Let Your Face Shine [On Us]

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scripture Readings: Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-14, (15-20)

In Isaiah we hear of the arrival of God’s saving action in the world. It is of a light coming to those who have been in darkness. There is great rejoicing from a people that have been multiplied. There are two similes used. One that is almost familiar and one that (I assume) isn’t:

they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.

Jenn grows things. We harvest them. I really like going to our tiny garden and picking a bright orange habanero or variegated fish pepper to put directly into whatever I’m cooking. I like picking bay leaves from our little bay leaf shrub and then drying them for use later (they can’t be used fresh). I may even rejoice in this. This is, however, rejoicing-lite. While the appreciation is deep—linked to the wonder that the ground can produce the smoky fire of the pepper and the pungent sage and lavender for lemonade, appreciation that God creates and sustains creation in this way, joy that what we call a habanero or scotch bonnet Jenn and I first learned of as atarko with our church family in rural Nigeria on the border of Cameroon near the bottom edge of the Sahel semi-arid band south of the Sahara desert—that I rejoice in all of this is not the same as the rejoicing at the harvest of people who rely on the harvest for not only their livelihoods but also their very survival. Such rejoicing is deep. Tied closely to the desperate desire that comes with living close to the edge of survival.

They “rejoice as at the harvest” and “as people exult at dividing plunder.” This great relief of victory and joy at gathering of provision is heightened, is amplified because of the oppression that has been endured. It is a shaking free:

4 For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken ….

It is also the end of the battle. The reminders of this battle—the tramping boots and blood soaked clothing—these will be burned. This is the joy of the coming of the savior, the great light. The objective need for saving is recognized, felt deep in the bones.

Luke sets the birth of Jesus within the political context. While it appears that Luke is trying to make the case that Jesus is not a political threat—at least not a conventional political and

military threat to the conventional powers—the radically challenging nature of baby Jesus’s arrival continues to challenge us.

Luke orients Jesus’s arrival within a political context. This registration was not benign nor appreciated. (Craddock and Boring) It was an assertion of power and control by an occupying force. Mary and Joseph were caught up in it. Even while in late pregnancy they made the trip south to his hometown. This was certainly inconvenient and likely uncomfortable (perhaps she liked the challenge—Jenn for example climbed Table Mountain at 7 months pregnant and kayaked on the Anacostia for two hours the day she went into labor)

Perhaps it was the bumping of riding on a donkey or walking that got the labor happening, for once to Bethlehem the baby arrived. It is stated simply.

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.

In any retelling—whether literary, movie, or by a campfire—significant events are compacted or not even referenced. The choice of what to minimize or eliminate is a specific choice or may be a result of particular interests or biases of the teller. In this case, a feminist commentator might note that a male writer would be expected not to focus much on the heroic feat of a woman. To deliver a child is not like having an Amazon package delivered (a house near us has a little cardboard sign by the front door. “Please drop any packages over the fence” with a little arrow pointing to a wooden fence a few feet to the left).

However, since the important thing is that Jesus gets here it is of some note that this is mentioned at all. A commentator notes 1/3 of the unique material in Luke focuses on women. And the full Luke account of the birth has a much stronger emphasis on the particular roles of women in this event—for example in the manner of the announcements of the birth and songs before the birth (Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels). Additionally, the Gospel of Mark starts with Jesus as an adult, Matthew only mentions “had been borne” in relation to Mary and Joseph not having sex until after Jesus had been borne–highlighting the divine conception, and John has no traditional narrative but rather a soaring theological reflection on Jesus’ participation in the creation of the world and then arrival into the world to be with the created ones.

Additionally, while the divine nature of the conception is noted earlier, it is not focused on. There were many such stories of divine arrival in that era. What is notable is that the Messiah, the savior, is born at all. (Craddock and Boring). No descending from heaven ready to go. The great light that is announced by Isaiah enters the world and sees the dimly lit stable for the first time. In some fantastic way, the Word which was from the beginning and who was present at

the creation of the world and through whom the world with its sources of light was created—as proclaimed in the opening of the Gospel of John—somehow, this awaited great light, who was the creator of light, descends the dark and crushing birth canal of Mary and sees light for the first time. This is the great mystery. The mystery of Emmanuel—God with us. This is the great light that has been awaited this is what will cause rejoicing as at the harvest.

This is the victory of God. The victory of God shows up with a young family forced to leave their home and who are given no place to stay.

6 For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

And not only does the victory of God show up in the unexpected manner of a displaced person but the first announcement is to the shepherds—a class looked down on, distrusted, and also unexpected. No high-end PR firms. No world-renowned poet or preacher. The shepherds are the first evangelists, the first announcers of the coming hope and light. The Messiah, the awaited savior.

. 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!”

Isaiah had said: 7 His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.

For the grace of God has appeared (Titus)

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. (Isaiah)

The sermon title–“Let your face shine” has some linguistic flexibility. If you include the parenthetical “(on us)” it may be that we are beseeching God to let the light of God radiate on to us. And if we were mimicking the language of the Psalms this is a plea for God’s blessings. It could also be an exhortation—almost an ethical-spiritual exhortation about how we should live. You now have experienced the light of Christ let your face shine! The one who created the light then entered into the light. This same light shone when the angels proclaimed to the shepherds that the great awaited light was now shining in the face of a baby in Bethlehem. This is the same light that we are invited to shine. Let your face shine!

STARTLING, UNEXPECTED, STRANGE

Luke 1:26-38; Luke 1:46b-55

Jennifer Hosler

The fourth Sunday in Advent

Last year at this time, our nephew was acting in a stage production of It’s a Wonderful Life. The theatre version was not a typical re-enactment – but was re-framed as a live, 1940s radio production, complete with sound effects created by Foley artists. The setup enabled my nephew to play both a young George Bailey (Hot dog!) and, later, George Bailey’s son Tommy. It’s a Wonderful Life, while one could say it’s a little sappy, is a pretty great secular Christmas story. One man realizes how his life and actions affect the community around him. It’s about re-framing from hopelessness to hope.

The movie was successful upon its release in 1946 and it continues to be a classic. It’s even playing today in several movie theatres around the city. What I learned yesterday surprised me: upon it’s release, the FBI suspected that the movie was part of a broader Communist plot. Apparently, according to a recent Washington Post article, “J. Edgar Hoover’s Communist-hunting agents thought it was a Trojan horse sneaking anti-American propaganda to the masses” (Andrews, 2017). Many in Hollywood were under surveillance and more than 200 movies were examined for “Communist Propaganda.”  Some of the screenwriters for It’s a Wonderful Life were “known” to eat lunch with people who were “known Communists” (this, of course, is in the paranoid FBI assessment of the time).

