Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Blessed Christmas to All - Christmas Eve 2010 - Luke 2:1-3

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.  This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their towns to be registered.  (Lk. 2:1-3)
In a particular time, at a particular place, under the rule of a particular monarch, the following event took place: a census, a registration.  It was decreed, says Luke, and, in one very curt and short sentence we are told that all went to their towns to be registered.  All went, all did what they were told to do, no questions asked.  The dictator speaks and the people respond.  They had better, for things sometimes go badly for those who don’t follow orders.  It seems to me that we 21st century Christians too often tend to read these opening verses as a kind of introduction to the “real” story that comes later – the part about the shepherds and the angels and Mary and Joseph.  But this evening I would like to focus on these first three verses because I think they are key to our understanding the story of Christmas.  These 3 verses not only set the Christmas story in a very specific historical time, but they also set the context.  And that context is darkness – deep darkness, to use the phrase from Isaiah – that context is oppression, domination and violence; that context is Pax Romana, the peace of Rome which is achieved and enforced with brutal efficiency.
Octavian Caesar Augustus – Emperor of the mighty Roman empire, oppressor of Israel – voted by the Roman Senate to divine status – so he was considered son of god, the lord, the king of kings, lord of lords and prince of peace; this lord had ordered a census because he wanted to know how many people are in his realm, who they are, where they live, how much do they earn, how much tax can they pay, what do they do and who among them might be conscripted to serve in the Roman army.
Contrary to the popular notion, this was no quiet, gentle night in Bethlehem.  This was a harsh night – a village bursting with unhappy people who had been forced to submit to the Roman census against their wills; a people who desperately hated the Romans and wanted them out of Palastine once and for all; and people who had become accustomed to official violence as an administrative technique.  Into this environment arrive a young man and his even younger very pregnant wife who too had been forced to travel against their wills to a village far from their own homes.  As we approach the manger on this Christmas night we are invited to open our eyes and ears and hearts so that we can hear a story that is ultimately not about shepherds or angels or animals or mangers – but is rather a story about darkness; a story about human sinfulness, human self-centeredness and a story about a God who loves us so much that rather than see us destroy ourselves this God chooses to intervene.  But not with thunder and lightning, or with power and might – but our God chooses to intervene by being born as a human child to a poor teenage mother who is in a strange and hostile place after having traveled by donkey several days to get there, even though she was 8 to 9 months pregnant, all because the oppressor wants to find out about her husband Joseph and allows no exceptions.  
Arriving finally in crowded and unhappy Bethlehem, Mary had probably already started having labor pains and so she and Joseph searched fruitlessly for a place for her to give birth and a place for them to rest.  Finally they settle into a cave located in the foothills that surround Bethlehem.  The local farmers and shepherds used these caves as a place to shelter their animals.  It is there that Mary gave birth to her firstborn son, attended by Joseph and a few animals.  All of these events, Luke tells us, take place under the thumb of the divine Caesar, known as the August One – the great lord of lords, king of kings, prince of peace, the savior, god incarnate – or so he was proclaimed; this ruler who possessed all power and might and strength.
Isn’t it curious then that the next thing that happens in this amazing story is that God’s messengers appear to a group of outcasts, society's losers, the despised shepherds and tell them that if they really want to see God incarnate, if they really want to catch a glimpse of God’s glory, if they really want to see God, then they should go, look for and find a particular, dirty, smelly cave and look inside it for a small, weak, helpless infant laying in a feed troth.  There in that manger they will find the true Savior, the Messiah – the true Lord of Lords, King of Kings and Prince of Peace – there in that infant is God incarnate.  In the midst of the squalor, surrounded by the weak and powerless, surrounded by the suffering and the lonely, the hungry and abused, surrounded by ordinary sinful human beings – there is God incarnate – there is God’s Son.  What a contrast – Caesar and Jesus.  It is not an accident that Luke has set up this contrast between the temporal powers of Caesar who brings peace and security through violence; and who brings oppression in the name of justice – with God, incarnate in Jesus who brings true peace, shalom, well-being through weakness and openness and love and grace.  As he narrates this story Luke is looking all of us in the eye asking us a simple question – where do you stand this night?  Do you stand at the altar of Caesar or beside the manger of Jesus?  Where is your ultimate trust placed – in the power and glory of Caesar or in the weakness and love of Jesus? 
The hopes and fears of all the years are met and addressed and absorbed – not by Caesar, not even by the angels – but inside that cave in the silence and the darkness by the infant Jesus.  Our Christmas hope is not in jingle bells or holly or mistletoe or Santa – our Christmas hope is in a God who loves us so much that he enters our world in order to enter into the experience of being human; a God who enters into suffering and joy, pain and misery; a God who is born into a world of darkness and oppression and violence; a God who alone brings peace and wholeness and freedom and grace and love – to all.
Many years ago Professor Lynn Harold Hough was riding on a train reading Greek tragedies and as he read he came across the story of a god who fell in love with a maiden and came to earth to visit her.  But the god found that she had been in an accident and was lying besides the road in a pool of blood.  The god was repulsed at the sight of blood and immediately winged his way back to Mt. Olympus where he could contemplate the human condition at a safe distance.  Here was a god who was afraid of human suffering.  Professor Hough, writing about this many years later, said that as he looked out of the train window watching the telephone poles pass he couldn't help but  notice that they were in the form of crosses and he was struck by the contrast: between tthe contrast he story of the god who is afraid of the human experience and all that it entails including suffering and death, and the story of our God who enters into the depth of the human experience which includes suffering and death. 
The 2nd verse of one of my favorite Christmas Carols goes like this: Nails, spear shall pierce Him through, the cross be borne for me, for you; hail, hail the Word made flesh, the babe, the son of Mary.  Our God is not afraid of human suffering, he’s been there; our God is not afraid of blood, he’s shed some himself – for us.
This is what the Christmas story is about – God comes to us, is born into our world and will die on a cross for us so that he might defeat these powers of death and darkness through his rising again on Easter.  The proclamation of Christmas – For unto you is born this day… a Savior who is Christ the Lord – and the Word is made flesh and dwells among us!  - This proclamation reaches its climax and completion on the cross of Good Friday and in the empty tomb of Easter.  I hope and pray that in the midst of all of the hustle and bustle of Christmas tonight and tomorrow each of you will take a moment to pause besides your crèche and look at the baby Jesus laying in the manger and remember it is for you that Christ is come, for whom he dies and for whom he is raised.
This is the Jesus from my crèche – notice something – it is shaped like a cross.  This is the gift of Christmas!  Have a blessed Christmas!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Advent IV – Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine – Sermon Thoughts on Matthew 1:18-25

