Christmas Day, Year C
I owe a lot in my reading of the infancy narratives in Luke and Matthew to Richard Horsley's outstanding (and, unfortunately, out of print) The Liberation of Christmas. I heartily recommend checking it out from the library to read it during Advent next year. It's short (176 pages), readable, and the best cure I've ever come across for a vision of the birth of Jesus that's all about adorable pastoral scenes and children with tea-towels on their heads and sweetness and light, with very little connection to the radical, life-changing, WORLD-changing person and message proclaimed through the rest of the canonical gospels.
I'd like to issue a challenge for Christmas sermons -- not just this year, but every year:
Let's preach sermons at Christmas that suggest something of why the LIFE of this person whose birth we're celebrating is important.
Or here's another way to think about it: I don't think we've given a good characterization of Jesus unless we communicate a sense of why powerful people found him a threat. I think our Christmas sermons should get some of that across.
I can hear two objections to this idea right away. The first: "Christmas is one of two times a year when a LOT of people who don't go to church often will come to worship. Anything challenging will just turn them off church for good." I don't buy that.
For one thing, I'm not talking about yelling at people or telling them they're going to have to sell everything they have; I'm just talking about a little truth in advertising. Following Jesus can change your life. Following Jesus can change the world. This is profoundly Good News for anyone who's ever encountered darkness, anyone who's ever struggled, anyone who's ever looked at a newspaper headline and sighed, anyone who knows anyone living a broken life -- anyone who knows s/he is living a broken life. It's Good News for anyone who knows there is brokenness in the world and who wants wholeness.
I suspect that this category includes an awful lot of people who don't go to church. I suspect that a lot of them aren't going to church specifically because nobody has ever suggested to them that being part of the life of a church will do anything more than boost their perceived respectability, maybe clean up their act a little, maybe feel a little more loved as they meet a few more friends. But really, what is it that our communities of faith have to offer that doesn't happen at least as often in the Sierra Club, the local P.T.A. or Neighborhood Watch, eHarmony?
One potential one-word answer to that question might be "Jesus." But personally, I can't say that's quite it.
I've seen Jesus show up on mountain hikes -- as I'd expect from the prelude of the Gospel According to John. If Jesus is the logos through whom all things came into being, then of course I'd see Jesus in his creation.
I've seen Jesus show up in diverse groups gathered around a shared vision for schools and communities in which every child has a chance. I remember in particular one woman who had thought of herself as a nobody, someone no one would or should listen to, and about how one day, she was walking by a vacant building in her neighborhood that had been used a number of times by men who dragged a young girl on her way to school inside to assault her. This time, she got MAD. She got so mad that she brought all of who she was to bear to bring that building down -- she gathered the neighbors and wrote letters and stood up at meetings and refused to sit down just because the man with a jacket and tie sitting behind the microphone told her she should. The building came down like Jericho, and at the same time something of even greater long-term consequence happened: a prophet in and for the city was raised up. I've read about Jesus and the money-changers in the Temple, and I can tell you that I have seen this Jesus in that woman's eyes.
And I've been blessed to see Jesus in my own life and in others' in their self-giving, committed love. I've seen it in couples whose passionate union stokes their passion for the world; I've seen it in my single brothers and sisters whose powerful, faithful love for friend and stranger, and for other people's kids who desperately need the love and support they don't find at home, is a beacon for the world of the true love and real community for which it was made.
So yes, people can find Jesus in the Sierra Club and in the P.T.A., via eHarmony or in the house shared by activists in the 'hood.
And, by the way, people found God on mountaintops and the words of the prophets, in births and marriages and friendships, before Jesus was born. The Incarnation doesn't make a cold, distant God finally accessible to humanity. God was never cold, distant, or inaccessible. God has always loved Creation and humankind, each of whom God knew before they were born. God walked with us in the garden, freed us from slavery, gave us the Torah that teaches that the ultimate power in all the universe cares passionately and unwaveringly about our relationships with one another, and whether those relationships enact justice for the poor, for whom God has particular and passionate care.
I know that from Hebrew scripture. Heck, we can't say that scripture supports this commonly taught idea that Jesus' birth is exciting because it makes that cold and distant God accessible even if all we've read is the prologue of the Gospel According to John, which makes it as clear as day, and it's a potentially revolutionary vision:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. ... And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.
