Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Light has Dawned -- Lectionary Reflections for Christmas





The Light has Dawned


            A news report concerning the recent death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il displayed a satellite photo of the two Koreas, North and South.  While the South was full of light, indicating a vibrancy of life and activity, the North was almost completely dark, just a few faint specks of light present here and there.  It was as if no one was living north of the border, and yet several million people live there, or at least subsist in poverty and subjugation.   We see such a picture and wonder how such a reality could be possible in the 21st century, but three it is.   As we ponder this reality during a season when many of our neighborhoods are brightly lit with Christmas lights, we realize that darkness is present in our midst. 

My favorite Christmas story is Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  It takes place during the midst of the industrial revolution, at a time when inequality between the wealthiest and the poorest in society had reached immense proportions.  In this wonderful story that has charmed us and challenged us, Dickens calls for us to attend to the true meaning of Christmas.  Whatever our favorite version of the story, especially film version, it carries a powerful message that brings light to the darkness that can be present in our lives.  Yes, Ebenezer Scrooge is emblematic of our darker side.  He symbolizes our seeming need to make the self supreme, shutting out all others, especially those in need.   For him, Christmas is simply “Bah Humbug.”  If you know the story, you know that light does shine into the darkness that is his soul, and in the end he is transformed into someone who reflects the Christmas spirit – not the commercial one, but the one that emanates from the manger in Bethlehem.

Whether the reference is to light or glory, this setting of Christmas texts speaks of an encounter with the spirit of God that is transformative.  Light shines in the darkness, and the people are not the same again.  Isaiah, the author of a letter to Titus, and Luke all speak of the way in which our encounter with this season will change our lives – if we’re willing to allow the Spirit to move in our midst.

Isaiah 9 is one of the best known prophetic texts, for it speaks of the child who will be born to us, whose authority will be great, and as a result peace and justice will be known by all.  Christians have heard in this text, especially verse 6, reference to Jesus.  Handel’s Messiah lifts up this verse, sealing it into our minds.  “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given . . .”   In its original context, this prophetic word is addressed to the southern kingdom of Judah, which is under threat of annihilation by the Assyrians.  Isaiah speaks here of a king who will come to the throne and will lead them, not as warrior but as the prince of peace.  Likely this is a reference to the coming reign of Hezekiah, under whose rule Judah was able to hold back the Assyrians and enter a period of peace and prosperity.  But for us, at Christmas, our focus moves beyond this long dead king, to the promise of one, at whose coming, the world will enjoy peace and justice and righteousness.   In preparing for this day in which light will shine in the darkness, and the people, having seen a great light, will receive a great nation, Isaiah offers four titles for this ruler:  “Wonderful Counselor”; “Mighty God”; “Eternal Father”; and “Prince of Peace.”  Each title speaks to aspects of this rule that will bring transformation to the world, but it’s not enough to simply sing out in praise these titles.  We must ask ourselves, what it means to follow one such as this, especially one whom we speak of as “Prince of Peace.”  What kind of reality does this hold out for us?

When we come to Titus 2, an excerpt of a letter supposedly written by Paul to a young pastor serving the church in Crete – a letter, like the two other Pastoral Letters, that most scholars believe date from a period after Paul’s death – we may ask ourselves what this text has to do with Christmas.  Indeed, with texts from Isaiah and Luke to choose from, why would a preacher choose this passage as the basis of a Christmas reflection?  Even if on the surface this passage doesn’t cry out the Christmas message – there’s no reference here to a birth – it does have an important message to append to the Christmas story.  It speaks of “the grace of God” appearing and bringing salvation – “to all people.”  This is not a message of limited grace.  It has a universalist sense to it, and this grace that enters into our lives brings to us healing of the spirit. 

