December 24, 2009

Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie

Isaiah 9:2-7
Titus 2:11-14

Gwen: Well, it’s Christmas Eve tonight, and just like every year, we’re celebrating… blah, blah, blah… Jesus was born… blah, blah, blah… I’m sure you’ve all heard the story a million times before. Maybe we should just skip to the Christmas prayers so we can get out of here.

Amanda: Um, Gwen, is something wrong? Don’t you want to preach about the wonder of Jesus’ birth into our world?

Gwen: I don’t know, Amanda… what would I say? We’ve all heard the story before about how Jesus was born, and the angels sang, and the shepherds came all excited to visit the baby. Babies are nice and all… but how can we keep getting excited about a baby that was born more than 2000 years ago?

Amanda: Don’t you think Jesus’ birth has relevance for us today?

Gwen: I can see how Jesus’ birth would have been exciting back then. I mean, Jesus came into a time and place when people really needed his help. His own people, the Jews, were living under Roman rule and things were really tough for them.

The pax Romana was supposed to be good for everyone in the Empire, but the reality was that it was only good for the rich and the elite, and it required everyone to give allegiance to and even to worship the Emperor. The Jews, who believed in one God only had a lot of trouble with this kind of system.

Amanda: The people at that time were coping with the Romans in a variety of ways.

Some of them were trying to co-operate with the rulers. They figured “if you can’t beat them, join them”. Groups like the Sadducees and the Herodians were making the best of a bad situation by publicly accommodating the Roman ways, and keeping their own religion privately.

Others like the Pharisees and the Zealots had a different strategy. The Zealots wanted to rise up and fight against their oppressors, and the Pharisees figured that if the people repented and turned back to God, observing every detail of God’s law, then God would raise up liberator who would lead them to victory.

A few, like the Essenes, rejected all of these approaches, calling instead for a withdrawal into the wilderness to avoid the whole simmering mess.

Gwen: So when Jesus came, some people started to figure out that he was the liberator they were hoping for. He was the one who was going to give the people freedom from their Roman occupiers. Remember Mary’s song of praise from last Sunday? She was definitely interpreting Jesus’ birth as good news for her people.

“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.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Amanda: Yes, but Jesus wasn’t exactly the military leader that most of them were expecting.

Gwen: That’s for sure! He didn’t rise up and fight for the rights of his people. And he didn’t encourage his followers to fight either.

Amanda: What he did do was to invite his followers to become servants in a different kind of kingdom… not within the Empire of Rome where there was supposed peace and prosperity for all, and where everyone worships the Emperor… but instead within the Kingdom of God.

The good news that Jesus proclaimed was that God is king, and we can live in relation to God and God’s love rather than Caesar and Caesar’s power.

Gwen: Remember that scene near the end of Jesus’ story, when Jesus is standing in front of Pilate, and Pilate is trying to understand him and to decide what to do with him?

Amanda: mmhmm… Pilate wants to know if Jesus is the king of the Jews.

Gwen: Yes, and Jesus tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world.
“If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” In other words, Jesus’ kingdom doesn’t work the way that other kingdoms or empires do.

Amanda: Earthly kingdoms fight, but Jesus’ kingdom, being “from another place,” has another nature and another strategy. Instead of winning by violence and domination, his kingdom simply tells the truth and sees who listens. Jesus says, “for this reason I was born, and for this reason I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”

Gwen: That’s got to be the kind of kingdom that Isaiah was talking about! He looked forward to a day when his people, who were walking in darkness, who didn’t know how to live together in peace and justice, would see a great light. He wrote about the joy that they would experience when they were free from oppression and war.

Amanda: And it wasn’t a military leader that Isaiah was predicting. It was a child.

Gwen: For a child has been born for us, a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually
and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

Amanda: Zeal! That’s what you were missing earlier tonight, Gwen. Enthusiasm, passion, spirit, devotion, eagerness!

God’s zeal for the people of the world led God to do something big… to send a son into the world to show us a new way.

A way of peace in which the people would live within God’s Kingdom, letting God rule and direct their lives, rather than spending their energy and effort trying to figure out how to overthrow the Roman Empire.

Gwen: I’ve been wondering about why the Gospel writers would tell us the story of Jesus’ birth… how he was born to a poor young couple, and how they had to stay with the animals and lay him in a manger on his first night in the world.

