Is the Christmas Story Believable?

Is the Christmas Story Believable?

Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 2019. Audio will be available here for several weeks.

Luke 2:1-14

    In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.  2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.  3 All went to their own towns to be registered.  4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.  5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.  6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.  7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 

2:8    In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.  9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:  11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.  12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”  13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 

Does God even care about what is going on in the world?  You watch the news, and that seems like a fair question.  A person could give a glib pious answer: “Of course God cares.”  But a thoughtful person might want to ask how you could tell?  Everyone here could instantly come up with a list of horrors going on right now if they wanted to.  

What would it look like if God showed up?  Who would God care about?  How would God deal with this world and its people?  The way the gospels tell the story of Jesus, they are telling a story of God showing up in the world.  So, let us look at Luke’s version of the Christmas story that way: as a story of how God would show up in the world.  Then we will return to our original question. 

Luke begins with a  story of forced dislocation.  Mary and Joseph are uprooted from their home in Nazareth, at the order of a foreign power that dominates their nation and their lives.  They are dislocated for the sole purpose of paying a tax.  The tax will not fund roads, schools, or health care systems.  It will instead pay for palaces, banquets, swords, and shields. So this is a story of an oppressed people at the mercy of an Empire.  The main characters are powerless peasants. 

The main characters, Joseph and Mary are betrothed.  The families have agreed, the contract is binding, they will soon be married.  Mary is pregnant.  Far from home, they seek shelter, but find nothing but a stable.  They are literally homeless people at this moment.  

In the Roman Empire, they announced the birth of an heir to the throne with publicity and fanfare.  They had a special word for such announcements: they called it “good news.”  That is the same word that gets translated “gospel” in older English.  The baby born to Mary gets a birth announcement too, which is also called “good news.”  But the announcement is not made from the palace and it is not announced to the governing elite.  The announcement is made to shepherds, the lowest rung on the employment ladder.  

Nevertheless, the announcement is made by a divine messenger, an angel; a gloriously shining creature, a bright light in a dark sky.  That message outshines the gospel announcement of an heir to the Roman throne.  He says,

“I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Early Christians loved the stories of Jesus. Before they wrote them down, the handed on, by word of mouth, the stories of how he lived with great compassion for the poor people he spent his short adult life within Galilee.  

They remembered him having dinners that were open to all of them without any judgment.  They recounted stories of him welcoming into his company everyone he encountered, without prejudice or discrimination. 

They told stories of when Jesus taught them about turning the other cheek and going the second mile for each other. They remembered how Jesus taught them about how God was too.  That if they got off track, God would seek them out like a shepherd looks for lost sheep.  They felt the presence of God so strongly in Jesus, they were drawn to him. They found his presence healing to them.  

So, if God was at work powerfully in Jesus, then that meant that God was concerned about them; little people, poor people, peasant people.  So when they told the stories of Jesus’ birth, of course, the cast of characters had to be poor peasants.  

But the story also had to have angels — lots of them in Luke’s version — to make sure that the story was a God story.  If God ever showed up, the kind of God Jesus loved, prayed to, and taught about, would show up among peasants in a stable.  His first community would be common shepherds.  But make no mistake about it, he was going to grow up to be someone they were happy to call Messiah, Savior, even Lord. 

It is odd to say those things about Jesus; a man who lived such a short life, never had any power, never wrote anything, never became famous outside his small region, and whom the Romans ingloriously executed.  But that is because execution was not the end for Jesus.  His community continued to keep his memory alive by telling his story.  “Remember” they would tell each other, “never forget.”  They had been transformed by his message of forgiveness.  They had been healed by the way he taught them to be set free from the tyranny of their own ego demands.  

They formed inclusive communities of sharing across all kinds of barriers that used to seem so important.  They had been saved from a small life of self-concern for a large life of compassion for the world.  That was good news indeed, and the grounds for peace on earth.

But look around at the world; is that a true story?  Is it believable?  For me, it is profoundly believable.  The way God shows up in the world, is not with coercive force, stamping out evil, giving the villains their due.  Rather God shows up in people who, in spite of the way of the world, respond to the lure to goodness.  God shows up in people who live compassionately on behalf of others.  God shows up among the poor, the dislocated immigrants, and the homeless, as opportunities for showing love and seeking justice.  

God showed up in Jesus.  Now, let it be, that God shows up in me and in you, and in all of us.  If God does, maybe someday there will be peace on earth, and goodwill among us all.  

The Road Less Taken

The Road Less Taken

Sermon on Isaiah 35:1-10 and Matthew 11:2-11 for Dec. 15, 2019, Advent 3A. Audio will be available here for several weeks.

Isaiah,  35:1-10

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.

And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Matthew 11:2-11

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken” is ambiguous; people take it differently.  It ends with a sigh, and a look back at a long life.  The woods are yellow, says the poem; it is the season of autumn, just before winter.  There are two paths that diverge; which to take?  

