Good News

Sermon on Luke 2:1-20 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

At the end of every calendar year, social media and other internet sites are generally overrun with articles, tweets, videos, and other posts reviewing the year that is coming to an end. This year, the vast majority of these reflections have had a distinct and consistent theme: imgresnamely, that 2016 was the worst. In some ways, it’s hard to argue with this conclusion. This year saw the Zika virus, terror attacks in Brussels, Nice, and Berlin, and the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. This year saw economic collapse in Caracas, political disaster in Ankara, and humanitarian catastrophe in Aleppo. This year saw the deaths of Alan Rickman, Abe Vigoda, Florence Henderson, Alan Thicke, David Bowie, and Prince, to name just a few. This year saw arguably the most contentious election in this country’s history, one that devolved into a nightmarish carnival of fear, resentment, and despair. As we come to the end of this difficult year, it is hard not to buy into the notion that this was the worst year ever.

Human beings have experienced objectively worse years. There was 1348, when the Black Plague arrived on European shores. Less recently there was 72,000 BC, when a volcano in Sumatra exploded with the force of 1.5 million atomic bombs, resulting in the near extinction of the human species. Clearly, 2016 could have been much worse. Yet, it was an exceptionally difficult year. I think the main reason is that this year was so full of uncertainty. Nothing worked out the way we thought. Election results around the world defied the expectations of pollsters and prognosticators, the people who are supposed to be able to tell us what is coming. Traditional times of celebration were interrupted by terror and despair. Even the celebrities who died tended to be people whose presence signified comfort and stability: we lost veteran character actors, musical iconoclasts, and TV moms and dads, people we imagined would always be there. It’s no wonder Merriam Webster’s word of the year was “surreal.” This was a year of confounded expectations, one in which many of us experienced a profound sense of dislocation.

Rather than dislocation, tonight’s gospel reading begins with an almost radical sense of continuity. Luke begins the Christmas story by telling us that Caesar Augustus issued a decree while Quirinius was governor of Syria. This is one of the narrative quirks of this gospel. Luke loves to let us know who was in charge when the events he describes took place. This is about more than providing historical context. The world of Luke’s gospel was one in which the personalities of those in power had a profound effect on the lives of those they governed. The fact that the emperor could send people to their hometowns on a whim is evidence enough of that. Moreover, it was a time when rulers stayed in power for a very long time. By mentioning these world leaders, Luke strongly implies that the world is unlikely to change any time soon.

In the midst of this political stability, however, an angel proclaims to a group of shepherds: “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy.” The angel tells the shepherds that this babe wrapped in swaddling clothes represents something entirely new in the world. Moreover, the angel uses a politically loaded term to describe the birth of Jesus. The word we translate as “good news” is the same word that was used to announce when the emperor had a son. It referred to the birth of a new king. According to Luke’s account, the birth of this child represents a challenge to the present order. And yet, not much changes politically after the birth of Jesus. Augustus remains the emperor and Quirinius remains the governor. The sanguine expectations of the angels appear to have been confounded. Our refrain of “glory to the newborn king” seems tinged with irony. In this gospel reading, it would appear that we are experiencing a profound sense of dislocation.

But this reading ignores a small yet crucial detail in Luke’s narrative. After the shepherds left the babe alone with his parents, Luke tells us that Mary “treasured these things and pondered them in her heart.” theotokos_3_500Though Luke could be describing the pride that every parent feels when her child is adored by strangers, there is a much more powerful dimension to this statement. By pondering these things in her heart, Mary ensures that the affairs of the world, no matter how dispiriting or dislocating, will never diminish the good news of Jesus’ birth. This is that good news: unlike those leaders that history has mostly forgotten, Jesus is a different kind of king. Jesus is the one who rules our hearts. While this may seem saccharine, even trivial, it is actually of monumental importance. It signals that God’s claim on us transcends every circumstance.

