Messages used in our Christmas Eve Meeting for Worship and for Worship the day after Christmas are offered together in this posting.
Meditation for a Christmas Eve, Dec 24, 2010.
Luke 2: 1-20
In those days a decree went out from Emperor 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 own towns to be registered. 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. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 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 that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 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: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Preaching at Christmas has been likened to wringing out laundry in the days before spin dry cycles on washing machines. You try to fold the wet sheet so you can grab hold of each end and then twist it and try to squeeze every last drop of water from it before hanging it on the line. Squeezing this story again just doesn’t seem to produce that essential and hopefully unique drop! What is there to share that brings a new perspective to this age old story? The Christmas story is the gospel in miniature. It speaks for itself. It is a story about man and a young woman who have been displaced by socio-political forces completely beyond their control. The young woman is so late in her pregnancy that everyone would have told her that she shouldn’t make this trip, but she does. Acting as the Son of God, Augustus declared that his whole realm should be counted, measured, an act of control and power coming out from Rome. That is what causes Joseph to go to Bethlehem, which was nowhere. You have this juxtaposition of all this Roman power and these two simple people who go to this out-of-the-way place, and there the savior of the world is born. Their difficulties faced in their journey to comply with the demands of the authorities is of little interest to those who decreed the displacement. Rules are rules and must be obeyed. The universality of this cameo is that it is being playing out in real time in places like Darfur, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Southern Africa and on the U.S./Mexican border.
Our couple can’t be accommodated in the “inn”. Not only is this family displaced, they are now rendered homeless. That there’s no room in the inn is not incidental to the story; this is what the Messiah is. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” In the gospel of John (1:9): “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” There’s no room in the inn, so go out to the barn where the animals are. Out, out, out, out…. The Messiah is the one left out. The real truth breaks in on you when you understand that it is in the nature of the Messiah that he is always the one left out. “…the stone the builders rejected.”
“While they were there”, the text reads, “the time came for her to deliver her child. 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.” I find no cozy backlighting here. No cattle lowing, and no fresh straw. What you’ve got is a homeless teenage girl, having to give birth, in a barn no less and then putting the child in a feed trough presumably so that she can attend to herself and her post natal recovery. Once again any third world disaster area will suffice as a modern day setting for this drama. Who was it who said, “The rich get richer and the poor have babies”?
There is a deeper implication of the swaddling clothes: culture. The bands of cloth were used to shape the child physically. When we say that Jesus takes on human form, this story shows us that it includes being acculturated. Jesus, too, was a product of culture and not just nature. Culture shapes us spiritually. It wasn’t like today in which we apologize for culture. Mary wouldn’t look over to Joseph and say, “Well, maybe we should let him decide for himself. Let’s not cram anything down his throat.” We think that somehow the blank slate is preferable. Jesus himself is swaddled; he’s acculturated.
The third and final scene of our story, is about another group of unsheltered, and by their profession, unwashed persons. This will shake us free of some of our Christmas piety. This is not some nice little pastoral scene. Shepherds in the first century represented something akin to biker gangs. They were the unclean and unscrupulous. People locked their doors when they came into town. Luke always turns the social order on its head. He is always interested in the role of women and outcasts. And so the angel appears to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid!” These shepherds who live their lives under the stars are the recipients of the message and a manifestation about God’s glory. And their comprehension is not by reason, that would require the Greek word for knowledge – an experience of epistomology – no, what they were to comprehend came through an experience of God’s glory, God’s doxy. something that wasn’t centered in the head but in their inner selves.
And then it is they who in turn become the ones who come to the stable and explain the mystery to Mary and Joseph and leave Mary with food for thought if not food for her family. Like in the Easter story where the announcement is made to a group of women, it is to these ‘unrighteous’ subsistence farming shepherds to whom the revelation of what is really happening is given. Little wonder that: “ all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” –not her head, her heart. What’s the difference between pondering things in our heart or in our head. We assume that there’s an end to pondering, a point at which you have things figured out. But there is no conclusion to the pondering. Pondering is a way of life that is synonymous with faith. I would like to speculate that now the message of Gabriel began to have real application. Mary now needed to know, “… the Lord is with Thee.” Yes, Mary, even in the extremity of this moment, “ the Lord is with Thee.”
We who have homes, hearths, heaped plates and locked doors, what do we know about political displacement, marginalisation, and homelessness? Perhaps we need to listen again to the invitation of the shepherds. “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” Let’s go to Bethlehem now, in this year. Let’s go behind its concrete wall of Zionist and Palestinian isolation and begin to understand what it means for God to be present in the suffering of simple people. But let’s not stop there, let us also go to, Iran, Ethiopia and Haiti look into the disease and earthquake rubble, let’s go to the flood ravaged Ukraine and the Philippines. Let’s go where God seems to be found incarnated and present. Not in our tinsel decked trees but in the trauma ravaged suffering of the poor and the powerless around the world. Let us go there, and see these things that the Lord has made known to us. Maybe we don’t have to wring some new drop of significance from this ageless story. I think the Christmas story speaks for itself.
