Christmas Peace: Peace on Earth

shepherds-and-angels

Lesson: Luke 2:1-20

I’ve had a song stuck in my head for the past couple of weeks.  I think “earworm” is the term most commonly used to describe a song that your brain keeps repeating involuntarily.  This season my earworm has been, “We Need a Little Christmas,” from the musical, “Mame.”  Now, I don’t actually even like the musical “Mame,” although I love the 1958 movie it’s based on, “Auntie Mame,” starring Rosalind Russell.  In the movie, Mame loses her fortune in the stock market crash of 1929, and tries her hand at a variety of jobs for which she’s hilariously ill-suited.  She maintains her good humor and sense of style but finally seems to be coming to the end of her options, and that’s when she suggests they go ahead and start celebrating Christmas even though it’s weeks away.  In the musical, Mame sings – and my Christmas present to you is that I won’t try to sing it myself; I’ll just speak it – Mame sings:

“Haul out the holly;
Put up the tree before my spirit falls again.
Fill up the stocking,
I may be rushing things, but deck the halls again now.
For we need a little Christmas
Right this very minute …”[1]

And this year more than many other years, I have had that same impulse.  We need a little Christmas.  It isn’t early, tonight; it’s Christmas Eve, after all.  But we all need a little Christmas.  Something cozy and familiar and reassuring.  The distraction and gaiety of decorations and parties and all the preparations, but even more, the warmth of family and friends, the comfort of home.  Not just the daily news, not only recent tragedies but life in general wears us out.  Wears us down.  We’ve had enough realism.  We need a little Christmas, now.

So we read the old, old story, the gorgeous poetry of Luke’s gospel, which is so calming in the King James.  Even the archaic words work as a kind of salve: “And they were sore afraid.”  The thing is, as beautiful and familiar as the words of this story are, Luke didn’t intend for his readers to picture a tidy Hallmark card when they heard it.  Cozy wasn’t his goal.  He was actually going after something completely different, to quote Monty Python.  He was going for unexpected.

Last Friday a Facebook friend posted a charming YouTube video of the Christmas story with all the parts played by kids.[2]  It’s way too slick to call it a Christmas pageant.  It’s called, “An Unexpected Christmas.”  It was produced by a church: St. Paul’s Church in Auckland, New Zealand, which has a terrific ministry called St. Paul’s Arts and Kids.  It’s quite the production, with great costumes and camera work, script, music, all the rest, plus their New Zealand accents are adorable, especially when they say “baby.”

The video begins as God looks down from heaven’s balcony, shaking his head at what he sees.  God says it’s time to step in.  God’s warrior-like angels – and there is Biblical support for that kind of angel[3]  – God’s warrior angels suggest sending an army but God says, no, maybe just one person.  A little angel in big round glasses says, “Brilliant!  They won’t be expecting that!”  The angels then say if it’s one person, it needs to be someone very powerful and strong.  “No,” says God, “they’ll be going as a newborn baby.”  “A newborn baby?” (or, as they pronounce it: BYE-bee) screech the warrior angels in disbelief.  “Brilliant!” says the bespectacled angel again.  “They won’t be expecting that.”  And so it goes.  This baby won’t be born to a great ruler or a mighty king, but to a peasant girl.  And this won’t be just any baby, but God’s son.  Born not in a palace, but in a stable, surrounded by animals and animal smells, as the girl angels point out.  And the angels will be allowed to sing to welcome the baby, but not to any kings, only to some shepherds, the folks at the very bottom wrung of the social ladder.  And at each decision, someone says, “Brilliant!  They won’t be expecting that!”

