(Listen to the sermon while reading.)
Sermon, Year B, Advent II, December 4, 2011
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber, 2011
Focus Scripture: Mark 1:1-8 (John the Baptist cries out to prepare the way for Christ and repent).
When Jesus was born, he was born to a people whose country was occupied—ruled—by the largest empire of the time: Rome. The Roman Empire. Jesus was born to a poor, teenage, unwed girl in a filthy animal trough in a barn of an inn in a backwater, irrelevant village out on the outer edge of that empire. The Prince of Peace, the Messiah, the Christ, arrived under those conditions, and arrived peacefully and humbly. At least as peaceful as any birth can be. I've never heard anyone say, "Oh, that was peaceful." There is a tradition and an old story of Jesus' birth that it was done completely without pain, done quickly, and Mary glowed with love and filled the chamber with light. I have a feeling it was a normal birth. But peaceful in the sense of quietly off to the side, out of sight, without fanfare of loud rumbling or trembling mountains, or voices shouting down from the sky. Just a star that only a few paid attention to, and some shepherds out in the countryside to whom an angel came down to tell them what happened. All quiet. If you weren't paying attention, you would have missed it.
Shhh ... did something just happen? Has the world just been changed, somehow?
It's so easy to forget that the first Christmas involving these what are for the most part these basically irrelevant poor people of a conquered nation and backwards religion in a land socially, geographically, and economically so far from the center of the universe that they just didn't matter. So easy to forget that was the first Christmas. People might say, "What?! God came to earth as a Jewish boy born of an illiterate teenage girl in Judea? God is already here—Caesar! The Divine One! With riches, power, military might, speaking Latin and versed in the ways of politics and war. That's your god incarnate on earth. Not a little baby boy."
It's easy to forget that the first Christmas came so quietly and unnoticed because Christmas is so in-your-face today. It is so prevalent. When did Christmas begin this year? September? August? I remember being at the mall in June and looked in the window at the Hallmark store and they had their Christmas ornaments displayed in June! June! Six months ahead of time. Plus we're in an overwhelmingly Christian culture, even if church attendance is down from years past among the whole population, and it is not an official religion here, the western world is so entrenched historically with Christianity that Christmas is unavoidable. Christmas is part of our culture even if the religious part gets forgotten. You don't think of corporate boards sitting around the table talking theology or doing Bible readings, but I bet most of the year they're talking about Christmas. Because for so many companies this last month of the year it's the holiday shopping that drives them into the black where their profit point comes. It's really important to their bottom line. Christmas doesn't come quietly any more. Christmas does not come as a surprise any more. It's front and center. It's on the radio, on TV, in the stores ... everywhere. Even in non-Christian cultures. Japan has a real fascination with Christmas. Only one percent of the population is Christian, but much of the population has embraced Christmas. They love the trees, songs, the tinsel, the ornaments, the giving of gifts, all the stuff that we've turned it into, the fantasy Norman Rockwelling of Christmas. They love all that stuff. It's important to their economy somewhat, not as much as here. But nothing religious about it there. They just like all the stuff that comes with Christmas.
I find it curious that we have those here who rebel against what they call the de-religionizing of Christmas with their thought of some kind of "war on Christmas" conspiracy. Those who are upset because store clerks and others might say "happy holidays" instead of "merry Christmas." Or that the decorated trees in public squares are now called "holiday trees" instead of Christmas trees. The people who like to think there is a war on Christmas going on. I don't think there is. I think there is too much riding on Christmas, especially financially it is an incredibly important holiday and season. I don't think there is a war on Christmas. I think what there is, is a recognition that people are buying stuff for and celebrating other holidays: Hanukkah and Kwanza. New Year's is right around the corner. There's a lot of stuff that happens in December, and I think what stores and others are doing is simply recognizing that we live in a diverse culture. Diverse religions and people with no religion. And maybe taking Christmas, at least partly, out of the stores, is a good thing. To separate it from the money machine might in some ways be beneficial, at least in a theological way. How did Christmas become so entwined with the consumer aspect? And all these high expectations of wanting to have a "perfect Christmas," with everyone dressed just right, the meal glorious and excessive, the presents numerous and perfect and perfectly appreciated because they were so perfectly chosen with such perfect deliberation and the receivers are all perfectly grateful ... and the children say, "This is the best Christmas ever!" Mission accomplished. Well done! This kind of anxiety about that part of Christmas is so much a manufactured part of a prosperous, industrial-age nation. That anxiety over the trappings of Christmas is a total first-world kind of anxiety. It's the anxiety of a people who can afford perfection, and who may feel cheated if they don't get it. And I find myself buying into this as well. My family come for Christmas for a few days, and I want to make sure that everything is perfect for them, that all the food is great and that they have a good time and enjoy it, and that is just good hospitality, but there is that extra pressure that comes just because it's Christmas. Why should it be any different than any other time you have people over? I don't know. But there is that pressure.
