Sunday, December 24, 2006

(Advent 4) Can We Trust this Kind of Savior?

Advent 4: Love Promises the Kingdom
Luke 1:39-55

The classic Christmas pop song tells us this is
“the most wonderful time of the year,
with the kids jingle-belling
and everyone telling you ‘Be of good cheer,’
and much mistletoe-ing,
and hearts that are glowing when love ones are near.”
And it’s true.
This time of the year is a
veritable barrage of beauty and joy and good will,
a flood of sounds, sights, and smells
that make people break out in smiles and fa-la-la’s.
At least, most of the time.
It’s also a time of the year when, understandably,
we emphasize feeling over thinking.
We want to get into the “spirit of the season,”
to feel it, to be happy, and sentimental.
Analysis is not a priority.

It’s certainly a time for singing without thinking.
It’s amazing when you realize how much profound theological truth
comes from the mouths of people on the sidewalk,
and shoppers pushing carts through Wal-Mart.
And most of them don’t have a clue that they’re being theological.

But it’s not just the general public.
We Christians who nurture our faith in regular worship
will sing of something profound and life-altering,
and it passes right over us.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that.
One of the gifts of song,
is it gets us in touch with the non-rational parts of our being.
A song can live in us in places other than our mind.
But of course, if we never think about what we sing,
we’re also missing something essential about song.

Case in point.
One of the main themes in Advent and Christmas music
is God’s salvation.
Joy to the world, the Savior reigns...
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth!...
Remember Christ, our Savior, was born on Christmas day.
In every song we sang so far this morning,
and in every song still to come,
we proclaim the salvation of God,
we sing praise to God our Savior.
But rarely do we ask ourselves,
what is the nature of this salvation?
Rarely do we wonder,
what kind of Savior is this who comes?

I can think of two reasons
why we don’t think about what we sing at Christmas.
The first, most obvious reason, is familiarity.
We could sing these songs blindfolded
with half our brain tied behind our back—
to quote a certain radio personality—
and still not miss a single note or a word.
We don’t have to think, in order to sing them.
They literally slide off our tongues.

The second reason is not so obvious.
...and not so easy for us to admit.
I think we really don’t want to think too hard
about what kind of Savior this is.
Because then we’d have to deal with that reality.
This is not a Savior for the status quo.
This is not the kind of Savior we encounter
who fills us with good warm feelings,
but leaves our way of thinking intact.
This is a Savior who turns our world on its head.

Sometimes I wonder how it ever came to be,
that this radical, subversive story in Luke 1 and 2,
this story of social, political, and spiritual revolution
could become the best-loved story in the world.
How could it have turned into a national holiday
for the most powerful country in the world?
Why do the United States Congress and the White House,
try to outdo each other decorating their halls,
and celebrating this story of humility and poverty?
It’s because we have all long ago stopped thinking
about what it all means.
We really do have a purely secular national holiday going on here,
with a thin veneer of religious symbolism.
But again, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.
It’s a wholesome holiday, from Santa Claus to Frosty the Snowman.
It promotes good will and kindness and generosity.
We can use lots more of that these days.
So more power to Christmas.
Let’s keep on lighting the National Christmas tree in Washington,
and singing sweet songs of peace and good will.

But... we who know the rest of the story
dare not forget about it.
This is a prime time to think theologically again.
To realize how formational this story can be for us,
and for the church in society.
This is a season for us to reclaim our identity as a people,
to truly worship God our Savior,
and to realize what God has saved us from.

And this is where a song can help us think.
Mary’s song, if we choose to really listen to it,
will go a long way toward helping us think straight.

Did you hear those words?
We heard them twice already this morning—
read from the Gospel of Luke,
and sung from “Sing the Journey” #13.
This is the song of an ordinary teenage Palestinian girl,
whose people are being oppressed by the world’s superpower,
and who was just visited by the God who saves.
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”
Mary sings with confidence about God’s mercy,
quoting lines from the psalms, and from the song of Hannah,
“God 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.”

The song of Mary paints a picture of a God
who saves with power and might,
but does so without relying on any—any—
of the mechanisms of power we human beings constructed.
In fact, those human structures of power and security—
the thrones of political authority,
the power held by those with wealth and resources,
the power of those who control the food supply,
all of these are unmasked,
and shown to be false power.
The social order is turned on its head, in Mary’s song.
The hungry are filled to satisfaction,
while the rich slink away with empty stomachs.
The powerful ones lose their places of influence,
and the lowly are admired and elevated in the eyes of the world.