The agent was tasked with scrutinizing the movie “wrote a report claiming it ‘represented a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers’” (Andrews, 2017). Of course, this is true – Mr. Potter is greedy and cruel. The agent also wrote that the movie “deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show that people who had money were mean and despicable characters.” This was considered “subversive” and reported to the House Un-American Activities Committee which, thankfully, allowed the movie to keep playing.

While J. Edgar Hoover and Joe McCarthy were paranoid about the Communist threat, they clearly hadn’t understood that the true, biblical meaning of Christmas is rather subversive. It’s right there – right in our readings. Today, I imagine that most Christmas or holiday movies are what people would deem to be “wholesome” (aka. not radical). They might talk about family or love or generosity, which are all good things, of course. But as a church, we can’t focus only on a feel-good, sentimental Christmas because that would be a false picture from what we see in Scripture.

The biblical message we see in Luke isn’t wholesome. It’s startling, unexpected, and strange. It’s scandalous. It’s feminist. It’s radical and subversive. It’s mystical. It’s full of outcasts and folks who are on the margins of society. The Christmas story we see in Luke 1 is about God doing something that was considered obscene (knocking up an unmarried mother) – and working to turn the world as we know it upside down.

If the FBI wanted to find a subversive Christmas story, Mary’s song to Elizabeth is exactly so. It highlights what God regularly does and will do again: scatter the proud, bring down the powerful, lift up the lowly, fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty. The Commie Committee really should have looked inside those bibles that everyone was swearing on back then, to truly weed out the message that, today, most subversive to the American way of life.

There are many ways to preach our passages today and I had hoped to focus on both Mary’s encounter with Gabriel and Mary and Elizabeth – but then we’d be here all afternoon. As this sermon came together, what came out most distinctly was a focus on Mary, seeing her encounter God in a way that is startling, unexpected, and strange—and still say yes to all that would follow. Mary has been both neglected and hyper-idealized; I’m trying to aim for something in the middle.

 Setting the Stage of Luke 1

Our passage in Luke 1, though it is not far from the beginning of the chapter, has a fair bit of storyline before it. First, I should say that the broadest context of the gospels is a drought: the people of Israel and Judah have had 400 years without a prophet, without hearing a word from Yahweh as they did during the days in exile or when they returned from exile. There is a drought in hearing from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The people are now under Roman rule, suffering under an occupation. This oppression and marginalization, this hunger for spiritual and social deliverance, is the big context of Luke and the Christmas story.

Earlier in Luke 1 (what we didn’t read) is a story about a priest named Zechariah. He and his wife Elizabeth, both from priestly heritage, did not have children, which was a significant and sad circumstance in the ancient near east and in Greco-Roman times. As all priests did, Zechariah rotates to serve in the temple. A once in a life-time opportunity comes to him: he is selected by lot to offer incense in the holiest of holies, in an inner sanctuary part of the temple. Zechariah goes in while the whole temple is full of people waiting for him and praying outside. While offering incense, an angel of the Lord appears next to the altar. Zechariah is terrified and overcome with fear.

The Hebrew word for angel simply means messenger, while the Greek word specifically connotes a messenger from a deity. Contrary to popular fascination with angels, angels don’t take up a lot of space in the Bible. Prophets and priests and ordinary humans do most of the LORD’s work, with angels popping up occasionally. Yet after 400 years of silence, it makes sense to have a clear-cut, unearthly messenger to deliver the good news that God is speaking again.

Zechariah is cowering, but the angel reassures him, saying, “Don’t be afraid.” The angel then delivers a message that Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, will finally conceive in her old age, and the son would be a special part of God’s plan – a prophet like Elijah, full of the Holy Spirit (who later becomes John the Baptizer).

Zechariah isn’t certain that this is the real deal. You’d think, though, that an angel in the temple, in the holy of holies, would be kind of legit. Dude, look at the setting around you. Zechariah asks for a sign (as if an angel isn’t enough) and the angel reveals himself as Gabriel, one who serves in the presence of God. The sign that Zechariah gets, after not believing the word, is that his own words won’t come out. Zechariah goes on mute for the next 9 months.

People realize, when Zechariah comes out of the inner sanctuary, that something unexpected has happened. Zechariah’s gesturing and can’t speak. But then things go back to “normal,” he goes home, and reunites with his wife. Miraculously, the promised baby John takes hold in Elizabeth’s womb. Elizabeth begins preparing at home for the baby, in “seclusion.” This was probably a mix of cultural expectations with pregnancy and taking it easy because of the risks of miscarriage in any pregnancy (let alone in an elderly woman).

Here am I

Luke’s readers would have had all this in their minds when they get to verse 26. Our passage begins at Elizabeth’s 6th month (as an author, Luke likes to date things specifically). We learn that this scene is north of Jerusalem, in a town called Nazareth, in the region of Galilee. While the names don’t mean much to us, it would be clear to the reader that the setting is not anywhere important in either the Roman world or in Israel.

The readers have already been introduced to Gabriel, so Luke uses his name and continues with Gabriel’s second mission: he’s been sent by God to Nazareth to go talk to a young, unmarried woman named Mary, who’s engaged to a man named Joseph, from the lineage of King David. Again, it would be clear to the reader that this Mary lady is not someone who is important, well-known, or with any real status of her own. Young, unmarried women were at the bottom of the social hierarchy, pretty much equated to children.

Gabriel greets Mary, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!” The person and the greeting are startling, unexpected, and strange. My paraphrase of Mary’s internal response is, “Um… what is this?” Luke says that she was reflective in the awkward silence post-angel greeting: “she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” Poignantly, Mary is not worded as being terrified or scared and is certainly not overcome with fear. She doesn’t know what this startling, unexpected greeting, by a strange messenger, means exactly—but she’s definitely hanging around to find out. Contrast adolescent Mary’s response with that of Zechariah and, later in Luke 2, the male shepherds in the fields. Mary doesn’t lose her cool while everyone else freaks out when they encounter angels.

Gabriel, having just dealt with a terrified Zechariah, says, “don’t be afraid!” and gives her a rather startling, unexpected, and strange revelation. “It’s good news! You’ve found favor with God.” I should mention that finding favor with God in the Bible typically brings with it some type of call or burden—a task to complete or a mission to fulfill—and it’s not all roses. It’s usually something heavy, with great personal risk, like the calls of Moses or Isaiah or Jeremiah. Mary, this nobody from a backwater part of Israel, is being drawn in to something much bigger than herself, into the overarching story of God’s plan of salvation, deliverance, and reconciliation.

Gabriel continues, “You’ve found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus (Yeshua in Hebrew, which means deliverer or saving one). He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” There’s one detail that catches Mary’s eye, and rightfully so, since she’s a young, unwed woman who is engaged to a man: “How does this work, since I have never slept with a man?” Culturally and religiously, she presumably would not until she married Joseph, the wedding date for which was likely not yet set.

