25 December 2010

Christmas Eve Sermon: When Hope and History Rhyme

A brief introduction. Last year I decided to forgo the usual Lessons and Carols service for Christmas Eve. I have always found the service a little stale. It is great if you are at King's College, Cambridge, and all of the dignitaries of the town and university community come together, along with a live taping by BBC Radio, but you cannot replicate it stateside. By the way, at least one or two new carols/hymns/anthems are commissioned for the service. The energy, finances, and resources cannot be duplicated. So I jettisoned the service and modeled a service after the Christmas Eve service at Memorial Church, Harvard University, I'm not a Gomehead for nothing. This idea also emerged after the realization that people can hear and sing carols 24/7 from Thanksgiving on and Linus does as good if not the best job ever at retelling the gospel story. So here is a full and proper Christmas Eve sermon. I figure this is the one or two chances a good number of people are in church so why not give them something worth listening to; thus a sermon on peace.

When Hope and History Rhyme
text: “…from this time onward and evermore.” (Isaiah 9:7)
Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 97; Titus 2:11-15 & Luke 2:1-20
Christmas Eve 2010 6:00pm
The Rev’d G. Travis Norvell

Lord take our hands and work through them
Take our eyes and see through them
Take our minds and think through them
And take our hearts and set them on fire. Amen

Easter is the magical morn; Christmas Eve is the magical night. Only an angel or two shared the Resurrection; on Christmas night a multitude of the heavenly host along with the angel of the Lord sang in the birth of the Messiah. On Easter only three women reported the empty tomb; on Christmas night the shepherds in the field, the magi from the east, and the animals in the manger witnessed when the days were accomplished that Mary delivered the babe. The aura of this night is puzzling to say the least, for this night neither attained significance in the early church nor major status in the medieval church. Christmas as we know it is a modern phenomena. We can have Christianity without Christmas but not without Easter. Why then does this night above all nights still remain a high day in our religious sensibilities? Why does this night possess more promise than Easter morn? Why did the heavenly host sing with gusto? Why did men drop their livelihood and come to the manger? Why did nature honor the occasion with a new celestial body? Why does this night cause the range of emotions to well up within us? Why is this promise so prevalent tonight?

Every Sunday is a small “e” Easter; we continually celebrate God’s honoring of Jesus’s life by Resurrecting him with a strong hand, and with a stretched out arm. Only once a year do we celebrate a birth with all the promises of new life wrapped in swaddling clothes. Once a year the promises of new life once again cross the threshold, once again you and I and all of creation have another chance with the retelling of this story. Once a year our lives are reset: with the hope this year will be better than the last, this year there will be no deaths, this year love will flower, this year I will laugh more than cry, this year, this year will not be so damn difficult. That is the hope of Christmas, once a year we are reminded of not just of new life in the presence of the babe but of transformed life in the presence of the Christ.

In the 1960s before he died the theologian Paul Tillich proposed that we place a 100 year moratorium on Christian terms: love, God, salvation, grace, & etc. But he did not, whether intentional or happenstance, include peace. Perhaps peace was too important a word to cease using. Tillich knew the horrors of war; he was a chaplain in World War I; he said stated indeed there were atheists in foxholes.

Peace was too important to let go. Peace, I offer is what has brought us all here this evening because of the promise and prospect of peace; real peace both now and forever more. For in the birth of this child was the peace of God made incarnate, helpless, vulnerable, powerless, exposed, unprotected, and defenseless. Which simply means if peace is to come in our lives, if peace is to reign then we must help usher it in, care, nurture, cultivate, tend, foster, support and raise Peace within our hearts, within our homes, within our churches, and within our world. To put it more succinctly: on Christmas we are reminded that our lives matter and are needed for an approximation kingdom of God to come in our lives. On Christmas we are reminded that we are not automatons simply waiting for godot. On Christmas we are reminded that God did not create us without a greater purpose in mind. On Christmas we are reminded that the prospect and practice of peace is not out of step with the world but that the world is out of step with the Christian message. On Christmas we are reminded of why, as translated by William Tyndale, And straight way there was with the angel a multitude of heavenly soldiers, lauding God, and saying: Glory to God on high, and peace on the earth: and unto men rejoicing.

This promise, this imaginative prospect, this generative poem was not written on the shores of calm waters but in the midst of a living hell. It was wrought out the inevitable destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom as well. The thundering army of Assyria was surely on the way, the sure event of defeat and destruction was given. Would Israel surrender and become a vassal state? Would Israel align with other nations and mount a defense? Or would Israel trust in God and God alone?

Under these austere auspices the prophet Isaiah received his call and worked out his salvation. He was the one who spoke the word of the Lord, both uplifting and damning to the kings and people of Israel. The message of peace was clear throughout his message: swords beaten into plowshares, spears turned into pruning hooks, wolf and lamb, child and asp lying down together, and as tenor sang in the “The Messiah,” When every valley shall be exulted, every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight, the rough places plain.

