First Sunday after Christmas Day, Year C
John 1:1-18 - link to NRSV text
If you haven't seen it already, I encourage you to check out my reflection for Christmas Day this year, which deals with John 1:1-14 as well as the two passages in Luke for earlier Christmas services.
That earlier entry was in part on the theme that the Incarnation is NOT how a distant god became close to humanity. The prologue to John's gospel, which we read again this Sunday, makes that much clear in saying that the logos or "Word" Jesus incarnated was with God in the beginning and that all things were made through the logos. Indeed, Hebrew scripture -- like the Christian "New Testament" -- has plentiful representations of God as present among and intimate with God's people. Psalm 139 is just one example among a great many.
This week, I want to talk about another misconception I've heard in many a sermon, and that the prologue to John's gospel ought to put to rest. The misconception goes something like this:
God is righteous. Righteousness means not only avoiding all wrongdoing, but avoiding all wrongdoers. Therefore, God fundamentally can't stand humanity -- at least as long as humanity is sinful. Indeed, God wants and needs to punish wrongdoers with something worse than the death penalty: death plus eternal suffering. Only blood can satisfy God's sense of justice. The Incarnation solves this problem as God the Son, who wants to have compassion for humanity but knows that only the shedding of human blood will satisfy the Father, becomes human to suffer and die for humanity's sins, after which God can stand to be around humans who accept this blood sacrifice on their behalf.
The above is a particularly crude version of what some call "substitutionary atonement." There are versions out there that are not so crude, and at the very least, any view that Jesus' blood was shed as a full and perfect sacrifice for sin ought to have at least one implication that would be very helpful were we to live into it: namely, that human beings cannot demand blood or even suffering from another as punishment for wrongdoing, since Jesus paid the full price for all human sin, and further suffering from others is neither necessary nor efficacious. Can you imagine a world in which everyone who claimed to be a Christian refused absolutely to participate in any kind of vengeance, punishment, or shedding of human blood? That would be a radical shift.
But our gospel passage for this Sunday asks us to contemplate something far more radical:
"No one has ever seen God. It is God the Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known."
In other words, as my dissertation supervisor puts it, God is like Jesus.
That might not sound so radical at first. In many circles in the U.S., we're accustomed to or even fairly jaded with respect to theological language about Jesus. But what I've observed over the years is that our thinking about the Incarnation and what it means tends to run in the opposite direction from what John 1:18 suggests. We start with our ideas about what God is like (those far too often being simply our cultural values writ large), and then assume or project into the New Testament that Jesus is like that.
We believe that family (defined in our usual cultural manner of those closely related to us by blood or marriage) should be a person's chief priority (other than God, perhaps), so we believe that God commanded as much, and therefore Jesus did too. We scratch our heads a little if we come across most of what Jesus said about family in the biological or legal sense, but figure the text couldn't possibly mean what it says and quickly move on.
We inherit a "Protestant work ethic" from our culture; we project that onto God; and then we find ourselves saying things like, "well, didn't Jesus say, 'the Lord helps those who help themselves'?" (That was Ben Franklin, by the way.)
We embrace a kind of individualistic faith that says that God is concerned primarily with the state of our hearts rather than what we do with our money and power, and then invent all kinds of interpretive contortions with texts about the "rich" and the "poor" in the New Testament so we don't have to think that Jesus has any problem with the poor remaining poor and the rich remaining rich.
In a particularly subtle way that's therefore particularly difficult to become aware of, we believe that God is basically a nice guy who made a nice world and then got out of the way, sending Jesus as one of many occasional reminders to humanity that we should also be nice and not do anything really bad to one another -- in other words, that following Jesus will not require anything more than church attendance from someone who's basically a good and respectable guy or gal.
Or we start with a firm idea of what God likes and doesn't like (usually pretty similar to what we like and don't like), and that God wants and needs to punish those who do the latter, and then we assume that Jesus is like that too. But what does John's prologue do to this way of doing theology?
If Jesus is God the Son, close to the Father's heart, who has made our Creator known to us, then we don't start with ideas about what God is doing in the world and project them onto Jesus; we start with what Jesus does in the world and know that this is what God is doing.
That's yet another reason that we can't chart the significance of the Incarnation without talking about what happened between the lines of the creeds -- after "he was made man" and before "he died and was buried." If it is Jesus, the Word made flesh, who makes God our Creator known, then we know what God is like by looking at what Jesus in his life "in the flesh" was like.