Gabriel explains: “The power of the Holy Spirit will cause the baby to be miraculously conceived within you, making the child holy and set apart for God. And though you didn’t ask for a sign, I’ll give you one: your relative Elizabeth is also expecting a child and is six months along. For nothing will be impossible with God” (paraphrase). With this information, Mary decides. It’s not assumed, after all, that she’ll say yes – she’s not a helpless tool, but a human with agency and even the ability to say no to God.  But Mary doesn’t say no. She answers using the language of many faithful people before her in Scripture (like Abraham, Moses, Samuel, and Isaiah), “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The words, “Here am I,” are used throughout the Hebrew scriptures as the faithful response to God’s call—one that involves complete availability for God to work, even in startling, unexpected, and strange ways. At this commitment by Mary, Gabriel departs.

There are many things to pull out from this text. One of the most important, particularly considering how women have been treated by society and the church over the centuries, is that here (here!) is an example of a faithful follower of God who undertakes an enormous task for the good of God’s plan. She believes this wild and absurd message from the angel and trusts that Yahweh—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who worked through Moses to lead to Israelites from Egypt—is that same God who will lead her through the ridicule and shame of her pregnancy to deliver and raise the Messiah. Several commentators emphasize that Mary’s call here matches the pattern for other “heroes of the faith,” the calls of Abraham, Moses, Samuel, and Isaiah.  

And yet we Protestants don’t typically put Mary up there as our example of discipleship along with Moses or Isaiah or others. It’s clear from the literary context and pattern of her call that we should value Mary more. Mary is blessed – not because she’s a woman. Not because she was pregnant and had a baby, but because she believed the word of God and said, “Here I am – ready to be an agent of God’s work in this world.” This text is radical and liberating for women, but it stands for all people (men and women) as an example of saying yes, agreeing that God can make you an agent of God’s reconciling and redeeming work in this broken, sinful, and hurting world.

From Bilbo and Harry to Mary and to Us

Across literature, storytellers have often depicted people from humble or despised circumstances getting drawn into something bigger than themselves. Their humble origins—their nobody-ness—stirs up our imagination and helps us picture that we, too, could be in their place. That we could be brave and fulfill difficult and unimaginable quests.

Bilbo is an ordinary hobbit, who likes things that are comfortable and warm, with a close supply of provisions always at hand. Harry Potter is a twerpy, orphaned kid who is belittled by his caretakers and lives in a closet under some stairs. Dorothy is also an orphan and lives with her aunt and uncle in Kansas, of all places. Each of these figures steps out into something more than they could have ever dreamed, into a big arc of good versus evil. There’s something biblical about all of that.

We see in the Bible that Yahweh regularly works through small-town nobodies (or, more accurately, that the Creator of the universe disregards the world’s “wisdom” on who is important). God repeatedly does things that are startling, unexpected, and strange, calls people we wouldn’t expect and brings them in as agents in God’s story. That story is the Christmas story, of Immanuel, God coming to be with us in Jesus, to bring justice, healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation to the universe.

Sisters and brothers, we are part of something much bigger than ourselves – if we are willing, like Mary, to say yes to God. For some people, saying yes might involve something flashy (like preaching or speaking prophet truths directly in front of powerful people), but most often it involves quiet faithfulness.

The angels and virgin birth are kind of flashy, but parents know that 30 years of parenting Jesus until his ministry started was definitely not at all glamorous. Love and kindness, mercy, building relationships, doing administrative tasks, mowing a lawn: these quiet tasks are what fills out the story, defining us as workers and agents in God’s Kingdom, in bringing all people and all creation into the healing, reconciliation, and justice of Jesus.

Saying yes to God can lead to startling, unexpected, and strange things. If you look through scripture, it’s never easy – but the rewards involve being part of this grand, universal story of God making all things new. Whatever the world says about your status, rest assured that God regularly and consistently reels in the world’s “nobodies” to make them important agents in God’s work of healing and reconciliation. God calls each of us to take up our role in the work. Have you said yes to God? Are you continuing to say yes to God, on this journey?

If you don’t have a congregation or a community around you to explore God’s call on your life, we at Washington City Church of the Brethren would love to walk with you on this journey together with Jesus. Questions and questioning highly welcome.

Sisters and brothers, may we take heart and take courage in the faithful example of Mary, who trusted that God would do what was promised and stepped out in faith, courage, and hope.

 

References

Andrews, T.M. (2017, December 21). ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is a holiday classic. The FBI thought it was communist propaganda. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/12/21/its-a-wonderful-life-is-a-holiday-classic-the-fbi-thought-it-was-communist-propaganda/?utm_term=.f34784cefbae

 

JOY

Psalm 126   Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11   1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Jeff Davidson

The third Sunday in Advent

Happy Gaudete Sunday! What, you didn’t know this was Gaudete Sunday? Nobody told you? You may even ask, “What is Gaudete Sunday anyway?”

Gaudete Sunday is the third Sunday in Advent. The word “Gaudete” is from the Latin word for “rejoice.” Traditionally we spend most of the Advent season thinking about preparing for Christ’s coming. It’s about repentance and fasting. Advent is in some ways a Christmas version of Lent, where we examine ourselves and our lives and clear away the peaks and valleys of sin and make straight the path of the Lord. At one time Advent was a period of fasting and penitence. 

Gaudete Sunday gives us kind of a break in the midst of those things. It’s a time to rejoice, to embrace the good news that is coming, to celebrate the blessings of God in our lives and the opportunity that we have to share them with others. Gaudete Sunday is why the third candle in the Advent wreath is pink. The other three are purple, but the joy of Gaudete Sunday is so great and so important that the Sunday gets it’s own special Advent candle.

So, real quick, what are some of the things that bring you joy this time of year? For me, some of it is the music. Sunday afternoons growing up we would listen to Christmas songs at home by Johnny Mathis or Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians or Bing Crosby. We’d sing songs at church that we really only got to sing once or maybe twice a year. There was Christmas caroling, where the kids and their parents would visit the homes of shut-ins and the elderly and sick in the congregation to sing. There was a special Christmas Eve service, usually mostly music. Every couple of years Dad would sing “O Holy Night” and I would accompany him on the piano. There are a lot of good memories attached to the music, a lot of fun and a lot of happiness.

Sometimes, though, I pause a bit about all the Christmas music this time of year. One of our radio stations in the car is set to 97.1 WASH-FM. Most of the year they play upbeat music from the 1980s, the 1990s, and the last couple of years. Not rock, or at least not hard rock, but Michael Jackson, Paula Abdul, Bruno Mars, Pharrell Williams. It’s a station that aims at people my age or maybe 10-15 years younger, probably skewing a little towards women.