This captivating little video captures precisely what Luke intended.  “Brilliant!  They won’t be expecting that!”  Although, Luke’s version is, in fact, much edgier.  Luke dares to mention the secular rulers of the time, Augustus Caesar and Cyrenius, for a reason.  It’s kind of like one of those long pan shots in a movie – in “Lawrence of Arabia,” for example, where you see blinding white desert, and a tiny speck in the distance, eventually becoming a man on a camel.  In the Christmas story the opening shot includes the whole Roman Empire, and the camera zooms into the little stable in Bethlehem because Luke wants us to see the contrast between the power of the Roman Empire and the power of God through Christ.  What people wanted was a king like David who would unify the nation, rally the troops, and drive out the occupying forces.  That’s what a Messiah is supposed to do, right?  But the power of God does not look like the power of Rome.  When the angels sing of peace on earth, they are raising a question: Is it the Emperor in Rome and his Pax Romana who will bring you peace, or is it God?  Is it human power – power that is external and coercive – or is it God’s power – the power of vulnerable love?

Christian writer Frederick Buechner describes the difference between God’s power and human power this way: “By applying external pressure, I can make a person do what I want him to do.  This is [human] power.  But as for making him be what I want him to be, without at the same time destroying his freedom, only love can make this happen.  And love makes it happen not coercively, but by creating a situation in which, of our own free will, we want to be what love wants us to be.  And because God’s love is uncoercive and treasures our freedom … we are free to resist it, deny it, crucify it finally, which we do again and again.  This is our terrible freedom, which love refuses to overpower so that, in this the greatest of all powers, God’s power, is itself powerless.”[4]

Now, that takes us out of comfy-cozy into alarming territory, doesn’t it?  It is downright scary to be told by God, “This is the way to achieve real peace: by being as vulnerable with each other, as dependent on each other as an infant; by treasuring each other the way a newborn is treasured.  By loving each other the way I love you.”

But, brothers and sisters, what’s scarier still are the consequences of our refusal to love each other, which we can see all around us.  And when I say “love” I’m talking about the way we act toward each other, not some fuzzy feeling.

We need a little Christmas.  Right this very minute.  We need the message that God comes to us in a vulnerable baby born to nobody parents in a backwater village, in a stable surrounded by mess and bad smells, with “no crib for a bed,”[5] and the first people to hear about it, those shepherds out on a hillside, are the kind of people you’d never invite to dinner and you’d pray your daughter wouldn’t marry.

John Harvey, one of the poets at the Iona Community, a Christian community off the coast of Scotland that emphasizes worship and justice, came up with the best description I’ve found of the Christmas we all need.  Harvey wrote:

On this night of the year, a voice is speaking – can we hear it?

‘I know the cares and the anxious thoughts of your hearts.
I know the hard time you often give yourselves.
I know the hopes and ambitions that you have for yourselves and for others.
I know your doubts, too – even while you seek to express your belief.
On this night, I want to find a way of saying to you:
You are deeply, deeply loved,
just as you are, forgiven, loved
and challenged to be the very best you can be.
So I’m speaking to you the only way I know how –
from a stable,
in a child born into poverty
soon to grow to maturity,
born to show you
in a human life,
the love of God.’[6]

Brilliant!  They won’t be expecting that.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

© Joanne Whitt 2012

 


[1]  “We Need a Little Christmas,” from, “Mame,” music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, (1966).

[2]  You may watch this delightful video, “An Unexpected Christmas,” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TM1XusYVqNY&feature=youtu.be.

[3]  Michael the archangel seems to be a warrior angel (Revelation. 12:7) who does battle (Daniel 10:13, 21; 12:1).

[4]  Frederick Buechner, “The Power of God, the Power of Man,” in The Magnificent Defeat (New York: HarperCollins, 1966), p. 34.

[5]  “Away in a Manger,” first published with two verses in an Evangelical Lutheran Sunday School collection, Little Children’s Book for Schools and Families (1885), set to a tune called “St. Kilda,” credited to J.E. Clark.

[6]  John Harvey, “You Are Deeply, Deeply Loved,” in Candles and Conifers, Ruth Burgess, ed. (Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 2005), p. 239.

2 Comments

  1. Dale Steinmann

    Wed 16th Jan 2013 at 9:08 am

    Nice sermon. That is a wonderful film.

    Reply
    • The Rev. Dr. Joanne Whitt

      Wed 16th Jan 2013 at 10:42 am

      Thanks, Dale!

      Reply

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