3:1), is blamed for the corrupting influence of our sin. With that characterization, the story holds a primal fear, an instinctual anxiety.
So I’m hoping you have the sense that the prophet Isaiah’s playfulness must be a bit ridiculous. Maybe, then, you’re also getting a sense of an Advent theme here, about this season of expectations, but twisting those expectations in surprising or peculiar ways. Last week, it was the lesson that our coming redeemer was not cast as a triumphant warrior or valiant leader but as a thief in the night. Our expectations are surprised as we find ourselves yearning for a thief to come and find us. This today is another twisty surprise of our Advent expectations. Not as a serpent coming to redeem us (though John 3:14 does play with that image).
In encouraging you to play with serpents, it’s a worthwhile distinction that I’m not asking you to try the snake handling that some Christian groups do (you might be relieved to hear me say). Still, today I have to take their practice somewhat more seriously than usual, since they cling to a promise from God. They pick up a chunk added onto the end of the Gospel of Mark 500 years after Jesus, which also suggests they should be able to drink poison if they really believe. In either regard, these don’t seem very wise to try. It also seems like the main point is showing off. I’m not interested in you being show-offs, whether it’s related to snakes or much of anything else.
But if we’re not putting our infants into a snake pit to try showcasing how good we are at believing, then what do we do with this vision of Isaiah? As beautiful as this Peaceable Kingdom is, we have to admit it’s un-natural. We know the reputation of big, bad wolves as anti-rancher, snatching livestock, so it’s hard to imagine a wolf living with a lamb. We don’t picture lions as evil, but still can’t really see one eating straw. If the adders and asps are defanged and de-venomed then that’s simply no longer the creation we know. It would have to be a new creation.
That’s exactly what’s promised here. God envisions existence where there is no hurt and no harm, no destroying, not only where we get along peaceably with each other, but that is the shape of all creation. It’s good that God casts this vision for us, since it’s so unimaginable to us. God must have the vision to lead us there, because we simply can’t see how it would work. In fact, the infant playing with serpents seems so far-fetched that we who call ourselves realists would write it off as a utopia, as no place that could really exist. Our challenge amid this season of Advent, then, again with the surprising twist of our expectations, is to see how this reality of God is already coming among us and breaking into our reality.
To start, maybe we’d recognize our relationship with snakes and deadly serpents has changed since Isaiah’s time, and even since Ben Logan’s. Rather than avoiding them at all costs or being rewarded for killing on sight, we’ve come to better appreciate garter snakes of the garden and timber rattlesnakes at Devils Lake and diamondbacks and boa constrictors and enormous anacondas, and other reptiles and serpents, for their place in a natural ecosystem and even as beneficial to us by keeping rodent populations in check. We’re able to make distinctions that they’re not epitomes of evil. We have opportunities to give a closer look through glass at Vilas Zoo. Kids may even have gotten to hold a snake at a nature center? Any pet snakes?
But really to be living our way into Isaiah’s vision, besides the real snakes encountered in safe environments, it is helpful to think of metaphorical serpents. Let’s stick with the thought of where our kids play. There is such a prevalent sense that this is a dangerous world, an unfriendly world. We’re in an age of seeing risk at every turn, of stranger danger and terrorist threat and accidents and germs. We respond with antibacterial sanitizers, padded protection, and warning labels, pretending we can keep kids in a bubble, so they won’t be exposed to these sorts of serpents.
We don’t need to hear Isaiah to be sending kids to play amid traffic, but may hear that pretending we can armor our children and ourselves against every possible attack of this world is going to make us imagine that the serpents are lurking in every dark corner and any moment we may be bitten and take a deadly turn. That worldview already poisons us in turning us directly away from God’s vision of the Peaceable Kingdom. Enemizing everything contaminates us with worry, rather than cultivating playfulness, which is the antidote to fear. Nothing overcomes being scared like play.
And so not just kids but all of us can practice playing with serpents, cavorting and making merry right over their fearsome dens. The picture on the back of your bulletin is one Erin Zimmerman took on the Holy Land trip. It’s a Banksy design of a sort that pop up in protest, echoed by many other graffiti. Along the Apartheid Wall that snakes in amid Palestinian territories and constricts around villages like Bethlehem and tries to poison and strangle life, this sort of artwork on the Wall is playing with serpents, poking fun, insinuating humor, celebrating life.
With that model, we’re invited into the protest. When the world’s vision contradicts God’s, when the serpents are strangling life or threatening us with their fangs, we can respond with creativity, celebrating life, with play. We practice how to make sport and how to laugh at danger.
That’s a valuable Christian practice. Even though an Easter hymn might seem out of place in Advent, here’s a fitting stanza to play with, because it says it so well: “Now hell, its prince, the devil, of all their pow’r are shorn; now I am safe from evil, and sin I laugh to scorn. Grim death with all its might cannot my soul affright” (LBW 129). The dangers and troubles aren’t gone, but because of Jesus we treat them like they’ve already lost their power.
One final bit of this: if we’re getting ready to laugh in the face of death and all its forces, we should recognize that we’re not always just the children playing over the snakes’ den, but may ourselves be the serpents. As that brash voice of John the Baptist calls out the “brood of vipers” squirming out of trouble, that isn’t just an accusation against others but should stick close to home, in confronting the corrupting influence of our own sin.
Still, this call to repentance isn’t about hanging our heads to act miserable. Think of the whole of Jerusalem and all the people going out to the wilderness to John. This is a party. Also together here, we turn to celebrate new life, the new creation. We play off of each other. With that, it’s finding that your addictions and cravings, your secrets and your sufferings, your worries and your seriousness don’t have the constrictive control over you they claim. You’re not stuck in sin. John the Baptist knew they have so little grip on you that you’re cleansed of them as simply as taking a shower washes off dirt, because you belong to God, a God of delight and joy, of freedom for life, of the possibilities of a new creation. So take that serpentine desperation and that instinctual anxiety, and laugh, play, delight it into God’s Peaceable Kingdom.