Jesus taught and healed. He confronted the powers and the power dynamics that kept some people shut out of the villages as feared demoniacs. When people were hungry, he fed them. Indeed, he broke bread with them, without checking first, second, or later about whether they were the "right sort of person." He broke bread with the person he knew was betraying him to suffering and death. He spoke words of invitation and forgiveness even from the cross on which he died. Those last invitations -- to the thief on the cross in Luke's gospel, for example -- came without precondition; there was no "as long as you don't mess up again," or "as long as you're sincerely sorry for what you've done," or "assuming you don't have any major nasties in your history that I don't know about." He also challenged people -- not just the "sinners," but the respectable people -- to grow into the fullness of discipleship, receiving and caring for all who came to Jesus' table as their own flesh and blood.
Had he just behaved that way, he wouldn't have been particularly threatening to anyone. Some people are completely indiscriminate about the company they keep. Some people treat their enemies in pretty much the same way they treat their friends and family. They won't be elected president any time soon; they're weirdos whose hanging out with those on the margins of society renders them marginal as well. Jesus would have been similarly unimportant if that's all he did.
But he did more. He said that God -- the Creator of the universe -- behaved toward humanity just as he did. He acted with God's power to bring those at the margins in to the center as empowered and beloved children of God. And so John's gospel very aptly says that his glory is "full of grace and truth" -- properties not at all in contradiction in Jesus' ministry, or in the kingdom of God.
All of those who take the Left Behind books as gospel and are therefore expecting Jesus, or the God whom Jesus proclaimed, to undergo some kind of eschatological personality shift to gleefully kick his enemies' butts are going to be disappointed if John is right. Those who worship a god who poses no threat to the empires of this world will be surprised by the God revealed in the life of Jesus, who gathered people to live in a way that threatened Roman rule enough to get him executed for treason against the emperor.
But for those who are attracted to the ways in which Jesus challenges the rulers and embraces the marginalized -- those who glimpse abundant life in Jesus' way of life -- the news that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh who makes the Creator known is Good News indeed -- the best news there is.
Thanks be to God!
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.
Christmas Day: The Feast of the Nativity
You can find links to all of the potential readings here. There are three sets, to be used according to the time of the service, but at any service, I don't think I'm presumptuous in thinking that the sermon is going to be about Christmas, the Incarnation, and what it means for us.
Many times in my youth, I heard that Christmas is the time when God bridged the gap between heaven and earth, or between spirit and flesh. But that's not what the Incarnation did for us. Creation did that for us. The Gospel of John makes that very clear: for its author, “the beginning of the Good News” of the Son of God, to borrow Mark's phrase, is in Creation. The Good News begins for John in that moment in the very beginning when “all things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:3). The Gospel of John might have more rhetoric of “us vs. them” than any other canonical gospel (it comes of the intensity of persecution the community felt), but it makes very, very clear from its very beginning of its story that the beginning, middle, and end of the story of the world is one of love -- intimate and unwavering love.
[CORRECTION 12-22-05: I removed the paragraph about the word for “love” in John 3:16. It is NOT eros; I was working from memory, and my memory failed me! Many thanks for those who caught the error. But if you look at how the four Greek terms for “love” in Hellenistic literature, I think you'll still find that the terms blur together far more than we often let on. And my main point -- that God has been intimately involved with physical bodies, which he declared to be “very good” in Genesis 1:31, from Creation.]
So let me tell you what Christmas is NOT about: It is not about a God who can barely stand smelly fleshy people until becoming one. It is not about healing a rift between the spiritual and the physical. Here's what it is about, or the start of it: In the very beginning, John tells us -- before there were any people to need redeeming -- God was present with and active in the world, loving every human being intensely, passionately, faithfully.
As you can guess, my top choice of classic Christmas carol lines to rewrite would be, “Lo, he abhors not the virgin's womb,” which seems to me to say more about how many people think that bodies -- and women's bodies in particular -- are icky than it does about solid biblical theology. That story often told about the physical world being hopeless and at least a little disgusting to God until God hold's God's nose and plunges into humanity is NOT the story of Christmas.