But after Thanksgiving, WASH-FM declares itself Washington DC’s official Christmas music station, and it’s all Christmas music all the time. I’m not sure how “official” that really is; I don’t think it requires a Presidential appointment and Senate confirmation. The Christmas music has no rhyme or reason to the selection – you may hear something secular like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” followed by a traditional arrangement of “O Holy Night” followed by David Bowie and Bing Crosby doing “Little Drummer Boy” with Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” to wrap it all up. Some instrumentals, some vocals. Some old recordings from the 1950s by folks who died twenty or thirty years ago, some re-makes of classics by contemporary artists. It is a very, very mixed bag of music.

The other day I was in the car going to work, and a 1960s version of “O Come All Ye Faithful” by Johnny Mathis came on, and I got a warm feeling inside and sang along. Then “O Holy Night” by Josh Groban – the arrangement I used to play to accompany my dad. That music really made me feel good.

And then I thought about Kelly. Kelly isn’t the real name. Kelly is a Jewish friend of mine at work. Kelly really doesn’t like all the holiday stuff we put up at work. We have trees, and silver garland, and ornaments of various kinds. We have some big cardboard candy canes and stocking and things like that. There’s nothing overtly religious, and we are as clear as we can be with our language at least that it is a holiday time and not a Christmas time, since we are a government agency, but Kelly doesn’t buy it. We can talk about Hanukkah and Kwanzaa and New Years all we want, but Kelly’s not fooled. The holiday we are celebrating is Christmas.

Kelly and I have talked about this a couple of times. I’ve tried to say that from my perspective there’s the cultural Christmas, the secular Christmas if you will, and the sacred or the religious Christmas. There’s the “Snoopy and the Red Baron” kind of Christmas song, which has nothing to do with Jesus or faith, as opposed to the “Silent Night” kind of song, which is explicitly about Jesus as the savior of the world.

Kelly’s not buying it. For Kelly, the whole thing is Christmas. The whole thing is about Jesus’s birth. Rudolph and Santa are just as Christian as the angels that appeared to the shepherds and directed them to the manger. I look at it from within the Christian faith and see distinctions between sacred and secular. Kelly looks at it from the outside, and sees is a Christian celebration of a Christian savior in whose name some of her ancestors were persecuted. A savior in whose name some Arab Christians are happy to participate in bombings and missile attacks on her spiritual family in Israel.

I don’t know what radio stations Kelly listens to, but she’s at least ten years younger than I am and she is the target demographic for WASH-FM. That station is designed for people like Kelly. I found myself wondering what it would feel like to be Kelly or someone like her, and for 11 months of the year you enjoy a particular radio station and you relax with particular on-air personalities and you become accustomed to the timing of the weather and the traffic reports, and then come Thanksgiving they take it all away from you. I wonder what it’s like feel that something you rely on and trust and enjoy for 11 months of the year all of a sudden turns into something that celebrates what you perceive as oppression and anti-Semitism. 

I thought of that when I heard those two explicitly Christian hymns played in a row, and how I would feel is I was a minority in a place where my favorite radio station played music praising Mohammad, or the Buddha, or the leader of the dictatorship in which I lived. And I had to pause.

Our Old Testament readings both talk about joy. Our Call to Worship, Psalm 126, talks about our tongues being filled with shouts of joy and of returning from the harvest carrying sheaves and shouting for joy. And what is the cause of this joy? What starts the joy? Verse 1 – “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.”

The joy that the Psalmist sings of, the joy that the worshippers feel, is as a result of God’s action. In this case it’s the restoration of the fortunes of Zion (Jerusalem) but the important part isn’t what specific act of God causes joy. It’s that joy is caused by the Lord.

The same thing is true in our reading from Isaiah. In verse 10 Isaiah says, “I will rejoice in the Lord” but everything that comes before and after is filled with joy and thanksgiving. Those who mourn receive a garland instead of ashes. They receive gladness instead of mourning. All sorts of good things happen: good news is proclaimed, the captives and the prisoners are freed, the broken-hearted are healed. No wonder Isaiah rejoices in the Lord!

And what causes all of this? The Spirit of the Lord being upon Isaiah. God’s word welling up within him and pouring forth from his lips. The love of justice is a gift of God. The hatred of robbery and wrongdoing is a gift of God. Joy comes because of God’s action and God’s anointing, and in the end, just as the earth brings forth it’s shoots and a garden causes what is in it to spring up, God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

Even the examples that Isaiah chooses show that it is the Lord that causes the joy, for who is it that made the earth to bring forth it’s shoots? Who is it that made gardens which have plants that spring up? It was God. The joy that Isaiah speaks of is joy that comes from the Spirit of the Lord within us. That joy is a gift of God.

And of course our reading from 1 Thessalonians begins with the admonition to “Rejoice always.” How is it that we are able to rejoice always? The last verse of our reading tells us: “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this. God is faithful. God will do this.

As I was putting this sermon together I read something that I liked. I couldn’t find it again so I can’t tell you who said it, but it was essentially that happiness is something that comes from the outside and that joy is something that comes from the inside. Peanuts says that happiness is a warm puppy, and The Beatles say that “happiness is a warm gun.” I tend to lean towards one of those more than the other, but they are both externals. They are both things that come to us from the outside.

It is possible that a kitten or a puppy or a piece of music can create joy, but not on their own. There has to be something inside that responds to that external stimulus. A love of puppies has to already be in you for a warm puppy to lead to feelings of joy. I can lose myself in a piece of music and feel joyful, but only if God has given me the gift of appreciation for music. I can lose myself in a movie and identify so strongly with one character or another that I feel joy when they succeed or survive, but I can only do that if I have the gift of empathy that has been given to me by God.

So I had to think about whether when I heard “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “O Holy Night” back to back on the radio if I really felt joy, especially in light of how my friend Kelly and probably millions of others like her feel.

And after I thought about it I realized that I wasn’t feeling joyful because of those songs. I was feeling joyful because of the gifts inside me that various things trigger. Maybe it was those songs on that day, but on another day something else could have triggered the same things. I’m joyful because God gave me the gift of adoption at my birth by a family who loved me. I’m joyful because God provided me a family that loved music and shared that love with me. I’m joyful because God allowed me to have opportunities to develop my talents of music, limited though they may be, and to share them with others. 

And those songs triggered one more thing for which I am joyful. I’m joyful for God’s gift of empathy, which reminds me of people like Kelly, and hopefully makes me humble and makes me sensitive to the things that I do or say or take for granted that cause them pain or hurt or worry.

So happy Gaudete Sunday. Take note of the things around you. Let them stimulate the gifts of God that are within you, and let those gifts bring forth joy. Let them cause you to consider others who may not have the same reaction, and let them lead you to consider what it is you can do to help bring joy to them, to help proclaim, release to the captives and to bind up the broken-hearted, to help those who sow in tears to reap in joy. Rejoice in the Lord always. Amen.

ARE WE THERE YET?

Matthew 1:18-25 & Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18

Micah Bales

It’s starting to look a lot like Christmas.

