Texts: Isaiah 62:6-12 ; Psalm 97 ; Titus 3:4-7 ; Luke 2:8-20
Grace and peace be with you, brothers and sisters and bearers of the God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
A doctor, a journalist and a pastor walk into a bar. They haven’t been all together in one place in a couple of years and so they’re getting caught up on how life has been treating them.
The doctor begins, “I spent years and years in medical school studying physics and chemistry and biology and anatomy, then years more as an intern and a resident. Now I’m an attending physician in a pediatric emergency room where I work long hours and see the most gruesome injuries you can imagine. Babies with broken bones, teenagers with gunshot wounds they’ll never recover from. I understand a lot about how bodies work, how to patch them up and sew that back together, but I don’t understand why the world is like this – so violent.”
The journalist follows, “I spent years in college practicing my craft – learning to observe and ask questions, to listen and record. I’ve studied history and languages. I’ve traveled in Serbia and across the nations of the former Soviet Empire. I’ve seen the direct effects of war, and the side effects of human greed and jealousy. I understand the politics of it all, where people’s motivations come from, but I don’t see a way forward. I don’t see how the story will ever change.”
They look at the pastor… and I’m not always sure what to say.
What sounds like the set up to a joke is actually my informal, semi-annual high school reunion which generally takes place in a bar somewhere in downtown Des Moines in the days between Christmas and New Year’s with those of us who are back home for the holidays. We get caught up, look at the pictures of the babies born since we last met, and generally examine each other for traces of the kids we used to be. The doctor comes from a family of doctors. The journalist was the best writer and debater in our class. I basically lived at church growing up. It’s not hard to imagine the paths that have brought us to our respective stations in life.
Still, that doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to find words that are substantial enough to meet the questions my friends and many in the world are asking these days. For all our progress in science and knowledge, we don’t seem to have discovered a cure for the violence and brutality we enact on one another in our homes and in our neighborhoods. For all the advances in transportation and communication, despite the speed with which we can dispatch people to any remote corner or the world and transmit their observations back to the rest of us, we seem to hear the same story again and again – people and nations set against one another in an unending state of war.
Religion, which in generations past was more often viewed as a resource for making meaning is more often seen these days as part of the problem. Books like “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” and “The God Delusion” are best-sellers these days as people’s patience with religious bigotry and faith-based violence hits a wall. To wear a collar, or a cross, in public means to hear people’s anger and frustration with the failures of people of faith to represent the best that religion has to offer.
To that our Lutheran response has generally been to say, “you’re right… human beings do terrible things to each other. And what’s worse, we seem to keep doing them over and over again.” We call this the bondage of the will. We talk about the human condition as simultaneously sanctified and still held captive to sin. But in speaking to those outside our circles of familiar lingo and jargon, we are still searching for words to offer.
In all fairness to ourselves as people of faith, and looking at the matter as objectively as possible, I think we have to say that the violence that surrounds us in the world isn’t simply a consequence of the nature of religion, it is a side effect of the nature of people – of human nature. Whether the car bombs are set by Catholics in Ireland or Muslims in the West Bank; whether the military counter-strikes are launched by the United States in the airspace over Iraq or by Israel firing long-range missiles into Lebanon; our perpetual warfare cannot be boiled down to religious conflict any more simply than it can be reduced to politics or economics.
Moreover, the idea that our national or cultural identity can be separated from our religious identity is remarkably new. It was only as the old system of monarchies and empires fell and were replaced with democracies founded with constitutional documents that safeguarded personal liberties like freedom of religion that western culture even began to think that your nationality and your religion could be held separately. The idea didn’t go over so well, even here in the United States, where packs of ethnic supremacists held power over much of the land by burning crosses on lawns. The story of human history is mainly one of tribalism, with each tribe or kingdom or nation claiming God on their side. It’s human nature.
Then, breaking into human history in the fullness of time, which we call kairos – God’s time, we hear the story of the incarnation of God with us – Immanuel – in the birth of Jesus, the Messiah. The revelation of God to humanity for we who call ourselves Christian comes not in the form of a battering parent, or a child bearing arms, or a conquering head of state, but as the most fragile thing in all of creation laid in the most humble of vessels – a manger, a trough, a food box.
I tried, quite poorly actually, to illustrate this for the children during an impromptu children’s sermon last night. I took them to the sacristy where we had some reserve communion bread from the fourth Sunday of Advent and I talked to them about that word sacristy, which of course comes from the same root word as the word sacred. Sacred things are holy things, made holy by God, like the bread that we eat at communion. Then I walked them up to the little crèche on the side altar in the chancel and took down the figurine of the baby Jesus laying in his alabaster manger, which in our set looks more like a half-shell, and I showed them how the baby Jesus lays gently in his manger, just like the bread lays gently in our hands – which we cup, like a half shell, to receive. Then I asked them, where is the bread once we eat it? It’s inside of us. The holiness of God, concealed inside the most fragile of things: a few crumbs of bread, an infant, a manger, you and me. Our human nature, transformed. Holy things for holy people.
It is in response to this most humble scene – a family huddled against the dark night recovering from the shock of birth in a stable and visited by a band of shepherds – that the sky breaks open and heaven’s music pours out, “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favors!”
The shepherds hear this proclamation and rush to the scene. They are the first reporters on location and it falls to them to carry news of what they’ve seen out to the rest of the world. This is an inherently ironic situation since shepherds were nomads and not citizens of the empire, and therefore their testimony would have carried no weight in any legal sense. They were imagined to be the kind of people who staying up all night watching sheep, gathered around campfires, would be expert at telling tall tales. News of God’s fragile manifestation entrusted to the least credible of sources.
But I take this as good news, because if in God’s wisdom – which scriptures tell us is considered folly by the world – it makes sense to be revealed in a weak, utterly dependent form; and to give an exclusive scoop to those least likely to be believed, then I am in good company when I sit at the bar with my friends the doctor and the journalist, who are expert at seeing weakness in bodies and flaws in stories, and who are disinclined to
believe anything a man in a collar has to say about the merits of religion.
This is what I know: that the stories we tell one another as we gather around our campfires in the cold of night, the stories that make up the fabric of our religion, which is a medical term as much as anything else – a word that means to be tied together like a body by its ligaments – tell us of a God who wants to push us beyond the narrow confines of tribalism and ethnic pride and nationalism and empire. That those are the things that are weak and insufficient for a humanity made holy by God and made hungry for peace. That it is only when we can see the sacredness in each human life that we will be able to stop treating life with such brutal disregard.
God’s intention for the world, for the blood soaked emergency rooms and nations set against one another is peace. Peace in our day seems so remote a possibility, so fragile an idea. We should wrap it up in something sturdier, something sturdy and common, like you and me. The holiness of God come among us for the healing of the world. Jesus Christ is born again in us today. Human nature transformed. Holy things for holy people, all of us.