Joseph was a righteous man–What made Joseph righteous? It was certainly not self-righteousness. He was not a strict adherent to the law. The legal codes for his day called for him to public disgrace Mary and make an example. This humiliation would deter future indiscretions by other women. The legal code called for Mary’s execution. Deuteronomy 22 explains that if a man discovers that his wife is not a virgin, “She shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done a disgraceful thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house.” According to Deuteronomy the righteous thing for Joseph to do at that moment would have been to fulfill that command. But the righteousness Matthew has in mind differs from the righteousness proposed in Deuteronomy. It involved compassion over punishment; humanity over legalism; and trust over retribution.
In one of his columns, Dennis Bratcher asks the question, “Can We Sing Christmas Carols During Advent?” http://www.cresourcei.org/carols.html. From time to time, we will encounter those people who feel they know the “true meaning” of a particular practice or season or tradition and they set out to correct what everyone else has obviously gotten wrong. Bratcher takes contention with the way most people observe Advent.
Bratcher observes that Advent is a time of preparation for Christmas and not a celebration of Christmas itself. When people make such arguments–and I’m as guilty of this as anyone–they often simultaneously claim superior knowledge and reveal their igonorance.
Error #1. He begins by lamenting that “As the service of worship began [on the first Sunday of Advent], the first song we sang was ‘Joy to the World,’ a Christmas Song! I tried to sing it, and celebrate the birth of Jesus the Christ. But it wasn’t quite right.” He goes on to describe how his worship experience was hollowed by the jump to a celebration of Christmas without the proper advent preparation. The problem is that “Joy to the World” was not written as a Christmas song. Isaac Watts, the father of English Hymnody, began his hymn writing career working on the development of a Psalter–songs based on the Psalms. The words to Joy to the World are his version of Psalm 98:4, 9. It really should be limited to Christmas.
Error #2. Bratcher writes “Advent is the season of preparation for Christmas, not the celebration of it. It is included with Christmas in the same way that Lent is included with Easter. However, Advent is just as different from Christmas as is Lent from Easter.” While it’s true that both Advent and Lent are seasons of preparation, the historical development is quite different. Robert Webber explains in Services of the Christian Year in the Complete Library of Christian Worship that Advent developed in 6th Century and has always had a certain tension. In Rome, it was a festive season as people emphasized the birth of Christ while in the missionary areas of Western Europe Advent emphasized the second coming of Christ and was a penitential season of preparation for Christian Baptism. Advent has never been one thing.
Bratcher’s argument is not completely without merit. Christians do have a necessity for a time of penitenial preparation. There is much beauty in the rhythms of the Christian year. A reflective, preparatory advent provides a helpful antidote to the gluttony and commercialism of the season. Like Bratcher I wish we observed an Advent vis-a-vis Lent. However, I have been trying to interpret Advent for church members for over a decade now and can say that I haven’t had much luck convincing people that what they are doing is wrong and that if they would do it my way they’d be right. I think with regard to liturgical seasons we should remember that they are means to and end and not ends in themselves. We achieve more if we leave the discussion of the right and wrong way to celebrate advent–since its really not a moral issue–and begin discussing what we find good, helpful, and healing in advent. People are more easily convinced by being invited into an experience we value than they are by being pushed away from experiences we judge as inappropriate.
Charles L. Campbell in an article in Interpretation (49, no. 4, October 1995, pp. 394), writes, “Christmas Day is not a time for explanations and analysis in the pulpit.” He was reflecting on John 1:1-14 and knew, I suspect, that the prologue from John entices preachers to analyze. The prologue to John is a theologically dense statement. It is filled with potent images and turns. It begs the church’s residential theologian to theologize. William Barclay, for example, spends 54 pages of his commentary on John on these 18 verses–virtually 1/5 of the entire space he dedicates to the first 8 chapters of John. But alas Christmas Day is not the day to do that–resist the temptation, stay away from the theology. People who come to church on Christmas day are feeling many things–sleep-deprived, sugar-coated, over-fed, out-spent, under-appreciated, and cloistered in nostalgia. Among the things people are unlikely to want to do on Christmas Day: figure taxes, fold laundry, decipher installation instructions and theological analysis.
Which is why pastors should have blogs–so they can get it out of their system. In this text from John we have several Christological themes woven together in what many people believe to be a beautiful tapestry (I am among those who believe this text is one of the most beautiful in the New Testament).
Here are the strands as I see theme: Jesus as the Word of God, the Incarnation, Jesus’s Pre-existence, Jesus as the Son of the God, Jesus as the Light of the World, Jesus’s role in creation, Jesus as the adoptive catalyst.