For this reason, I think that the most powerful expression of the Christmas gospel can be found in the Burial Rite of the Book of Common Prayer. The opening anthem includes these words: “For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself. For if we live, we live unto the Lord, and if we die, we die unto the Lord. Whether we live, therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s.” These words do more than comfort the bereaved: they demonstrate how the gospel frustrates the powers of the world. Most tyrannical regimes coerce obedience by threatening death. But, if we can say with confidence that we are the Lord’s whether we live or die, we have nullified the tyrant’s ultimate threat. The gospel we proclaim tonight is deeply and quietly subversive because it insists that those who claim worldly authority have no real power over us, that the only power that truly matters is that of the babe lying in the manger.

No matter how many times we may hear it, the birth of Jesus is always news, because the bad news is always changing. In the midst of a world that is filled with uncertainty, we must treasure this good news, confident that Jesus Christ is the one who rules our hearts.

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“So that we may be like other nations”

To watch video excerpts of a forum presentation of this topic, please click here.

In 1787, the representatives to the Constitutional Convention who gathered at Federal Hall in Philadelphia were determined to strengthen the federal government while avoiding a monarchy at all costs. portrait_of_george_washington-transparentUnfortunately, their conversation about checks and balances was complicated by the presence of George Washington. To say that George Washington was well respected in the early days of the republic would be a colossal understatement. He was the presumptive choice for President and was already known by many as “The Father of his Country.” Even as the delegates to the Constitutional Convention discussed a hypothetical executive whose power was limited, in other words, they knew that at least the first president would become nothing less than an American monarch. Indeed, before Washington set off to assume the presidency, his friend James McHenry told him, “You are now a king under a different name.”

As he made his way from Mount Vernon to the temporary capital of New York, Washington was greeted as a conquering hero at community along the route. For his part, Washington was deeply concerned about the expectations of his people. “I greatly apprehend that my countrymen will expect too much from me,” he wrote anxiously. “I fear if the issue of public measures should not correspond with their sanguine expectations, they will turn the extravagant praises which they are heaping upon me at this moment into equally extravagant censures.” Washington, in other words, recognized that no human being could possibly be everything that the American people hoped for. Nevertheless, the American people were so eager to locate their hopes in one person that they seemed willing to jeopardize their grand experiment in self-government.

This desire for a king is nothing new. In fact, it is central to the biblical narrative, especially to the the Book of Samuel. The pivotal scene of this book occurs when Samuel appoints his sons as judges over Israel. Though Israel had been governed by judges since the death of Joshua, the elders of the people approached Samuel and said, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” The elders were anxious about the direction of their nation and hungry for change. Aware of their frustrations, Samuel warns his people about the implications of their request:

“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day.”

The old prophet’s point is clear: his people have no idea what they are asking for by demanding a king. Though Samuel alerts his people about the perils of monarchy, the people of Israel are adamant: “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” Their logic is almost paradoxical: Israel not only wants a king to save them from their enemies; they also want a king so that they will be like their enemies.

Israel’s desire for a king is much more than a political preference; it is the ultimate act of idolatry. The LORD says as much when Samuel prays in frustration: Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” Israel would rather put their lives in the hands of a human being than trust in the God who redeemed them from slavery. Israel’s desire for a king signals a fundamental change in its identity: from those who have been chosen by God to those who choose a God for themselves. Their determination to have a king, in other words, led them to forget who they were.


imgresThis is an unusual election season: not just because of the bombastic rhetoric, not just because one of the candidates is a former First Lady, and not just because the other party’s nominee is a political neophyte. This election cycle is unusual because many people have invested all their hopes in their chosen candidate. Though this is always the case to some extent, 2016 has charted new territory. We have moved from “Which candidate would you like to have a beer with?” to “Which candidate will you trust with your very sense of self?” Indeed, not since the early days of the republic has the line between electing a chief executive and anointing a monarch been so faint. Whereas George Washington was exceedingly apprehensive about his countrymen’s desire for a king, both campaigns have been pretty cavalier about it this year. Of course, the Republican nominee has enthusiastically embraced this desire, announcing that he alone could solve the challenges facing our nation and declaring, “I am your voice!” Though the Democratic candidate has been more circumspect in this regard, the fact is that her entire campaign has hinged on the idea that she is the only viable option. For many, including the candidates themselves, the people running in this presidential elections have become the agents who will rescue us from despair and uncertainty. We have been so eager to put our trust in these presidential candidates that we are at risk of forgetting who we are.

