Carol Stories, week 1

Creator of the Stars of Night (ELW #245, stanzas 1 & 2)

 

With this first one, there’s double trouble in claiming we’ll sing your favorite Christmas carols. A: it’s not in the Christmas section. B: it may not be a favorite. I picked it after reading a passage for staff devotions from this Advent Sourcebook. To start the book, it says, “for many, Advent would not be Advent if introduced by any other” carol. That says something about it being a favorite.

Yet I was surprised it wasn’t even in the Advent section of our old green LBW hymnals. There, in the “Christian Hope” section, it has a totally different translation that goes, “O Lord of light, who made the stars, O Dawn, by whom we see the way, O Christ, redeemer of the world: Come now and listen as we pray.” I think the translation in ELW has more ring.

And speaking of translations, the Sourcebook said that the original Latin word we have as “stars” was actually way more. It also included “sun and moon and planets and all the constellations and comets and meteors, these mysterious heavenly bodies that in some unfathomable way could affect human destiny. The point was not just some lovely nightfall scene studded with gently glimmering stars.”

That huge perspective is helpful in, again, reorienting us as this season starts. We love these quiet nights, and reflecting that Jesus will be born as a baby, because we can wrap our minds (and our arms!) around that. A tiny infant we can handle. But at the same time, this God who created the entire immense universe really is unfathomably big. I started to look up a scale model, of the sort like “if the sun were the size of a basketball, earth would be a grain of sand” and that the nearest star would be hundreds of miles away, which is even more shocking when we remember that our galaxy alone has at least 100 billion stars and there are at least 100 billion more galaxies. Yowser. That quickly becomes more math than I can do. And it can make us and our troubles seem awfully small.

Yet the original version of our carol describes the Savior’s sorrow for a “curse / that should doom to death a universe” and so came to “embrace / our gloomy world, its weary race.” It’s a remarkable understanding, that out of everything—the hugeness of the cosmos, the complexity of existence, the vast stretches beyond comprehension—that God should care for us. It’s like words we’ll hear from Psalm 8 in a bit, “When I consider your universe, what are mere mortals that you should care for us?”

Yet that is exactly what we understand of God and the arrival of Jesus. And, in another (though smaller still) amazingly expansive stretch, Christians have been singing the words of this carol to these same notes since at least the 800s. So let’s join them. Let’s sing.

 

Of the Father’s Love Begotten (ELW #295, stanzas 1 & 3)

 

Our second carol is more likely a favorite, at least for me and Brent Ruffridge.

Its sound may parallel the ancient chant plainsong we just sang; indeed, this is another old, old tune that’s been sung for hundreds of years, though it’s not as ancient as the words themselves. The words are by a man who has been called “the original Christian poet.” He was writing at about the same time that our Nicene Creed was composed, and we may sense some similarities between the two. Prudentius was a successful lawyer and judge in northern Spain, appointed to his position by the emperor. But he came to see life as too temporal or temporary, that what we work and strive for and build on all too soon collapses and disappears. So he gave up his position and wealth and moved to a monastery to write Christian poetry.

His words here also try to contain some of the enormous scope of the cosmos and all of history that we encountered in the last carol. Here it includes the term “Alpha and Omega,” again as we heard on Christ the King Sunday, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. In a way, it reverses the idea that Jesus was a baby who would fit in our arms; this says that we are entirely in his embrace. So just as we’d say there is nothing before A and nothing after Z, within God’s reach and never outside God’s control is everything we know and have experienced and could ever be. The ancient prophets. The highest angels. The worst thing you’ve ever done. The Big Bang. Death. The things that are, that have been, and that future years shall see—Jesus is holding all of it and working to love and redeem it all. It sure does make our existence now seem temporary by comparison.

Speaking of knowing only in part, the version of this carol in our hymnals includes just five of ten original stanzas. In the full version, there are words about Jesus creating earth and heaven and depths of ocean and all that grows. There’s our frail and feeble bodies, doomed to die and departed souls. From Psalm 148, there’s the praise of elders, youth and maidens, and even infants, plus the praise of all creation—storm and sunshine, stream and forest, night and day. These are different words for what we have portrayed also in nativity scenes, that all come to worship the tiny, fragile, holy infant who is ruler of all times and places, from donkeys to angels, rich and wise kings down to poor ugly shepherds like goofy Gustav. For his sake and along with all creation, let’s sing.