Read the text - here: Matthew 1:18-25

Advent IV – Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine – Sermon Thoughts on Matthew 1:18-25

Joseph lieber, Joseph mein, Hilf mir wiegen mein Kindelein
Joseph dearest, Joseph mine, help me cradle this child of mine….
To Listen to a beautiful setting and performance of this carol by Quire Cleveland click....

            Some of us might recognize this old German carol.  It is one of the few carols that actually name Mary’s husband Joseph, but don’t let that fool you.  The carol is ultimately not about Joseph.  After the first two verses Joseph disappears like he always does (the first two verses are a dialog between Mary and Joseph).  Joseph is perhaps the most neglected character in the traditional crèche.  Every Christmas we celebrate Mary and the shepherds and the angels and the wise men and through it all Joseph is the silent character who sits quietly, out of the way, besides the crèche. 

            This is because the story of Christmas we hear told year after year is taken primarily from the Gospel of St. Luke (with the 3 wise men from Matthew 2 added for good measure).  And in Luke, Joseph is a peripheral character.  But the Gospel of St. Matthew is different.  For Matthew Joseph is the central character, and Mary is the secondary character.  Matthew has spent the first 17 verses of chapter one establishing Jesus’ linage to Father Abraham and King David – through Joseph. And then the birth narrative itself is all about Joseph as are the episodes following the birth where Joseph has a series of dreams that inspire him to act to protect the baby Jesus by travelling to Egypt. 

