From These Shall Come Forth For Me One Who Is to Rule in Israel

The City of Evanston’s public libraries, fire stations, police department and community centers have ended their collection for the Mayor’s Annual Holiday Food and Toy Drive for local families.  Local Starbucks have had collection boxes available for toy donations. The Salvation Army’s Red Kettles can be seen outside countless businesses.  The Spirit of Christmas takes hold of our hearts and the best of human generosity is brought forth.  Last Sunday, we heard John the Baptist preaching to those who would be baptized, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”[i]  And in the parlor at St. Mark’s, our tree is filled with hats and gloves, mittens and scarves which will be shared this afternoon with the residents at Albany Care and later with students from District 65 through the Evanston School Children’s Clothing Association. 
But the texts for this Sunday – the last Sunday in Advent – while they continue their focus on the poor among us, shift directions markedly – not focusing on what we might do for the poor and the downtrodden but instead proclaiming what miraculous and mighty things God will bring forth from the poor and the downtrodden among us. 
First, we have the prophet Micah who proclaims, “But you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel.”[ii]  These words spoken by the prophet are spoken to a people who have watched the Northern Kingdom fall to the Assyrians and have themselves only survived by paying a high price – “huge tributes, loss of . . . independence, and corruption of its traditions by the incorporation of religious practices of the dominant foreign power.”[iii]   It’s hard for me to imagine how Micah’s listeners would have heard these words:  a people who have nothing, a people who have been pushed down for so long that perhaps they are even beginning to believe that they are nothing – from this people shall come forth one who is “to rule in Israel. . . [to] stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord.”[iv]
Then, we have the song of Mary – the Magnificat – and her pronouncement of God’s intention to turn everything and everyone upside down – the proud will be scattered, the mighty cast down, the lowly lifted up, the hungry filled, the rich sent away empty.[v]  All of this because the Lord “has looked with favor on his lowly servant,” Mary.[vi]  Women in the first century were subject to the authority of men – first their father and then, after marriage, their husband.   Some texts suggest that women were merely considered property; but others have said that by the first century this was beginning to change.  In either case, however, here is a young woman who has nothing and from this young woman shall come the Savior of a people.
I read this week that J. R. R. Tolkien “was grading papers from his students, when he came across a blank page. Apparently Tolkien was a bit of a doodler, and this blank space was all the inspiration he needed to write the sentence, ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ That sentence went on to begin one of the most famous novels of 20th century English literature, The Hobbit.”[vii]  From a people oppressed by a foreign government to a young unwed woman without power to a blank piece of paper.  From these have come great things.  Where you and I see emptiness, poverty, brokenness, need or despair, God sees a future.   And God finds a space to write that future into being.  And all it took was willingness on the part of those who had little to be the instruments of God’s work.  
My colleague Heidi Haverkamp who is the rector at The Episcopal Church of St. Benedict in Bolingbrook has just published a book of advent reflections called Advent in Narnia.  In it she writes:
“The first Christmas came because of the power of God but also because of the willingness of ordinary people to prepare the way. Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zechariah, some shepherds, and an innkeeper were watching, waiting, and willing to be part of God’s plan. Advent means the same for us: watching, waiting, and finding ways to enter into God’s plan. Jesus is coming. . . He will melt the power of sin, evil, and death. However, the work of God’s vulnerable but powerful love is also in our hands, now and until the day that Jesus will return.”[viii]
And, my brothers and sisters in Christ, I would suggest that “the work of God’s vulnerable but powerful love” is especially in the hands of the most vulnerable among us – those who believe they will never be enough, those who struggle on our streets, those whose parents tell them they love wrongly, those among us who are pressed down by the heavy burden of depression or anxiety, addiction or chronic fear, those whom society sets aside because they are too sick or too frail, too young or too old.  These are the very ordinary ones who can show us the way.  From these “shall come forth . . . one who is to rule in Israel . . . and he [or she] shall be the one of peace.”

[i] Luke 3:11.
[ii] Micah 5:2a (NIV).
[iii] Daniel J. Simundson, “The Book of Micah: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Vol. VII, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 534.
[iv] Micah 5:2b, 4a.
[v] Luke 1:51-53.
[vi] Luke 1:48a.
[vii] Mark Winters, “God Doesn’t Need Much to Make Miracles Happen. . .” Season of Inclusion, (Chicago: Equality Illinois, 2015).
[viii] Heidi Haverkamp, Advent in Narnia: Reflections for the Season, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 61.


