2 But you, Bethlehem, David's country, the runt of the litter—
From you will come the leader who will shepherd-rule Israel.
He'll be no upstart, no pretender. His family tree is ancient and distinguished.
3 Meanwhile, Israel will be in foster homes until the birth pangs are over and the child is born,
And the scattered brothers come back home to the family of Israel.
4 He will stand tall in his shepherd-rule by GOD's strength, centered in the majesty of GOD-Revealed.
And the people will have a good and safe home, for the whole world will hold him in respect—
Peacemaker of the world!
39 Mary didn't waste a minute. She got up and traveled to a town in Judah in the hill country, 40 straight to Zachariah's house, and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby in her womb leaped. She was filled with the Holy Spirit, 42 and sang out exuberantly,
You're so blessed among women, and the babe in your womb, also blessed!
43 And why am I so blessed that the mother of my Lord visits me?
44 The moment the sound of your greeting entered my ears,
The babe in my womb skipped like a lamb for sheer joy.
45 Blessed woman, who believed what God said, believed every word would come true!
46 And Mary said,
I'm bursting with God-news;
47 I'm dancing the song of my Savior God.
48 God took one good look at me, and look what happened— I'm the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
49 the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
50 His mercy flows in wave after wave on those who are in awe before him.
51 He bared his arm and showed his strength, scattered the bluffing braggarts.
52 He knocked tyrants off their high horses, pulled victims out of the mud.
53 The starving poor sat down to a banquet; the callous rich were left out in the cold.
54 He embraced his chosen child, Israel; he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
55 It's exactly what he promised, beginning with Abraham and right up to now.
Dear Friends in Christ: grace, mercy and peace to you from our Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier God!
Three more shopping days—three days away from Christmas. Now…everyone who has everything done, stand up! Stand up and sum up what you felt when you made your last purchase, put up the last strand of Christmas lights the last ornament on the tree and the final yard decoration of the season. I'll give you a hint…the word I have in mind is right over there on that banner: JOY! Okay, now you can sit back down… Let's all take a quick moment and just relax: close your eyes, and remember your best Christmas ever. Recapture the surroundings, the smells, the tastes, the sounds, the sights; ask yourself what it was about that memorable Christmas that made it the best; look for one defining moment; keep that image in your mind and feel the emotions you felt back then; let your body and your spirit let go of any anxiety, stress, fears, or doubts you may have about this year's Christmas.
Christmas is known as a time for hope, peace, love, and joy; it is a time to be with family, to feel the warmth of a fire on a cold snowy night, a time to share a warm eggnog latté or triple peppermint mocha with a friend, a time to join in song and celebrate the joys of the entire season, and a time to be at peace with one another. However, for many folks, Christmas also is one of the most horrifically stressful seasons of the year. It begins the day after Thanksgiving, when at least half the local population rushes in to Wal-Mart or wherever to get a new DVD player or more Christmas decorations or just to buy whatever's there on the shelves or intrusively waiting in the aisles to be bought; in the pre-buying frenzy when a woman—maybe even your neighbor or my friend—gets trampled by the swarming mass of people waiting at the door in the early hours of the morning, Wal-Mart gracefully offers to put the loss-leader DVD player on hold for her...how generous!? Our secular society insists Christmas is a time for shopping malls, 16-hour sales, clicking and double-clicking at online auction sites and consumption venues; for too many new and improved gadgets you can't live without, or that would make the perfect gift so you don't need to let guilt consume you because you've been buying so much for your family and yourself. Everyone here has dealt with the retail world in some way at this time of year; every year we hear not only in church but from the media, too, "shopping and buying is not what Christmas is all about."
Consumerism is the attitude of what we often refer to as the secular society, but what does secular mean? Here are some suggestions: a secular society can be one in which religion has become a self-consciously separate institution; or, in a secular society religion and spirituality are totally integrated with everyday life so there is no self-conscious religion per se. Our English secular comes from the Lain saeculum, meaning this present age.
Beyond this, in many ways biblical living is not "religious," since religion typically has more in common with cult, ideology or philosophy than with a lifestyle based on a free response in time to the actions of a gracious God in history, so at least in these terms, Christianity is not religious. But is it secular? As Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann insists, "We are indeed made in the image of some God." Most pre-rational societies made their gods in the image of their society, which then conveniently continued to reflect the gods. Although folks in those cultures probably did not realize their gods were made by humans, as we look back to theirs and then try looking inward at our culture and society, we realize just maybe we have made our own gods—those gods we first form and then keep reshaping into our own image of consumerism, greed, acquisition and possibly above all restlessness and discontent.