If anything, the story of Christmas has the opposite message. If I had to sum up the Incarnation in a nutshell, I'd say that it means that as Christians, we hold the fullest revelation of God's purposes on earth and of God's very character to be in the flesh-and-blood person of Jesus of Nazareth, whose birth we celebrate in the Feast of the Nativity. Among many, many other things, that means that there is NOTHING intrinsic to human life that God shrinks from.
But is that the meaning of Christmas? I'd say it isn't. It's part of it, but Christmas is much richer than “God loves you, and doesn't think you or your body is icky.” Christmas isn't about bridging the gap between God and humanity, because God has never left us, even when we've naively tried to leave God, and even when our behavior is far from what God is doing on earth. But it is about closing another gap, another kind of transcendence.
I hesitate to use the word “transcendence,” as it's awfully abstract, but I can't think of a better one. It's an awkward use not least because it's often used so crudely, as if God “transcending,” being beyond what's right here, meant that God is hanging out on some distant moon. Some biblical writers use imagery that sounded a little like that, imagery of God sitting on a throne in the heavens and using the earth as a footstool and so on, but it's a poet's image. The prophets in particular (and props to Scott Bartchy, my Ph.D. supervisor, for turning me on to this) also talked in a way that suggests God's transcendence, God's going beyond as well as being in the world we experience, is about time. God is with us right here and right now, but God is also ahead of us, beckoning us toward a future in which the world is all about love -- as obviously as it is truly.
That probably still sounds a little abstract. Let me put it this way: the Gospel According to Luke, the source of our gospel reading in two of our three sets of readings for Christmas, tells us how Jesus taught his followers to pray: that God's kingdom would come and God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven. That was no dry recitation, and it was no wild, speculative hope of someone in darkness saying, “I hope someone out there has a match.” It was the passionate declaration of someone who SAW it, who KNEW it, whose very life penetrated the barrier between the now that we live in and the future we and our world were made for: God's kingdom come, God's will done in every way on earth. The life we celebrate at Christmas is God's future breaking into the present, and it's like a circuit made complete; God's justice, God's powerful love, courses through.
Advent, when we fully enter into it, is a season in which we reflect on God's dream for the world and for us. We study it, we long for it, we sing about it prayerfully, wholeheartedly. And when we can make the time and the space in our busy lives to have these experiences -- and sometimes when we can't or don't, because God is, after all and always, gracious -- we can almost see it and smell it and taste it. And the dream is that vivid, we have a sense of just how close we are to being THERE. If you haven't had that experience, or even if you have, it's worth taking a moment on Christmas Day to close your eyes or open them -- whatever is most conducive to this kind of dreaming for you -- and pause to imagine what the world would look like with every longing of the prophets fulfilled: People living in harmony with one another, with God, and with the world we live in -- no enmity or envy or greed or hunger. You have what you need, and are made content by others having what they need. Dream the prophets' dream, and take a look around at a world in which nothing separates us from one another or from God. Smell it and taste it; drink it in.
That getting in touch with the prophets' vision, with the future God intends for us and for the whole Creation God loves passionately, is Advent.
And now comes Christmas.
The hope of the prophets, that longed-for “someday,” is born in flesh among us NOW. The Word of God whose love gave birth to the world is here among us! It's no pie in the sky; it's a child, revealed to the hosts of heaven and the shepherds shivering in the cold outside the village. The life that has come among us is none other than the light of the world. No darkness can overcome it; all the ends of the earth will see God's salvation, deliverance from everything that separates us from one another and from God.
That's why they say this is Good News. And here's something that just might be the best part of it: when we proclaim that God's Word was made flesh to live among us, we're not just talking about an event in the first-century Roman province of Palestine. Every time we gather together to live into the way of Jesus, we are the Body of Christ, and the life-giving Word that powers the universe finds flesh among us. If it's hard for you to drink in the hope of the prophets by imagining -- if there what comes to mind for you is broken relationships, worries, or fears, and if you can't imagine a light that could reach the whole world -- then the invitation that comes to us this Christmas season is as much or more for you. Stay with us, with these little candle-lit groups clustered around the world. For all our flaws and foibles, God's grace breaks through among us, and the angels' song echoes as our learning to forgive and bless one another points to the full realization of the love for which and in which the world was born.
Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace for the world God loves!
Thanks be to God!
Is it too early to think about aids for preaching in Christmas 2005?