And there is no "war on Christmas" I don't think, except maybe the war that we Christians have brought to it. The war that we have been waging replacing the Christmas story, or at least letting it be buried under all of these other trappings of this consumerist nostalgic sentimentalism. And I say this as one who recognizes my part in the system. As one who commits the great sin of decorating my tree with cultural idols and icons. It's almost all Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings ornaments. What kind of message does that say that I decorate my tree with all this cultural stuff? Maybe I ought not to. But I like it. I like it.
And maybe it's time for us, as Christians, to wage a war on Christmas—or at least on what Christmas has become. Or maybe as Christians we don't want to wage war, so let's say to wage peace on all of the unpeacefullness aspects of the holiday. All of the unpeaceful aspects that we've brought to Christmas. In the midst of this, I think one of our greatest prophetic acts as Christians could be to preserve the sanctity of Christmas by doing what Moses and Jesus did: say "No" to Pharaoh and say "No" to Caesar. To not participate in all this system. Or to participate not as willingly. To proclaim through word and action that I don't have to go into debt to enjoy Christmas. Don't need to buy my way to a perfect Christmas. Don't need to stress myself. To say that we don't need a pile of stuff under the tree and that our tree doesn't need to be the biggest, or most decorated tree in town. Or to say that we don't have to judge my value by how many Christmas parties we am invited to or host. Not that any of these are wrong in and of themselves. They're all fun and good, and nothing wrong with fellowship or putting up some decorations to remind us of the season. But to ask, Are we doing them in a healthy way that respects the gift that is Jesus? The best Christmas ever was the first one. The one that Jesus was born. Why do we think we can do better than that? Why do we think we need to try? Jesus is, as they say, the reason for the season. Enjoy all the great stuff that Madison Avenue offers to us, but don't be defined by their narrative—be defined by Jesus' narrative. Jesus' counter-narrative of grace and love, and being present, and being peaceful.
The question is, how do we honor Christ in what we are doing? The Christ who was born in a manger, quietly, and lived his life for others eventually going to the cross because he refused to follow the narrative of Caesar and of his religious and cultural leaders of his community. This Chrsitian act of saying to a world that says to us, "busy, busy, busy, buy, buy, buy, spend, spend, spend, hoard, hoard, hoard, expect, expect, expect" we can say to them "slow down, buy only what you need, spend less on wants, give generously to others, and expect nothing." Except maybe to expect that through disengaging we can know the peace of Christ. I think it is much easier to find the peace of Christ than trying to find peace by jumping on Madison Avenue's treadmill. Because there is no peace there. They don't want us to know peace, because we'll only listen to them if we're anxious. I mentioned in a sermon a few months ago how advertising preys on our anxiety. Not "buy our product because it is good and you have already determined that you have a need for this and it fulfills whatever it is you what to do" No, it's "Buy our product or you will be an outsider, you will be scorned, you will be looked at as a funny person." Do we really want to define ourselves by our dishwashing detergent? "Oh, you use the generic? Hmmm... see, we're a Cascade family. This relationship is just not going to work."
It's so easy to forget how peaceful and unnoticed Christ's birth was because it's so loud now. And with this message of buying our way to peace instead of sitting back and opening our hearts to the peace that's already here in Jesus Christ. Today we can make a prophetic action against some of this stuff. Soon we will bring our pledges for the next year up here to the gift box in front of the Christmas tree. And there's nothing wrong with the Christmas tree or the wreaths or any of this. It reminds us of what we are waiting for, just as the nativity, wreaths, and decorations, the Wise Men making their slow journey to the manger. These are things that can remind of who we are and what we are about. So we will bring our pledges and offerings forward. A chance to say in the midst of the craziness of the world that what we do here in this sanctuary, what we do here in this building, whenever we come together as Christ's people – it's a way of saying that what we do here is the most important part of our lives, because what we do here changes what we do out there beyond these walls. What we do here affects how we live in the world. As we go out and can say, "There is hope!" to the hopeless, "There is peace!" to those who don't know it, "There is joy!" to the suffering, "There is love!" to the abandoned and marginalized. And not just to say it, but live it as well. And to back up what we proclaim with the power of our wallets. And I don't say that it's important just because I'm a preacher—I think I'm a preacher and a pastor because I think that's really important. A therapist could probably disentangle all that in a couple years. But I tink that is part of it, because I do believe it is important. Really important. This is our chance to say, "There is another way. The way of Jesus, whose quiet birth changed the world for the better."
So please fill out your pledge cards as prayerfully and faithfully as you are called and bring them forward to the gift box. God gave us the gift of life in Jesus: now we can respond with our gifts to Jesus.
Note: this Sunday was also our stewardship dedication Sunday in which, after the sermon, we brought forward our pledges for 2012 to a gift box that sat in front of the Christmas tree; that's what the final couple paragraphs are alluding to.
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