The author chose the one “less traveled,” aware that that that choice, back then, all those years ago, has “made all the difference.”  Is that a good thing or a bad thing?  People have read it both ways.  

I have always wanted to read it as a good thing.  There is the way of the crowd, but the crowd-choice is often not the best way.  It may be the easiest thing to do, to take the path of the majority, but history is filled with majorities that were wrong.  

Think about how many majorities accepted slavery or the subjugation of women, not to mention support for wars of aggression.  Majorities err.  

So, the “road less taken” may turn out to be the right one.  Taking it makes all the difference.  I thought of that poem as I was looking at this text from Matthew this week.  

That is how Jesus looked at it, I believe.  He looked at what was happening in his time and said, in effect, “It doesn’t have to be this way.”  He considered what the majority of the people had accepted as true, and concluded that their thinking was misguided, even destructive.  

But then I reflected on how few people, through the years have paid much attention to Jesus.  Listening to Jesus seems to be one of the roads less traveled.   It is so weird that when you put someone on a pedestal, it is somehow more easy to ignore them.  For example, the Buddha taught non-violence, but Buddhists in Myanmar who revere him are brutally persecuting the Rohingya Muslims.  

In the same way, Christians through the centuries have put Jesus on a pedestal of worship, only to completely ignore his vision of a non-violent, reconciled, compassionate humanity.  The cost of veneration is always cheaper than the price of justice. 

Our quest is to try to faithfully follow the Jesus-path, even if it is the road less traveled.  So, we will look at this text from Matthew’s story of Jesus, and try to listen to him.  We will see how and why his vision confused John the Baptist, but how it has the capacity to lead us to enlightenment, even to transformation.   

John’s Faulty Expectations

So, what was the issue with John?  Why did he send people to Jesus with questions after Herod Antipas arrested him?  It was because Jesus was not doing what he expected.  

If you were here last week, you will recall that John expected Messiah to come with a force of arms to liberate the Jews from Roman imperial oppression.  He talked about the ax being ready to start swinging at the trees and the fire ready to burn up the chaff.  

God was supposed to intervene with force, as he did in the old days, according to the stories, back when Joshua conquered Jericho or when Moses went up against Pharaoh.  

John came by that expectation honestly.  The prophets in the Hebrew bible spoke of a future day, often they called it “the day of the Lord.”  They imagined a future of prosperity and abundance, of justice and equality — a beautiful vision.  

But that day, they imagined, would also include vengeance against enemies.  So, along with the beautiful vision expressed as a time in which:

the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” 

We also hear that it will be a time when: 

God…will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense.”

 The beautiful vision of shalom comes along with an expectation of retributive justice.  That was the majority view.  That is what most people wanted:  a time of peace and wellbeing, with lots of fresh Roman graves.

The Sources of Jesus’ Vision

But Jesus took a different view.  We do not know how Jesus came to his vision of non-violence and restorative justice as an alternative to retributive justice.  Perhaps he knew many stories of the cycles of violence that are kept spinning by the quest to get even.  

I have heard that the longest odds are those against getting even, and I believe it.  I have witnessed what happened when Serbs tried to get even with the Croats for World War II; it looks like mass graves.  

One generation’s “getting even” is simply the next generation’s justification for atrocities.  

But I believe the source of Jesus’ vision probably goes deeper than that.  I believe that Jesus’ vision for the future was the natural result of his re-think about the nature of God.  

Jesus knew his Hebrew Bible, but the question of how to imagine what God is like and what God is up to is vexed.  Running through the Hebrew Bible a careful reader will notice many conundrums.  

For example, God is the creator of every human being, all of us are made in God’s image, yet God selected the Jews as the Chosen People.  

The land of Canaan was promised to the Jews, the Bible tells us, but for most of their history, including the present moment, for Jesus, it was ruled by gentiles. 

The law of Moses says that if you are good, you will be blessed, but if you are bad, you will be cursed.  But the book of Job spends 40 chapters protesting that Job’s suffering was not a consequence of anything bad he did.  

God says, “Thou shalt not kill,” but then provides direct assistance to Joshua’s ethnic cleansing campaigns. Did these conundrums matter to Jesus?

Apparently so.  As he observed the world, the suffering of his people, most of whom were peasants, contrasted with the gross prosperity of the aristocracy, as he reflected on the oppression of his people under the vast power of the Roman military machine, he concluded that God was demonstrably not out to get retributive justice.  It just didn’t work that way.  

So, instead of embracing John’s vision of the Day of the Lord coming with vengeance, in the future, Jesus grew to embrace a vision of the kingdom of God, or as Matthew likes to have him say, the “kingdom of heaven,” as a present reality of restorative justice.  

The kingdom is not waiting for Divine intervention, but is present, calling for our collaboration by living as if God were indeed king.  