Preparing the Way Amidst the Turmoil of Our World

Sermon Preached at St. Mark's Episcopal Church
Luke 3:1-6

This week I was standing in Anna’s office bemoaning the need to preach after yet another week of violence.  In fact, I was complaining out loud about it!  And then, in the midst of my complaint I stopped.  And I looked over at Anna and admitted with some embarrassment that perhaps Jesus was pretty sick of it all too!  After all, the world in which he lived was not overflowing with love and peace for all.  The world in which he lived, in which he taught and prayed and healed and preached was a world not too unlike our own. And that is precisely the world God chose to enter, precisely the world God came to heal.
Today’s Gospel reading could not make it clearer that Jesus entered a politically, religiously, socially, and economically divided world – “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius.”[i]  According to PBS’ The Roman Empire in the First Century, Tiberius’ “political inability, poor judgment and jealousy led Rome into a dark age of political purges, murder and terror.”[ii] Tiberius was not trusted and, in fact, was outright resented by the Roman Senate and throughout his career his “position was weak.”[iii]
 “. . .When Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea.”[iv] Pontius Pilate finds his way into our creed. But who was he? As Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate “commanded Roman military units, authorized construction projects, arranged for the collection of imperial taxes, and decided civil and criminal cases . . . [He] had numerous confrontations with his Jewish subjects.”[v] When the Jews protested his actions, “Pilate threatened [them] with death.”  According to Philo who wrote in the early first century, “Pilate’s lack of concern for Jewish sensibilities was accompanied . . . by corruption and brutality.”[vi] In fact, complaints of excessive cruelty may have resulted ultimately in his removal from office and his exile in France.[vii] 
“Herod was ruler of Galilee . . . his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene.”[viii] These related men ruled in a turbulent period of history. Little is known about them individually, with the exception, of course, of Herod himself whom history has described as “a madman who murdered his own family” and one “prepared to commit any crime in order to gratify his unbounded ambition.”[ix]
The point the gospel writer seems to take pains to point out in this single verse is that the world into which Jesus would enter was a world filled with chaos, uncertainty and great violence. So while I may selfishly prefer to stand here and preach sermon after a week of peace and justice throughout the world, that is not the world God came to save. God came to save a world exactly like the one you and I are living in.  A world filled with fear and violence, vitriolic rhetoric on all sides, and great uncertainty about the path forward. This is exactly where we find God with us.  In the midst of this turmoil. 
And into this world, God sent John the Baptist to “Prepare the way of the Lord” by “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”[x]  And every one of us is challenged to hear this proclamation of repentance.  The news, Twitter feeds, Facebook posts have all been filled with hate and finger pointing this week.  Blame the Muslims, blame the NRA, blame the legislature, blame the lack of care for the mentally ill, blame ISIS, blame, blame, blame.  My brothers and sisters in Christ, it is a perfect setup.  “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.”[xi] We are called to repent.  All of us.  We are called to forgive.  All of us.  We are called to prepare the way for Christ to enter our lives again. 
I picked up a copy of the autumn issue of Plough Quarterly, a relatively new publication.  What caught my attention was an article called, “Learning to Love Boko Haram.”  Love Boko Haram?  Love this group of militants who kidnap young girls, who murder Christians and non-cooperating Muslims, who in March of this year pledged allegiance to ISIS?  Love?  Really?
Really.  Prepare the way for Christ to enter.  Repent. All of us. Forgive.  All of us.  In her article “Learning to Love Boko Haram,” Peggy Gish states that of the 276 girls who were abducted in April 2014 by Boko Haram, 178 belong to EYN, the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria.  This is significant because the Church of the Brethren, like other Anabaptist churches is rooted in “pacifism – a conviction for which Anabaptist churches have often paid dearly, targeted repeatedly for refusing to perform military service or to take up arms in self-defense during times of unrest.”[xii]  According to Gish, as of June of this year, “over ten thousand EYN members have been killed, and more than 170,000 members . . . have been displaced within Nigeria or in neighboring countries.”[xiii]  And yet, true to their commitment to pacifism, members have continued “to witness to the peace and forgiveness of Christ’s way, even toward their enemies.”[xiv]
In our own tradition of Anglicanism, pacifism has generally been rejected except as “vocational witness” which we describe as “the renunciation of violence . . . not as a universal obligation but [as] a specific calling that bears witness to the larger ends of God”[xv] - such is the nature of the work of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship, for example.  So, while we do not renounce violence across the board, we do, like the Anabaptists, take repentance and forgiveness seriously.  And, there are times when the juxtaposition of violence, repentance and forgiveness come together in ways that are uncomfortable – actually, downright painful. 
For me, it is when I learn of 14 more people killed violently in the United States and my immediate reaction is to seek out the vitriolic speech of the right wing, to point my finger of blame, to feel self-righteous while, at the same time, ignoring my own tendency to vitriolic speech for “my side” of the argument.  And so I am challenged on a daily basis to find a way to live out my baptism – to live out my calling to “prepare the way of the Lord” – by ensuring that even when faced with those who do not share my solution to a problem, my version of justice and peace among all people, that I, nonetheless, treat all people – perhaps especially those with whom I disagree - with the dignity and respect that I have promised them in my baptism.  That I continue to seek and serve the Christ within them, loving my neighbor as myself. That is, at least in part, what repentance, reconciliation and forgiveness are about.
Peggy Gish shares this exchange with a group of militants from Boko Haram with an EYN member named Rebeccah:

