Sunday, December 22, 2019

Phil Kniss: Putting fear (and love) back into Christmas

Advent 4: Worth the wait
Psalm 80; Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25

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As we get close to Christmas,
it’s time for a little counter-cultural protest.
And no, I’m not going to say, put Christ back into Christmas.

I’m really glad this sanctuary does not have
little red “heresy alert” buttons installed in the pews.
Because you’d all reach for them right now.
Brace yourself.

If we’re talking about our cultural celebrations of Christmas,
I say, let’s keep Christ out of it.
I think Jesus Christ,
and our typical cultural Christmas traditions are both better off
when they keep their distance from each other.

Yes, we all like to say, and it’s true:
“Jesus is the reason for the season.”
But hear me out.
Don’t push the red button . . . yet.

Christ, on the one hand,
and our cultural Christmas holiday celebrations on the other,
are both inherently good, in and of themselves.
But they both get compromised,
and lose their punch,
when they get all mixed up with each other.

And for the moment,
let’s put the whole over-commercialization of Christmas
on the sidelines.
That’s not what I’m talking about here.

Let’s not make Christmas consumerism the bad guy.
Consumerism is with us 365 days a year
in every aspect of our culture, including in the church.
It is the water we all swim in.

Even if we could take consumerism out of Christmas,
it wouldn’t go away.
That’s like attacking a tall thistle growing in our yard,
by wacking off the top two inches.
Yeah, that’ll get it!

All cultural celebrations have been commercialized.
Easter, Mothers Day, July 4, Back-to-School,
Halloween, Thanksgiving, you name it.
Even birthdays and weddings!
Whole industries depend on us buying our way into happiness,
all year long.
Christmas isn’t the problem. It’s a symptom.
So . . . end of commentary on Christmas and consumerism.

Here’s my real point.
I actually like our secular cultural celebration of Christmas.
I like it a lot.
I participate in it. Happily. And without guilt.
The carols, the cheesy movies, the over-the-top decorations,
the food, the gift-giving.
Our secular Christmas produces a lot of good, positive,
emotionally-rich social capital.
Think of all the joy and beauty and wonder and whimsy and
goodwill and generosity
that get pumped into our communities at this time of year.

Nobody can attend Harrisonburg’s downtown Christmas parade,
and go away feeling pessimistic about this community.
It’s just a positive and uplifting community festival.
Our cultural Christmas is a gift and opportunity
we should all celebrate without hesitation.
“Santa Claus is coming to town!”—and we should welcome him.
There. I said it.
Push the red button.

Christians who get on a moral high horse—and I used to be one—
who object because Santa Claus is more visible than Baby Jesus
are missing something important.
Their objection is well-intended, even noble, but misguided.
Secular celebrations are good for society,
there’s no reason for us to go all Scrooge about it
for religious reasons.

I saw an article in the food section
of the Washington Post on Wednesday.
It was written by an American Jew who grew up in the Soviet Union,
and she said Christmas was her favorite holiday of the year,
even beating out Hanukkah.
Because Christmas had better food.
She mentioned that the old Soviet New Year
was basically Christmas without the religion.
She grew up with a New Years Tree,
and traditional foods and festivities,
and Grandpa Frost who went around
giving gifts to all the children.
And we have variations on that theme all over the world.
More power to them all, I say.

Two unfortunate things happen
when we force baby Jesus onto
what has become a largely secular cultural celebration.

we exclude those of other religions
who are a valued part of our culture.
They start to feel this time of year is not for them.
But everyone benefits when the whole culture
celebrates joy and peace and goodwill.
We sideline religious minorities the whole rest of the year.
Why add insult to injury and
exclude them from this celebration, too?

The second reason I don’t like to impose Jesus
on what is a mostly secular holiday,
is that the only kind of Jesus the public is willing to accept—
many Christians included—
is a white-washed, sanitized, sweet and sentimental Jesus,
one that bears no resemblance to the biblical one.

So why should we committed Christians
feel like we’ve achieved some moral victory
by “putting Christ back into Christmas”
if—when it’s all said and done—
the plastic Jesus that we’ve put there
is not actually worthy of our worship?

May I say that again?
Why do we think it’s a victory for Christianity
to put Christ back into Christmas,
if after we’ve successfully done it,
the hollowed-out version of Jesus that’s there,
is not a Jesus we would lay down our lives for in worship?

So here’s what I propose instead:
Let our culture and other cultures have their Christmas,
with all the secular trappings—
the Santa Claus bits and the sentimental plastic Jesus bits.
Let’s be thankful for any generosity and goodwill,
no matter where it shows up, and why,
and let’s join in with it, not boycott it.

But . . . and here’s the kicker . . .
let us Christians also dive deeper into our biblical story,
and let’s own that story, every beautiful and earth-shaking part of it,
Let’s shape our Christian worship and Christian formation
around this vitally important and theologically essential
season of the Advent fast
that leads to the feast of God’s Incarnation,
that we call Christmas, the “Christ Mass.”

In the world all around us I don’t mind hearing Christmas carols—
even the ones about Rudolph and Santa Claus—
even if they start before Thanksgiving.
It’s good music (well . . . mostly).
And it’s good to make music and make merry,
as long as we want, starting as early as we want.
Let’s not hold that against anyone!

But . . . here, where the church gathers in worship,
as a Christian community wanting to be formed in the way of Jesus,
this is a different sort of space.
We operate on a different calendar.
We have a different purpose in mind.
Worship is serious business.
We are here to worship the God of heaven and earth
who is bringing righteous judgment to the earth,
and who will bring the false rulers and powers to their knees.
Are we up for that?

