Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Sermon for Christmas Eve

St Paul's Cathedral, Springfield -- Luke 2:1-20, Psalm 89:1-29

Sure enough, we have tamed Christmas. A baby will usually do that. Brenda and I are in the stage of our life together now where we’re enjoying grandparenthood. Our two young granddaughters are no longer babies, but it hasn’t been that long, so the memory is still fresh. And when we’re with our extended family, there are lots of babies. We find that when we’re in a public place—in a restaurant or on an airplane—and we see a baby, we both instinctively smile, and if we manage to make eye contact with the little one, and provoke a smile in return, that’s an added bonus. Babies are interminably cute, so we are certainly attached to baby Jesus, who is appropriately the object of our attention and affection as we celebrate his nativity. We wish we could make eye contact with him as his mother holds him on her shoulder to get him to burp, and exchange smiles. As babies go, I’m sure Jesus was adorable, and we will all join our voices in tonight’s worldwide chorus of “Sleep in heavenly peace.”

But let’s be careful, shall we? Jesus is more than an adorable baby, and if we don’t ever let ourselves get past the manger, we’re going to find ourselves in some trouble. There was a Victorian hymn that talked about “gentle Jesus, meek and mild.” Well, there’s some scriptural precedent for that sort of language, but it doesn’t give us a complete picture. The fact is, whatever picture we have of Jesus, it better include the notion that is he a dangerous subversive, destabilizing every status quo he comes in contact with. We see him as an adult, debating with the Pharisees and turning over the tables of the money-changers in the temple. But way back when he was a baby, an adorable baby getting burped on his mother’s shoulder and cracking a smile, the voice of the angel announced to the shepherds, “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

That is some loaded language, my friends. The ears of these Hebrew shepherds would have heard “Christ” as “Messiah,” and Messiah is a title that delivers the full weight of everything associated in the mind of a patriotic Jew with the royal dynasty of David. As we read in Psalm 89: “I have found David my servant; with my holy oil have I anointed him.” The word messiah literally means “anointed one.” When the prophet Samuel announced the shepherd boy David as the one whom God had chosen to be King of Israel, he poured oil on David’s head, he anointed David, making him a messiah. King David became a messianic prototype, and after his passing, the hope of Israel was always in the coming of another messiah, another anointed one, another king who would lead them into peace and prosperity. So when the shepherds on the Bethlehem hillside heard the angels tell them about a baby who was the Messiah, the Lord, that was exciting news. But it was also disturbing news, because the shepherds already had a king, they already had an anointed one who commanded their allegiance. His name was Herod, and Herod was not inclined to surrender his royal dignity to any pretender—even an adorable baby—without a struggle.

But the infant sought by the shepherds was not just Messiah. The angel called him Lord as well. This title is hugely prominent in our prayer and worship, and virtually non-existent in our ordinary speech. Our British cousins encounter it somewhat more frequently because they have titles leftover from medieval times that designate “lords” and “ladies.” Earlier this month I was with Lord Carey of Clifton, which is the honorific title given in his retirement to George Carey, the 103rd Archbishop of Canterbury. In America, the closest we get is when we talk about a “landlord,” and that may be the only context in which we are apt to use the word in a non-religious way. So, since it’s such a “churchy” word for us, we are prone to take it for granted. But that’s a mistake the shepherds of Bethlehem would not have made. They knew who their lord was. His name was Octavian, known as Caesar Augustus. He lived far away in a place called Rome, but he ruled every corner of the known world, and his troops patrolled the very streets of Bethlehem, just a few yards from where the shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks by night.

For the shepherds to acknowledge the adorable baby they found as Messiah, as King, meant that Herod was not King. Should word get back to Herod about that, their lives would be in jeopardy. And for these shepherds to acknowledge that Jesus was Lord meant that Caesar was not Lord, and even though Caesar lived further away than Herod did, that wasn’t a particularly safe acknowledgement to make either. No two ways about it: to acknowledge baby Jesus as either Messiah or Lord meant that they would surrender the luxury of continuing with life and business as usual. Something was bound to change. So it’s pretty amazing that they decided to show up at the manger and try to get the Anointed One of God, and the Lord of Heaven and Earth, to smile back at them when his mother gave him a burp.

The herald angels are once again inviting us to worship the newborn king. But we cannot do so honestly without asking the obvious corollary questions: If Jesus is King, whom are we going to dethrone in order to make room for him? If Jesus is Lord, who is, by implication, not Lord? These are not easy questions to answer because they employ language that we’re not accustomed to using outside the context of worship and prayer. But that doesn’t make the questions go away. The words King and Lord are not mere abstractions; they have concrete meaning. We may not bow low before a human being who wears a crown and holds the power of life and death over us, but there are nonetheless objects of our ultimate allegiance, those things that we consider to be of ultimate worth, surpassing all else. This isn’t the occasion to list all the possibilities, but if any of us has one that isn’t named Jesus, then we’ve got a problem with the celebration of Christmas. We cannot honestly come to this crèche or this altar or sing “Glory to the newborn King!” when something or somebody else is functionally the lord or monarch of our lives.

Those pesky angels. Why do they have to do that? Luring us in with an adorable baby and then turning our lives upside down. Thank-you, Jesus. May our lives indeed never be the same. Amen. 

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