            So what do we know about Joseph from the few verses that appear in Matthew and Luke about him.  The information is sparse, but what is there is important:
1.     Joseph is a carpenter (making farm equipment) and is originally from Bethlehem.
2.     Joseph is of the house of Jesse – which makes him a relative of King David and of course of Father Abraham.
3.     Joseph is probably older than Mary by at least 10 years.  It was highly unusual for working class men to marry girls their own age.  (Mary is probably between 12 and 14).
4.     Joseph begins the narrative engaged or betrothed to Mary.  This tells us that Joseph was a devout 1st century Jew who followed the laws and traditions of his faith.  The betrothal period was one year, during which time the bride lived with her parents while they finished assembling the dowry.  During this time the couple was technically married, but not permitted to be alone together – no physical intimacy between them would have been allowed. 
5.     Joseph is a righteous man.  When Mary turns up pregnant he resolves to do the right thing and put her away quietly.  This could have been a fatal condition for Mary. 
6.     Joseph is open to God’s direction.  Joseph has a series of dreams that reveal some of what God is up to, and despite the counter-cultural, counter-traditional nature of the instructions, Joseph does not question the Holy Spirit and acts in each case as he is instructed.  This is really the key to understanding Joseph.  Joseph is willing to act as he is led by the spirit – without fanfare and without anguish.

Finally note that in Matthew, Joseph names the baby Jesus – which in Hebrew is Joshua and which means “God Saves.”  And in case the choice of the name prompts the question – “how does God save?”  Matthew has an answer for that as well – “He shall be called Immanuel – God with us!”  God saves through God’s presence, by entering into the darkness of human experience and bringing the light of God’s love and grace into the darkness.  And this is a deep darkness indeed – go on and read the 2nd chapter of Matthew - (click here for Matthew 2)  and what do we find there – political intrigue, deceit, murder, suffering, pain, grief – deep darkness!  It is into this darkness that the baby Jesus Immanuel is born. 

The words of the refrain the carol mentioned above are as follows:
He came among us at Christmastide, at Christmastide, in Bethlehem.
Men shall bring Him from far and wide Love’s diadem:
Jesus, Jesus, Lo, he comes and love and saves and frees us!

Amen – Come, Lord Jesus!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Advent II - Excuses, Excuses - St. Matthew 3:1-12

Take the opportunity to read the text - St. Matthew 3:1-12
John the Baptist is certainly a colorful kind of guy.  For some he was an embarrassment.  For others he was offensive and a threat.  But for everyone who heard him his message rang true: “Repent for the Kingdom of God is near at hand.”
Repent! What does this word mean?  The Greek word that stands behind this English word is the word: metanoia – and it literally means to turn around and go in a different direction.  The English word itself comes from a French word – repense – which means to re-think.  John’s call to those who heard (and hear) his message is for them to look at their lives; to take stock of their relationships with God and with others and to re-think the priorities they have set, the choices they have made and they way they are in relationship with God; and then, aided by the Holy Spirit, to confess, receive absolution and to turn around and go in another direction. The essence of John’s teaching is this: The Kingdom of God is come into our midst, as a child of God you are a citizen of the Kingdom and you are called to act like one.  Do you?
No wonder Herodias wanted John’s head.  Who among us wants to hear that the priorities we have set and the choices we have made and the way we have chosen to live our lives is not responsible or responsive to our calling to be Children of God?  I don’t.  I am very comfortable, thank you very much, John!  I don’t want to re-think and I don’t want to go in any other directions from the one I am already on.  Besides, I have Abraham as my father, Christ as my savior, I have done all these wonderful things in the past and I am important?  Doesn’t all that count for something?!?
“Do not presume to say to yourselves, we have Abraham as our Father… God can raise children of Abraham from these very stones!” 
At the time of John and Jesus, one’s identity as a child of Abraham was very, very important.  Matthew even acknowledges this in the first verse of chapter 1 as he begins the Genealogy with the affirmation that Jesus was a Son of Abraham.  But then, we come to chapter 3 and John knocks that support away.  It doesn’t matter, says John.  Once we have become a follower of Christ, once we have become a citizen of the Kingdom then all of those things with which we prop ourselves up have lost their meaning.  What matters is how we act and how we respond to God’s call.
Advent is a time of waiting – we anticipate and wait for the remembrance of the birth of Christ at Christmas; and we anticipate and wait for that day when Christ will come again and bring the fullness of the Kingdom into being.  At the moment, the kingdom has come into our midst but it is incomplete and our call is to be about the work of the kingdom.  And the work of the kingdom consists of this: allowing the love and grace of Christ to flow through us.  We cannot do this on our own.  We need the help of the Holy Spirit to guide us and to open our hearts.  We need to repent – to re-think our relationships with God and others and then allow the Spirit to turn us around and move us in some new and different directions.