Message for the First Sunday After Christmas Isaiah 63:7-9
Christmas 1 A
Despite what the shopping malls and stores have been telling us for the past couple of months – we have only now officially entered the season of Christmas. When the nuns were still in charge of St. Joseph Hospital in Kokomo the manger in the big Nativity set remained empty until mid-night Christmas Eve. And now, Advent is over. We’ve put away our Advent Candles and are straining to look ahead into a new year. And though the season of Advent is over it is far from complete. Isaiah 63:7-9 well could be the perfect fulfillment of our Advent longing. It speaks to compassion, good deeds, faithfulness, redemption, salvation, love, mercy and the alleviation of affliction, even the famous ‘hesed’ (loving kindness) of God is splashed over all of creation. It concludes with the familial and parental image of God “carrying and bearing” God’s children.
This must have been the scriptural basis for that sentimental “footprints” plaque that hangs in the halls of so many American homes – you know the one that tells us that during our times of deepest distress that God was bearing us up “When you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you”. Ah, it is the best Christmas gift ever. Except that it’s not. It yet stands − through millennia and even through the life and death and promised return of Christ − as a reminder that the not yet of God’s kingdom remains painfully and pointedly unfulfilled.
I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all that the Lord has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. 8For he said, “Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely”; and he became their savior 9in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. Isaiah 63:7-9
The truth is that if we stray outside the safe boundaries of these three verses of Isaiah 63 we run into amazingly discomforting images of God. The language is so unsettling that the editors of the lectionary leave the material on both sides of this passage completely out of the three year cycle. The chapter begins with a graphic poem of the ‘day of vengeance of our God”. The passage comes out of what is called ‘Third Isaiah’. This material dates to the post-exilic period, when the Judeans who had been in exile in Babylon had their chance to return home to Jerusalem. After the devastation of the destruction of their homeland, including Jerusalem and its temple, and believing the great promises of a new exodus in Second Isaiah (chs. 40-55), they believed that there was a chance to rebuild their homes and lives.
But things didn’t turn out as they had expected. As chapter 63 begins a sentry sees God with his clothing blood soaked and asks God “What have you been doing?” God says “I stomped on nations in my fury, I pierced them in my rage and let their life-blood run out upon the ground”. Then, in the next few verses, Isaiah 63:7-9, the prophet speaks of the gracious deeds of the Lord, all that the Lord did for his people, his great favor, and about how he became their savior, not just delivering them by means of some messenger acting on the Lord’s behalf, but how the Lord saved them himself and carried them to safety. There is a great sense of celebration and thanksgiving in these verses, and that makes them appropriate for this first Sunday after Christmas. But the change in character of these adjoining passages is enough to give you whip lash. The overall passage is far from being a passage celebrating a joyous return to Jerusalem and the land. Matter of fact these three intervening verses are what Bible scholars call a motivational clause at the beginning of what is a long lament (Isaiah 63:7-64:12). Read in isolation verses 7-9 certainly can be used as a thanksgiving for what God has done for us in the past, and in the context of our Christmas celebrations, it can even give us words with which to celebrate the coming of God among us in Jesus Christ. However, when read in its context, the passage becomes a motivation (a polite word for a bit of arm twisting) for God not to forget his people in their distress, mostly of their own making, and to remain loyal to his covenant.
What were the people lamenting? The destruction they had seen, especially that of the temple and their own sin and straying from God but above all, and for them this is the most disturbing of all, the subsequent silence of God in the face of all that they have endured. Today’s reading is meant to motivate God into returning as their redeemer. The gracious deeds of the Lord referred to are those associated with the exodus out of Egypt, the ‘days of old’ as they are called in the passage. The phrase ‘gracious deeds’ in Hebrew comes from the word hesed, which means ‘covenant loyalty’ at heart. Will not the Lord remain loyal to his people and covenant, and redeem his people again? Not even their turning to the Lord in repentance will redeem them, only the Lord’s turning toward them can accomplish that.
