MERRY CHRISTMAS !
I listen to the ancient prophet Isaiah
and certain phrases jump out
rife with contemporary cogency
and bursting with the flavor of now.
“The people who walked in darkness…”
Isn’t that us, right now?
“For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.”
Talk about renewable energy –
so much bloodshed,
so much warring,
so many dying soldiers and civilians
it seems as though we could light the world
for a generation with all of them.
“For a child has been born for us…”
For us; a child has been born for US.
What was that vision of Isaiah’s?
What was Isaiah dreaming of?
It was that a child would reign.
That a child will be born the likes of which
we have never seen before;
and that that child will hold the reigns.
But the reigns of what?
A world-dominating empire?
An expansive, multi-national corporation?
A global super power?
No, nothing to slake our thirst for coercion
or our appetite for power.
the very things we as human beings
and reach for
but never quite grasp.
A child will be born
who will bring us that.
That is a worthy vision
if ever there was one –
a need as deep and pervasive today
as in Isaiah’s chaotic and violence-weary world.
It reminds me of “A Christmas Carol”
by Charles Dickens,
which Katy has been reading to me this Christmas.
Listening to the English author’s masterful narration
that is as crisp and vibrant in 2015
as it must have sounded in 1861,
I marvel at the devastating social critique
woven into the story so easily
that we now take it for granted.
Scrooge embodies the greed,
arrogance, and implicit violence
of his social and business class,
and the awakening of his conscience
is a call to Dickens’ contemporaries
to wake up,
grow a heart,
and change the ways of their cruel economy.
But it is such a great story
we do not see our names
written in the indictment
when it sinks in and the story
marinades our thoughts.
Luke is the same way
and it is easier to see it
if we hold Luke up next to Matthew –
because even though they are both
about the birth of Jesus,
they are not the same story at all.
And as I think of it just now,
if I could ask that you remember nothing else about my all-to-brief time at St. Mark’s and in the Kingdom,
you remember the not-so-secret secret I am about to tell.
For some of us,
this hasn’t happened yet
and for others it is ancient history.
But one day we will, or did,
bring home a boyfriend or girlfriend
to meet mom and dad
and maybe tell them we are going to get married.
When that happens, or happened,
it is likely that our mom and dad
started telling stories about us
to that boyfriend or girlfriend –
about the old days when we were young.
And it is likely that our mom told some stories
and our dad told others
and when they told the same story,
they told it differently.
That’s how it is with stories –
and with families too!
There is more than one Christmas story.
The Christmas story
for both Luke and Matthew
begins with a family tree.
They each have a long and complicated genealogy tracing Jesus’ ancestry
back someone each author
something important about Jesus.
Matthew links Jesus to King David,
making clear that this baby is royalty.
Luke traces Jesus all the way back to Adam,
making clear that this baby is all of humankind.
Both Matthew and Luke
have an evil empire
lurking in the background of their stories.
If you think George Lucas
pulled his Star Wars narrative out of hat,
go back to the prologue of the first Star Wars
and realize it is the Christmas story in a nutshell.
Luke, as we heard tonight,
tells us exactly who was in charge –
Caesar and Quirinius –
and that Joseph and Mary’s night journey
as part of a scheme to increase tax collection.
In Matthew’s story,
King Herod is jealously on the look out
for the appearance of any competitor to the throne.
The holy family has to flee into Egypt
to escape the evil king,
but also to remind the reader
that Jesus was like Moses in that way.
In Luke, the miraculousness
and theological significance of Jesus
is foretold when his cousin,
John the Baptist,
leaps in his mother’s womb
at the news that Mary is pregnant.
John is the great prophet of his day
and prophet recognizes prophet even in utero.
astrology joins the cast
with an actual new star
appearing in the night sky
leading three kings
like breadcrumbs dropped across the heavens
right to the royal baby.
Nothing says God like movement in the cosmos.
Then there are Matthew’s and Luke’s witnesses
to the events of the first Christmas.
The only witnesses in Matthew’s story
are the magi – three kings.
Royalty recognizes and acknowledges royalty.
In Luke, the only witnesses are shepherds,
scurrilous social outcasts of that ancient society.
Commonness cannot get more common
than shepherds in first century Galilee.
So what we have here
are two very different Christmas Carols
from the first century.
Matthew is the “High Church” version
and Luke the “Low Church” vision.
Matthew is all about the royalty of Jesus
while Luke unleashes his commonality.
Matthew is about kingdoms, and power, and glory
while Luke is about insurgency and justice.
The punch line of this contrast
is a warning
that when we mix these stories together –
with magi and shepherds/
angels and stars all in the same scene –
we lose both stories.
By mixing them up as if they are the same story
we lose altogether what the author
wanted us to hear.
But both are about the hope
of an alternative worldview –
even if that worldview is different
depending upon whose story is told.
Each story is about finally
having our grasp within our reach
and not just another vision we can’t touch.
What I want us to see and feel
is that these stories are not just stories.
like Isaiah’s poetry,
are rooted in the mud of real life
rather than some ephemeral and fanciful tales.
And these stories
are about us, as much if not more,
than they are about Jesus or God.
are about a world we can envision
and that some of us leave our house every day
in order to help create.
are a critique of our economy
and the ways we have chosen to organize society.
call upon us,
in the name of Jesus
and with the love of God,
to keep reaching
and to keep believing
that if we keep reaching
and we will
These stories are a warning
that the minute we stop believing we can reach our grasp
we will wither into a darkness
that is far worse than anything we have yet created.
These stories are a reminder
that we are a people that do live in darkness
but that we have seen a light
and if we keep moving toward it
and living toward it
and working toward it
and insisting upon it
we will grasp it.
It is the Christmas light,
one candle that lights up an entire darkness;
it is the hope of the vision
we are reaching to grasp.