As an American, I have a stereotyped vision of what Christmas ought to look like. It’s a cold, dark, wintry time. We’re bundled up, rushing from our warm houses to gathering places like this one, and back to our warm homes. It’s a time for gathering with family and friends. It’s a time of reassurance. That though we are experiencing some of the longest nights of the year, the light of friendship, community, and faith still shines. We are together. We are loved. God is providing.

I like this vision of Christmas. I think it’s an authentic view into how God calls us to be a faithful, caring community to one another. It includes Jesus’ command to love one another. It captures the hope that he promises us through the resurrection – that no matter how long the night, there is a bright morning coming.

The baby Jesus is that bright morning. Amid the cold and dark of winter, he comes to us as the light of Christmas. He is born to a pair of righteous Jews – a carpenter and his young financée. This couple is living in a very dark, very cold night. They – their whole family, their whole nation – is living under a brutal military occupation by a foreign power. They’re living in empire that maintains its rule through total military dominance. An empire that puts down rebellions by annihilating entire cities and selling whole nations into slavery.

Along with the entire Jewish nation, Mary and Joseph are waiting, longing, praying for salvation. The salvation they’re looking for is very tangible. They’re hoping for a great military leader. Someone in the mold of King David, who will throw the Romans out of Judea once and for all. Mary and Joseph are waiting for God’s anointed one, who will finally establish the kingdom that God promised David – a reign of justice and peace that never ends.

Still, I can only imagine how shocked both Mary and Joseph must have been when they learned the role that God was giving them to play in this deliverance. Mary was just a young girl – probably little more than a child herself. Yet God spoke to her. He chose Mary to be the mother of the Messiah. The mother of the promised deliverer. The mother of the son of God.

It would be an understatement to say that this turned Mary’s life upside down. Nothing could ever be the same as before. Her entire life would be defined by this birth, this child, this relationship with Jesus. Despite all that, Mary said “yes” to God’s call. It would have been less surprising if she had said “no.” But she said “yes.” She was ready for this mission. She knew how great her people’s oppression was. She knew how badly they needed a savior. So she said “yes.”

I think that sometimes we forget about Joseph’s role in this story, or maybe gloss over the courage and faithfulness that he showed in his response to God’s plan. But Joseph’s response was almost as miraculous as the virgin birth. How many men would accept their fiancée’s claim that their pregnancy was the result of an action of the Holy Spirit?

If you’ll remember from our reading a few weeks ago, the High Priest Zechariah had a tough time believing it when the angel told him that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son. Surely they were far too old for that! Because of his inability to believe the word of God, Zechariah spent the next nine months mute, unable to speak about the message he had received.

Joseph, on the other hand, was able to overcome his doubt at an even more miraculous occurrence. Somehow, he was able to work through his doubts and fears that Mary had been unfaithful to him. He also had the strength of character to withstand the shame that certainly came on him when others suspected that he might not be Jesus’ father. He had the courage to raise Jesus as his own, trusting that God’s word to him was true.

I believe that Joseph was able to muster this kind of courage precisely because he understood what the stakes were. God instructed Joseph to name his son Jesus – Yeshua. Yeshua is a Hebrew word meaning “God saves.” Joseph understood that God was intervening decisively in history. God was acting to save Israel from its enemies, the terrible oppression of the Romans and their client dictator, Herod. God was finally fulfilling his promise, given throughout the Old Testament, that he would raise up a ruler to sit on David’s throne, to govern God’s people and administer justice forever.

Both Mary and Joseph understood that this was the great calling of their lives. They would be parents to the Messiah. They would raise the one who saved Israel.

Whatever other hopes, dreams, and ambitions Mary and Joseph had for their lives, they were willing to sacrifice those in order to be responsive to God’s call.

This could be because they were just amazingly faithful saints, with powers of discernment and compassion that exceed that of ordinary people like you and me. That’s possible. But I tend to think that there was something more profound at play here.

I believe that any of us can take selfless, heroic, terrifying action given the right circumstances. We just have to be desperate enough. Think about the stories you’ve heard of regular folks lifting up cars to save a loved one. Yesterday I watched a news clip of a young woman who found her dad trapped underneath a one and a half ton automobile. Without thinking about it, she knelt down, pulled up, and flipped the car over and off of her dad’s body. He lived.

That kind of amazing strength and power is possible for all of us when we are truly desperate. When the full force of our lives is channeled in one direction, the miraculous can occur. That’s what happens when a daughter sees her father being crushed under a car. It’s what happened when Mary and Joseph watched their people being crushed under the jackboot of Roman occupation. They had become desperate enough to take miraculous action. Their need for salvation had become so great that they were ready to cooperate with the Holy Spirit. To do things that would be unthinkable otherwise.

For Mary and Joseph, and for the whole Jewish people at that time, salvation was not a “spiritual” concept. It was not primarily about going to heaven when they died. It wasn’t about some kind of transcendental, spiritual escape in this life. For the thousands of Jews who were praying for the arrival of the Messiah, salvation was profoundly concrete. It was political. It was material. It was about saving the lives of their children. They prayed for a future where the Romans no longer insulted their faith and desecrated the holy city. No longer dominated and exploited their economy. No longer crucified their sons and husbands along the highway.

God’s salvation isn’t just a nice idea. It’s air to someone struggling to breathe. It’s water to a person wandering in the desert. It’s food to a mother whose children are starving to death. For that kind of salvation, ordinary people like you and me can do miraculous things.

As we remember the birth of the baby Jesus, as we celebrate the coming of God’s messiah, it is time to ask ourselves: Are we hungry for salvation? Do we thirst for it above all else? Are we prepared to see our lives disrupted in order to seek salvation out?

In a certain way, we’re at a disadvantage to Mary and Joseph. Compared to them, our lives are pretty comfortable. I can tell you for sure, George was not born in a cow stall. We had access to wonderful midwives who guided us through the birth, and there was emergency medical staff on call in case anything went wrong. We were so blessed.

For those of us who have spent our entire lives in the United States, we have known relative peace and stability. Even in recent years, as our country has begun to slip more deeply into hatred and violence, the insanity and slaughter has still been the exception rather than the rule. I grew up in a country where I and most people I knew felt that we were citizens in a democracy. Not subjects of an occupation. Not sheep to be sheared and slaughtered at the whims of a dictator. I’ve lived a truly blessed life.

So I have to ask myself: Do I really want to be saved? Do I truly hunger and thirst for righteousness? Do I really want the upheaval that comes with salvation? Or would I prefer to remain in a comfortable hell?

Our nation is entering into a time of great testing, and it remains to be seen whether which path we will choose. Will we embrace the baby Jesus, with all the disruption and trouble he brings? Will we carry this pregnancy to term? Or will we tell God, “No. I won’t have this child. No, I won’t claim him as my own. Find someone else, God. I don’t need that kind of disturbance in my life.”