Richard Horsley's The Liberation of Christmas, which was, as luck would have it, out of print around the time I suggested it for help preaching through the season, is back in print, and can once more be purchased cheaply from Amazon.com. I do recommend it highly to provoke fresh looks at the infancy narratives we preach on every year. It might be worth ordering it now, while it's sure to be available!
Second Sunday after Christmas, Year A
It's hard to appreciate the full impact of the stories about Jesus' birth without entering into the brutality he confronted even as an infant as well as the vulnerability a peasant family like Jesus' experienced. Last week, I recommended Richard Horsley's book The Liberation of Christmas, and this week I'd like to echo that recommendation -- that book is what really got me thinking about what Luke and Matthew are telling us in their narratives of Jesus' birth and infancy, and I'm referring to it extensively this week.
So what kind of a ruler was Herod the Great, Jesus' rival for the title of "king of the Judeans"? The first-century Jewish historian Josephus documents Herod's struggles to secure his territory, which he eventually did with extensive help from Roman troops. He thanked his benefactors not only by taking on titles like "Admirer of Rome" and "Admirer of Caesar," but by undertaking extensive building projects -- temples, gymnasia, statues, and even whole cities (Sebaste and Caesarea) named after the emperor. "Since he was involved in expenses greater than his means," Josephus writes, "he was compelled to be harsh toward his subjects, for the great number of things on which he spent money as gifts to some caused him to be the source of harm to those from whom he took his revenues" (Antiquities 15.365, as cited in Horsley, pp. 43-44).
The more the people chafed under Herod's rule, the more repressive it became:
No meeting of the people was permitted, nor were walking together or being together permitted, and all their movements were observed. Those who were caught were punished severely, and many were taken, either openly or secretly, to the fortress of Hyrcania and there put to death. Both in the city and in the open roads there were men who spied upon those who met together. ... Those who obstinately refused to go along with his practices he persecuted in all kinds of ways. As for the rest of the populace, he demanded that they submit to taking a loyalty oath, and he compelled them to make a sworn declaration that they would maintain a friendly attitude to his rule. Now most people yielded to his demand out of complaisance or fear, but those who showed some spirit and objected to compulsion he got rid of by every possible means.
— Antiquities 15.366-369, as cited in Horsley, p. 47
These words came immediately to my mind when I read a story yesterday about rendition, the practice of forcing detainees onto a jet to be taken secretly from a country in which harsh methods of torture are banned to a country in which they're allowed. What a world we live in! I wonder what would happen if we put even half the ingenuity, technology, and resources into finding ways to get disaster relief to the incomprehensibly high number of people affected by yesterday's tsunami as we put into striking back at those suspected to be our enemies. The powers and the principalities of this world would drive us by fear to violence, by greed to indifference, and by disasters like the Asian tsunami to the conclusion that the world itself is cruel and senseless.
What a world we live in! Is it naive to hold on to hope and to speak of salvation in such a world?
Not at all, if we take the stories surrounding Jesus' birth seriously. We're too often tempted to reduce the scenes surrounding Jesus' birth into an adorable tableau of children transformed into shepherds with tea towels on their heads, a scene as peaceful as it is heartwarming. But the gospel stories of Jesus' birth were very clear about just how great and how oppressive the powers and principalities were from which Jesus came to save us. I think that when we gloss over that, we're tempted to view the darknesses of our own world through the lens of self-pity, and to conclude that the problems we face are greater than those faced before, perhaps even greater than Jesus' power to redeem and make whole.
That isn't true. Jesus was born into a world ruled by a Caesar who spent resources glorifying himself as "savior of the empire" that would better be put to use in saving his subjects from poverty, famine, or Rome-supported client rulers like Herod. Jesus was born as "king of the Judeans" in a Judea ruled by another who claimed that title, and who would stop at nothing to hold on to it. He was born to a people who had been delivered from slavery in Egypt, but ruled by a king who drove him and his parents back there as refugees. Christ our savior wasn't in the dark about the extent of the problems we face in the world, but his faith in the God of Israel who called him was such that he knew no darkness could hold out against the Light that has come into the world.
Sometimes we think that we have to enter into denial to hold on to hope, but that isn't true. Hope is not saying that problems don't exist or that they're not serious; it's keeping deeply in touch with the more fundamental truth that the whole universe was created in love and is destined for love. When we do that, when we make the decision to seek God's will in the midst of turmoil, then the power of the tempest teaches us how much more powerful our Redeemer is, and we can find peace amidst the storms.