This raises important questions for us as people of faith. The Christian faith teaches that we cannot ultimately locate our hope in any human being. What happens when, in our eagerness to support our chosen candidate, we fail to remember that God is the sole source of our life and salvation? Moreover, how can we faithfully engage the political process in this season when we seem to be collectively forgetting the words of the psalmist: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help”? If we are to faithfully engage the political process, I believe there are three primary tasks before us: discernment, empathy, and prayer.

Discernment

Discernment is a crucial discipline of the Christian life. As Christians, we are called to be realists and recognize that we do not live in a perfect world. Thus, the central task of Christian ethics is to weigh the goods in conflict when faced with a decision. No decision is perfect or without negative consequences. Discernment, however, allows us to make a judgment based on the information available to us and shaped by a sense of God’s Providence. I believe that faithful discernment will lead us to one of four options in this November:

  1. Choose one of the major party nominees on their merits.
  2. Choose one of the major party nominees on the basis of the other nominee’s faults.
  3. Choose a third-party nominee or write in a candidate.
  4. Sit out this election.

All of these are principled choices if they are the result of faithful discernment. I would, however, like to offer a few words of caution. If you choose to vote for a third party candidate, take care that your argument does not boil down to “the lesser of two evils is still evil.” Though it’s hard to argue with that logic, it’s also important to remember this fundamental assumption of the Christian faith: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” To put it bluntly: every one of us is evil. There is no morally pure choice in any situation, particularly when human beings are involved.

Furthermore, keep in mind that sitting out this election does not liberate us from the decision-making process. Unless we are ineligible to vote, we are participating even if we stay home on election day. In other words, while not choosing may very well be the principled path in this election season, it is still a choice.

f8ead6054a219b93848c0d77df2909c6Finally, I would warn against what one might call the “Don’t blame me, I’m from Massachusetts” phenomenon. This refers to the bumper sticker that was popular around 1975, when Richard Nixon resigned the presidency after receiving the electoral votes of every state except Massachusetts in the previous election. Those who had this sticker on the back of their cars were making an obvious point: we bear no responsibility for the current state of our nation. Nevertheless, one of the consistent themes in the New Testament is that we are both responsible and accountable to one another. We function in community; we do not have the option of existing in isolation.

There is another important aspect of discernment. This has been an election of clickbait headlines and sensational stories. As Christians, one of our primary responsibilities is to decide what is truly worth our attention. Be cautious about where you get your information, and take care not to get swept up in the sensationalism that has driven so much of the coverage of this election.

Empathy

When we wake up on November 9, the election will be over and we will have to find a way to live peaceably with one another. It’s important for us not to assume that everyone who makes a different choice for President is stupid or wrongheaded. We all have reasons for discerning the option we have chosen. With that in mind, I want to commend to you an “exercise in political empathy.” At the end of July, Scott Gunn, the director of Forward Movement, posted the following on Facebook: “Please try to list one positive reason why someone might vote for the presidential candidate you do NOT support.” Give this a try. Write down your reason. The point is not to change your mind, but to recognize that we all see the world differently.

Prayer

It is easier to be empathetic to all of the candidates and their supporters when we pray for them. In 1 Timothy, the author urges “that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Pray for the candidates by name. It is one of the ways that we remember that those who have stood for election this year are, like you and me, ultimately dependent on God for their life and salvation. 

More importantly, prayer is the way we acknowledge God as a true reality. It allows us to recognize that our salvation does not depend on a presidential candidate or any other human being. In the end, prayer allows us to recognize that God is our king. Acknowledging that God is our king empowers us to entrust our lives and the life of the world not to a human being, but to the God who created and redeemed us.