In the 12 Steps addiction recovery program, they have a concept of “hitting rock bottom” For alcoholics and drug addicts, hitting rock bottoms is when the pain of using becomes greater than the pain of not using.

For God to send Jesus into the world, Mary and Joseph had to be at rock bottom. They had to know that the pain of receiving Jesus is less than the pain of accepting one more day of economic injustice, moral outrage, and spiritual darkness. To receive Jesus, the Jewish people had to know that choosing the way of cross is ultimately less painful than continuing to participate in the endless cycle of hatred, violence, and oppression.

Christmas is an opportunity to ask ourselves: Are we there yet? Have we hit rock bottom? Is the pain of living in a world of hatred, willful ignorance, and greed greater for us now than the pain that comes from following Jesus?

If we are, God will perform the miraculous in us. Like Joseph, we will become agents of his protection and healing. Like Mary, God will use us to bear Jesus into the brokenness of this world. “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel – God with us.” Amen.

PREPARE THE WAY

Matthew 3:1-12

Jeff Davidson

Now that Thanksgiving has passed, I have let myself start listening to WASH-FM at 97.1. They are the local “all Christmas music all the time” station. They started with the Christmas music in early November, and while I look forward to the music that was too early for me.

I look forward to the music for a lot of reasons. Most of it is familiar. I’ll hear the Harry Simeone Chorale, or Bing Crosby, or Nat King Cole, or Johnny Mathis singing songs that I grew up with. It brings back good memories – memories of listening to my parents playing those very same songs and those very same artists on the stereo on Sunday afternoons. Memories of going caroling with other members of our church and singing many of those same songs to people who were shut-in or lonely or sick. Memories of Christmas Eve services at church, when the choir every year closed with “Carol of the Bells” and my dad was the singer at the end who went down low to hit that last “dong.” Those are good memories, and I smile when they come back to me listening to the radio just as I smiled when I thought about them while typing this up.

I also smile because the music reminds me of the Advent and Christmas seasons. At our church growing up it was always the kids who got to light the Advent candles. I used to hope I would be on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, since that way I would get to light more candles than anyone else. Santa came to a church party every year and told the Nativity story and gave each of us an orange and a candy cane. Candles in the windows flickered with the draft of air that came in through the old stained glass windows. I’ve talked mostly about church, but there were family traditions too. The music and the memories all come together to make Advent, and later Christmas, a familiar time of faith and family; a time when I am transported emotionally back to a place and people that I can no longer visit in real life.

Our Advent verse today is a familiar one as well. John the Baptist appears in all four Gospels, and is mentioned in the book of Acts. The call to prepare for Jesus coming is one we hear around this time every year, with John wearing camel’s hair and eating honey and locusts and telling us to prepare the way of the Lord and to make straight the curvy and hilly paths before him. For those of us who grew up regularly attending church, there’s not a lot new here. It’s another familiar text, another familiar part of the Advent and Christmas season that may call up warm and comfortable memories.

If so, that would be too bad. It’s good that it’s a familiar passage, but not so good if it is a comfortable one.

From time to time I visit websites for other churches and the various Church of the Brethren districts and see what’s going on. The December newsletter of the South/Central Indiana district includes a national newsletter called “The Parish Paper.” It’s been around for years, and the writer of this month’s issue is C. Jeff Woods of the American Baptist Churches USA. One paragraph says, “The average life of a shopping mall or center built today is fifteen years. And if the shopping venue does not make a radical change at least half-way through their expected fifteen-year tenure, they may not even last that long! Geoff Colvin recently wrote that the most innovative companies today, ‘see their business as disruptors would see it.’ They never stop self-disrupting their own companies. For example, Amazon disrupted bookstores twenty years ago with their online selling model. Then it disrupted itself with the Kindle e-readers, replacing its own books-by-mail model. They have continued this disruption by opening and successfully operating brick-and-mortar bookstores, even while the traditional bookstore model continues to fail.”

Woods goes on to talk about the need for congregations to consider self-disruption, and reminds us that God sometimes will take care of the disruption whether we do or not. Woods notes that congregations that have been around for 100 years or so have had six or seven disruptions as the neighborhoods around them have changed. Duane Ramsey was the pastor here for 45 years; he used to say that he had not pastored one congregation, but several during that time as the people and the neighborhood changed again and again and again.

Despite all its familiarity at this time of year, John the Baptist’s message is a message of disruption. “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near!” Repentance isn’t just trying to do a little better; repentance isn’t cutting back some on whatever it is you repent of. Repentance is radical. Repentance is violent. Repentance is actively and quickly turning away from sin, not later, not a little, but now. At once. Repentance isn’t driving along on the highway to Hell waiting for the next place where you can safely make a U-turn after looking both ways. Repentance is slamming on the brakes and going into a spin that leaves you headed the wrong way into oncoming traffic. That’s what John is talking about.

“Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight,” says John. That sounds nice, doesn’t it? If you’ve driven those twisty, curvy roads through the mountains a nice straight road over a level plain sounds great; even if it’s not a level plain at least we can have gradual and gentle rises and falls instead of steep climbs and terrifying descents on a narrow twisted road.

But how do you get that level road? You tear out all the trees that are in the way. You dynamite through the mountain. You take a bulldozer to things. You kill animals and destroy farms and tear apart neighborhoods and eliminate the business that supports small towns along the way. You even raze the town in some circumstances. Again, John’s message is not one of comfort. John’s message is one of violence, of upheaval. John’s message is one of disruption.

What does John have to say about those who stand in the way of his vision? How does John address those who want to maintain the status quo, or who want to make gradual changes at the edge? How does John talk to members of the establishment who even say they are supportive of his message and want to help him? “You brood of vipers!” There’s no quarter for John. You’re either with him, or against him.

When I thought about disruption, the first song that came to my mind was from 1964. It was written by P J Fleck and the best-known recorded version is by Barry McGuire from 1965. It’s called Eve of Destruction. The first verse goes, “The eastern world it is exploding – Violence flarin’, bullets loadin’ – You’re old enough to kill but not for votin’ – You don’t believe in war but what’s that gun you’re totin’? – And even the Jordan River has bodies floatin’ (chorus) But you tell me – Over and over and over again my friend – Ah, you don’t believe – We’re on the eve of destruction.”

That song could be sung today, couldn’t it? It’s been updated many times over the years – the first time even before Barry McGuire recorded it. That’s John the Baptist’s message – except that he probably wouldn’t call you “my friend.” We are on the eve of destruction. We have got to stop. We have got to turn around. Now.”