This is the kind of Savior we sing about at Christmas.
We worship a Savior who bypasses the powers of this world
to accomplish his salvation.
We sing praise to a Savior born in a stable,
not because it made for a sweet picture,
and the cows and sheep were so cute and gentle and peaceful.
Jesus was born in that barn for a very political and economic reason.
His family was being registered and taxed
by an occupying power.
They had neither the wealth nor influence
to avoid this utterly humiliating situation
of having to give birth in a livestock shed.

But in God’s way of wisdom, this was a perfectly appropriate way
to introduce the Savior to the world.
And it was perfectly appropriate to use this young, naive,
and frightened teenage girl,
to take on the task of mothering the Messiah.

Now today, when we stop long enough to think clearly
about these circumstances,
and when we realize what kind of Savior God is,
we are left with a rather haunting question.

Can we trust this kind of Savior?
Can the ultimate good really be served,
can the world really be made a better place,
can the mission of the church be accomplished,
by the kind of Savior who ignores
the very mechanisms of power and social change
that we have invested all our energy into
for all these generations?
Can we trust a Savior who gives a privileged place
to the poor, and the hungry, and the lowly?

We think we know what it takes to fix things in the world.
It’s this sweet baby in a manger,
plus a bunch of money,
unlimited access to resources,
plenty of political capital,
and a strong military to back it up.
That’s something God our Savior could work with, right?

Can we really trust the God who chose a girl like Mary
to be the mother of his Anointed One?
Can we trust God to be there for us? for the church?
if we would be so radical as to let go of
this world’s money and power structures,
and put our security in something so...
insecure... and unpredictable... and unmanageable...
as the Spirit of God, and of God’s people?

We—and I’m talking about the larger institutional church now—
we have built up quite a complex network of structures
that help us feel secure in this threatening world.
We have church institutions that are committed
to educate us well for work and service,
to provide us with financial security,
to give us a good return on our investment,
to help us engage in cross-cultural mission without risking a lot,
to give us a safe and comfortable retirement,
to keep us on the straight path theologically,
to train professional pastors like me
to skillfully lead the church and its institutions,
and I could go on naming ways that we as a church
build structures we rely on for our security.
And I’m not knocking that.
I’m part of that system of security.

But would I recognize...
would we together recognize God our Savior,
if this God tried to bypass all these structures
that give us security
and help us manage the status quo,
and tried to do something brand new among us—
something that made as much sense as
the Messiah being born in a barn,
to a young couple about to become refugees?

Mary had her eyes open, I believe.
She was attentive enough that when God her Savior met her,
she was ready and willing to walk into the unknown.
She didn’t have any structures of wealth and power
to confuse her about where her security should lie.
She had only this Savior of hers that lifted up the lowly.
That’s all she had to trust in.
So she was in a position to believe
what was spoken to her by the Lord,
and to respond, “Here I am. Servant of the Lord.”

When I stop long enough to think about this Savior we sing of,
I have to wonder, honestly,
can I trust this kind of Savior?
Am I ready to trust God to do what God wants to do
in me, through me,
in us, through us,
without depending on any of the things that bring me security?
That’s a haunting question.
It’s a troubling question.
Because I don’t quite know the answer.
I don’t know if I am ready to let go of the things of this world
that make me feel secure.
I want to be.
But it’s easier said than done.

Maybe I should just go back to singing the songs of the season,
about God our Savior,
without bothering my mind with all these difficult questions?
And most of the time,
that’s what I do, in order to stay in a joyful Christmas spirit.

...But then I remember that this news of God’s salvation
was tremendously joyful news.
It made Elizabeth’s baby leap for joy in the womb.
It made Elizabeth shout for joy.
And it made Mary sing a song of exultation,
that has now become immortal.
The angels sang.
The shepherds rejoiced.

This message of salvation is good and joyful news,
and will be received as such,
by those who have not put their security
in human wealth and power structures.

I think the sign of whether we truly have our security in God,
is not that we feel joyful
when we sing the songs of Christmas without thinking.
It’s that we can think clearly and deeply
about what these songs are saying,
and still sing them with a joy that is deep and life-transforming.

May it be so this morning,
as we hear once again the song of Mary,
and then begin to proclaim the salvation of our God,
in the songs of Christmas.

—Phil Kniss, December 24, 2006

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