Making Peace

A version of this sermon was preached at the First Baptist Church of Hyattsville on Sunday, December 6, 2015.  The Scripture texts were Malachi 3.1-4 and Luke 1.67-79.  Accompanying the biblical texts was a reading of Langston Hughes’ 1930 poem, “Merry Christmas.”

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As December begins, and our thoughts turn earnestly toward Christmas, this is how we like to think of Jesus.

nativity stained glass

But sadly, in too much of the world, too many people are seeing Jesus the way these Egyptian women see Jesus in the photograph below: splattered and stained just like everyone and everything else, covered in the violence that has become all too common – so common, in fact, that some commentators have begun referring to it as “the new normal.”

Egyptian Christians touch a blood-splattered image of Jesus Christ, inside the Coptic Orthodox church in Alexandria, January 2, 2011. A bomb killed at least 21 people outside the church early on New Year's Day and the Interior Ministry said a foreign-backed suicide bomber may have been responsible. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh (EGYPT - Tags: CIVIL UNREST RELIGION IMAGES OF THE DAY)

This photograph was taken in Egypt a few years ago, but it easily could have been taken in America a few days ago. We no longer have to look overseas to grieve senseless acts of violence or contemplate the theological questions associated with them. 2015 is the year in which the phrase “active shooter” entered our vocabulary, and this is the context in which we come to church on this second Sunday of Advent to light the Candle of Peace.

This context is why we need to hear Langston Hughes’ ironically titled poem, “Merry Christmas,” alongside “Silver Bells,” “White Christmas,” “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” and the other seasonal standards this year. It’s challenging to hear, I know. You might have even found it offensive. But that’s precisely why we need to hear it. These challenging words from a poet of the Harlem Renaissance call us closer to what the gospel story of Christmas has to say to us.

Now, you may be thinking to yourself: hang on a second, preacher. Angels and shepherds and a star and a manger – this is the gospel story of Christmas. That’s what we read about in the Bible. That’s what Linus tells Charlie Brown Christmas is all about. And you’d be right – it is. But it’s not all we read about in Luke, much less the Bible.

Linus begins his story with Luke 2. However, as the people of Jesus, we have to begin with Luke 1. And Luke 1 doesn’t begin the story of Christmas with angels or shepherds or stars or mangers. Luke doesn’t even begin with Jesus. Luke 1 begins with John the Baptist. The presence of John the Baptist is how you know you’re dealing with the full gospel version of Christmas, because John the Baptist is the context for the angels and the shepherds and the star and the manger.

Funny how you never see a John the Baptist lawn ornament, now, isn’t it?

Actually, the lack of inflatable, light-up John the Baptists is completely understandable because the truth is we don’t like to start with him, either. Not only is John the Baptist a freaky dude who walks around wearing camel’s skin and snacking on locusts, he’s a freaky dude who comes, in the words of Malachi, to prepare the way of the Lord – which means he comes like a refiner’s fire, like fuller’s soap – to proclaim the need for cleansing and purifying as he goes. He comes to preach repentance. And he comes to Judea – to God’s people. He’s not strolling the streets of Rome, or Damascus, or Baghdad. He’s not coming to get in the face of “those people.” He’s coming to get into our face – in much the same way Langston Hughes gets in our face, pointing out things we don’t want to hear, much less see.

One of the most uncomfortable aspects of this poem is that, even though it was first published 85 years ago, it hardly reads like a relic of the past. Too much of this of this poem is all too familiar, because this is hardly the first year in America we’ve lit the Candle of Peace in the shadow of violence and terror – and not only violence done to us, but violence done by us. That’s the uncomfortable truth Langston Hughes is pointing out – the same kind of truth John the Baptist comes to point out – because that’s the kind of truth we have to confront if we are to repent.

It’s the kind of truth we’ll hear from Jesus, too.