And no, I’m not saying we hide out here in a private sanctuary.
Worship can and should be public,
we worship before a watching world.
But, while we gather here,
we are clearly and unapologetically a Christian community
shaped by Jesus, and shaped by the cross of Christ.

So here we will sing and tell stories in a different frame of mind.
The reason we sing Advent and Christmas carols here
is not because they remind us of good old days
sitting by the fireplace at Grandma’s house.
This is not an exercise in sentimentalism.
This is about the earth-shaking and fear-inducing
Gospel of Jesus Christ.
And sometimes the Gospel is hard to understand,
and hard to accept.

This is especially true on the fourth Sunday of Advent,
where we light the candle with a prayer for love to show up.
In our calendar, we are still in the fast.
The feast is three days away.
We are still waiting.
Still asking questions of God and each other.
Still wondering, “What are you waiting for?”

And today we have a story of love showing up
in a person and form outside of our control . . .
it’s a story of “Emmanuel,” God with us.
That name, Emmanuel, was given to a child awaiting birth,
in two of our scripture readings today,
in stories set in the same region, same ethnic group,
but 700 years apart.

First, in Isaiah 7,
as a sign to King Ahaz of Judah,
to his people besieged and oppressed by the Syrians.
Then in Matthew 1,
as a sign to Joseph and his people
besieged and oppressed by the Roman Empire.

Matthew’s version of the Christmas story is different than Luke.
Whereas Luke gives us lots of picturesque details,
about shepherds and stables and heavenly choirs and such,
Matthew is spare with words.
It mentions almost in passing that Mary bore a son,
and he was named Jesus.
But Matthew uses lots of ink in the verses leading up to that,
to tell us of Joseph’s fearsome dilemma.

Without going into details of first-century Jewish laws
about engagement and marriage,
suffice it to say, the news that Mary was having a baby was,
for Joseph, a moral crisis of huge proportions.
It put Joseph’s reputation at risk,
but even worse, it would cause Mary—
a vulnerable teenage woman—
to suffer an even worse fate:
public disgrace and (probably) a lifetime of poverty.
So Joseph decided to do the honorable thing,
really, a courageous thing,
since Joseph believed Mary was being unfaithful.
He planned not to shame her, but break the engagement quietly.
But an angel appears in a dream to Joseph,
and says, “Don’t be afraid.
Take Mary as your wife.
She was conceived of the Holy Spirit.”
So Joseph takes an even greater risk,
steps into the great unknown,
and completes the marriage arrangements as directed.

This is the hard and costly road of faithfulness
that Jesus would later teach his disciples about.
But here it was being modeled by his earthly father-to-be.
Joseph was willing to act,
without his questions being answered.

Steve Garnaas-Holmes,
a United Methodist pastor and poet and blogger in Massachusetts,
just posted a poem he wrote about Joseph a few days ago.
Thanks to Ken Nafziger for pointing me toward it.
Here is the poem, titled, simply, “Joseph.”

Listen to it not only as a word to Joseph.
Listen to it as words to us who are also asked to take leaps of faith
in times of darkness and dread and uncertainty.

The question is not whether you love her.
The question is whether you will marry her.

You have been given only glorious ambiguity,
darkness marbled with starlight,
possibility breathed in silence.
You seek assurance; none is given.

Your life will not be as you wish it.
Those you love will let you down.
This world is full of flaws and disappointment.
It is also full of the Mysterious One.

Give yourself without knowing.
Betrothed, beloved, to uncertainty,
pledge your loyalty to this one you cannot know.
Do not pray to understand:
pray to be present, to be faithful, to be loving
when you cannot know what will come of it.

Do not be afraid to take this life and marry it.

Maybe that, sisters and brothers, should be our new mantra.
“Do not be afraid to take this life and marry it.”

Daily, we are asked to walk forward in life—forward—into ambiguity,
as followers of Jesus:
in our life of faith,
in our families,
in our close relationships,
in our public lives,
in our professional lives,
in our political lives as members of a divided society.
Jesus directed his disciples, and directs us,
take up your cross and follow me,
into the darkness, into uncertainty, into ambiguity.

It’s just as ambiguous as the sign given King Ahaz in Isaiah 7,
and given to Joseph and his people 700 years later in Judea.
The sign of hope is a woman with child,
a vulnerable child yet to be born named “Immanuel.”
Ambiguous, yes. But still reason to hope.
God is with us in this life.
This life.

Let me repeat the last lines of the poem . . .
Give yourself without knowing.
Betrothed, beloved, to uncertainty,
pledge your loyalty to this one you cannot know.
Do not pray to understand:
pray to be present, to be faithful, to be loving
when you cannot know what will come of it.
Do not be afraid to take this life and marry it.

I am so thankful for our hymn writers over the centuries,
who were not distracted by the plastic Jesus,
but immersed themselves
in the earth-shaking and fear-inducing Gospel story,
and wrote about it in profound poetry.
These are the songs that either
never show up on pop radio stations and shopping malls,
or they do without anyone, ever,
thinking about what the songs are saying.

I’m glad we have a place like this
that is not satisfied with sentimentalism.
A place to join our voices, and our minds,
and sing this faith that not only challenges our own complacency,
but that truly threatens
the power of politicians in Washington,
and the power of Wall Street,
and every other false and temporary power our culture bows to.

Read the words sometime of
“It came upon a midnight clear” or
“Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light” or
“My soul proclaims with wonder” that we opened with today.
Or the two we’re about to sing.
Where is our hope?
Where is the source of our peace?
What brings us joy?
Where will love show up?

In a helpless and hungry child who in Mary’s lap is sleeping.
Let’s sing, as Ken directs us.

—Phil Kniss, December 22, 2019

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