Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Christmas Day Sermon: "Joy to the World"

Matthew 1:18-25

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly. 20 As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled: 23 Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, And they will call him, Emmanuel. (Emmanuel means “God with us.”) 24 When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife. 25 But he didn’t have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus. (Common English Bible)

“The First Christmas: Recreating a Holiday’s Original Meaning,” Week Five

One of the things I associate Christmas the most with, for better and for worse, is the music. Sometimes, it really does feel magical to hear a Christmas song played a way that I’ve never heard it, and other times, when I’m hearing some hackneyed, tired rearrangement of Jingle Bell Rock, I want to pull my nonexistent hair out. But most days, it is capable of bringing to me—and to the world—joy.

But the music makes up so much of this season for me, and so much of my life. I listen to the jazz radio station to and from work most days. I still keep an extensive collection of CD’s for when I’m not in the mood for jazz. And I still end up moved by stories like this one from the Washington Post, which conveys the story of a homeless man in Montreal, Canada, named Mark Landry who is a street musician who plays the violin quite beautifully—at least, he did until his violin was stolen, and he turned to his faith in God to find a new one.

This is not nothing—this isn’t someone asking for something utterly superficial. The violin represented Mark’s livelihood. But then Jean Dupre, the CEO of the Montreal Metropolitan Orchestra, heard about Mark’s predicament, and I’ll let the Post take it from there:

The Montreal man doesn’t have much in terms of material things. He lives on the streets, but he brightens many commuters’ days with his violin, which he’s been playing since he was 17 years old, in Metro stations around the city. That small piece of hardwood and taut strings also kept him fed, as he used it to busk during rush hour…

Landry prayed, convinced in his faith that God would deliver him a new instrument.

“God’s gonna give me a new one,” Landry said. Otherwise he would “go through a lower level of poverty, which is to live without my violin.”

He told Dupre that he was lost without his instrument.

“I talked to God this morning and said I cannot live without my violin,” Landry told him…

Tuesday afternoon, Dupre, joined by a CBC news crew, delivered the violin to Landry. The resulting video shows the bearded man’s eyes light up as he rips off his red-and-black checkered jacket to free his arms and begin playing.

“Immediately when I gave him the violin, he opened the case and said, ‘God listened to me,’” Dupre said. “He just grabbed the instrument right at that exact moment and began playing.”

There is joy to behold in that story, but that joy comes as a direct result of human participation—or of God participating through us. We pray to God, but, as the Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard is quick to point out, prayer is meant to change us, not God, and then we in turn change the world!

This has a sermon series for the church season of Advent, which is known pretty much in every other context as “the Christmas season” or “the holidays.” Except it isn’t the Christmas season: the twelve-days-long Christmas season (yes, just like the Twelve Days of Christmas carol) begins today, on Christmas Day, and extends to January 6, the traditional date of the Epiphany, when the Magi arrived at where Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had been bedded down.

Advent was meant to be a season of preparation, and not just preparing for the Christmas dinner parties and the tinsel and ornaments, but a preparation for the least material of all things: of divine life becoming human life. To help us prepare for the birth of the Christ child this year, we revisited the work of John Dominic Crossan and the late Marcus Borg who, if you remember, were the authors of The Last Week, a book I used as the template for my Lenten sermon series a couple of years ago. The First Christmas represents their sequel to The Last Week, and much as The Last Week sought to go verse-by-verse through the Passion narrative and place it into its historical and anthropological context, so too does The First Christmas deliver a similarly thoughtful treatment of the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke.

We end this sermon series, then, one day after the last day of Advent and on the first day of Christmas, with an excerpt from the book’s final chapter, aptly titled “Joy to the World:”

Advent and Christmas are about a new world…How will this transformation of the world come about? To say the obvious, it has not yet happened, despite the passage of two thousand years…Does this mean that the Christmas stories are a pipe dream? That they (and the New Testament as a whole) are another example of failed eschatology, of hope becoming hopeless…?

We who have seen the star and hear the angels sing are called to participate in the new birth and new world proclaimed by these stories…

The birth stories are not a pipe dream, but a proclamation that what we see revealed in Jesus is the way—the way to a different kind of life and a different future. Both personal and political transformation, both the eschatology of rebirth and the eschatology of a new world, require our participation. God will not change us as individuals without our participation, and God will not change the world without our participation…

Jesus is already the light in the darkness for those who follow Him. Conceived by the Spirit and christened as Son of God by the community that grew up around Him, He is, for Christians, Emmanuel: “God is with us.”

God is with us. Today, we celebrate that at long last, God is indeed with us.

When it feels like we have been abandoned, when we have had something most precious taken from us, like Mr. Landry, or when we feel like we ourselves are that precious thing that has been taken, we are reminded on this day that one day, over two thousand years ago, God decided that it was finally time to become flesh and bone and blood in order to speak to us, minister to us, and save us in a way never quite done before.

And truthfully, we don’t know for sure if that grand adventure began on December 25. We celebrate it on this day, but neither Matthew nor Luke say that this was the day. We rejoice in it, though, because we know that regardless of the day, God worked within us and upon this earth in a brand new way in sending to us, as the angels in Luke said, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

It is the prophecy in Matthew, though, which Borg and Crossan refer to here, and it comes from the seventh chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah: “Look, a virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they will call him Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us.’”

God is with us. What a revolutionary thing to say to a people who have felt so trodden upon!

Because when we do feel abandoned, when we do feel bereft…well, part of that feeling of loneliness is a feeling that maybe God is not with you after all.

But Christmas changes all of that. Forever.

And for that, we say joy to the world. We say that the Lord has come. But when we say those things, we are saying something very particular, and very special: that not only are we meant to be changed by what has taken place in Bethlehem, but that the world is meant to be changed by what has taken place in Bethlehem.

It does us no good to keep that joy for ourselves. The carol does not go, “Joy to the church…” It does not go, “Joy to the United States…” It goes, “Joy to the world.”

We’re taught that this world is only a temporary home, that we’re just passersby here, and yet, joy is meant for this world. Joy is a part of God’s design and wish for this world. Joy is a part of what should be our experience of this world.

I know that were I in Mark Landry’s shoes, I might well find joy hard to come by. I could easily wallow in self-pity and resentment at being shelterless and at losing one of the dearest possessions I had.

He did not. He trusted in God, and acted with great joy when that trust was rewarded.

So this Christmas, keep your trust and faith in God, however hard it may be for you to do so.

And when God does appear in your midst, when you do indeed believe that Emmanuel is here, that God has come and is with you, then it is right for you to react with great joy.

Earth, receive your king! Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 25, 2016

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