At one point it appeared the message of peace would prevail when Hezekiah was made king in 729 BCE. He was keen on religious reform, progressive thought, and engineering aptness. Upon his mantle the southern kingdom placed their summation of hope: For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Notice that the personal names are for God who will perform this through this person, they are not prescribed for the person. Hezekiah by all measures for kings was a great king, he ruled from 729-686 BCE but he did not live up to his promise. In 705 saw an opening in the Assyrian armor as his chance for Israel’s freedom. He entered into alliances with Egypt and Ethopia to counter Assyria. The prophet Isaiah went nutso. For three years he walked barefoot and naked as a symbol of what would happen to Israel if she entered into alliance with Egypt and Ethopia to fight Assyria. The message worked during Hezekiah’s time but the bond of trust had been broken. This act set off a series of complicated and historical events which led to the eventual destruction of the southern kingdom in 586 BCE when the inhabitants of Jerusalem were led off in chains to Bablyon.

The description and promise of Hezekiah would lay dormant for roughly 800 years until the early church began searching for the right words to describe the one whom God resurrected. Their words did not emerge from the shores of calm waters, as a people subjective to Roman occupation they searched for a proper way to not only describe and define but interpret they turned to the generative poems, primarily, of the prophet Isaiah. For Jesus was not the normal “ruler.” He did not participate in the warrior myth, he was not a general who led troops into battle. Ponder this for a moment not only was Jesus not a warrior but none of Apostles or members of the early church were warriors. Christianity was not an armed movement. It did not seek blood.
The authors of the gospels turned to Isaiah and woke up the dormant words for Hezekiah and transformed them as the titles to describe Jesus as Lord, and with the choir from The Messiah we sing: For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Or as John Wycliff’s disciples in the late 14th century would translate directly from the Latin Vulgate, Forsothe a litil child is borun to vs, and a sone is youun to vs, and prinsehod is maad on his schuldre; and his name schal be clepid Wondurful, A counselour, God, Strong, A fadir of the world to comynge, A prince of pees.

Isaiah’s poetry funded a Christian imagination of non-violence & peace for the new world to come. This book emboldened the creativity of an embryonic movement to see a greater vision. The prophet Isaiah enabled them to see beyond the war torn and crushing occupation of Rome, beyond the defeat Rome at all costs voices. Isaiah gave them the necessary imaginative seeds to proceed on with a non-violent movement. Christianity at its core has been, is, and always will be a non-violent movement heaven bent on changing the world, heaven-bent on making real a new reign of peace.

Every Christmas we are reminded once again that God’s Son, our Saviour is a Prince of Peace, whose kingdom is always but coming, and whose way on this earth is non-violent.

Yes there are wars and rumors of war. Yes there is still an enmity between you and I, between nations, between tribes, betweens clans, between peoples everywhere. Yes, nations need to be able to defend themselves. Yes, this is a troubling world with people who possess a singular vision to eliminate elements of western society. Yes, this is a fragile world with nuclear arsenals abounding and in production by unreasonable regimes. But is our only salvation to the world an eye for an eye? Our times were no different than those of Isaiah and of the New Testament – they were just as fragile and just as warring and yet they still had the confidence, albeit wavering confidence for sure but confidence nonetheless, in a greater vision then what they saw in their world: a greater vision for peace, real peace both now and forever more.

Our vision of peace is not passive, inactive, and acquiescent it is active, engaged and aggressive. Christian peace is not even the cessation of war or violence between people or nations. The angels did not raise their voices, the heavens did not create a new star and we are not gathered to celebrate a worthless vision of peace. Christian peace is in the words of the Apostle Paul, a more excellent way. Christian peace is the practice and implementation of the healing of the nations, of bridging the enmity between you and I, between you and God, and between you and yourself. It is about the increase of love of God, neighbor, and self. Christian peace is about praying for those who persecute us and loving our enemies both personally and abroad. It is about changing this world from the inside out. It is the active seeking out and practice of reconciliation, of healing the brokenness in our own souls and in the world we inhabit.

On Christmas we are reminded of the vision of Christ’s peace and the invitation to participate in its fulfillment. What is needed is a new human being, a new Adam, a non-violent way of life.

As World War I approached Harry Emerson Fosdick, the pastor of FBC Montclair, NJ, eagerly volunteered to promote the war effort. He traveled from coast to coast preaching at every fort and training facility he could to promote the war and civic duty of armed service. Then he took a trip to Europe before the armistice; he saw the blood soaked barren land of the Western front, the gas stained trenches, and the mutilated corpses thrown in mass graves. Upon his return to the US he vowed never again to be a pawn for war and worked like mad for peace. His stance was put to the test when the drums of WWII began to beat Fosdick angered the majority of his congregation, Riverside Church NYC, with his pacifism and calls for peace. We connect to his devotion to peace each instance we sing the second verse to God of Grace and God of Glory,
Cure your children’s warring madness,
Bend our pride to your control.
Shame our wanton selfish gladness,
Rich in things and poor in soul. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
Lest we miss your kingdom’s goal. Lest we miss your kingdom’s goal

For weeks and months and years the voice of violence, might is right, and war get the upper hand but for one night for one glorious and majestic night of Christmas, let us mimic the birth of our Saviour, let the message of peace seep into your heart, let it sneak into your consciousness, let it arrive unannounced into soul until you and I and all of the heavenly multitude sing in one accord, Peace on Earth, Peace on Earth, Peace on Earth.

Amen and Amen.