December 2, 2012
I. Several news commentators made a big deal that Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his book Jesus of Nazareth: The Nativity Narratives that Jesus was born around 6 B.C.E. and probably not on December 25, as though this would somehow shake people’s faith. He even questioned whether animals were at the manger since they are not mentioned in the Gospels. New Testament scholars have known this for a very long time, and it raises no issues with the Gospel texts.
A. Not only do the Gospels not mention animals at the manger, they say nothing about Mary riding a donkey. Nor do the Gospels say anything about a stable. The imaginative stories around an inn and innkeeper come from a misunderstanding in the 2nd century novel The Protevangelium of James. The word translated “inn” actually means “guestroom,” which Luke also used for the room where Jesus celebrated the Last Supper (Luke 22:11-12). Luke does use the word for “inn” in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:34). A typical, peasant home would have a large “family” room with a lower area at one end where a goat or milk cow and perhaps a donkey would be brought in for the night. A small guest room would have been at the back or on the flat roof. This was already full, so Jesus was quite likely born in the “family” room. I know this tampers with our traditional imagery, but I find reading the Gospels carefully to be enriching. (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, Kenneth E. Bailey, 2008, IVP Academic)
B. Advent is countercultural to much of traditional holiday celebration. Advent is an opportunity for us to look at this most familiar of Gospel events with fresh eyes and see the real Jesus with renewed wonder. Advent is an opportunity for us to step out of the holiday frenzy and take time to savor the season.
C. Advent is a season of anticipation and waiting. We start Advent with our own waiting for Jesus to come in the clouds with power and great glory. In the Scripture texts today we hear that when instability threatens, we can stand and raise our heads instead of fainting with fear and foreboding, confident that Jesus is on his way.
II. Jesus offered that alternative in Luke 21:25-28, in the middle of a lengthy teaching on how to wait for his return in glory – what to expect and how to live until then. He said:
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
A. In the ancient world sun, moon and stars were the ultimate of predictable stability. So when he said the powers of the heavens would be shaken, people would naturally faint from fear and foreboding. The ancient Jews thought of Jerusalem as a kind of eternal city. For it to be destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. as Jesus predicted was devastating. For the Roman Empire to crumble like every human government before or since was unthinkable. We only need to look at the aftermath of hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy and the scientific and political debates about climate change to recognize in our own time “distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.”
B. Jesus referred to Daniel 7:13 when he spoke of seeing the “Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” It seems as unlikely to us today as the humble birth of the Messiah seemed 2,000 years ago. Yet, faithful people were waiting with great expectation that the Messiah would appear, perhaps at the moment of greatest darkness. As we begin the Advent season of anticipation, we are reminded that we, too, are waiting for the Messiah to come into the fearful instabilities of our time.
C. In our highly individualistic culture, we tend to think we have to face threats on our own, sometimes even alone. But Jesus spoke to the community of his disciples in the plural. Though the Church as such wouldn’t emerge for another couple of months, Jesus was clearly calling us to find our stability together. He didn’t say, “You, there, lift up your head.” Emphatically no! He said, “You all, lift up your heads.” The themes of Advent remind us that when instability threatens, we can stand and raise our heads instead of fainting with fear and foreboding, confident that Jesus is on his way.
III. We read from the Prophet Jeremiah at the start of the service because he also wrote to the people of God to wait together in a time of darkness for God to bring hope. A little Hebrew history will help us appreciate this call of the prophet. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had been destroyed by the Assyrians, and the Southern Kingdom of Judah was alone and vulnerable. Though they had had some revivals, these did not endure. The Babylonian Empire had taken the wealthy, educated, leadership elite to captivity in Babylon. The common folk were left behind in despair. The first part of Jeremiah’s prophecy pronounced judgment on Judah, especially these wealthy, educated, leadership elites for enriching themselves at the expense of the weak and poor. The Babylonian Empire seemed so invincible, they thought the captivity would never end. They couldn’t have imagined that in just over a generation, the Babylonians would be overthrown by the Persians.
A. Just when the circumstances seemed darkest and God’s judgment most severe, Jeremiah’s prophecy takes a dramatic turn. It is called “The Book of Consolation” and brims with hope. Jeremiah assures the people that, as unlikely as it seems, the day is coming when God will fulfill the promise to Israel and raise up a “righteous Branch” for David to execute justice and righteousness. I’m sure the people who heard that at Jeremiah’s time and for several centuries afterward imagined a restoration of the political-military Davidic monarchy as a major world power. As they waited through those generations they couldn’t have imagined that when Judah was under the heel of Rome, God would act on this hope with the birth of a baby to a peasant family.
B. Jeremiah uses a clever play on words to make the same point Jesus would make over 4 centuries later. Jeremiah was clearly calling the people of Judah to find their stability together as the community of God’s people. The last king of Judah when they were taken into captivity in Babylon was Zedekiah. His name means “The Lord is my righteousness,” even though 2 Kings 24:19 and 2 Chronicles 36:12 specifically say he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, as Jeremiah had prophesied. But in “The Book of Consolation” Jeremiah said that the name of the righteous branch will be “The Lord is our righteousness.” He has switched it from singular to plural. Hope shifts from depending on an individual to waiting together and watching for God’s hope.
C. This Advent we can hear both Jeremiah and Jesus remind us that when instability threatens, we can stand and raise our heads instead of fainting with fear and foreboding, confident that Jesus is on his way.
IV. Advent is not the season of Scrooge or the Grinch, scorning gifts, decorations, food, music and festive gatherings. Rather, Advent gives perspective and context to the delights of the season so we are not overwhelmed or derailed by it.
A. As a congregation between pastors, you can appreciate the experience of waiting for someone to lead you on the next leg of your journey together with Jesus. Do not expect the next pastor to be your Messiah, but to point faithfully to Jesus. Wait with anticipation, not impatience.
B. Back in the 70s, I remember Simon and Garfunkel’s melodic rendition of Silent Night sung over the 7 O’clock News. The incongruities were intentionally jarring. I have a lot of appreciation for Simon and Garfunkel, but this was just too easy. We know Christmas will be tough for many people on the East Coast this year. We know that the Christians in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Israel almost dread Christmas. We experience these same incongruities personally. Loved ones will be absent. Health or career challenges tarnish our expectations. Relational stresses undermine hoped for harmony. The prayer service we will be having at 4:00 this afternoon will give us a chance to release these incongruities to God.
C. The call of the prophet Jeremiah during Judah’s waiting for hope was to seek justice for the weak and poor. Our participation in Christmas for Others is one example of that. Even the secular campaigns to provide gifts and food during the holidays are signs that in many small ways the hope of the reign of God is breaking into the instabilities of our time. As Advent invites you to step back from the holiday frenzy to reflect of the hope we await in Christ, ask God to show you where justice for the weak and poor is a sign of the hope we anticipate. Ask God to lead you to someone for whom you can be a sign of that hope. Ask God to shine that hope through this church.