So, if this poem offends you, or makes you squirm, and you don’t want to squirm or be offended, then I suggest you stick with “the holly jolly” commercial version of Christmas – because if Langston Hughes ruffles your feathers, then John the Baptist is liable to make ‘em fall out completely. In fact, you might want to consider heading over to the mall next Sunday morning, because we’re going to be reading more about J.B. next week, too. (FYI – The Mall at Prince George’s Plaza opens at 8:00 a.m., and I promise they’ll go out of their way not to offend you).  Just know that if you decide to come to church, and if you look deep into the full gospel version of Christmas within the pages of Scripture, and if truly have ears to hear and you hear, then chances are you’ll be offended. And you’ll be offended because God’s in the business of being offensive.

It was offensive for God to lower a sheet filled with unclean animals before Peter – animals he had never touched in his entire life – and say, “Kill and eat.”

It was offensive for the Spirit to tell Phillip to get in the carriage with the Ethiopian eunuch, an unclean Gentile of the first order.

It was offensive for the prophets of old to declare to the tribes and kings of Israel how the smell of their burnt offerings turned God’s stomach.

It was offensive for Jesus to tell the rich young ruler to give away all that he had.

It was offensive when Jesus to tell Martha, you know what, it’s okay that Mary is taking a break from her chores to sit and listen. In fact, she’s made a better choice than you have.

It was offensive when Jesus told the Pharisees it’s was okay to pick grain on the Sabbath because the Sabbath was created for people, people weren’t created for the Sabbath.

It was offensive when Jesus, the King of kings, the long-expected Messiah, deigned to wash His disciples’ feet – and to declare that they had no share in Him if they refused.

It was offensive when this same Messiah secured our salvation by being crucified like runaway slave. That’s why Paul declares that Christ crucified is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.

The gospel is offensive, plain and simple. It has to be offensive if it’s to do us any good. Offending our sensibilities for the sake of grace, defying decorum in the interest of justice – this is how God reminds us that He is God and we are NOT. It’s how God in Christ points out to us those jagged, cumbersome, unsightly logs that jut out of our own eyes when what we’d rather do is obsess over the speck we notice in our neighbor’s eye. Being offensive is how God confronts us in order to transform us. It’s the only way, really, that He can heal the world – by forcing us to acknowledge our wounds, as well as the wounds we inflict on others.

In fact, acknowledging those wounds is the only way we can light the Candle of Peace with any integrity today. For, if we fail to acknowledge our wounding and our woundedness, then we light this candle as false prophets – declaring peace, peace where there is no peace.

But if we approach the Advent Wreath, if we look toward the manger, with contrite and repentant hearts, then it becomes a powerful symbol indeed.  If we approach the Advent Wreath with contrite and repentant hearts, then  we light this Candle of Peace not in delusional ignorance of the violence and the division and the injustice of the world but in defiance of it.

With contrite and repentant hearts, we light this candle as people ready to shoulder our crosses and follow where Jesus will lead.

With contrite and repentant hearts, we light this candle as people who remember that when Jesus scandalously got down on His hands and knees to wash His disciples’ feet, He set an example for us. And when we remember the example Jesus has set for us, we position ourselves to proclaim that Jesus really is “the reason for the season” in ways that don’t ring hollow in the ears of observant people like Langston Hughes, who see the world plainly and who aren’t fooled by window dressing.

Proclaiming Jesus with integrity is what we must do, because the world needs what the full gospel version of Christmas has to offer.  The world needs to see and experience the glory of this holy season, to know that in Christ God is coming to His temple. Heaven is coming to earth. God is coming to walk in our shoes and live in our flesh, because God is willing to be splattered and stained by all the muck and the mire, the blood and the gore that the machines of worldly power spew out. He’s willing to wade directly into the cycles of violence that wreack havoc on our bodies and our souls and in our communities so that all of creation might yet be redeemed. And if we are His people, then Jesus calls us to wade right in there with Him, to be instruments and agents of His peace – the peace that surpasses all understanding, because it won’t let us settle for the false comfort of social conventions, preconceived notions, and self-righteous piety.

Joining Christ in that work is how God will ultimately “guide our feet into the way of peace,”  because peace is more than a feature of life.  It is a way of life.  Peace is a work to be fashioned rather than a present to be received.  Blessed are the peacemakers, Jesus said, not blessed are the peaceful.