The greatest gift we can give our children is not a fleeting illusion that "all is calm, all is bright" -- they're far too observant to be taken in by that for long, especially if we don't believe it ourselves. We give a far greater gift to our children by teaching the the meaning of compassion -- that great tragedy and great need are met by greater love. We teach them the meaning of hope -- that we recognize both the darkness and the fundamental truth that the deepest darkness must give way when it meets light. That's something we have to be deeply in touch with ourselves to pass along to our children, and to share with our world.
So I was pleased to see Joy Carroll Wallis' recent call to put Herod back into Christmas. I'm grateful to Matthew for telling us that Jesus knew the oppression of Egypt. How else would Jesus be able to lead us in Exodus? And I believe that Jesus came to do that. There is no Egypt, no Herod, no Caesar, who can stand against the testimony that we offer that Jesus is Lord. There is no need so great and no pain so deep that it can't be met with greater compassion and healing through Christ our savior. The world was made for love, and the redemption of the world comes as God's gift through Christ, poured out freely by grace. But in Christ, we have the opportunity to accompany Jesus to see the redemption of the world firsthand, to experience the love which is the primal force of Creation as our touch and our generosity minister Jesus' healing and grace to a world that, though it is in darkness, has seen a great light -- the Light of the World, dawning anew in Christmas.
Thanks be to God!
I asked my partner to pick up a book for me today from the library. It's one that I've got SOMEWHERE in my own library -- unless it's one of those books I've lent to someone and didn't get back -- but I couldn't find it yesterday, and I knew I wanted to look through it yet another time to get ready to preach (and blog, of course) on the readings for January 2nd. And as I was explaining why I so wanted this particular book because "it should be required reading for anyone who has to preach at all during the Christmas season," my partner wisely pointed out that such a thing might be worth mentioning in blogland. So here it is:
Richard Horsley's The Liberation of Christmas. It might be too late to order it, have it delivered, and thumb through it for this Christmas season (although if you can pick it up from a local theological library, do it! You'll be glad you have it on January 2nd). You'll be glad to have it next year, though.
January 1, 2005 edit: The book is out of print. Drats! Try to get a used copy, or read a library copy. It's good!
February 11, 2005 edit: The book has been reprinted, and is available once more from Amazon.com at a reasonable price.
Also, I know that many of you are preaching for both Christmas Eve/Day services and on December 26th, so I thought it might be worth mentioning an angle on the reading from John 1 that's on the lectionary for December 26th. Were I preaching on both days, on December 26th I would probably go for this angle: what are the implications of "the Word became flesh and lived among us" as we seek to interpret scripture? What does it mean that when seek God's Word, we are seeking a person rather than a book, let alone an idea about a book? And if we are Christ's Body in the world, how are we called to enflesh the Word for the world, as Jesus the Christ did for us?
Christmas Day and the First Sunday after Christmas
Isaiah 9:2-4, 6-7 - link to NRSV text - (Option 1 only)
Luke 2:1-20 - link to NRSV text - (Options 1 and 2 only)
John 1:1-18 - link to NRSV text - (Option 3 for Christmas Day; gospel for First Sunday after Christmas)
I am bringing you news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Lord, the anointed!
Last week, my sermon asked the congregation to imagine for a moment what it would mean if it was really true, really a message from the God of Israel, that Jesus saves us from sin.
Imagine that: everything needed to overcome every dark force or impulse that isolates us from one another and from God came into the world two thousand years ago. The fall of sin itself! That's a change bigger than the fall of communism, bigger than the fall of terrorism.
We who receive Jesus, the Christ, are not just living in a new era: we are living in a new world.
That can be very hard to hold on to, though, when things are dark. There's a lot of bad news in the morning paper. Every day, headlines tell us how many more have died in Iraq. Many of us have loved ones serving there, or in Afghanistan, and we fear for their lives. There are headlines about corruption, turmoil, disease. And then there are the private sorrows that don't make the headlines, the dark moments of a child caught in the crossfire when a drug deal goes bad, a woman whose life is in danger from an abusive husband, an illness that seems as senseless as it is painful.