So, instead of a world of people bent on getting even, Jesus said, 

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  (Matt 5:44-45)

So Jesus’ reply to John’s messengers is all about the way the kingdom of God was made real in Jesus’ ministry, not of bringing vengeance, but of bringing restoration.  In his reply to John’s questions, Jesus was actually riffing on the vision of Isaiah as he told John’s messengers to tell him:

“the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.

Experiencing Healing and Transformation

That was not the majority view; that was the minority report from Jesus who took “the road less traveled.”  And that view “makes all the difference.”  So, instead of merely venerating a silent Jesus, I want to listen to the voice of the living Jesus. 

I want to ask myself what I have been blind to that I need to see in a new light?  I remember when I used to believe God was going to judge people and condemn the vast majority of them to hell.  I was blind to the awesome extent of God’s love for all the people God made.  

I remember when I was lame, crippled by guilt and shame, growing up in a fundamentalism, in which it seemed that we were a constant disappointment to God, instead of being God’s beloved community. 

I remember being homophobic.  I remember when I thought I needed to avoid lepers, people who were unclean, people who did not keep to the straight and narrow, even though those were exactly the kind of people Jesus hung out with.  

I remember being deaf to the cries of the poor because we believed what God wanted most was to save their souls.  

And for a long time, I had no idea of what the “good news” was that Jesus preached to the poor.  I never heard of the year of Jubilee that stands behind that phrase “good news”, the time when debts were forgiven and people who had lost everything got a re-start.  

Now, I am so thankful for the journey I have been on, for the healing I have experienced.  But at this moment in the life of our country, the Jesus-path looks like the road less traveled.  

What have we learned from Jesus’ interaction with John’s messengers?  That although we would never claim to be able to speak of God adequately, due to our limitations as finite mortals, nevertheless, there are some ways of conceiving of the Divine that are closer to the truth, and others that are further away.  

John’s view of a vengeful God had lots of precedence, and was the majority view, but Jesus rejected it.  Jesus taught us to understand God through the metaphors of a loving father, a good shepherd,  a mother bird protecting her chicks, and as the source of rain and sun equally given to all.  

That view has a direct consequence in how we live, how we treat people, what we want for our community, our society, and for the world.  It is the vision of a reconciled, restored world that Jesus called the Kingdom.  It is not a future state, awaiting Divine intervention, it is a present reality, calling for our collaboration.  

That may be the road less taken, but it will make all the difference.  

The Short Term and the Long View: the Virtue of Courage

The Short Term and the Long View: the Virtue of Courage

Sermon for Dec. 8, 2019 on Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12 for Advent 2A. Audio will be here for several weeks.

Isaiah 11:1-10

A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
   or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
   and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
   and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,   and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
  the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
   and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
   their young shall lie down together;
   and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
   and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples;
the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

How are we going to get through this? How am I going to get through this? Those questions can keep you up at night. Whether you are thinking about our country, our church, your health issues, your economic situation, or your personal relationships, the question haunts us: how will we get through it?

As a seminarian, learning Hebrew, I was struck by the way ancient Israelites referred to the future. They used the phrase, “in the behind of the days.” They faced the past that they could see, and backed into the unseeable future.  

Where is God in This?

Another question we ask ourselves, as people of faith, is, “Where is God in this?” Some think that God is the master puppeteer, orchestrating events from behind the curtain.  They think that God has a plan which is unknowable by mere mortals. The world would make sense if we could see it from God’s perspective,  they assure us. Even the Holocaust. Even child abuse. 

I personally cannot accept that view. To have a plan that included every crime ever committed would make the planner as monstrous as the people carrying out the plan.  God is not a moral monster, in fact, just the opposite. So that view cannot be correct.  

Well, then, if not a master puppeteer with a pre-set plan, then we are back to the question, “Where is God in this?” Is there a plan at all? This is a huge issue for all of us. We can only scratch the surface here, today. We will look to our wisdom tradition, to see what possible insights may help us get through all of this, and see where God is in it. 

Isaiah’s Vision 

We will start with a glance at the text from the Hebrew Bible, from the prophet Isaiah. You have probably seen one of the paintings by Edward Hicks, a Quaker minister, and artist, in which lions and leopards are sitting peacefully with lambs and little children near them. Hicks painted 62 versions of that painting called, “The Peaceable Kingdom.” He was grasped by that beautiful vision of a world at peace, where there were no longer predators, and no more victims. He was painting the vision of this text from Isaiah 11.  

But the question for Israel in the time of Isaiah was, how do you get there? How do you get from here to there? How do you get from the mess we are in, to that future state of peace, security, and abundance? 

The prophet imagines that the way will include new leadership. A new shoot will grow up from the stump of the ancient king David’s family tree.  

What can we expect of this new Spirit-inspired leadership? Some things are clear: this leader will be just; the poor will have the same standing before the law as the rich. 