The radical vision that makes the rulers so very uncomfortable is not that Jesus is so much better than the God we knew before. It is that what we see in Jesus' life -- in Jesus' creativity and love, in Jesus' gathering of prophets and prostitutes, soldiers and lovers and lawyers and losers and any who would break bread with him, in Jesus' healing and teaching, in Jesus' forgiving and reconciling enemies -- is what the whole world has been the very heartbeat of the world from its very beginning. And in Jesus' life -- in what he said and did throughout his life -- we can see what this God whom Jesus proclaimed, this God whom Jesus incarnated, is about in the world.
That's why I don't think we can proclaim the Good News of Christmas, of the Feast of the Incarnation, without saying something about Jesus' ministry to come. If Jesus had been born as God made flesh and then lived to a ripe old (for his time) age of fifty as he worked hard, played by the rules, invested wisely in olive oil, paid his taxes, avoided the morally suspect and the poor (i.e., those we get to call impure because privileged folk can make them deal with those filthy things the privileged would rather avoid), raised his kids to do the same, and died as an example of just how much more peaceful things are when you just go with the flow within the world's empires, the Incarnation wouldn't necessarily be particularly good news at all. If t would just say that God was ever bit as banal as some people make God out to be. With that as the world's source and end, we may as well just hunker down and do the best we can for ourselves and those closest to us. That kind of incarnation would make out the power and love and wholeness of God we witness on mountaintops and the shoulders of the prophets among us and in loving relationships to be a kind of joke, or at best a fleeting distraction from the world as it was, and is, and always will be -- a very depressing one.
But that's NOT how it was at all. Remember a moment when you took in a view of Creation, of a human being, of loving community and you said, "THIS is living!"? Remember how you almost dared to think that it really was, that the world was made like this and the whole would could be like this? Well Jesus' life in its wholeness showed us that it really is and the whole world really could be, because God is. Everything really could be made whole. God is whole. And Jesus, who was broken by the worst our brokenness could dish out, is whole.
The person who does that is truly our Savior. That person is a serious threat to the worldly powers who think their might gives them that title. It may come as a surprise, given how often Christians these days use the title "Savior," that Luke 2:11 is the only place in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) in which Jesus is called "Savior." And it's not coincidental that it occurs here. The passage starts with a reference to someone else who claimed the title "Savior": Caesar Augustus, whose conquering might was such, that, Luke points out, his decrees were said to bind "all the world" (Luke 2:1). And yet, in the city of David there was proclaimed another Savior: Jesus of Nazareth, proclaimed by angels in heaven and poor shepherds shut out from Caesar's shining cities as the anointed king, Christ the Lord.
In other words, it's not coincidental that the Greek word euagelion, which gave us the word "evangelism" and which we usually translate as "gospel" or "good news," is a word used in Greek literature for, among other things, the herald's announcement of a new emperor. In other words, the Caesars of this world can turn in their costumes; the role has been cast. We see the real power in this world, what it was made for and where it is bound, in Jesus' work among us.
That means that the healing and justice that is Jesus' mission will be the final word. Such Good News empowered Desmond Tutu to look at apartheid's security forces at the peak of their strength and say to them with confidence spilling into exuberant joy: "You can still join the winning side!" Such Good News of Jesus the Lord has given many I've known power to overcome all kinds of anxieties and addictions that enslave. Such Good News tells me that if I want to be on the side of the angels, I'll want to seek out those in this world who, like the shepherds, are left to live as best they can quite literally on the margins, vulnerable to weather, drought, and predator, in Caesar's order -- and I'll want to stand with them. They, and not the rich men in their palaces, are the first to bear witness to the Good News that is freeing and reconciling all. Rise up and follow the star!
A blessed, joyous Feast of the Incarnation to you all! And thanks be to God for such Good News.
Posted by: Love | Dec 26, 2006 1:02:52 AM
Dylan: The challenge I have is to convince older white middle-class church members who come to church regularly, drop a check in the plate, have a familiarity with God, and look forward to coming back next week for a bit of bread and wine and a cup of coffee, that the Incarnation matters for _them_. How do we know we need a Savior if we don't know we need saving? And what do we need saving from? Those are the questions I wrestle with.
Posted by: Tom Sramek, Jr. | Dec 31, 2006 3:31:38 AM
Greetings! I love when your passion so aligns with The Word that I can only mutter in awe: "Go, Girl! Thanks!!" Know I thank God for you, too.
Posted by: Dan Weathersbee | Dec 18, 2008 11:44:55 AM
Fantastic article. I have used a portion of it in my Christmas sermon -- with attribution, of course. Many thanks.
Posted by: Sr. Brigit-Carol, SD | Dec 26, 2009 3:50:37 PM