Jesus as the Word of God–In the beginning was the Word. Growing up, every time I heard the phrase, “Word of God” or “Word of the Lord” I thought people meant the Bible. Yet, when the Biblical writers used logos they probably were not making self-referential statements about the scripture they were writing. They meant something else. In the Greek text, the word for “Word” is Logos and almost anyone well tell you it’s a loaded word. The writers of the New Testament were influenced by both the Greek meanings for the word and also for the Jewish usage of terms. Here’s where it’s tricky. The New Testament was written by people living in a Hellenistic (Greek/Roman influenced) culture. They spoke and wrote in koine (common) Greek. However, they had a copy of the Jewish Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) written in Greek. Called the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX). Many words that might mean one thing from a purely Hellenistic frame of reference (not that there really is anything that’s purely Hellenistic) might mean something else from a Jewish perspective.
Word of God from Jewish perspective. God’s word created the world and brought life. God’s word made covenants with the people whom God chosen through Abraham, delivered through Moses, united in David and re-established through Nehemiah. In the prophetic works, “Word of God” plays an important role. It is the most frequent opening for books of prophecy in the Hebrew Bible. In Hebrew “Word of God” is debar YHWH (more accurately, “Word of the LORD”). It is used 242 in the Old Testament and 225 of these occur in prophetic writing. God’s word is not always a fixed statement which cannot change. God’s word is eternal (Isaiah 40:8). But God’s word is also dynamic. God could change, intensify, cancel God’s word. NOTE: That’s God’s ability not ours. God’s word is expressed as God’s life force at work to shape God’s people.
In a Greek concept, logos refers to logic or rational thought. It expresses the highest form of reasoning. Greek’s tended to separate mind from Body. But in Logos you have the combination of both. We speak our mind but speaking is a physical act as the air which gives us life is used to express our thoughts.
So too, the idea of Christ as the logos of God conveys both the sense that in Christ God continued God’s plan for humanity–begun with creation and also that Jesus represented the mind and will of God in physical form.
Several news articles report the choice that some mega-churches have made to cancel Sunday morning services on Christmas Day. The articles report that several prominent mega-church leaders (Fellowship Church in Grapevine being among them) consulted among themselves and determined an acceptable way to communicate their intent to not hold service on Christmas Day.
Since I am critical of the churches listed in these articles for other reasons, I found a lot to wag my finger at. I’ve done that. I have said to friends, “If you don’t go to worship on Christmas Day when Christmas is on a Sunday, you don’t get to complain about the world taking ‘Christ’ out of Christmas.” I do believe that and stick with it. At the same time, I must own up to the fact that Christmas on Sunday has changed things around here as well. We will not have 8:30 service nor will we have Sunday School. We aren’t having our traditional Christmas Eve services. Rather we have moved our normal 7:00 pm service up to 5:00 pm and our 11:00 service up to 8:00. We made these changes for many of the same reasons as the churches who decided not to have services on Christmas Day–worship services are a lot of work and to do several in 24 hours is difficult. Consider this, we prepare two slightly different services every Sunday (8:30 and 10:45 differ slightly). For Christmas Eve we generally prepare two slightly different services as well (the early service and the late service on Christmas Eve generally has different musical selections). When Christmas Eve and Sunday are separated by a few days, these differences are manageable but when they occur in close succession (in less than 24 hours) some streamlining has to take place. In short, when events place Christmas Day on Sunday it is an admitted inconvenience. We’ve all made some concessions to mitigate those inconveniences though I’m really curious about those who’d go so far as to completely cancel services on Christmas Sunday.
Christmas, of course, is about inconvenience. Calvin used the term accommodation to speak of God translating divine intent into understandable human language. As well, the incarnation points us toward a moment of incredible divine inconvience. The fullness of God came to humanity, being inconvenienced in order to bring salvation. Frances Havergal wrote a hymn I find difficult to sing as it is written as the words of Christ to us but the words aren’t in scripture. Despite my misgivings, the second verse seems appropriate here.
“My Father’s house of light, My glory circled throne,
I left for earthly night, For wand’rings sad and lone;
I left, I left it all for thee, Hast thou left aught for me?
I left, I left it all for thee, Hast thou left aught for me?”
When I ask how I’m doing being graded on the curve of what everyone else is doing, I am filled with pride (in that negative, arrogant sense of the term). No one at my church has even questioned whether we’d have Church on Christmas Sunday. People in my circle look forward to worshiping on Christmas Sunday. But when my sacrifices to “work on Christmas day” are compared to the one who started, perfected and completed the work of Christmas–the one for whom the day is name–I realize that I have no room to brag, or be judgmental for that matter.
Yesterday was my birthday. I thought I was being clever when I said that “I am now old enough to run for President.” I thought the constitutional age limit on President was obscure enough that I wouldn’t be admitting my age–young to some, old to others.
I am always amazed when at how many birthday cards I receive on my birthday. I’m not good at remembering birthday cards. I forget just about everyone’s birthday. I recently read a quotation by Fredrick Beuchner that when people wish us a happy birthday they are not remembering the date so much as they are expressing their appreciation for the whole meaning of your life to them. I like that–more in relation to Christmas and Jesus than me. I like the idea that at Christmas we aren’t simply focusing on the day of Jesus’s birth–which wasn’t December 25 after all–but we are expressing our appreciation for Christ’s entire life.