That’s not just John the Baptist’s message. That’s the message of Christmas. We can get caught up in the familiar things of Christmas, the songs, the scents, the stores and the gifts and the decorations. Even as Christians, when we think about Christmas from a perspective of faith it is often sweet and kind and reassuring. “Silent night, Holy night, all is calm, all is bright.” A little baby in a manger – isn’t that cute. A more recent song, “Mary Did You Know?” falls into that same trap. It’s a sweet song that’s a little bit wistful as the singer asks if Mary really knew who her son was and what he would do. I like the song, but if we’re honest it’s pretty unbiblical. Of course Mary knew, if you take the Bible seriously. That’s the whole point of the Magnificat, of Mary’s song after learning of her pregnancy. The song also understates the reality of the situation. It plays up the sentiment, and plays down the danger.

Advent is a time when the world is on the eve of destruction. Things are so bad that only the most extreme measures will do. God is done with prophets. God is done with the law. God is done with the old covenant. None of those things have worked.

God is going to take matters into God’s own hands. God is going to come to earth personally. God is going to come to earth and declare the kingdom of God is here. God is going to invade. God is going to turn over the tables in the temple, literally and figuratively. There is no time to wait. We are on the brink. We are on the abyss. It is the eve of destruction. God is going to step in.

That is the message of Advent. That is, at least in part, the message of Christmas.

I’m going to continue to listen to WASH-FM and the Christmas music. I’m going to still get that warm feeling. I’m going to do Secret Santa at work and all the rest. I say that confessionally, because I honestly don’t know if I should or not. I honestly don’t know if participating in those culturalized aspects of Christmas make it easier or harder for me to be authentic about what Christmas truly is and what it truly means. That’s something I am going to have to struggle with as I stand on the edge of the abyss, as I consider the eve of destruction. That’s something we all have to struggle with as we reflect on John’s call to prepare the way. Amen.

 

DELIVERANCE THROUGH A LITTLE ONE

Luke 2:1-20; Titus 2:11-3:8

Jenn Hosler

We have two nativity scenes in our house. One is a soapstone carving from Kenya, depicting Mary and Joseph holding baby Jesus. Our other nativity scene has three ceramic figurines, baby Jesus and his parents. Nate gave this to me as a gift in 2008, before we knew that we would be serving in northern Nigeria. These figures, if you look up close, are not wearing traditional Roman era dress as we often see Mary and Joseph. They also do not appear to be of Middle Eastern or European descent. Since they were made in Cameroon, Mary and Joseph look ethnically African and they are dressed in traditional West African garments.

I love nativity scenes like this for many reasons: first, mine is from a fair trade store and supported an artisan in Cameroon; second, its depiction of the holy family illustrates how the gospel message can be made relevant and real for all cultures and all God’s people; and finally, just because it is simply beautiful. Decorative nativity scenes are beautiful. So much about Christmas is beautiful and I often need to be reminded that these idyllic scenes lack the realistic sights, sounds, and smells of the original nativity. In our nativity at the back of the sanctuary, there is no animal poo fragrance, no straw or mud, no woman emitting the growls and strains of childbirth, and no blood or placenta. We don’t see someone cutting the umbilical cord or cleaning off the messy baby. You also can’t tell whether the mother is having any difficulties with nursing or how exactly a first century diaper would have been prepared or changed. So often, I read the verses and I don’t take the time to picture the details that Luke or Matthew decided to leave out.

It’s easy to run quickly through today’s Christmas verses in Luke. Christmas comes every year, so even if we haven’t read much of the Bible, these verses are probably pretty familiar. Angels, shepherds, a manger, Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus. Yet there are significant, weighty, profound, and relevant truths located within this familiar Christmas story—truths that we as God’s people need to focus on and orient ourselves to, if we are to join with the heavenly host singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to all upon whom his favor rests!”

What truths are revealed in this Christmas story? We see that the gospel is provocative, unseemly, not respectable, dirty, stinky, and vulnerable. In the Christmas story, God enters the world in disreputable circumstances; God’s glory comes and shines upon the poor and despised; and God arrives to save us, not as a warrior, but as a vulnerable baby.

God enters the world in disreputable circumstances

A few weeks ago, I was asked to pray, along with Nate, at the National Vigil for Victims of Gun Violence in the U.S. This vigil, held at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church a few blocks away, had a rather impressive list of speakers (us excluded!). When I saw it, I was a bit astounded that we had been invited to pray a prayer. The service took place at an old, historic church on Capitol Hill, next to the Library of Congress. The bishop of Washington, along with one of the closest advisers to President Obama, and the Connecticut delegation to Congress: these were just a few of the notable persons present. There were many people there whom one might call respectable or powerful. It felt strange and odd to be there, since as Brethren we try not to consider ourselves important and we also have a very small congregation here. Yet the organizers requested a Church of the Brethren witness, from Washington City, to be part of the prayers for justice and peace at the event.

This scene—of respectability and power, beautiful architecture and regal vestments—is very different from the setting of our Christmas story. The circumstances of the nativity are far from respectable; they were actually circumstances of disrepute. As readers of the gospel, we know that Mary had conceived through the Holy Spirit, but those around Mary and Joseph would have thought that something pretty shameful had happened. The Bible doesn’t talk a lot about what they encountered during the months that Mary was pregnant and showing. It does say in Matthew that Joseph would have ended their engagement quietly if an angel hadn’t intervened. In that era, it was unseemly and shameful to be pregnant before marriage.

We don’t exactly know why there was no room for Mary and Joseph, why they couldn’t fit in any lodging area or with family. Yes, there was a census going on, so the town was probably packed. But collectivist cultures can often find a way to do hospitality for numerous family members. One of our Nigerian friends had 60 people staying with his family in a three-bedroom home, during the recent crisis where many were internally displaced. This is obviously an extreme example, but it makes me wonder why Joseph and Mary couldn’t find a place to stay. It could be that the family was ashamed or that they were so poor (since Joseph and Mary were also poor) that there was just really no suitable room to give birth.

Whatever the circumstance, God incarnate enters the world. It happens the same way that we all did, by being born, but in dirtier and more disheveled circumstances, in a cave or a stable. Newborn Jesus is laid in a manger, a feeding trough. One commentator noted that it is interesting how the angels trumpeting or singing do not appear to Joseph and Mary. At the actual birth, there is little fanfare; it’s just a poor family trying to make it through a dangerous fact of human life that is complicated by a government census. Amidst the sideways glances and unseemly situation, God incarnate arrives on earth. We learn from Luke 2, from the Christmas story, that God entered the world in disreputable circumstances.

God’s glory shines upon the poor and despised

While sketchy situations are present in the Christmas story, at the same time, we also see God’s glory coming and shining upon the poor and despised—bright lights gleaming on unlikely characters in the midst of the darkness.