So, in the interest of “the way of peace,” let me leave you today with some provocative, if not offensive, questions:

What would the world look like if we, the people of Jesus, recruited for peace with the same intensity that ISIS recruits for terror?

What would the world look like if we, the people of Jesus, prepared for ministry with the purpose and intentionality of the “active shooters” who prepare so meticulously for their heinous acts of violence?

What would the world look like if we, the people of Jesus, waged peace as earnestly and systematically as the world’s armies wage war?

I think we would find it to be a world in which Christmas, and all the seasons before and all the seasons after, would be very merry indeed.

May we have faith and courage to shoulder our crosses and follow Jesus into the way of peace.  Amen.

Onward Into Christmas

Onward into Christmas?  It’s January 6th.  Schools are back in session.  There isn’t a silver bell or a red cup to be found.  This post is a little late, don’t you think?  Shouldn’t you just file it away until IMG_1804December comes ’round again in another 328 shopping days?

Actually, I think January 6th is a perfect day for this post.  Liturgically, today is the day after Christmas in the Western Christian tradition (yesterday was the twelfth day).  In the Eastern Orthodox world, tomorrow (January 7th) is Christmas Day.  Today we also celebrate Epiphany – the commemoration of the Magi (members of a Persian priestly caste) finding and presenting the Christ Child with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

So Christmas isn’t over.  And if we are going to live as the people of Jesus in this new year of 2015, we can’t let it be over anytime soon.  Christmas has to be more than a day or a finite season of lights, trees, gifts, and gingerbread houses, more than a spiritual “diet” we undertake for a little while each December, even as we indulge in all manner of sweets and treats.  Christmas has to become a way of life.

To help us remember and proclaim Christmas before and after December 25 at First Baptist Hyattsville, we’ve created a tiered Nativity.  Rather than a simple manger scene with a few shepherds and animals gathered ’round, my wife, Kristen (the Nativity’s chief dreamer, designer, and set builder), sought to portray the entire narrative from start to finish.  The project became more elaborate and ambitious with each passing week, but it came together beautifully – and at just the right time.

Magi 1If we’ve ever needed to hear, remember, and ponder the Christmas story, we’ve needed it this holiday season.  The end of 2014 was a particularly bleak midwinter.  Clouds of grief have hung low and heavy since autumn: Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. Eric Garner and Daniel Pantaleo. Wenjian Liu and Rafael RamosBradley Stone.  Syria.  ISIS.  Cyber attacks. Peaceful protests turned violent.  News footage edited to make it seem as if protestors were championing violent retaliation when they were not.  132 Pakistani school children massacred.  Just before Christmas Day, I learned that a seminary classmate of mine lost her brave, four-year bout with cancer at age 36.  Just after Christmas Day, a two-year-old somehow managed to shoot his mother dead in a Walmart with the gun she carried in her purse.  Then, this past weekend, I learned that another classmate of mine had committed suicide.  In the wake of all this news, Isaiah’s line about “a people who walked in deep darkness” rings much more prescient and less poetic in my ears.  I have been squinting and straining to see the light shining in this darkness, despite Scripture’s reassurances.

That’s why I have found this Nativity to be so special.  Each scene tells a piece of the story, beginning in the Old Testament with the psalmist lamenting the fate of God’s people. It begins in darkness.  You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground foRuinsr it; it took deep root and filled the land…. Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?  The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it. Turn again, O God of hosts; look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine…. (Psalm 80.8, 12, 14).

And the Lord does see.  The Lord does have regard for this vine. There is a glimmer of light.  Through the prophet Isaiah, God promises that He will redeem, revive, and restore Israel. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations…. For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them (Isaiah 61.3-4, 8).

Then an angel of the Lord appears appears to a young woman – living in boondocks of Nazareth, of all places – to proclaim how God will accomplish this redemption and establish this covenant. “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you….. Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  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.”  

“And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1. 28-33, 38).

Annunciation 2JB

The son whom Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, is carrying is John the Baptizer, the “voice crying in the wilderness” who “prepares the way of the Lord” (Isaiah 40.3; Mark 1.3).  People from Jerusalem and all Judea flock to him, repenting and receiving baptism in the River Jordan. John is the first prophet Israel has seen in generations.  God is moving.  But John’s presence and proclamation is just the prelude. “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1.7-8).

