Yesterday, I had the honor of worshiping with the people of the Church of the Ascension, Seattle. We were celebrating the second Sunday in Advent – the season before Christmas – and I shared this sermon.
Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Isaiah 11:1-10 (“The wolf shall live with the lamb”)
Psalm 72 (“He shall defend the needy among the people”)
Romans 15:4-13 (Christ is the fulfillment of Jewish scripture and the hope of the nations)
Matthew 3:1-12 (“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.'”)
A friend of mine posted on Facebook recently. Her children, ages 4-7, discovering Advent calendars, wanted to know more about the season, so she told them a bedtime tale, billing it as “the Story of Christmas.” They were unimpressed. "That's it?" "What happens next?" "That's not a real bedtime story." I can’t tell you exactly what she said, but if I were asked to tell the story, I must admit, my first attempt would be rather bland. Joseph and Mary are a young couple, recently wed. Mary was pregnant with Jesus and travelling was difficult, but the Roman emperor called for a census, so they packed for a short trip to Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem. The young couple set out on the road, but when they arrived in Bethlehem, there were no rooms available so, they had to settle for a stable. Jesus was born there, in Bethlehem, in a stable, “because there was no room at the inn.” He was surrounded by sheep, visited by shepherds and angels and three wise kings, who followed a star from distant lands. And that seems to be the modern take. The bit at the end is a bit more interesting, because it has kings and angels in it, but they don’t do much. Nor do I think we ever pause on even the most obvious of details. The shepherds are strangers, probably not great socialites, considering they spend their nights with the sheep. The kings are strange foreign astrologers, who show up out of nowhere. Angels are just strange. We’re talking non-human intelligences, Appearing out of the sky with a loud noise. There’s a reason, they always start with “be not afraid.” And that’s just the periphery of the story. What about a young woman who’s never had sex discovering she’s pregnant? What about a young man who finds out his wife is pregnant and the baby’s not his? That must have led to some awkward conversation along the road. There’s an Emperor 1500 miles away, a military occupation, and a bunch of forced travel so that the locals can be counted. And you thought Americans got upset about taxation. There’s a local puppet King who wants to kill the baby. We don’t even know who’s side the astrologers are on until the last minute. Add to that the idea of a tangible God and you have a Summer Blockbuster. Scratch that. The critics would say it too contrived. The audience would feel too much was crammed in. Now, I need to add two caveats. First, I am not talking about the historical Jesus. You have no doubt heard attempts to reconstruct what really happened. They are very interesting and valuable, but I want to make a different point. Both the real events and the Biblical accounts Are quite dramatic. They would have been intense to ancient listeners and should be intense today. We only yawn because we’ve heard it so many times. Second, I’m not talking about the so-called “War on Christmas.” Non-Christians can package the holiday however they wish. I love peace, goodwill, and our common humanity. I’m happy to watch “The Grinch That Stole Christmas” and “Miracle on 34th Street” and the Dr. Who Christmas special. It’s Christians that I’m worried about. We are the ones who have forgotten to tell the story as it was meant to be told. It has the King of the Universe, wrapped in a blanket and set in a feeding trough. It’s a romantic comedy with a road trip, chance encounters, and mysterious strangers. And, at its heart, it is a drama about people struggling with the difference between the world as it is and the world as it should be. It is about alight shining in the darkness of politics, greed, miscommunication, and social expectations, and the plain old darkness of a winter’s night. We must learn to retell this story with the magnificence it deserves. The old catchphrases of Emmanuel, King of Kings, and Son of Man, have become too familiar to us. God is many things; boring is not one of them. I’m not going to tell you the story the way it should be told. I’ll leave that for Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. The season of Advent exists for precisely this reason. The story is too big for us to tell it in one night. The characters are too interesting and the implications too profound. We must prepare for it. We must ready ourselves to hear the story and tell it with a twinkle in our eye and hope in our heart. We must believe what we say. Part of that will be setting the stage, remembering where we are, and where we were, and what came before. Part of that will be reminding ourselves that the coming of Christ was, and is, and will be the end of the world. Isaiah and Paul and Matthew remind us of the difference between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of the world. This year, perhaps we don’t need a reminder of how awful Earthly powers can be, of corruption and greed in politics, of how hard it can be to love our neighbors. Or perhaps we do. Perhaps we need reminding that in Jesus’ time, Judea was occupied by Rome, and Rome was at War with the Parthian Empire, just across Judea’s Eastern border. War was a part of daily life. As it is just a little North of there in our own day. There were rulers and insurgents and international politics. It was difficult to tell who to trust, who the good guys were. If it is difficult to imagine the very real dangers of Jesus’ world, it is only because our world is so much safer. And yet, I think it is even more difficult to imagine the kingdom of heaven. What would it look like to have justice and peace – everywhere? What would it mean if we could truly see one another, understand the cost of our actions, and feel the love in others’ hearts? Isaiah speaks of the peaceable kingdom, where righteousness is rewarded, and wickedness swiftly punished, where we don’t have to worry about predators and thieves, where we can trust one another. “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” The Psalmist speaks of God stepping in personally to defend the needy and rescue the poor. Jesus is that intervention. Jesus is that King – better and closer and more powerful than the emperor – who showed up from (it seemed) even farther away to set things right. Paul and Matthew tell us how we can see the world to come, and how we can step into it. The kingdom of the world and the kingdom of heaven are separated by a veil, a curtain that hides the truth from us, that Love is Lord and that we are called to live in that love. First, we must pull aside the veil, uncover the reality of the world, which is light and truth and justice. We must recognize our true Lord, who came and is coming so that we might be free. Second, we must turn away from the ways of the world that have conditioned us to doubt and fear and hurt one another. No matter how difficult the journey, we must walk as though we were already in the world that is to come; that is the only way to arrive. Third, we must share the story, unveil it for our neighbors with the hope of Christ and the love of neighbor that are, at this very moment, reshaping the world. I can love the Grinch and Kris Kringle and Dr. Who because they hint at the world the way it is supposed to be, But I should not forget to tell the story of a time when the world truly was as it truly is. It is not a boring story, nor should it be sanitized or softened or distilled to give it a G rating. Frequently children are dealing with as much uncertainty and fear as their parents. Maurice Sendak once pointed out that life can be even scarier for children, who have less control and less understanding of the rules. The Christmas story is about a young woman, who should have been terrified by an unexpected pregnancy, but was not. It is about a young man, who had every reason to doubt her, but did not. It is about the two of them, struggling to love one another in the midst of tragedy, war, and heartbreak. The Christmas story is about their slow progress toward Bethlehem… and ours as well.