Sometimes, it feels overwhelming. How can we look at the world as it is and still say that Jesus has conquered sin and death? How can we look at the world as it is and still say that Jesus is the Lord? How can we look at the world in its darkness and say that the Light of the World has come?
We are not the first people to struggle with these questions. Luke portrays Jesus' birth as taking place during the census of Quirinius, governor of Syria [*]. A census may sound harmless enough -- but then take a look at 2 Samuel 24:1-17, in which David's taking a census is presented as a sin so grievous as to be punished with the deaths of seventy thousand people. More to the point, Luke knows that the specific census taken by Quirinius so represented the unjust taxation and oppressive rule of Rome that it inspired a revolt led by Judas the Galilean, as Luke mentions in Acts 5:37.
Luke knows that Jesus was born in dark times. He knows about the dark times that followed as well -- the famine in Judea that necessitated Paul's collection for Jerusalem from churches across the empire, the war with Rome that broke out in 66 A.D., the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., strife within synagogues as Christian Jews refused to take up arms even to defend Jerusalem and the Temple, the persecution and martyrdom of Christians whose refusal to honor any lord other than Jesus and any father other than God angered their families and neighbors as well as the Roman authorities. John's gospel also reflects the turmoil of its times, of rejection and persecution and martyrdom at the hands of those who think they are doing God's will by killing. Those were dark times indeed.
But Good News!
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness--
on them a light has shined.
Jesus has come among us. God's glory is revealed! We can "see this thing that has taken place, that the Lord has revealed" (Luke 2:18), if we choose to follow the signs.
And what are the signs? A child, wrapped in ordinary cloth and lying in a manger. A peasant girl, narrowly spared from being stoned to death by her village after her husband-to-be found her to be pregnant with a child that wasn't his. An overwhelmed father, doing his best to find shelter for his family on a night when they are homeless and friendless. A gathering of shepherds, among the lowest of laborers.
It doesn't look like a special-effects moment, so far, does it?
I think in some ways that what makes the Christmas story such an effective representation of how our hope of salvation is born. The Christmas story tells us that the world doesn't have to be made perfect before it is made new. The world doesn't have to be rid of sinners before we are freed from sin. The world doesn't need to be rid of darkness before we can walk in the light. Indeed, Christmas tells us that God's glory is revealed in the muck of a stable and the pain of a Roman cross as it could never be in the brightness of the heavens, because the greatest glory of God is God's love.
It's an extravagant love, poured out for each one of us as if we were the only person in the world to love. It's a generous love, lavished upon us in unlimited supply. It's an unconditional love, offered without reservation or regard for what you have and haven't done. It's love without borders or limits, as the Christ whose birth we celebrate this season has called all people as God's people, chosen and cherished.
Prophetic words through the centuries testified to this love, but a love like that is beyond comprehending. And that's why we needed Jesus. Jesus is more than a teacher who can help us understand the words in scripture. Jesus is the Word made flesh. We don't have to figure it all out; we can experience it in relationship. And Jesus isn't just an admirable character in a story, given so that we can imagine what he might do. The power and the hope of Christmas comes to us here and now, again and again, because through the Spirit whom Jesus sent to us, you and I and all who are called by God are the very Body of Christ. Every Sunday as we gather for worship, every time any two or three of us gather anywhere, we are invited to experience God's love not as a passive observer, but as an active participant. We come to Jesus' table, and the Word made flesh meets us in the flesh.
It's a new life. It's a new world. Right here, right now, we are invited to experience the Incarnation we celebrate in Christmas by living and loving as Christ's Body in the world. That's the light we walk in, that shines all the more brightly in the darkness that cannot overcome it. That's the hope that sustains us, the peace that keeps us centered amidst life's turmoil, the joy that makes eternal and abundant life present in the here and now.
Jesus the Christ is born! Our salvation -- the salvation of the world -- is here!
Thanks be to God!