We spent part of the last week in Canada, visiting with my family in Toronto. Toronto is different from the District of Columbia, with taller buildings and a large waterfront that borders Lake Ontario, one of the Great Lakes. While we were there, the sun came out very little. It wasn’t very cold but it was grey and cloudy most of the time. One day, the sun began to break from behind the clouds and the city began to change from a drab grey to warmer tones of brown and yellow. Unlike some of my family, I really love winter, cherishing especially the cold and crisp days that are also bright with sunshine. Moving from grey days to sunshine is a little bit like moving from night to day, the world around you seems to change completely. In Luke 2, the gospel writer includes a scene where the dark night has an encounter with the brightness of God’s glory, as the shepherds care for their flocks in the middle of the night.

When studying this passage, I tried to imagine the modern equivalent of a shepherd, working late at night. Shepherding was a low-status, low-paying job. It took a lot of time and energy but didn’t really improve someone’s circumstances that much. Perhaps our modern equivalent would be a security guard; one of our neighbor’s family members works security through the night at an apartment building. From what I understand, it involves a lot of watching, waiting, standing around in the dark. It involves some personal risk, in addition to being a fairly thankless and monotonous job, without much status.

In Roman times, shepherds were not people that anyone respectable would want to hang around with; beyond their status, they probably didn’t get to bathe very much and they hung around animals. It wouldn’t have smelled pretty. The shepherds are watching their flocks by night—consumed in darkness—when, suddenly, an angel appears. God’s glory shines in the dead of night, upon shepherd folk. To readers in Jesus’ time, this wouldn’t really make sense – why would angels come to this “unexpected and even despised group of people – shepherds” (Marshall, 1994, p. 984)? But like many times throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the chosen in the story is the outcast, the despised. A messenger from God tells the shepherds some “good news of great joy,” that a savior, the Messiah, the Lord, had been born in Bethlehem. The savior would be found wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. At this moment, the already-terrifying scene of one angel shining turns into a jubilant, freaky, chorus of angel multitudes, singing exultation for the Christ child: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to humans on whom his favor rests.”

A savior. A messiah. The Lord. This is big news, good news—and this angelic song and dance of God’s glory does not come to priests or kings or even to Mary and Joseph specifically. God’s glory doesn’t come shining upon rich folk or respectable folks. Rather, in the Christmas story, God’s glory shines upon the poor and despised.

God comes as a vulnerable baby

So we see God entering our world in disreputable circumstances, and God coming and shining on the poor and despised. In the Christmas story, we also see that God comes to humanity, not in the form of a warrior or a king, but as a vulnerable baby.

The incarnation is a puzzling and marvelous thing to me. It was a miracle and an act of God’s immense love for us. God had dwelled with Israel before, but never in the flesh. God had come as an other-worldly spiritual presence amidst the people, first in the Tabernacle and then in the Temple. This time, instead of a pillar of fire or a cloud, instead of a whirlwind, or even a warrior with angels, Yahweh comes in human form and in the simplest and least threatening form of all. A baby. Imagine a tiny person smaller than George or Miles, within whom both the fullness of God and the fullness of humanity dwelled.

The angel declared that the vulnerable baby born was a savior, the Messiah, the Lord, and that deliverance—good news of great joy for all people—was found in the infant child. God showing love for the world involved being vulnerable: powerless, open to pain, injury, emotional wounds, to being deceived and hated, and even vulnerable to death.

The message of Christmas is that God came to us in disreputable circumstances as a vulnerable baby, that deliverance came through a little one, and that the glory of God shone out, proclaiming a message of peace to those who were poor and despised.

Love is vulnerable. Living as Jesus’ followers, following his example faithfully, makes us vulnerable. Welcoming all people in Christ’s name and showing them kindness, makes us vulnerable. Choosing love over fear makes us vulnerable. As Christ’s disciples, we need to be prepared to follow Jesus faithfully and face whatever that may bring. In June, sisters and brothers at Mother Emmanuel church welcomed a young man into their bible study. They made themselves vulnerable. Though darkness tried to overcome and violence claimed nine sisters and brothers, the love and vulnerability of Christ was preached and proclaimed around the world through their story. Witnessing in life, they also witness still today, as martyrs for Christ’s message of hospitality and love.

This past year, many Brethren in the U.S. have expressed awe and wonder at the faith of our sisters and brothers in Nigeria, EYN. People are amazed that they have continued to have faith in Christ, even under threat from Boko Haram, and that most Christians have chosen not to retaliate. EYN relief efforts provide emergency assistance to both Christians and Muslims. I have heard many U.S. Brethren say, “we Christians here in the U.S. have it easy. It doesn’t take much courage to be a Christian here.” It doesn’t take much courage to be a Christian here. But is that changing? And perhaps for the better?

Reading through a commentary on the gospel of Luke, I was struck by a comment on how Luke understands earthly rulers. One writer (Craddock, 1990) explained that Luke mentions governors and emperors, a census happening, and that Luke understands that these rulers are unwittingly being used for God’s purposes. Caesar Augustus called a census and God was using that census to help fulfill a prophecy that the Messiah, in the line of David, would be born in the city of David, in Bethlehem. Reading this, I couldn’t help but think that politicians and rulers may act today, and can still unwittingly be used for God’s purposes.

What came to mind specifically was the hateful speech against Muslims that is being thrown around in our political sphere and also the terrorism that continues to occur around the world. Christians are being forced to respond. Some pastors are choosing to add weapons alongside their Bibles, while other pastors are speaking out against arming ourselves with anything but Christ’s love. Other pastors are condemning how some politicians are maligning all Muslims. What came to mind for me is that these politicians are unwittingly being a tool used to shape and refine Christ’s church, to awaken us to Christ’s call for courageous loving and a bold welcoming of all people, to proclaim that protection is found in Christ’s salvation and not in a gun.

We see in the Christmas story that God did not come as a warrior. The incarnation is not a proclamation of power, but of the Creator of the Universe building peace through vulnerability. The Creator of the Universe dwelled as an infant: God intertwined in humanity in the body of a baby. Jesus was not afraid to love and preach boldly at great risk to his life. As Christ’s followers, we proclaim the gospel of Jesus, the message of Christ’s death and resurrection, the message of God reconciling humanity, the message of love for enemies. Just as Christ’s birth, ministry, and death, were all marked by vulnerability, by committing to Jesus, we are committing to vulnerability. Are we prepared to follow Jesus, to model the incarnation, in vulnerability?

The message of Christmas is that God came to us in disreputable circumstances as a vulnerable baby, that deliverance came through a little one, and that the glory of God shone out, proclaiming a message of peace to those who were poor and despised. May we live out and preach that message today. AMEN.

References

Craddock, F.B. (1990). Luke: Interpretation, a Bible commentary for teaching and preaching. Louisville, KY: John Knox.

Marshall, I.H. (1994). Luke. In D.A. Carson, R.T. France, J.A. Motyer, & G.J. Wenham (Eds.), New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition (pp. 978-1020). Downers Grove, IL: IVP.