Jesus, the one greater than John, the heir to the throne of David, will be a King like no other king.  Fittingly, then, when Mary’s time comes He is not born as other kings are born – though not in the different way we might presume. Jesus is born without earthly fanfare, in a makeshift hotel room, firmly under the thumb of another ruler, Caesar Augustus.  Mary may be expecting the Savior of the world, but she and Joseph must still travel some seventy miles (on foot or by hoof, while she is her third trimester!) from Nazareth to Bethlehem so that they might be counted (and taxed!). 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.  (Luke 2.1-5).

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It is in Bethlehem, while Mary and Joseph are on this compelled journey, that Jesus is born.

That’s why I love and crave this story. Christmas is a reminder that God has not forgotten or forsaken His people, but it is not a sentimental nor antiseptic tale.  It’s the story of how the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, was born in a stable in the thick of the very messy, gritty, and often smelly reality of this world. It’s a story for a world in which things aren’t always as we would have them (for ourselves, our friends, even our enemies). It’s a story about how God sees us through, even when systems and communities and relationships seem corrupt, self- serving, or ruined beyond repair.  It’s a story of hope: that on a dark, mundane night an angel choir exploded the starless sky to sing glory to God in the highest and bring tidings of great joy for all people, because the life that is the light of all people, the Divine Word of God, the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome, became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1.1-14).

But there’s more.  For all its wonder and glory, Christmas isn’t just the story of God acting.  It is the story of God acting in unexpected ways, in unexpected places, through unexpected people.  It’s a story of those people responding to God’s purposes and working in concert with the Holy Spirit to affect change and contribute to a brighter world.

That is the deeper reason why I have returned to this Nativity time and again to pray, ponder, and reflect – why it has helped me to see light in our present darkness. Yes, it conveys the Christmas story beautifully in its artistry; but it also conveys the story through how it was made.  We constructed it almost entirely out of recycled and reclaimed materials, the things we normally discard without a second thought: bottles, cans, paper plates, cardboard boxes, bits of yarn, dryer lent, broken doll parts, paper towel tubes, candy wrappers, egg cartons, newspaper, popsicle sticks, scraps of fabric, styrofoam cups, and a variety of other things.

Nativity in Progress

Donkey

Something beautiful arose out of the piles of junk we collected over several weeks.  And it all came to life through the efforts, donations, and contributions of several people within our congregation: young and old, rich and poor, black and white.

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This Nativity was formed by a community, not merely for a community.

That’s why I believe this Nativity demonstrates tangibly why Christmas is the way forward, through the clouds of grief that cast their shadow over the final weeks of 2014. And that’s why I’m not saving this post until the end of 2015. When we dream and work together, amazing, beautiful things take shape – even when used up, worn out, unwanted stuff is what we have to work with.

The pain and grief that has dominated the news in recent weeks stems largely from division, isolation, and presumption about what people and life can and cannot be. In the Christmas story, division, isolation, and presumption are all challenged and subverted at every turn.  Those who should be most aware of the Messiah’s coming (Herod and his scribes in Jerusalem) are clueless, while a band of pagan priests from the land where Israel was formerly in exile (Persia), have not only seen the Messiah’s star, they have followed it for some distance to pay Him homage.  Shepherds, angels, Jews, Gentiles, the barren and the blessed are all enfolded into God’s redemptive, transformative work.   And the world changed.  That change didn’t happen all at once, and it didn’t happen over night.  The story of Christmas stretches back generations to the psalmists and the prophets, and it extends forward to Jesus and His disciples long after the Magi returned to Persia and Mary and Joseph returned to Nazareth.  But change happened.

Let’s resolve to keep Christmas continually before us in 2015 , to embody it now that we’ve celebrated it, to allow it to become the stuff out of which our lives are made.  Repairing and rebuilding “the former devastations” takes effort beyond hope and promise.  It’s ongoing work.  But it is possible!

Christmas isn’t over. Now that Jesus has come, it’s the beginning of why He came.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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