* Quirinius became governor in 6 A.D., while Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. This means that, historically speaking, we can't reconcile Matthew's claim that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great with Luke's claim that Jesus was born while Quirinius was governor of Syria. I think it's fair to say, though, that neither Luke nor Matthew were not concerned anywhere near as much with what year Jesus was born as they were with the theological significance of Jesus' birth. return to the reflection
Second Sunday after Christmas, Year C
Luke 2:41 - 52 - link to NRSV text
There's a lot of evidence that the author of the Gospel According to Luke modeled the gospel after Greco-Roman biographies of philosophers that were popular at the time. Folks in the first century Mediterranean world looked for different things in biographies than people in my culture do. In my culture, we love biographies (and urban legends) with surprising twists: the future physics genius who flunked math all the way through school, the party boy who suddenly discovers a sense of purpose and becomes U.S. president, the art-school dropout who becomes the renowned master, the ugly duckling who becomes a supermodel. First-century biographies weren't like that; they generally showed how the subject was born under a configuration of stars that determined s/he was going to be a certain way, and then that s/he was that way ever since birth.
So here, in Luke's gospel, we have an early indication of Jesus' character. And according to the values of Jesus' culture, Jesus is big trouble from the first time we see him able to form a sentence. Jesus is no poster child for what is popularly called "family values" here, any more than he is through the rest of the gospel. In Jesus' culture, sons were expected to stay with their parents, to care for them until they died, and then to make sure they had a proper and honorable burial. The ties between blood kin were of paramount importance, and Romans and Jews alike took a son's responsibility to his parents with utmost seriousness.
But here, Jesus acts as if Mary and Joseph weren't his parents at all, and he's not showing any more respect for Mary here than he is toward Joseph. Jesus takes off without so much as a word to do what he thinks is important, and when his exasperated parents finally find him, he doesn't apologize. He makes clear where he thinks his allegiance lies -- not toward his blood family, but toward God. His leaving his family at age twelve foreshadows how he will leave his family to proclaim the urgent Good News he has to share after his baptism.
As the story continues, Jesus will have some harsh things to say about family ties. In Luke 8:19-21, Jesus says that his mother and brothers are not those related to him by blood, but are "those who hear the word of God and do it." In Luke 12:49-53, Jesus says that he came to divide father from son and mother from daughter. In Luke 9:59-62, Jesus criticizes those who would take care of their parents until they died, or even those who would say goodbye to their families before leaving to travel with Jesus, as unfit for the Kingdom of God. In Luke 14:26, Jesus says that "if anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, that person cannot be my disciple." The list could go on ... it's not the stuff of Mother's Day sermons.
Where's the good news in that? It isn't that there's some strange definition of Greek words in which "hate" really means "to love less than," or "you're not my mother" becomes an expression of deep respect. In Jesus' teaching, blood ties don't get much respect. But one way to put the Good News is that "water is thicker than blood." Our ties to one another in our shared Baptism are deeper and stronger than ties of shared genes or shared addresses. The hard news is that following Jesus may well call us to behave in ways that don't gel well with our cultural values, any more than following Jesus went well with cultural values in the first-century Mediterranean world. It's gonna cost. But the Good News is that as Jesus' followers, we have not only God our Father (and, to use Julian of Norwich's wonderful image, Christ our Mother) in heaven to whom we can turn, but we are a part of a vast family of sisters and brothers on earth, people who are under the same holy obligation we are to nurture and support and challenge one another to grow. We have a friend in Jesus, and a tribe in our fellow-seekers. And even we seekers who are related to one another by blood have the opportunity and the freedom to relate to one another in new ways.
We may even find, as the teachers of the Law in those Temple courts found in today's gospel, that our children have something to teach us. Sometimes, it takes the kind of dislocation Jesus prescribes from old ways of relating to one another to open our ears and our hearts to receive what others have to teach us, to receive the blessings and the deep joy that comes with following Jesus.
grid blog :: Christmas :: Union
This is my final entry for the Advent grid blog, though this one comes in the Christmas season. The theme is Union.
The catechism in the Episcopal Church's Book of Common Prayer describes the mission of the church as "to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ" (BCP, p. 855). Union is our mission. Our time of preparation in Advent has called on us to look forward to the time when God answers our prayer that "your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven," to the time when that union with one another and with God in Christ is fully realized. We are called in Advent to experience the tension between our broken and divided world in the present and full consummation of the redemption for which we long.
