Sunday, December 4, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "In David's City of Bethlehem"

Micah 5:2-4

As for you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah, though you are the least significant of Judah’s forces, one who is to be a ruler in Israel on my behalf will come out from you. His origin is from remote times, from ancient days. 3 Therefore, he will give them up until the time when she who is in labor gives birth. The rest of his kin will return to the people of Israel. 4 He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. They will dwell secure, because he will surely become great throughout the earth; 5 he will become one of peace. (Common English Bible)

“The First Christmas: Re-creating a Holiday’s Original Meaning,” Week Two

There are lots of charitable gifts made this time of year—including to your church!—in order to ensure that you are eligible for any applicable tax write-offs come next April 15. But one gift in particular—an estate gift—was pretty impressive, as the BBC reports:

A former German soldier has left 384,000 pounds in his will to the Perthshire village where he was held as a prisoner of war during World War Two.

Heinrich Steinmeyer was 19 when he was captured in France and held in the POW camp at Cultybraggan by Comrie. Mr. Steinmeyer, who died in 2013 aged 90, bequeathed the money in return for the kindness he was shown there. He said in his will he wanted the money to benefit the village’s “elderly people.”

Part of his will reads, “Herewith, I would like to express my gratitude to the people of Scotland for the kindness and generosity that I have experienced in Scotland during my imprisonment of war and hereafter.”

Mr. Steinmeyer was held at Cultybraggan along with 4,000 other prisoners. Mr. Steinmeyer died two weeks after Comrie resident George Carson, who became a close friend of the former soldier. Mr. Carson said of Mr. Steinmeyer: “He was a dyed in the wool Nazi and once thought that Hitler was the finest thing ever to happen to Germany. He was captured and taken to Comrie and eventually was allowed to work and was treated with great kindness by people.”

First, let it be said, that considering the nature of the Second World War, I would have just as soon seen this former SS-man’s estate gifted to, say, Yad Vashem or the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., but it still is remarkable to end up giving 384,000 pounds to a country you were indoctrinated into believing with your heart, mind, and soul, was your mortal enemy.

That’s nearly $490,000—this person’s entire estate—given out of gratitude for kindness shown to them while they were a prisoner of war. How many such estates do you think are bequeathed out of anger or fear rather than kindness? It is probably safe to say very few, if any at all.

In a time of war—of *the* war for the Greatest Generation, when the Allies had to defeat some of the greatest evil ever to spread across the earth, it was the peace-bearing, peace-giving mentality of kindness towards their enemy that now, over seventy years after that war ended, still bears fruit.

That is a lesson will still need to live by this Christmas.

This is 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 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 is 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 will be revisiting 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 began this series last week with an excerpt from the chapter “An Angel Comes to Mary,” and we now turn to an excerpt from the book’s next chapter, “In David’s City of Bethlehem,” which reads:

But insofar as there was any popular agreement, it was that the Anointed One would be a Davidic Messiah, that is, a new David, who would establish justice and peace for God’s people. His character, activity, and salvific success had to be like David’s…

At least for some Jews at the start of the first century CE (the) understanding of the warrior Davidic Messiah underwent a profound mutation in interaction with their experiences of Jesus Himself. For some Jews, in other words, Jesus was a nonviolent Davidic Messiah. It is necessary, therefore, to accept fully the profound mutation that Davidic messianism underwent within Judaism in that first century.

We are back, in other words, with these two questions about the Messiah…Would the Messiah be human or transcendent? Would the Messiah be nonviolent or violent? For those Jews who accepted Jesus as the Davidic Messiah—and whom we would later call Christians—the answer to those two questions was quite clear. As the Davidic Messiah or new David, Jesus was human and transcendent and nonviolent. His establishment of “justice and righteousness”—as promised by those prophets above—would be not by violence, but by nonviolence.

One of the arguments put forth by Borg and Crossan throughout the book—not just in the little excerpts we hear from—is that Jesus represents much more than the snippets of scriptures out of the Hebrew Bible that are lifted as specific prophecies of the coming of Jesus. Rather, instead of simply representing the fulfillment of those specific verses, Jesus represents the fulfillment of the entirety of the Hebrew Bible tradition as this just, righteous, nonviolent Messiah.

This passage from Micah, then, while one of those handful of specific passages used to point toward a Jesus Messiahship, is much more birds-eye in its view of Jesus and points to a total body of work by this nonviolent Savior: He will shepherd His flocks and those flocks will live securely under His peaceful watch.

Put another way: this isn’t foretelling a specific event like the famous Isaiah 7:14 verse that states that a virgin shall bear a son, and she shall name Him Emmanuel, which is what Matthew cites in his birth narrative. What Micah is prophesying is something quite different: not an event, but an epoch. Not a single point in time but a reign that extends through and transcends over time itself. Not only single day on the calendar, but all days on the calendar.

In other words, this passage from Micah, even more than the birth narratives themselves, puts forth a vision of Christ who is to be remembered and followed and worshiped not just during the month of December but for the other eleven months as well—and to be praised and celebrated not just on Sundays, but for the other six days of the week in addition. Micah’s vision of the Davidic Messiah is eternal in the truest sense of the term, yet our fidelity towards that Messiah is often anything but.

It is tough to understate the nature of the birthright to which Jesus lays claim. David was the king by which all other kings measured or failed to measure up to the point that even more than being a historical man, he became a sort of mythic national hero like, say, King Arthur for England or Prince Siegfried for Germany. Culturally and politically, never mind religiously, Jesus’s birthright portends a nation itself placing its hope in Him.

And while David brought peace with a sword, taking seven long years to unite Israel in a bloody, treacherous civil war with Saul’s lone surviving son Ishbaal, Jesus calls us, in the vein of these selfsame Hebrew prophets we cite to justify His arrival, to beat those swords into ploughshares, and our spears into pruning hooks.

So, then, lets return to the story of this young Waffen-SS solider turned prisoner of war turned repentant old man who decides to leave this world with one last act of magnanimity. Do you think that if the United Kingdom had beaten this man down, tortured him and mistreated him, evil though he was, that there would have been anything like this gift come from it?

The sword, while perhaps necessary precisely for such scenarios as World War II, bears no such fruit. It never has. And it never will. For indeed, as this nonviolent Davidic Messiah would teach His disciples right at the very end, the one who lives by the sword also dies by the sword.

Far better for us, then, to follow the way of the Christ, the Anointed, even as doing so might cause us to question so much of what we have been taught about the nature of strength and might. Because in achieving a complete surrender that entailed even crucifixion, that Prince of Peace did what nobody else has done before or since.

He conquered death.

He broke the grave.

He took away the fruits of the sword and replaced them with the fruits of the spirit.

And because of His life, which begins anew just three weeks from now, the world was forever changed.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 4, 2016

1 comment:

  1. No easy pieties here. A challenging message that is both timely and timeless.