SERMON TEXT (Scroll Down for YouTube Link)
I am done with John the Baptist.
He has a place in our story
but the lectionary makes it way too prominent
for this time of year –
or any time for that matter.
Isaiah 61, now that is a different story.
We hear it and see it
almost anywhere we look.
In fact, that poem from Isaiah
builds a scaffolding around the Christmas story itself.
You will see what I mean
because I want to shift our attention
on this third Sunday of Advent
toward the Christmas story.
So let us gather around the manger scene
and look deeply into the Christmas story
for a moment before
that night and day arrive.
Knowing what we know
about holding a newborn infant,
it is not difficult to imagine
a mother and father
in those strange and dire circumstances,
wondering about their child’s future.
In those days
infant mortality was about 60%. 60%.
for peasants who made it out of childhood,
was about thirty years.
As we know, if we ever thought about it,
the brutality of poverty limits
thinking about the future.
Poverty urges concentration on the moment
instead of nurturing a wide-open wonderment.
Then as now, poverty meant meager food,
horrendous vulnerability to arbitrary violence,
and near constant uncertainty
about the next day.
The poverty in which Joseph and Mary lived
was a life-defining deprivation
of food, shelter, and clothing
on a scale that most of us listening to this
can only imagine in our darkest moments.
So let’s place all of that
in the darkness surrounding the manger.
Mary and Joseph, beyond whatever brief moment
of awe and joy they were allowed,
must have been consumed with anxiety
and hunger, frantic
about how to keep this baby from dying
as the other 60% of offspring they knew.
I point to this painful and awkward reality
at the center of our Christmas story,
because we have otherwise constructed
an astoundingly romantic scene
of the birth of Jesus that truly distorts the entire life
of the one we claim as Messiah.
I will not mention any of this on Christmas Eve, of course.
We get a reprieve on Christmas Eve
and the Sunday after,
from textual criticism and deconstruction.
But here and now, in this moment,
we can look back with a different lens
and see if the picture becomes clearer
and offers us a different insight.
So let me begin by backing up and going global
to see Jesus and the Christmas story
in the context of several great world religions.
Moses was an abandoned slave-child
that was raised in Pharaoh’s household
but as an adult, rejected that privilege
and led a slave rebellion.
Buddha was a prince
raised in utter opulence
but upon seeing the extremely brutal poverty
that defined the world on the other side
of his walled and gated family compound,
he abandoned privilege to become a mendicant.
Mohammad was of modest means
but surrounded by generous benefactors
who raised him,
and he himself became a very savvy
and successful businessman.
But what defined his adult life was the rejection
of personal affluence
and the embrace of simplicity and generosity.
Jesus was born in stark and dire poverty,
desperately poor and vulnerable,
a mere miscreant to the oppressive empire
that ruled his world.
Jesus never traveled very far
from where he was born,
never produced anything physical that survived him,
and died horrifically without seeing old age.
We should recognize a common theme here;
a golden thread
that runs through the spiritual wisdom of the world.
If we pull that thread
it should make us wonder if maybe,
we are looking for God
in all the wrong places.
It should give us pause
to wonder if we are seeking affirmation
from empty sources.
When we step back
and look at this unvarnished pattern
it ought to weaken our confidence
in the things we think give us comfort and security.
But we also know, deep in our bones,
that we are human beings
and we really like stuff.
We like to make nice, big, soft nests
to snuggle in and enjoy.
We like comfort, security, and pleasure.
If it is in our nature
then we need not feel guilty about it;
we need not feel ashamed
if indeed that is who we are.
But the question is,
can we do better than be creatures
who like stuff
and spend their lives collecting stuff
and making stuff
and creating stockpiles of stuff
and garbage mounds of stuff?
Just as we know deep in our bones
that we are creatures that like stuff,
we also know deep down inside
that if we do not do better then we are
we are going to kill ourselves:
Maybe not personally
We know that unless we change the future is grim.
And it is not a new message.
It’s a message that God keeps sending us
over and over and over and over again –
even before we had the capacity to destroy ourselves
on a massive, global scale.
God keeps sending us that message
via those who have lived painfully
on the other side of affluence.
It is an ancient message
sent to kings
and emperors of the ancient world
upon the lips of prophets.
It is a message sent to the ancient world,
the medieval world,
the modern world,
and now the post-modern world.
It is a message sent to every culture
and to the captains of every society.
It is a message about the hazard of living for stuff
at the expense of truly important things
and preserve life
rather than draining and killing life.
That is what the Christmas story is about
when all the mythological
and romantic elements
are peeled away
to reveal its fruit.
When we peel it away
it is what we hear in Isaiah 61 –
a prophet’s poem
that comes to us over and over again
in the music and literature
of Christmas and Easter.
God delivered this message to us –
not once, but over and over.
It is a message that Moses
echo like a broken record:
We’ve got issues with stuff.
Building our lives and our world
around stuff will kill us
and everything else along with us.
It is not a punitive message,
or a judgmental, parental message,
it is a description of the obvious –
a statement of cause and effect.
But now this message is getting old, very old.
The question, now as then,
is whether we are going to change;
if we are going to actually change how we do things.
The Christmas story,
like Jesus who is at the center of it,
is that kind of a baby –
a baby with a face only a mother could love.
Just as Mary and Joseph
couldn’t fix their poverty in the moment
as they sought to survive it,
we cannot fix our many problems in this moment.
But we can think about them.
We can keep the tension alive and let it burn,
a hot coal between our sacred stories
and our unholy existence;
allow it agitates us
instead of looking away and denying it.
We need our sacred stories to agitate us
rather than rock us to sleep like a lullaby.
So the we have this uncomfortable message
underneath the romantic, cultural Christmas.
It is like a stone in our shoe – if we let be.
The third Sunday of Advent
is for stirring the pot,
troubling the waters,
shaking the Christmas tree for what’s really in it.
I invite us to ponder these things
as we walk toward Christmas.