And now it is Christmas. The world is still wounded, as any cursory glance at this morning's newspaper would tell us. But the mystery that we celebrate is that the tide of history turned with the birth of a peasant child. The Christ has come, and from his first sending forth of his followers to do his work of healing the sick, bringing the outcast back into community, and confronting the powers of injustice, evil fell. It won't get back up, though it'll be thrashing around and doing some damage in these prolonged last gasps. Like Jesus' birth, the defeat of evil isn't the kind of special effects moment we've become accustomed to in this age of Jerry Bruckheimer. It's a seed growing secretly, as inevitable as it is mysterious. But in Advent, we've seen how big this tree is going to grow. This Christmas, my prayer is that I might know the awe of seeing the small things, the mustard seeds, the early shoots, in the knowledge of what mighty work God is accomplishing in our world.
I wish you all a Christmas season of joy, wonder, and nourished seeds of peace.
First Sunday After Christmas, Year C and grid blog :: Advent 2 :: Stretch
John 1:1-18 - link to NRSV text
This is the second post for the Advent grid blog, four "bonus posts" of reflections for Advent that go beyond my usual commenting on the lectionary to tie in with a network of bloggers across the web who are writing on the same four Advent themes. The theme for this post across the network of bloggers participating is "Stretch," so I'm weaving in some reflections on the gospel for this coming Sunday in with a grid blog post.
One of these days, I think I'd like to try to talk the youth group at St. Martin's into doing Las Posadas. That's when participants reenact Mary and Joseph's experience on arriving in Bethlehem by lighting candles and making their way from house to house to ask whether there is room. At each place, they are met by someone who tells them that there is no room for them, until they come to the last house, where someone lets them in to celebrate. I think it's healthy and helpful to reflect from time to time on what it feels like to be told there is no room for you, and what it feels like to be invited in.
I've been thinking a lot lately about those people around me who are feeling that there's no room for them. I've been thinking about my own experience of feeling that there's no room for me. I've also been thinking a lot lately about how people I've met over the course of my life have called me to stretch, to <I>make</i> room in my heart and in my worldview.
We've all got models that we use to understand the world and our place in it. For the most part, they're subconscious and deeply ingrained, but they're there. When we encounter a person or some information that doesn't fit at all within these models, there are a variety of ways we can respond.
We can lop off anything that doesn't fit into the cookie-cutter; we can keep our models exactly as they were, and just not take in anything that doesn't fit. If we assume that all people in category X are deeply unhappy and we meet someone who belongs to category X who seems perfectly happy, we assume that the person is really unhappy and is just good at hiding it, or we assume that the person does not really belong to category X, despite appearances or despite what the person says.
We can stay in a state of complete aporia, like the former rigid fundamentalist who decides that if not everything in the Bible can be read as literal scientific and historical truth, the whole thing must be a crock. By the way, the most common reason people I've encountered have for thinking that the Bible is at least ridiculous and at worst oppressive is that sincere religious people convinced them that all Christians must read it literally. One of the most common reasons people I've encountered have for not wanting to become a Christian is because sincere Christians trying to "evangelize" them (true evangelism is not something one person does TO another, IMO; it's a journeying WITH another) have convinced them that being a Christian means adopting all of the theological and political positions held by the would-be evangelist.
Or we can hold things in tension — what I would call <I>compassionate tension</i> — and pray that the tension would be creative. Maybe our model will change, stretching to accommodate the new information. Maybe the world will change, and these seeming opposites will be reconciled.
The philosopher Richard Rorty talks about it this way:
Once upon a time, rivers did not have mouths. They flowed into the ocean, to be sure, but they didn't have "mouths," as people and animals did. Then somebody said that they did. It was a metaphor; it was literally untrue. It was not <I>possible</i> for a river to have a mouth. But the metaphor caught on. More and more people used it until it became, possible, literally and even universally true that "rivers have mouths."
Don't dismiss it as "just" a matter of words. Words are important; the world, the <I>kosmos</i>, is made by them. In the beginning was the Word, and through the Word, God spoke the world into being. From chaos sprang comprehensibility. But we are tempted to speak other words that attempt to unmake what God has made, that order our world such that there is no room for some of God's good gifts.
But the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We believe that the whole world changed in that moment. The universe stretched, and the impossible became possible. A word could be flesh; purity could be expressed by embracing lepers; a shameful death on a cross could become "lifting up"; Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, could be one in Christ the Word.
We need words to understand as well as to transmit what we perceive. But Advent is a time to pray that God would send people into our lives who will challenge us to stretch our categories, our models, and most importantly, our capacity for compassion, to prepare us to take in the Word who renders the wisdom of the world as nonsense.