The New Testament speaks about Peace in at least three different ways. First, there is the internal experience of Peace with God. Paul, in the passage we will look at next week, admonished people to be anxious in nothing but prayerful in every and in so doing find the peace of God which transcends understanding. Jesus said to his disciples in the gospel of John those familiar words, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, believe in God believe also in me. Peace I leave with you, my peace.” Earlier this week, Dani Loving-Cartwright our new Regional Minister spoke to a group of clergy. She described the importance of the peace we need to encounter this busy advent season. We reminded us who often become overwhelmingly busy with all the advent plans and productions to be at peace, be still and encounter God. Second, the New Testament describes peace within the congregation. In Mark 9:50, Jesus said, “Have salt within yourselves and be at peace with one another.” The book of Acts describes the churches in various locations having peace and being built up (Acts 9:50). Paul wrote to several congregations calling them to avoid divisions. As I look at the 95 places in the New Testament where the word “peace” is used, I conclude that most deal with either the internal peace with God which comes through faith and spiritual growth or peace within the community of faith.
The Bible does not prescribe a comprehensive program for society though it certainly has implications for how we live as citizens of our communities, state, nation and world. Several texts suggest to me that the New Testament prescribes an end to violence within societies influenced by the gospel. In Ephesians, we hear that “Christ is our peace for in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Ephesians 2:14). The writer of Ephesians was describing Jews and Gentiles in that statement. Where the Old Testament prescribed a limited retaliation and restricted people to exacting only an eye for an eye or a life for a life. Jesus challenged this by saying, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek turn the other also.” That passage comes from the Sermon on the Mount and is followed by Jesus’s command that we pray for our enemies and do good to those who hate us (Matthew 5:38-48). Finally, we remember that Jesus said clearly in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the Peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.”
How does our culture live up to this vision of non-violence? I think we should be humble enough to admit that we don’t. I am distressed by how risky it is to say this. The message of peace with God, an internal cessation of anxiety, finding a little space in this busy season is a message people will welcome. But a message which challenges our culture of violence is liable to step on toes.
In America we have crafted the best trained, best equipped military force the world has ever known. We are the last remaining Superpower and the champions of an arms race cold war that lasted nearly half a century. We have the loosest gun control laws of any nation and the largest saturation of guns within the population–granted many, if not most, are owned by sportsman but a significant portion are owned by those who would use them for violent purpose creating another group who own guns to protect themselves against such violence. Frequently, the movie which makes the most money at the box office in any given week includes graphic scenes of violence. Today’s most popular television show similarly depicts violent acts with stunning spectacularity. This morning we are faced with two very difficult realities. First, that the New Testament is committed to nonviolence. And second, that we are not a non-violent society nor are we likely to become one this morning.
What do we do with these two competing realities? I must confess that I don’t know. I think we must begin by honestly admitting that we have chosen a different way of life than that which is projected in the New Testament. In the 25 chapter of Leviticus, the Israelites were given instructions about the year of Jubilee. Every fiftieth year was to be known as a year of Jubilee. Everyone who had become and indentured servant would be released and allowed to return home. All property which had been sold out of the family would return to the owner of origin. It was a radical vision of society. As far as we know, the Israelites never observed the year of Jubilee. It could be argued that given the detail of instruction found in Leviticus about the year of Jubilee that they had develop a strong set of case laws regarding its practice. And yet, we do not know that they ever actually lived into this vision of an equalized society. And certainly in our modern world neither the Christian nor Jewish cultures which take scripture as their guide and light have ever sought to apply this to our practices of land ownership, contracts, or consumer debt. Let us at least be honest and say that there are things in the Bible we do not obey and are not likely to ever obey.
With this honesty, I think we should begin to seek ways to do that which we can do. Very few of us in this room have any power to influence national foreign policy. And I’m certainly not the person to try to give advice about wars and armed conflict. But what can we do? The World Health Organization estimated that in 2000 1.7 million people lost their life in some form of violence. That’s well over 4,500 people a day. They define violent death as death in armed conflict, homicides, domestic violence and suicides. As a church, we support the Women’s Shelter–a place where women caught in a violent home life can find refuge and support. It is good that we do this and we need to strengthen our efforts for this ministry. But what do we do to help heal the brokenness of abusive husbands, boyfriends, and parents? At what point do we set aside our righteous indignation our punitive retribution and say to them, “Let us find a better way”? What as a church are we doing in response to those considering suicide? How do we support and strengthen ministries for them? What are we doing as a church to work for fewer abortions? I don’t think picketing the Supreme Court helps but teaching abstinence until marriage and family planning does. As I look at the violent hot spots in our world today, I sadly confess my feelings to helplessness yet I am reminded that God has not called us to solve every problem. Christ and Christ alone is the Prince of Peace, we are merely servants within that kingdom and what we can do, we must do knowing that the ultimately peace belongs to God.