Sunday, December 18, 2005

Advent 4: December Fools’ Day

Luke 1:26-38, 47-55

I stole the title for my sermon today from a poem by
Presbyterian pastor-poet Johnstone Patrick.
He wrote this simple 4-liner, that says more than you might guess:
Along the pathway of the stars
we toil toward the Moon and Mars.
Good God! Have we lost our mind
in leaving Bethlehem behind?
He titled the poem, “December Fools Day.”
And I want to take the rest of this sermon,
to try to listen to what I think is behind those words.

And of course, the story behind the words is in the Gospel of Luke.
If you spent much time in Sunday School,
you know this whole story from Luke very well.
In a nutshell... Luke 1: Angels appear to various people,
delivering shocking news,
and after they get over their shock,
they usually break out in a song of praise.
Luke 2: A baby is born in a barn,
angels announce the birth to shepherds,
and this time the angels sing.
The shepherds pay a visit,
and everyone goes away pondering what it all meant.
That was a very small nutshell, I admit.

But there is one theme that pervades this whole story in Luke.
So much of this, when you stop to think about it,
is a story fit for fools.
In the classic sense of the word,
where a fool is someone who is a little off-kilter,
who doesn’t look at the world the way serious people do,
a jester who likes to laugh at what others think is important.
someone who can be fun to have around sometimes,
but certainly has no semblance of power or prestige,
a virtual nobody in the royal court.
This is a great story for fools.
And Christmas could be thought of, if you wish,
as December Fools Day.

Put yourself in Mary’s shoes, if you can.
Her story is impossibly foolish.
It makes no sense for God, Ruler of the Universe,
to even notice a girl like Mary,
much less act through her,
on behalf of the world’s salvation.
It’s foolishness.
And Mary realizes it.

After she let the shocking message of the angel soak in,
and chose to believe it,
and went and told cousin Elizabeth about it,
she sang this psalm of rejoicing,
that speaks of the little people triumphing over the big,
the weak over the strong,
the poor over the rich,
the nobodies over the somebodies.
Even though it’s practically unheard of in real life.
She believed in a God who loved the little people,
the fools of the world.
Remember the words we heard and sang this morning, from Luke 1?
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

How are we supposed to understand this foolishness?
this prediction that the entire social order as we know it,
will be turned on its head?
Who here believes that’s going to happen, anytime soon?
The Magnificat is a song for fools.

The Magnificat should make us squirm in our seats—
we who are not the world’s fools,
we who have power and wealth and influence,
and that’s practically everyone of us here this morning.
There’s no question.
We are the power brokers.
We sit on the political and economic thrones of this world.
We are the ones to be pulled down, apparently.

Isn’t it ironic, that this song, the “Magnificat,”
has been immortalized in hundreds of musical compositions,
has been sung in the world’s grandest cathedrals,
and performing halls,
by the world’s highest-paid singers and choirs,
and applauded by kings and queens and aristocrats?
And the whole song is about bringing down
the rich and powerful!

And it’s not just the song of Mary that’s foolishness.
The whole Luke account is story for fools.
It’s a story of good news for the nobodies of this world.
Even the geography is part of the story.
Bethlehem, it was said by the prophet Micah,
was one of the little, insignificant clans of Judah.
Joseph and Mary’s home town, Nazareth—
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” it was asked.
And think of all the “little people” God chose to use,
to help unfold the story of salvation.
An unwed teenager,
engaged to a carpenter,
chosen to give birth to the Christ-child, and raise him as her own.
Shepherds,
scorned by many because of their dirty work with animals,
became the specially appointed messengers of God.
And the parents of John the Baptist?
Priest Zechariah, had no special standing.
He was only one man in a large division of priests,
and his division was only one of 24,
that took turns with temple duty, just two weeks a year.
He was a reservist.
And the only reason he was in the holy place,
was that he drew the short straw,
and had to light the incense that day.
People on the streets in Jerusalem,
had no idea who Zechariah was.
And Elizabeth’s only claim to fame,
was being Mrs. Zechariah.
These were all people of little or no standing,
in a society that was being suppressed by a foreign power.
And I haven’t even gotten to the humble, dirty...and smelly
circumstances around Jesus’ birth in a stable.

Why is it, when God is up to something really earth-shaking,
that God seem to choose
people that are out of sight,
places that are off the map,
and situations that...well...stink a little.
_____________________

I’ve thought about this quite a bit.
I’m not sure I’m any closer to understanding it.
But I have some observations.

First off, I really don’t think God hates the rich and powerful.
Stories like this might tempt us to vilify the rich,
and glorify the poor and oppressed.
That is not what’s happening here.
God actually appreciates wealth.
Which is why God has such compassion on those without it.
God appreciates power that is used to carry out the will of God.
Which is why God feels so tender toward those
who have power taken from them.
God is on the side of joy and beauty and abundance and freedom.
That’s why God loves the poor and oppressed and downtrodden.
God wants to see their situation in life change.

So what I hear coming from the Magnificat,
is not the wrath of God against all those who sit on thrones
and have wealth and power at their disposal.
As a matter of fact, in the Psalm reading from this morning,
there is a word of clear affirmation for the enthroned.
In Psalm 89, God is quoted by the psalmist as saying,
I have made a covenant with my chosen one,
I have sworn to my servant David:
“I will establish your descendants forever,
and build your throne for all generations.”

