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Fourth Sunday of Advent 2022.
We are spitting distance
and that means some of us are excited,
some of us are cranky,
some of us are sad,
and some of us are just waiting
for December 21st to come and go
so we can start getting more sunlight
back in our lives.
Me? I am always a little cantankerous
come 4 Advent,
because I know I am required
to preach on Christmas Eve again.
Don’t get me wrong.
I’m not one of those people
who does not like Christmas.
I don’t get sad or blue either.
I actually really like Christmas —
and I loved when our kids were little
and we had all those presents
under the tree
and they were so excited by all of it.
It has nothing to do with Jesus, of course,
but that’s okay — it’s Christmas.
Snow, getting cozy around a pagan symbol
we put lights on each year,
and all kinds of family traditions
that have nothing to do with Jesus.
That’s okay — it’s Christmas!
It’s a holiday
and it’s got all kinds of traditions
and lovely aspects to it
even though it’s not about Jesus.
That’s really okay because – well, it’s Christmas.
But then there is ‘The Church’s’ observance
and that gets a little gnarlier for me.
It’s a very serious story
we have at the center of ‘The Church’ Christmas
but Christmas Eve
isn’t really the time or the place
to tell such serious stories.
But 4th Advent?
We can get a little honest today.
I am not going to argue against
Mary being a virgin,
but I will say,
if a virgin gets pregnant without assistance,
that is definitely a sign
that the end of the world is coming.
I will however, argue against
Matthew’s convenient misuse of Isaiah.
There is a debate
about whether the Hebrew word, almah,
used in that passage from Isaiah,
means “young woman” or “virgin.”
As in: “Look,
the young woman (or virgin)
is with child and shall bear a son,
and shall name him Emmanuel.”
Let the debate rage on
about whether Matthew misinterprets
”young woman” for “virgin,”
but what is clear is that Matthew
misuses the story from Isaiah.
That reading from Isaiah
has a particular context
and refers to a particular historic event,
and it has nothing to do
with predicting a Messiah
half a century later.
Here’s what I mean.
Ahaz is the King of Judah,
which is under attack by two other kings —
the King of Aram
and the King of Ephriam.
But God wants Ahaz to be more trusting
because at that moment
Ahaz was shaking with fear
the way my dog shakes
when there is a hard rain outside.
God tells his prophet, Isaiah
to go tell Ahaz, ”Trust God.”
And then God gives Ahaz a sign:
”See that young preganant woman over there?
She’ll have a son
and by the time he is of age
neither of those kings
or their kingdoms will even exist. Trust me.”
So whether or not almah meant young woman or virgin,
the story was about Ahaz
and it was about a specific young woman
not the prediction of Mary
five centuries later.
I do not like it
when 21st century Evangelical
or Fundamentalist preachers
misuse lines of Scripture out of context
to argue the sinfulness of a particular sexuality
or the crowning of a particular politician.
So I am not going to let Matthew
quote a line of Scripture out of context either.
Now all of that
is to say, ‘let’s get real’ about Jesus
It is 4 Advent not Christmas Eve
so I can wade upstream
against the current
and speak truth to power —
power in this case being feel-good Christianity
and the misuse of a prophet.
Did you ever stop to think
that Jesus is a harbinger of the end of the world?
The Messiah coming
means the apocalypse is arriving.
The new is born into the old
and bringing on an upheaval that
spells the end of the old.
Now we get all oozy about a birth —
like a basket full of puppies.
But the arrival of the Messiah
means the end of us —
the end of the world as we know it.
Not so cuddly.
The story of Christmas,
the birth of the Messiah,
spells the end of the world as we know it.
See what I mean?
Not exactly a Hallmark moment.
So if I were the boss of Christmas,
which will never happen,
I would take a whole different tack.
Take that Meister Eckhart verse, for example.
”If I spent enough time with the tiniest creature —
even a caterpillar — I would never
have to prepare a sermon.
So full of God
is every creature.”
That’s the incarnation!
”Every single creature is full of God
and is a book about God,” Eckhart wrote.
Yes, Jesus is the incarnation of God —
and in his life and teaching,
should we care to study it,
we would read an entire book of God.
But so too, you — and yes, and even me.
Our lives are verses of Scripture
upon which God has written
signs begging us to “trust God.”