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Christ the King & Author

sermon for Christ the King Sunday (John18:33-37; Revelation1:4b-8)
This is a day that begs us to slow down and think what we’re saying.

First is that when we say “Christ the king,” we have to notice that we don’t have a king, and so don’t relate much to that idea. The closest we typically come is the King of Hearts and Burger King, neither of which promotes much reverence or devotion, unless in a pretty warped sense.

Further, we’re also instilled with this Revolutionary American notion that we want to get away from kings. Freedom from kingly pressures is exactly why we attribute those alleged forebears of ours—the pilgrims whom we recall at this time of year—were getting out of Dodge and sailing across the ocean in the Mayflower and why Paul Revere rode at midnight and Boston became the site of that rebellious Tea Party.

Of course, we can’t say “Tea Party” without calling to mind the present political climate and those who view government still as too authoritarian, too oppressive, too domineering, and perhaps monarchical, that almost any government is a shackle to be cast off.

So, again, as we celebrate Christ the King, how does that relate to other authorities? What sort of king is Christ? There are, on one hand, Christians who resist, still believing we need to get away from kings, even Christ, and they avert any references by systematically excluding terms like king and lord from worship. I understand the notion, but it undoes what Jesus was already trying to undo, how he was working to subvert regimes of traditional patriarchies.

Perhaps on the reverse side are Christians who are so totally subject to worshiping Christ as king that they refuse any other sense of order, claiming Christ must be victorious in visibly and noticeably ruling our lives.

Being the sort of folks we are, I expect we’re more apt to find ourselves in the middle. To begin, we’d say that following Christ directs us to the obligation to love our neighbor. We may, then, see governments in service of this task, welcoming the stranger in immigrants or in preventing hate crimes, and feeding the hungry through food stamps, and making sure we can’t kill each other willy-nilly. Those are roles that our government should be up to, according to the perspective of trying to follow the order of Christ.

Yet, for us in the wise middle, we also observe neither an evil empire nor shining beacon, not demons or heroic knights, but an awful lot of gray area. We would be reluctant to equate anything in our society—much less in our own lives—as all that “Christ-like.” As much good as we do, and for all the successes of our government and society in caring for the vulnerable and oppressed, we’re also met with glaring examples of falling short.

With that dual perspective, scripture tells us in one place (Rom13:1) that we ought to respect the governing authorities, and remember that they are in place to do God’s work. Yet our Lutheran forebears held that verse and let Hitler get away with way too much. Even today in our Gospel reading, the government official goes exactly counter to the will of God: the crafty Pontius Pilate finagles the system and ignores integrity in order to have Jesus killed. He is clearly not on the side of justice. So much the opposite, in fact, that while he’s trying to entrap Jesus in his words, Jesus counters by saying that his role is to testify to the truth.

It reminds me of a favorite quote of my Grandpa Utphall, that he’d “been lied to by experts.” We are much too accustomed to lying experts. That is our default understanding, fitting with the tragic joke that asks, “how do when you know when an authority is lying? Their lips are moving.” This accusation is most frequently leveled against leaders, but also against news reporters, and against salespeople and corporate mouthpieces, and sometimes medical professionals, rallied against teachers, applied to the church, and on and on. If anything, our basic sense of society becomes that we are always being lied to and manipulated and most everyone is for hire or is just so selfish that we can trust no one.

So maybe Christ the King is the start of reversing that trend. If our usual sense is that authorities can’t be trusted, then we can begin again to reground our hope and find a foundation in this one who came to speak the truth. The basis of our faith is, in fact, that God’s Word is good, that God keeps God’s promises.

The clearest case-in-point today is the baptism of Ada Florence. Her grandmother, Sally Keyel, is well-involved in this community. But that isn’t the reason for the baptism. Sasha and Anna aren’t even going to live in this state. She’ll not be part of our Sunday School. With the news of my impending departure, we’re faced with the rather direct reminder that, even though I’m doing the baptizing, I won’t be around to care for her and raise her in the faith. Even more, I like to remind families that there’s the possibility that this would never be mentioned again. We baptize babies who’ll have no individual recollection of it. And yet we believe that Ada will be held as a beloved daughter in God’s care for all her days no matter what, amid her successes and failures, in celebrations and brokenness, as long as she lives, and even beyond that. We trust that God’s promise is good.

