Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Scott Borden, OHC
Forth Sunday of Advent-Year A - Sunday, December 18, 2016
Christmas is getting very close – our period of waiting... of anticipation is almost over. We are called, in Advent, to prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus, for God with us in mortal flesh in our world, our nation, our churches, our homes, our bedrooms... this incarnational event is both massive and extremely intimate. If we don't think about it too much, it is all very happy... so... I’m proposing to think about it a little too much this morning.
This might be easier if our culture had not so thoroughly glommed on to Christmas. Its hard to see where the sacred ends and the secular begins. Christmas trees and wreaths, sleigh bells and stockings, holly and mistletoe... What, if anything, might they have to do with Immanuel? I hear Marley's ghost in Charles Dickens "Christmas Carol" answering "little and much."
From these items we can proceed to Santa and Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman, and dreams of white Christmases spent rustic inns somewhere in Vermont... What might these things have to do with Immanuel? Now I think Marley's ghost just says "little."
Yet much of our understanding of Christmas is as driven by our retail tradition as by our religious tradition. Santa wears red because Coca Cola wears red... not because of any tradition involving St Nicholas... We see red and green together and automatically think Christmas. The liturgical color is white so perhaps White Christmas has a subtle, liturgical reference... But I doubt it. For better and worse, our capitalist culture has appropriated much by way of Christmas symbology – and perhaps part of our work of Advent should be to unwind that a bit.
I think the secular observance of Christmas is not bad. Just as secular notions invade the religious observance, so sacred values invade the secular observance. The most cynical, secular marketer can not help but have their heart touched at least a little when they are using Christmas to sell their stuff.
But secular Christmas alters our expectations of this incarnational event. Secular Christmas thrives on making people feel warm and fuzzy. It is as though all we have to do to achieve peace on Earth is warmly fuzz. The sentimentality of greeting cards replaces the difficult challenges of living with God in our world, our homes, our bedrooms.
So now, on the fourth Sunday of Advent, when our secular Christmas machine is at full froth, I want to look a bit at how this sacred story may touch our lives.
Lets start with the reading from the letter to the Romans. It is, on the face of it, a kind of odd reading since its really just the greeting at the head of the letter – and a mostly standard greeting at that... Scott Hoezee of Calvin Seminary suggests that it’s a bit like spending time reading the return address on a modern letter... And he further suggests that the most important detail in the reading is the very last thing – to God's beloved in Rome who are called to be saints. This does not jar us because Rome has been for centuries one of the great centers of the Christian Church.
But at the time this letter was written, it was not a great time in Rome, especially for Christians. Rome is in a downward spiral and collapse is not far in the future. This is a letter written to people in a very troubled place. Perhaps if the letter was addressed to God's beloved in Aleppo who are called to be saints, it would be closer in feeling. This is the first pushback we can apply to secular Christmas. Jesus does not come to bring joy to happy people in a comfortable place. Jesus comes to a broken and troubled world to bring healing and justice. If we are to follow Jesus, then we have to engage in the healing of a broken and troubled world – and that world is very much our world.
The reading from Isaiah is marvelously complex. Too often Isaiah's prophesy is reduced merely to heavy handed foreshadowing. The statement that a young woman, a virgin, shall conceive puts us instantly in the story of Jesus' birth. But lets stay out of that for a moment.
This is a crabby encounter between Ahaz and Isaiah. Isaiah is more or less goading Ahaz when he says ask for a sign – a really great big undeniable sign. And Ahaz says I won't. So Isaiah says – OK... then I'll give you a sign...
We need a little back story. Ahaz was a mighty leader with a mighty army. And Isaiah is bringing him a message from God that he does not want to hear. This protestation from Ahaz that he will not put God to the test is hollow – he is already putting God to the test.
In the Jewish tradition, prophets were expected to speak in two ways – they had to deliver a message, usually a warning, for the future (but the near future, not the future a thousand years hence) and at the same time they had to reveal something verifiable but unknown; a token or sign to prove their prophetic bona fides. In this passage from Isaiah we are hearing the sign without the warning.
When Isaiah says see, a young woman will conceive and is already with child, it is very likely that Ahaz knows exactly who that woman is – she could even be a wife of his and the child could be his child. This is Isaiah's way of saying to Ahaz, you better listen to me.
We hear this as a message to us about Jesus, rather than a personal communication between God and Ahaz by way of Isaiah. And the thought that crosses my mind is if we are accepting the token of Isaiah's prophesy, that a young woman will conceive, then perhaps we better listen to the warning that comes with the sign. Isaiah's warnings have to do with two things: Justice and mercy.
In this Christmas season, where Jesus is entering our world, questions of justice should be very much on our minds. Martin Luther King defines justice as God's love in calculation. To practice injustice is nothing less than to defile God's love. When Jesus comes into our world, to our nation, can we point to our justice system and feel good? Can we point to the hungry and be proud of how they are fed? How the sick are being cared for? How peace is being made? If we are satisfied and smug then we are ignoring Isaiah and defiling God's love.
Those of us who have grown up in a bubble of white privilege are mercifully sheltered from the injustice of our society. But for those who have grown up outside that bubble, the injustice is all too plain. When Jesus calls us to visit prisoners, I believe the call is to see what is being done in our names by way of injustice – to look at what is otherwise hidden from view – and then to calculate what God's love calls us to do.
The voices of Isaiah and St Paul are vital voices in this late moment in Advent. Secular Christmas tells us that we should feel very good and warm inside – and there is nothing wrong with that. But the call from John the Baptist is to prepare the way for the coming of God in the form of Jesus. It is not warm and comfortable work. It calls us to be attentive to those whose world is coming apart – Roman Christians in the time of Paul... perhaps Syrian refugees in our day... or out-of-work coal miners in MacDowell County, West Virginia... or the more than 50 thousand people who are locked away in New York's prisons.
The truth is we can do both. We can celebrate the warmth and love that is an essential part of the Christmas season and we can turn our hearts and minds more fully to making a society where we can happily welcome Jesus.
But look closely at Matthew. Joseph is on the edge of bolting because his very young wife is somehow pregnant. I suspect Mary is mightily confused and frightened – comforting angels notwithstanding. Herod, who is a crazy and unstable despot is in charge of the area – and he is about to slaughter every child he can find. These are not good times. And Jesus is about to take on human flesh in the middle of this mess.
That is the good news – the Gospel. Jesus doesn't come because we've got everything just perfect. Jesus comes into our broken world because we need help. In our shame and sorrow Jesus loves us. In our bondage to wealth, privilege, power, and greed, Jesus comes to set us free. In our violence and injustice Jesus comes to teach us ways of peace. And so Lord Jesus, quickly come.