Lines of Scripture
telling the story of rebirth
and of grievous loss
and of healing gratitude.
Lines of Scripture
telling the story evil discovered too late
and of blessings revealed just in time.
Lines of Scripture
telling of resistance parted like the ocean
right in front of us
or wildernesses endured
but always with the presence
of a power greater than ourselves.
Our lives are books of Scripture
that would tell of wisdom,
revelation, apocalypse, and redemption
were we to study them
from the point of view
and within the context
that see God in our midst.
Incarnation is not about the birth
of one baby
a long, long time ago.
Incarnation is about a creation
that is incarnate with God.
Incarnation means, “in the body.”
God in the body.
God in the bodies.
God in the body of the planet.
God in the body of the galaxies and stars.
God in the body of the hairless bat
and the naked mole rat,
and God in the body of the whale.
So if I was the boss of Christmas
it would still be a blow-out celebration,
but we would do things like star-gaze,
talk one-on-one late into the night,
take time to journal and wonder about
the things for which there are no answers,
give presents to one another just for the heck of it,
watch movies and eat popcorn together,
walk in the woods…
and read Mary Oliver poems
out loud to one another,
study the lake
and the shore
and the sky
to see if we see anything that surprises us.
If I were the boss of Christmas
there would be a scavenger hunt —
sort of like an Easter egg hunt
but instead of looking for candy
we’d look for the tracks of God
in our ordinary lives.
We’d look by ourselves
and we would look with those closest to us
and we would look
with our spiritual community
to try to find tracks
the holy made while moving
through our lives.
Then, then we would have a big meal together
and tell stories
and grow thoughtful
and laugh some more.
But I’m not the boss of Christmas
and this is the 4th Sunday of Advent
and even though Matthew
was a really terrible abuser of ancient Scripture,
we still have a story
and stories to gather around.
The story is about a man, not a baby.
The story is about incarnation in that man
but also in every other blessed thing
we can hear, see, taste, feel, and smell —
including one another.
The story we gather around at Christmas
is about a man tasked with a job
that no one who held power
or had privilege
wanted him to do.
The story we gather around at Christmas —
and all other times of the year —
is about what we did to that man
and what we do to each other.
the story we gather around
is a story about how we can be different
and how we can bring about
the kingdom on earth
as it is in heaven.
So here is my message
for the 4th Sunday of Advent.
Forget about the issues of a virgin birth.
Forget about whether you are excited,
or bored by Christmas
this time around.
Instead, start looking —
start listening with both ears
and intuiting with an open mind
and feeling with a brave and compassionate heart
and touching and being touched
by life in all sizes
around us every minute.
Go lookking to perceive the holy in your midst.
Not in the big and spectacular
but at your feet
and at fingertips.
And then follow what you find
as it leads you toward building the kingdom —
one centimeter at a time.
WOW! Just a spectacular, complex, scholarly, poetic, rhythmic, insightful, open-hearted, telling, etc. etc. piece of wisdom.
Cam Miller says
All those things? Thanks Steve, and Merry Christmas to you and your clan.
Emily Dauscher says
Thank you for this sermon. Nancy sent me here after the conversation about “Mary, ever Virgin” we had a few days ago. Maybe the Gospel writers took liberties also!
Cam Miller says
Oh, for sure. But the bigger issue is that they didn’t live in a science-oriented world and miraculous birth stories were a dime a dozen. Credibility matters in our world and miraculous birth stories aren’t reinforced by our personal experiences. Thanks for writing! Cam
Emily Dauscher says
Cam, what the story on Mary staying a virgin, and we’re there true siblings of Jesus?
Cam Miller says
The idea that Mary was a perpetual virgin is not Biblical, it is doctrinal from later in the Roman Catholic Church’s history. So I guess it depends upon what source someone wants to hang their hat on. Why the RC thought it necessary to create such a doctrine is not something I know, or understand. But clearly, it means a lot to some people. I’ve always thought it disrespects human sexuality and sexual activity, and makes virginity into something to aspire to when it does have anything to commend it one way or the other.
According to the Mark, Matthew, and Luke Jesus had brothers and sisters, some of whom are named. This conflicts with the RC doctrine on the perpetual virginity of Mary and so they pronounced that the Gospels didn’t really mean siblings, but cousins or something. But the texts of the Gospels are quite clear.
I hope this helps.