Even though grace comes first, it’s not just forgive and forget.  This grace that saves all, “educates us so that we live sensible, ethical, and godly lives right now . . .” It is a grace that transforms lives.  And what is this grace?  The letter continues by asserting that we are “awaiting the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and savior Jesus Christ.”  Do you hear in this sentence and echo of Isaiah 9:6?  We can debate the question of the nature of Christ’s divinity/humanity, but can we not hear in this a word to us that God is present in this one we call of Jesus Christ, bringing to our lives transformative grace.  We read further that he gave himself for us to rescue us from lawlessness, to cleanse us, and enable us to live godly lives.   And as I reflect on this passage, I hear the story of Scrooge, the one who was visited by signs of grace, and as a result of that grace the hardness of heart was softened, and justice and righteousness and peace became his way of life.  Is this not what Titus 2 is speaking of?  In the words of Ron Allen and Clark Williamson: 
We should not downplay what may seem stodgy moralism.  War making is a worldly passion; we should resist it.  And our character should manifest our deepest convictions.” (Preaching the Letters without Dismissing the Law,” p. 8).    
So, as we await the revealing of the blessed hope, we hear the invitation to remember that, as Allen and Williamson put it, “Christmas is not the end of the adventure, but a beginning.  The rule of God is not yet here, a point on which the author and Jews would agree.  Neither see the world as yet fully redeemed” (p. 8).  But, that is the direction toward which we are heading. 

In the Gospel of Luke, we hear one of two infancy stories.  In this story Joseph and Mary are forced by the Empire to travel from their home in Nazareth to Joseph’s ancestral home to register for tax assessment.  Luke, seeking some historical point of reference, dates this to the governorship of Quirinius of Syria.  Now, we need to be careful with our reading, because the historical note here is problematic – it is impossible to conceive of the empire encouraging people to return to their ancestral homes to register.  The Romans loved order, and this would have caused great disorder.  Luke, however, needs to get Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and this is his vehicle.  So we see Joseph taking Mary, who according to Luke remains his betrothed, in spite of her suspect pregnancy.  When they arrive, it’s time for Mary to give birth, so he might have theological legitimacy.  Do you hear in this the words “anchor baby”?   His theological citizenship is dependent on being born in a village far from home, but a village that has deep theological meaning, for Bethlehem is the city of David, and according to the text Jesus’ destiny is to take up David’s throne – that throne that Isaiah speaks of so that he might be “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, and Prince of Peace.”  But this future king is born not in a palace, surrounded by royal attendants, but rather is born in a manger, the feeding trough of the animals in the stable.  They are forced to stay there because there is no room for them in the inn or guest rooms.  No one is able to offer them hospitality.

And rather than a royal herald proclaiming the birth of this savior to the favored citizens of the realm, the word goes out by angelic messenger to shepherds out in the fields by night.  And the light – the Lord’s glory – shines in the darkness and they are terrified.   But once the shock dissipates, the Angel tells them – don’t be afraid, because we have wonderful news – the savior is born in David’s City.  Yes, he is the Messiah (Christ) and he is Lord.  So go and find him in a manger and bear witness to what you see.  And as the word goes out to them, Luke says that “a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the Angel praising God.  They said, “Glory to God in heaven and on earth peace among those he favors.”  This story is so familiar to us.  It is the story that Linus tells at the close of a Charlie Brown Christmas.  Linus tells the true story of Christmas to children who have been caught up in the excesses of a commercialized Christmas.  It’s a message that remains as powerful today as it was nearly forty years ago, perhaps more so now than ever. 

As we experience this Christmas season, as the light shines in the darkness, how are we being challenged by this light?  As we await the blessed hope, in what way are our lives being transformed?  As we ponder the story of the birth of Jesus, to what extent does his life make a difference? 

Christmas celebrates incarnation – God with us.  It is a message of hope, as Bruce Epperly points out in a reflection that speaks to the difficulty that some progressives have with this concept:
We need to know that God is surely present in our lives and in the world.  We need to know that God’s vision is larger than our own and lures us to become Christ-like in our thoughts and behavior.  We need to believe that God loves the world – not just spirits and minds, but the profound temporality of our bodies and the constant changes of historic existence.  God is with us in as the source of creative transformation whether in the birth of the Christ-child and the birth of our own children.  Jesus birth and life is not an anomaly or supernatural intrusion but a profound manifestation of God’s care for all creation.  God is with us, transforming our cells as well as our cells.  What happens in our lives – in the lives of marginalized families – truly matters not only to us but to God.  This is the meaning of the incarnation and a reason for hope.
            As we remember the story of the Incarnate one, may we, at this Christmas moment, experience the grace, the light, the hope, the peace, and the transforming presence of the God who is known in the person of Jesus the Christ, the Prince of Peace!



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