But other things are unclear. Vagueness and ambiguity in the poetry make it difficult to know whether the way forward will include violence or not, as a means to get to the time of peace and harmony. 

The poet says, “He shall strike the earth,” but only with “the rod of his mouth.” He shall “kill the wicked” but only by “the breath of his lips.” Does this mean he will use only words, so that the striking and killing are metaphors for victory by persuasion? Or will there be blood on the ground? It’s not clear.  

So then how does this provide us with wisdom, if the message is ambiguous? At least one thing is clear. The end state we wish for is a time of justice, peace and abundance. We share the vision of Hick’s paintings. What we long for is justice for all the poor and oppressed of the earth; for a world in which every child is safe, and there is no fear of being hurt or destroyed, as the prophet envisioned.  A world in which there is enough for everyone.

John’s Take On It

So how do you get from here to there? Let us fast forward several centuries to the time of John and of Jesus. Everyone is still asking “How are we going to get through this?” And they are asking, “Where is God in this?” It’s a mess. They are humiliated, oppressed subjects of the Roman Empire, with no foreseeable way out.  

John still believes in the ancient vision. The Divine will is for that peaceable kingdom of justice, peace, and abundance. But John believes there will be blood on the ground before you get to peace. He anticipates the new leadership. He expects Messiah to come, striking the ground and killing the enemies of God. His imagery is violent. It involves the “wrath to come.” “The ax is lying at the root of the trees” ready to be wielded with force. Limbs will be chopped off. Whole trees will be “cut down and thrown into the fire.

Jesus was part of John’s group. He was baptized by John. But Jesus eventually separated himself from John’s group. Details are scarce. New Testament scholars suggest that perhaps Jesus took a lesson from what happened to John and what failed to happen. 

John was critical of the current political leadership, so he was arrested. Herod Antipas’ troops got him, and Herod had him executed. God did not intervene. There was no fire burning down the trees that were bearing such evil fruit. 

Bad people were not prevented from doing bad things. That seems to be how it goes in this world. Children get abused. Nazi’s march and salute. Gas chambers run smoothly.  People who were sent back to Mexico to await asylum hearings are assaulted, kidnapped and raped by the hundreds.  

Jesus’ View

So, back to the same questions: “How are we going to get through this? And, “Where is God in this?” Jesus took a different view. He still believed in the long term vision of justice and peace, but he rejected violence as a means. So, with “the breath of his mouth,” he taught. He taught things like “Blessed, are the peacemakers.” And, “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”  

Was Jesus then, an advocate of passivity? Was Nietzsche correct that Christianity is “slave mentality?” Not at all. Though this teaching has been missed by the church, as so much of the teachings of Jesus have been, Jesus advocated neither violence nor passivity. He did not just roll over for the Romans. His way was a third way of non-violent, but active resistance. What do you think that demonstration in the temple was, the day he shut it down? The leadership got the message, and killed him for it. He had the courage to face even death, living for the vision of the kingdom of justice, peace, and abundance.  

What about Now?

So, back to the questions. How are we going to get through this? First, by doing what Jesus did: by holding onto the vision. We will refuse to allow the current situation we are in to vanquish our hope. We believe in justice. We believe that our liberation, our wellbeing, our “shalom” is inseparably bound up with the liberation and wellbeing of the poor and the oppressed.  We practice nonviolence. We are allies of and advocates for the poor and the oppressed, resisting systems of injustice.  

We believe that God is not the master puppeteer, but rather the master persuader, who has put the longing for justice and peace in every heart. God is present always and everywhere, not coercing us into a pre-planned outcome, but luring us towards the good. 

Where is God in this? God is right in the middle of it all with us, experiencing it with us — all of it — the joy and the pain, and offering us the possibility, in each situation, of the next right thing. That means that God is in relationship with us, with love and grace, enabling us to have the courage we need in the short term, to keep living virtuously toward the long term vision.  

It is Advent; Christmas is coming. How will we get through this time in our country? How will we get through this time in our church? How will we get through all the things we face in our personal lives? We will get through it, not alone, but with God, and with each other. 

God’s plan is for our wellbeing, our shalom. God’s plan is for the wellbeing, justice, peace and shalom for our society, and for our world. God’s plan is not static and pre-made, but dynamic and evolving with every moment.  

So, we will have the courage to keep painting paintings of the peaceable kingdom. We will keep practicing our daily spiritual disciplines, our prayers, and meditations. We will keep gathering in common worship, giving gratitude to God and being strengthened by the sacraments. 

We will keep walking backwards into the unseeable future, responding to the lure of goodness, cooking meals for the poor, making muffins for sack lunches, giving gifts to angel tree kids, providing a house for the DHS children, and reaching out to our community with courageous commitment to an ancient vision.  That is how we are gong to get through this.