Amanda: Well, it’s like the rest of Jesus’ story, isn’t it? It’s not what you’d expect of a liberator, or of an overthrower of empires, or of a king. God turns everything upside down with Jesus. It’s the beginning of what Mary was talking about… the poor being lifted up, the hungry being filled with good things, and all of that…

Gwen: But the thing is, I’m still not sure what all of this has to do with us today. Jesus’ birth and life and message made sense for the people back then. He showed them a way to live in the Kingdom of God in spite of the Empire of Rome that seemed to be in control. But what does that mean for us?

Amanda: Well, it’s not a Roman Empire that’s in charge in our world today, but perhaps we need to stop and think about who or what is in charge. What kind of kingdom do we live in? What rules in the hearts and minds of people today?

Gwen: One thing I’ve noticed is that there is an awfully strong push towards people buying and accumulating as many possessions as possible. The advertising is everywhere, and we are constantly bombarded with messages telling us that our lives will be so much better if only we had another gadget… if only we had the latest gizmo.

It seems like we live in the kingdom of consumption — a kingdom in which our desire for material wealth goes beyond the level of need or even comfort by making the constant stimulation and satisfaction of desire an end in itself.

Amanda: I think we also live in a kingdom of entitlement. We’ve had so much for so long that we assume that we need and deserve these things. Our kingdom doesn’t encourage us to think of others who may actually be in need, and it doesn’t encourage us to consider the effects that our consumption habits are having on the environment. We are ruled by our supposed need to have all these things, and to live in the ways we’ve become accustomed to live.

Gwen: And the kingdom that we live in is driving us to work more and more, to do everything quicker and more efficiently so that we can acquire more and consume more. It’s as if we need to justify our existence or prove our value by what we can earn or build or amass in this world. It’s not the kind of kingdom that allows us to be still and know that God is among us.

Amanda: It’s not the kind of kingdom that allows us to know that God is among us at all, is it?

But that is the good news of Jesus’ birth for us today. That is the good news of God’s kingdom which came in Jesus, which will come in our world, which is coming right now in this place and in this time.

Because we have the opportunity to choose God’s Kingdom. Just as the people of Jesus’ time had a choice to make about what king they would choose to serve, we have that choice to make as well.

We can be like the Sadducees and the Herodians. We can live like everyone else in the kingdoms of this world… and privately, within our homes or our churches, we can make mention of the birth of Jesus.

Or we can be like the Pharisees, carefully observing all the details of the religious laws, criticizing and ostracizing those who don’t do as well as us at following them, and praying for a Saviour to help us to conquer the evil kingdoms that rule in our world.

Or we can be like the Essenes. We can ignore the world around us. Shut ourselves off in our little church communities and live our way, oblivious to the world’s concerns and happenings.

Gwen: Or we can live like Jesus… out in the world, connecting with the people of the world, confronting the rules of the kingdoms and often breaking those rules as well. Not fighting against the powers that be… but quietly, deliberately, living in a different way, choosing a new direction that values life and community, reconciliation, generosity, and love.

Amanda: Are you beginning to get a bit more excited about our Christmas celebration, Gwen? Can you feel any zeal coming on?

Gwen: Well, I don’t use the word “zeal” very often, but I do notice that the word “zeal” comes up again in our reading from Paul’s letter to Titus.

Amanda: Yes, just as God’s zeal and God’s amazing love for us was what brought Jesus into our world, Paul tells us that Jesus’ purpose was to make for himself a people of his own who are “zealous” for good deeds.

Gwen: Now that sounds like something that I can get excited about! Jesus’ birth into our world changes everything! We don’t have to be ruled by the patterns of our world, by the priorities that this kingdom says we should have. Instead, we can choose the way of Jesus and the Kingdom of God.

Amanda: At Christmas, we are invited to pause and remember the birth of Jesus, to look upon the Christ Child… born in a barn, lying in a feed trough… and to know that God loves us so much, God’s zeal for us is so great, that God sent Jesus to turn everything upside down. God sent Jesus to quietly topple the kingdoms of the world and to call us to live as servants within the Kingdom of God.

Gwen: Let our hearts be filled with that same kind of zeal… to love as Jesus has loved us, to give as Jesus has given himself for us, to make our Christmas and all our lives about doing good deeds in name of Christ, who is our Lord and our King.