Christmas Eve sermon #2

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.

 

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

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Jesus & Our Priorities, Sermon for 2nd Sunday of Christmas

(John1:1-18; Sirach 24:1-12; Wisdom 10:15-21; Ephesians 1:3-14)

Here we are beginning a new year, turning calendars to 2015, thinking ahead of resolutions and what needs to change, and I’m foolishly going to suggest we need to use this opportunity to look backward.

Furthermore, we have this gospel reading from the start of John’s Gospel, the Prologue, as it’s known. It’s an intro, an opening. It is there for us to look forward, to set the tone of all that is going to come in the story of Jesus. Plus, we’re on the cusp of Epiphany, when for six Sundays we’ll encounter the next parts of Jesus’ story, the ways this light is revealed to the world, of how people got to know him and how we get to know him.

But for now, as we have maybe a pause, a hint of what’s coming, we also need a reminder of what came. We gather today on day 11 of the 12 days of Christmas. The Christmas season officially concludes tomorrow. And it’s worthwhile that we have to think back to Christmas Eve today. As we gather amid falling needles and poinsettia debris, our world in so many ways has already moved on. The gifts are unwrapped and put away. By December 26, radio stations had already switched off the holiday hits. Focuses changed to New Year’s Eve celebrations. Decorations come down as we tidy up. We return to work and school, to regular rhythms. We go back to life.

Yet today, interrupting again, we are compelled to recall a baby born in a barn. And just to be clear, that isn’t a cuddly and sweet story endeared to us because it is set well to music. It isn’t just a holiday pause. It’s not a diversion from life, but a reorientation of life. And Christmas must be that because centrally what we believe and continue to proclaim is that God was born.  God was born. Again, our understanding of Jesus isn’t just that he grew up to be a nice guy, or that he was a nonviolent revolutionary who could be a thorn in the side of the world’s most powerful empire, nor even that he knew a lot about God. What we believe is that Jesus was—and is—God.

As the story continues, it gets even more disturbing. Beyond the Prologue, all of John’s Gospel could be seen as a commentary or an argument about how Jesus, a particular person could make God present for us and, more, actually could have gone on to be killed. God, even though he’s human and not unbroken and, yes, even though he was executed on a cross. It’s just plain outrageously foolish.

But then we amp up our foolishness to the nth degree. Our peculiar readings for today expand our perspective, identifying in Jesus God’s eternal wisdom that provided the shape and pattern for the existence of our universe since before anything came to be.  Since we’re looking back, we’ll look waaay back. The readings step back from the Bethlehem stable to say that the one who was born there was with God, was God, since the beginning, speaking all things into existence. “No one has ever seen God,” it said. Only Jesus has made God known. That’s a no-nonsense statement with oomph.

So, aside from the fact that this has been scriptural understanding and that Christians have held this belief ever since there were Christians, still Jesus as God has gotta give us some pause and make us uncomfortable. It is so direct, so particular.

It has been making me think of a phrase I hear too often from friends and others generally. In talk about raising children regarding faith, they say they’re “going to let them decide for themselves and choose what they want to believe.” It’s a strange thing to say. I mean, for simple starters, we don’t let kids decide whether or not they want to use silverware or have table manners. Going to school isn’t optional. We pretty well expect they’ll subscribe to our society’s ethics and norms. We even struggle with disappointment when they challenge our allegiances, to an alma mater or to a sports team. But God is up for grabs on doing whatever they might want?!

It seems so backward. Isn’t the whole point of God, being something that’s bigger than you? That you are among creation, and so don’t get to pick (or be) the Creator? Wouldn’t it be the height of presumptuousness to imagine you could set aside God for another deity, or that you could take-or-leave the whole spiel altogether? Isn’t this exactly what the 1st Commandment is about, and why it’s the 1st Commandment? That is to say, it’s a question of priorities—literally meaning what we put first.

Furthermore, it’s evident that we’re bad at making these so-called choices. The Prologue says Jesus came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. It’s saying that they already had some knowledge of this God, but still couldn’t see it, wouldn’t accept him. Or, as it says a bit more gloomily after John 3:16, “the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light.”

Yet it’s not just our postmodern families, with lives overflowing with flashy options (even if they’re not truly optional and not all that good or bright). It’s not just those who want to sleep in on Sundays. Getting back to the main issue at hand, still even those of us who have spent our lives in church probably have difficulty with identifying God with Jesus alone.

I suspect for our children we need to re-focus this devotion, and we ourselves need to be more devoted. We would benefit from reclaiming this wisdom, remembering the true shape of our lives and what brings us light. We are people with myriad commitments and obligations and diffuse interests, scattering us in so many directions, and probably leaving us un-grounded and less enlightened, if not entirely self-devoted idolaters. I can say for myself, right along with the rest of you, that I certainly fall short in having this be the center of my life, with all the rest of who I am to be oriented around Jesus, structured out from that center, to know that life is marked from a manger to the cross and out beyond an empty tomb.

And there’s the core of why it matters. We look back to Jesus to know what God still plans and intends for us, what the shape of our lives and the goal of our universe is supposed to be. So it isn’t that we have a God who so sternly demands obedient allegiance, with threats of “or else.” It’s that there’s so much promise for us and for all creation around us in this God who has come to dwell with us. It’s worth being able to trust our lives, our hopes, our existence to Jesus. That’s what makes it the priority. This is what God wants for us, to offer assurances and to guide and fulfill our lives.

For starters with that, we’re not left aimlessly wondering whether the universe is against us, or if we just need to try a bit harder to have karma go our way, or if there’s any point to it at all or if our lives are simply irrelevant. We, instead, are given confidence in love and charity and community. In Jesus, we know compassion. We know that our lives matter, that we’re not just waiting for our souls to fly away, but that this flesh, this created stuff, this world is vital to God. God is utterly invested here. With Jesus as God revealed for us, from a lowly birth in Bethlehem to being with the poor and the ill, on to the end you may know that God’s good for you cannot be stopped even by death.

One last word of promise for today, a nice, tender image. I really cherish and cling to these during this Christmas season, because I find the image of Mary cradling and nursing the baby God so stunning and beautiful. This is a parallel to that. Our final verse from John had the stuff about no one ever seeing God, but God being made known only by Jesus. Along with that was the phrase that the Son “is close to the Father’s heart.”

That’s helpful already. That heart-felt image of knowing God by heart tells us of proximity, of shared emotions, of love, of Jesus revealing for us what is centrally important to know about God.

But rather than just heart, a more direct translation of that phrase would be that Jesus is held “in the bosom” of the Father. Just as Mary nursed Jesus, the baby God, so God’s own bosom nurses with tender care. And Jesus isn’t the only one held close in God’s bosom. Jesus brings you into this family, making us all children of God, nursed and sustained and held dearly, close to God’s heart and in God’s bosom forever. That’s good stuff, worth knowing, worth remembering, re-orienting your whole life. So, Merry Christmas!

Hymn: Of the Father’s Love Begotten (ELW #295)

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