With that, we’re getting closer to the heart of what it means to recognize Christ the King. In the Gospel, Jesus tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world. We might first take that to mean that his kingdom is up in heaven. But I believe there’s something more striking and meaningful. See, where the President presides over this country, or where a Burger King rules over the other burgers and the King of Hearts may be the most powerful of his suit, where an earthly king reigns over a territory and dictates what is or isn’t allowed in that area and fights to make sure somebody else doesn’t take away his power within his boundaries, the kingdom of God isn’t about power or a locale exactly. This is different.

Here’s a phrase we heard today from Revelation: Jesus is making you into his kingdom. That wording is really, really important. He’s not bringing you to his kingdom, as if it’s someplace else and you’re not there. He’s not making you fit for his kingdom, as if it’s about following a certain specific set of rules. He’s not waiting, as if it’s for you to acknowledge who’s really in charge. He’s made you his kingdom.

When we pray for God’s kingdom to come, that is not in defeating another religion or overcoming fundamentalist radicals per se. Neither is its success marked by making our own nation somehow more quote-unquote Christian. We may have any of those as our pet projects and firmly want to believe we are doing right. Yet, since Jesus somehow discounts the fighting, evidently this kingdom is not identified by the spread or resilience of those triumphal marks or any of our other worldly standards of combative competition.

Rather, the truly shocking and almost ridiculous thing is that the kingdom of God is founded in you, your unstable, uncertain life, followers who betray and hand him over. Yet Christ the King makes you the kingdom. You are his turf. Not just his subject who should be obeying his orders. You are his territory, his realm, the place where his power is wielded and manifest, where his claim is. You are the kingdom of Christ.

To say it in another way, Christ is your authority. Except because our ears are attuned to lies and our lives accustomed to rebellion, even that we need to understand afresh. He is not the authority meaning the boss of you, at least not most fundamentally. He is your authority as in the one who authored you. Christ is your author. You have been created by God and owe your existence to God, just as a character of fiction would not exist if an author had not put a pen to her paper.

And now, like a fictional character, you’ve soon taken on a life of your own. Stan Lee no longer controls Spiderman. JK Rowling couldn’t have known what Harry Potter would become. They’ve grown in unexpected ways.

For us, too. The stories of our lives collide and part ever in new ways. The circumstances of our world bring us with each passing calamity and each bright invention to something new, to become something we weren’t before. It can feel worrisome, since there’s no prescription and it doesn’t leave us with much clarity. We wonder what will happen with the decisions we make and if we’re doing the right thing amid anxious possibilities. We have regrets that linger and too many endings that continue to haunt us with sorrows. Such flux involves some very nervous tension in the present.

Today is the assurance that little Ada Florence is blessed by God. Her story was thus begun by God, but it isn’t pre-written or prescribed. She will live it in her own unique—and creative—way. But neither is it that she as God’s good creation is only to be released to try to succeed in life or to try to follow the rules as best she can and had better or to struggle solo against the horrors and frustrations of life in this world. After all, she is the kingdom of Christ.

So here’s where we come to the other part of Christ the King. He is Alpha, your creator, the one before you, your author, your source. He is also Omega, your destination. From Alpha to Omega, from A to Z, he is with you. He has the final word; it all wraps up with him. And somehow he will bring you to the ending in him. It’s not because he manages to manipulate every moment of your existence. It’s not predictable. Just the opposite, though we are in the messy middle of things that seem unclear and worrisome, though so much seems out of any control, still he will not release you or fail you. You are his kingdom and the ending is secure in him.

If an author begins a story, I wish we had a word for the one who can gather the chaos of terrors and somehow bring it to its goal. It’s not just an editor, for God can’t erase your wrongs. Rather, this must be a word for one who manages to tie it all together, holding it all, redeeming the worst, making hurts whole, and bringing it to majestic and glorious fruition. I guess our only term for that is “Christ the King.”

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