 “Twenty militants surrounded her, and one told, her ‘OK, we’re going to kill you. Aren’t you scared?’

‘No,’ she answered. ‘I’m not scared. Even if I die, I know where I am going – to heaven.’

‘Where are the Boko Haram going,’ he asked her in return, ‘to heaven, or to hell?’

‘I don’t know, but I’m praying for you to go the right way. You always have a second chance. In one second, you can change your life and go to heaven.’

He responded, ‘You’re a good person. We will not touch you.’ Acknowledging that she was giving food and supplies to Muslims he added, ‘Go and do your work!’ As she left, Rebecca told them she would pray for them.”[xvi]

So this morning I continue to grieve the loss of the 14 lives that were taken this week in southern California and to pray for their souls – for Robert Adams, Isaac Amanios, Bennetta Betbadal, Harry Bowman, Sierra Clayborn, Juan Espinoza, Aurora Godoy, Shannon Johnson, Larry Daniel Kaufman, Damian Meins, Tin Nguyen, Nicholas Thalasinos, Yvette Velasco, and Michael Raymond Wetzel.  And, while admittedly more difficult for me, I pray for the souls of the two who committed this act of violence – Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik.
And this morning I pray for those who hold vastly different views from mine on how these atrocities can be prevented in the future.  And my prayer is that God might touch their hearts and mine so that we might together find a path forward that will help us, especially in this season of Advent, to “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight . . .[so that] all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
My brothers and sisters in Christ, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”  If so, answer, “I will, with God’s help.” And “will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” If so, answer, “I will, with God’s help.”[xvii]
“Grant, O Lord, that we who have been baptized into the death of Jesus Christ your Son may live in the power of his resurrection and look for him to come again in glory; who lives and reigns now and forever. Amen.”[xviii]

[i] Luke 3:1.
[ii]Tiberius,” The Roman Empire in the First Century, PBS accessed on December 4, 2015.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Luke 3:1.
[v] Douglas Linder, “The Trial of Jesus: Key Figures,” Famous Trials, University of Missouri – Kansas City School of Law, 2002 accessed on December 4, 2015.
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Ibid.
[viii] Luke 3:1.
[ix] Ken Spino, "History Crash Course #31: Herod the Great". Crash Course in Jewish History, 2010, accessed December 4, 2015; “Herod I” at Jewish Encyclopedia accessed December 4, 2015.
[x] Luke 3:3-4.
[xi] Mark 3:24.
[xii] Peggy Gish, “Learning to Love Boko Haram: A Nigerian Peace Church Responds,” Plough Quarterly (Autumn 2015, No. 6), 13.
[xiii] Ibid., 13-14.
[xiv] Ibid., 14.
[xv]Pacifism,” The Episcopal Church accessed December 4, 2015.
[xvi] Gish, 19.
[xvii] “The Baptismal Covenant,” The Book of Common Prayer, 305.
[xviii] Adapted from “Prayers for the Candidates,” The Book of Common Prayer, 306.