Briefly, if in a secular society religion is a self-conscious institution, probably this post-modern USA culture is secular, carrying all of us along with its tide; but then as the people of God in Christ Jesus, to an extent we qualify to be called "secular" in terms of the second definition of secular, since for us who live in Christ the Way of the Cross is supposed to be seamlessly integrated into every aspect of our lives.
But back to our talk about Christmas giving and Christmas mania! It took me until too recently to realize all the gifts in the world couldn't bring me what I have come to know as "joy," but I will come to that a little later.
A few years ago on my neighbor's dad's birthday my neighbor's family received a surprise: instead of the family giving gifts to their dad, their dad gave gifts to them, telling them the best birthday present was seeing their faces and reactions when he gave gifts to them. What he gave to each person wasn't the important part—it was the gracious act of giving, in and of itself. I'm not sure the younger kids in the family have come to realize the importance of what he gave them that day, but the teenagers and the adults most definitely have! While I'll admit I am not immune to the intense consumer attitude that fills our every day lives, I desire less every year. Christmas time has become a much more spiritual and Christ-centered time for me and in more recent years I keep experiencing more and more of the hope, peace, love and joy of Advent and then Christmas; I partly thank my neighbor's experience for that.
Now for a little change of pace: I know the sermon title sounds as if I'd planned to talk about Peace, but that was so two weeks ago. I took the title from the passage in Micah we read this morning, which tells of the coming of one who is to rule in Israel whose origin is from old, ancient days. One of the best parts of the scripture reads:
Micah also foretells the one who is to come will be from the people: to hear this in that particular time had to be some pretty great news, since in those days God was a high, lofty, faraway figure; God was an eternal immortal Wholly Other and Holy Other looking down upon the earth and zapping the people who refused to believe in him and follow him; therefore, most people feared God, not as in the fear of awe-filled but in the fear of afraid. And as Mary tells her story to Elizabeth, she says, "His mercy flows in wave after wave on those who are in awe before him." But that's not the important part! The good news is he who is coming, the one God is sending is a mortal, a human, one from the people and one of the people: a friend, a neighbor, a human being, a person exactly like each of us, but without sin, to share our common lot and to live a life like ours, including being born of a woman and dying and being buried. As the infant in the Bethlehem manger, to this world of the earth, our God descends, willing to live among us in the image of our humanity so we might take part in his divinity!
"He will stand tall in his shepherd-rule by GOD's strength,
centered in the majesty of GOD-Revealed.
And the people will have a good and safe home,
for the whole world will hold him in respect—
Peacemaker of the world!"
The scripture readings keep bringing Christmas day closer and closer, focusing our attention focus more on Mary and the baby's birth; life in the world around us is reaching a peak of anticipation. The big day is almost here! Yet do all the gifts, the ornaments, the lights, the decorations and everything else Christmas has become really fill us with true Joy? How can there be any room for the true joy during this season if we fill it with all this stuff? I don't mean to be cynical, because I too find some sort of fulfillment all of it brings, but it's only second best to what we can truly get out of it all. To experience joy is to experience an intimate connection; joy is truly a spiritual experience. Christmas joy, Christ's joy is being 700 miles from your family on Christmas day, but still feel like you're part of a family here. Christmas joy, Christ-filled joy can be found in the moment a parent first sees their newborn child's eyes or at a moment in the forest when you begin growing deep roots like the tree you are leaning against and you realize you are the same as the tree, connected to the earth and to all that is in the earth. Joy could be some dark summer night when the stars seem to reach into your body and fill you with their light, or a moment when you look across the room and catch your lover's glance and know you belong. Or here in church, today, on the last Sunday of Advent: in the silence; in the music; in the laughter; joy is in everything and everybody.
Like Mary, we each carry Christ in us; each of us carries an image of the divine, but we can't look only to ourselves to find joy. We can't look to who we are, or what we can do, or what we can get. It is in what Mary and Elizabeth are celebrating. Both Elizabeth and Mary rejoice, but they are not celebrating anything of their own doing; they don't celebrate because of what they have accomplished, or because of what they deserve; they celebrate because they have been given Joy to share with the world. So again I ask, is it all worth it? Are all the things you bought going to help you to experience Joy? Maybe. It is possible if there weren't all the commercial hype surrounding Christmas, and all of it simply was a sacred celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ—if that were the case, it might get old, and we might get weary of celebrating it. Maybe the commercialization adds that variety we need to continue to feel moved by it year after year. But I ask one thing: please, never, ever forget to look for the joy of God-with-us and God-among-us in the vulnerability of the baby in the Bethlehem manger outside of all of that! Thank you!
To God be the Glory!