No, God isn’t out to get the rich and powerful.
But when the rich and powerful don’t live out God’s purposes,
God simply turns to those who will.
If we, the rich and powerful in today’s world,
fail to serve the poor, or feed the hungry,
or free the oppressed,
if we fail to join God’s mission of establishing
justice and peace and goodwill among God’s people,
then God will simply give the job to someone who can do it.
It’s not that God angrily kicks the powerful off their thrones.
It’s that God lets the powerful get upstaged by the weak.
The big people get embarrassed when they are exposed
as actually having less power than the little people.
They don’t get thrown out of the palace.
They get shamed out.

And Luke isn’t the first place this kind of thing shows up in the Bible.
Time and again, God’s power came in the guise of weakness,
and unmasked and shamed the powers of this world.
Gideon and a handful of men,
brought down a whole army using silly lanterns and horns.
Kings and queens were dethroned
by the words of prophets hiding in caves.

And we know the story of what happened with Mary’s little boy-child.
He grew up to be a man
who turned things upside-down for a living.
He turned to the outcasts of the Jewish world
to demonstrate God’s power and grace—
Samaritans...tax collectors...prostitutes...lepers...Roman soldiers.
He taught that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.
It starts out so small you can barely see it.
And it grows from the bottom up.
He taught that the kingdom of God is like a little yeast in the dough,
a little salt in the soup, and a little light on a hill.

And before Jesus went back to heaven,
he passed on to others his mission
of bringing about the reign of God in the world.
Since Herod and Pilate and the High Priests of Israel,
obviously weren’t equipped to do it,
he gave the job to a group of 12 itinerant Galileans.

And meanwhile, here in our culture
we continue to put all our hope in the powers that be.
God’s kingdom is not going to rise or fall,
based on who sits in the Oval Office in Washington,
or who lives at #10 Downing Street in London,
or who just got elected in Iraq.
Yes, presidents and prime ministers can make a big impact,
and we ought to care about policies
that affect the lives of real people in all parts of the world,
but the God of the scriptures
does not depend on the enthroned to accomplish his purposes.
God depends on whosoever will
listen carefully to God’s invitation, and then with a sincere heart,
say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord;
let it be with me according to your word.”
That’s how Mary got the job.
She said, “Yes.” ... “Here am I.”

God’s mission in the world is to bring salvation.
It is to heal, to save, to reconcile, to restore.
But it’s not likely to come from those who are captive
to their own vested interests.
It will more likely come from those who are unencumbered.
Who don’t have the weight of wealth or reputation
to keep them from choosing a high-risk course of action.

Some people are unencumbered through no choice of their own.
They are denied access to the things of the world
that would tend to encumber them, to weigh them down.
But everyone of us,
even we who have much in the way of wealth and power,
can choose to be unencumbered.
We can choose to not allow what we possess to possess us.
We can choose to admit,
like I said in my mini-stewardship sermon last Sunday,
that God is the owner of all that we have,
and we only manage it for God.
We steward it.

And as we take on our role as God’s stewards—
stewards of the earth, of our material possessions,
and stewards of the gospel of salvation—
then God is free to use us.
Then we will be able to join in Mary’s song.

God’s salvation will come,
and it will more than likely come from one of the little ones—
little ones by choice, or by circumstance.
God’s salvation will come when ordinary people,
when we and our next-door neighbors,
when children and parents, say, “Here am I. Your servant.”

Jesus Christ did not come to earth that night in Bethlehem,
so that one day he could kick Caesar off his throne,
and sit on the throne in his place.
No, Jesus came to unmask the power of that earthly throne itself,
and demonstrate that God’s kingdom is about “the least of these.”

Christmas should be a time for us to stop and think about that.
To reflect on what that means about where we put our resources.
Are we investing in the kingdoms of this world?
Are we amassing power and position and wealth?
Or...are we investing in the kingdom of heaven?
If we want to truly honor Jesus, the newborn king of heaven,
we will submit ourselves to the rule of heaven,
we will value the things and people God values.

If we want to truly honor Jesus, we will remember Bethlehem,
one of the little clans of Judah,
one of the “little ones” through whom God chose to do great things.

So now, maybe the poem, “December Fools Day,”
makes a little more sense.
Here we are, chasing after all things great and mighty,
and the descendants of Abraham in various parts of the world,
are vying for power over each other,
are doing violence to each other,
all in the name of God.
But they have forgotten the God who invited Abraham,
the simple nomad from the land of Ur to be his servant.
And the God who invited farmers to be prophets,
and fisherman to be apostles.
They have forgotten their common origin
in the God who dearly loves the little people,
who chose a place like Bethlehem,
to anoint as king, David the shepherd boy,
the youngest and weakest son of Jesse,
and many generations later chose the same little town,
as the birthplace of the Messiah.

We have, like the poet said, left Bethlehem behind,
in our pursuit of things powerful and influential.
Some Christian leaders recently,
in trying to get this country’s civil and political institutions
to endorse and support the celebration of Christmas
in the public arena,
have turned to the courts and legislators—
the ones sitting on today’s thrones—to do it.
How ironic is that?

The real Spirit of Christmas is thriving among the little people.
In the Bethlehems of this world,
maybe not in the Richmonds and Washingtons,
but in the Bethlehems,
Christmas is not at risk in the least.
God is at work, inviting the little people to join the project.
And they are saying, many of them,
“Here am I. Servant of the Lord.”
We must not lose sight of that,
in the hustle and bustle, and the glitz and materialism of this season.

Hear once again the words of “December Fools Day.”
Along the pathway of the stars
we toil toward the Moon and Mars.
Good God! Have we lost our mind
in leaving Bethlehem behind?

—Phil Kniss, December 18, 2005

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