That’s the danger of reading this passage out of context because it ends precisely where Isaiah makes a hard right. “…but they rebelled… …and God turned to become their enemy, and fought against them…” The people whom God called ‘my people’ in v. 8 are now, in v. 10 referred to as the enemy of God. That is how deep the rift between the people and God has become. References to God as ‘our father’ are, in fact, rare in the Old Testament, but in v. 16 it is mentioned twice and becomes a forerunner of the popular metaphor in later Judaism and Christianity. Isaiah 63 ends with a plea for the Lord to ‘turn back’ (v. 17) and Isaiah 64 starts with a call for the Lord to rend the heavens open and come to his people. It may sound strange to our modern ears to speak of God’s repentance. In our human centered view of the world we so often associate the act with a turning from our own sins, and making a renewed commitment on our own part. This people knew better. It is only in the Lord’s repentance that there hope for them.
By pulling these verses from their context we have successfully transformed this community lament into a warm fuzzy. Time, tradition and sentimentality has declawed a pericope that indicts the people of God as being utterly unfaithful so that it mouths pious platitudes about a God who now seems docile and utterly domesticated. By allowing this passage to end at v. 9, we miss Isaiah’s inflammatory commentary on the unfaithfulness of God’s followers, who spend far more time proclaiming ourselves “God’s servants” than we do acting like it. Who pray for shalom while we make war. Who ask for forgiveness while we stockpile bitterness. Who preach repentance while we quietly judge.
What about our unfaithfulness? What about our complicity in the disintegration of our world? What about our individual and collective offenses toward both God and God’s creation? It’s not a friendly question. And it’s certainly not well received in our post evangelical / protestant / liberal / modern / whatever world, but there it is. It hangs over our lives, and we deftly ignore it most of the time.
In all of our Advent longing– and particularly in thinking about how we can we keep preaching these texts, year after year, and expect people to believe that peace is coming– perhaps we’ve intentionally overlooked our responsibility to enact the elements of God’s kingdom that we have within our grasp. We have, it seems, a relationship with God more adversarial than collaborative. We’re longing for God to carry us across some sandy beach when we’ve been dragging God’s loving kindness through the mud.
But we are in Christmastide now, and there will be no more talk of blood and dripping garments. Christmas season is a time for memories, good and bad. We don’t seem to be able to get to one without the other. There is no biblical author more aware of this than the writer of these words. Yet in these few words he chooses to focus on just the good news for today. The word “remember” or “recount” appears as the middle word of five; literally it runs, “mercies”/”of the Lord”/ “recount”/”praiseworthy acts”/”of the Lord.” The word “recount” or “remember” anchors the entire thought. Today let’s celebrate the liberating and life-giving force of memory. That, perhaps, is a message for this Christmas time. Recall the bountiful memories and celebrate them today.
The words in v. 8 end with this interesting statement about the people of God–who will not deal falsely. The Hebrew says, “And he said, ‘Surely these are my people; sons do not do false things,’ and he was a Savior for them.” For a second think about the idea that the children of God don’t act falsely. It really is quite a statement, one that is somewhat unexpected. We might have thought that God would save because of the divine commitment to the covenant, to the divine promise, to the honor of the divine name. But here the people of God are known as those who don’t act falsely. Should that not be the characterization of the people of God that stays with us, that should define our lives.
For each of us, we ought to seek the level of engagement with the world and others that enables us not to live and act falsely. Maybe we should seek out a place in life where we don’t need to act falsely, and see if this isn’t the place where we can flourish.
We see that the focus is on the intense words of love and care, of redemption and salvation, of lifting up and carrying of the people of God by God. It is God’s love and compassion that motivated the deliverance. And, that is the message for us today. We have seen, right before our eyes, God’s enfleshment, enbodiment, for our benefit. We have experienced God’s redemptive deeds. Let’s celebrate that today, with joy and gratitude.
Part of v. 9 is very difficult to translate, but it could be read, “There was no anguished messenger; it was God’s own presence that saved them.” Then, to continue the thought, “In God’s love and pity, God redeemed them; God lifted and carried them through all their past days”. This is nothing less than the basic teachings of Israel, its most basic beliefs about their God. And that is why this text is read on the Sunday after Christmas. Now that Jesus has again been hymned, prayed and preached into the world, we want to know who he is, what we can expect him to be and do. And here is the answer: he will continue the actions of the God who sent him to be with his people. He is Emmanuel, God with us, and as Emmanuel he will call us to himself as his chosen ones. He will ask us to deal only in truth, and in response he will care for us and love us in our deepest distress, he will redeem us, lift and carry us as God has done from the beginning.
Though we have in the past and most likely will again in the future rebell against this gracious calling (see 63:10-19), God will never give us up, because God’s love for us cannot be broken. When the apostle Paul wrote his unmatched words about the love of Christ in Romans 8, it was surely this Israelite series of beliefs that guided his thoughts. There is finally nothing that can separate us from such a love. Nothing!
I cannot speak for you, but that message is more than reason enough to show up on the Sunday after Christmas, because without it the hope of Christmas rings hollow and transient and too readily forgettable until the next round of loud hosannas.