Tomorrow is the first rehearsal for our annual Christmas pageant. Held during the 4pm Christmas Eve service, our pageant has traditionally been the classic Christmas card vignette. The adorable lambs, the sweet angels--and I promise that we will have both this year--mother Mary so meek and mild; the somewhat embarrassed to be up there Joseph, shepherds keeping their watches....and the silent stars at night.
The pageant, sweet as a Christmas card with the added ahhhh factor of lambs crawling off and baaing mama; angels with halo’s askew and beautiful music. But, this year, this year we’ve decided to really take a look at what was so frightening to the shepherds in the field. Yes, this year the pageant will offer both the innocent sweetness of our littles gowned and halo’d and the edgy tension of our rock star styled heavenly beings...the kinds of angels that inspire fear and awe. Not so little, not so sweet--these are angels out of scripture. These are angels that would make you want to hide under the covers and as one of our rock star angels put it, they would make the shepherds “whimper”.
Be not afraid, they had to say that, because they WERE scary, they were wild creatures, not tame ones and that is the tension I want to draw our attention to today...when we “tame” and subdue scripture it becomes a bit too easy to turn our faith into the stuff of Hallmark cards and neglect the awful and awesome realities in which these stories took place and in which we live.
Our scripture on this second Sunday in Advent offers very striking and different visions of the reign of God--and only one of those visions has made it onto a Christmas card. And, that glittered landscape with the lion and lamb nuzzled up in a heap and the text “Peace on Earth” leaves out most of the story...this is not an easily won peace, this is not cheap grace. It is a peace and grace that have come at great cost and followed fearful times.
The book of the prophet Isaiah arose out of the 8th century and a very specific crisis--Judah’s war with Syria and Israel. Weak governance and a lack of trust in God in public life was deemed by the prophet to be the source of the struggles for the people of Israel. Throughout the book those in power, those who would exploit the poor and oppress the needy are castigated and called to remember that the justice of God will ultimately prevail. Then, once human abuses are rectified, the earth will return to the state that God intends--a place of peaceful coexistance. This is the hope that carries the people, the hope that ills be set aright and that God WILL intervene. Now, this intervention is both a hope AND a threat in Isaiah--for those who are suffering at the hands of oppressors it is a hope, for those who oppress, well, for them it is a threat.
Now, that would be quite the Christmas card--”he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked”. That’s a far cry from the romantic notion we have of the halo’d boy child lying in slumber. And, it is far more akin to the message that John the Baptist carried for his listeners. And, once again, that is NOT a Christmas card I’ve ever seen--John, hair matted, with camel skins gird about him warning those who have come for his baptism that “one is coming who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”. Merry Christmas, indeed! Sleep in Heavenly Peace?
Our faith is FAR more complicated than a Christmas card--and Advent is a time when we live in the midst of those complications. The tension between our hopes and dreams for peace and the often painful realities in which we live. The tension between our joy at the fulfillment of God’s promise in Jesus and our fear of having to change and work in order to bring that promise into the world. It becomes clear in Advent that transformation, that birth itself, will be a harrowing thing. Yes, the baby is sweet and the scene bucolic--but there are soldiers in the hillsides hunting and Herod willing to kill the innocent in order to preserve his throne.
We don’t often think of the political backdrop of the nativity story. Of the Roman rulers and imperial powers that were abusing, enslaving and indeed, slaughtering those who dared to rise up against them. We don’t often think about the terror that caused Jesus’ family to flee with him into Egypt. But, that’s the world in which these texts emerged...that was the reality.
And, yet, and yet...the other reality was that these authors, these people VERY much believed in the power of God to transform the world--the God Paul describes as being “of steadfastness and encouragement” the God “of hope who may fill you with all joy and peace in believing”.
And, there’s the rub, the point in which I find myself challenged to see God in the mist of hard realities--of the war, violence and oppression that seem rife. Because, war and oppression are real, intrigue and political abuses are real...yet I also hold that something else is real. And, that something is witnessed to in the Christmas cards that I seem to have so strongly maligned.
It does not escape me that when we send Christmas greetings to Ryan we are sending them into a war zone. Merry Christmas and God bless...small print against a harsh landscape. But, with those words comes a reminder of God’s persistent promise that there is something more...that God’s hope and love will ring clear and that indeed, a little child will lead us all into a new way of being. That there is a greater power than war, that there is a greater peace and promise than any newscast can contain.
And THIS is the true reality of the Gospel, THIS is the true hope of the prophet, THIS is the power of the Holy Spirit--to bring us hope in true believing.
We are called as Christians, in this Advent season, to live like John the Baptist. And, by this I do not mean that we should take up camel skins and feast on locusts and wild honey. I mean that we are called to live like our hopes and dreams are real, obtainable and most of all TRUE. We are called to embrace the image of the lion lying down with the lamb, we are called to follow a helpless infant who held no power by the rules of the world but all power by the rules of the creator, we are called to listen up and be transformed by the purifying Spirit and we are called to do so even when it seems hopeless and naive.