A Christmas Sermon: Humility or Humiliation

46 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name. 50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.” 56 Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home. [Luke 1:46-56]

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Photo credit: CJ Matulewicz

There are things that happen every single year: birthdays, taxes, the collapse of the Chicago Bears. These are normal things that will happen every year whether or not we’re paying attention. Christmas is one of those things that happen each year and, like anything else that occurs regularly, it can become normal.

It’s so normal that we can forget that there were once people who were the first to respond to Jesus’ birth. Of course there were plenty who knew the infant Jesus as simply that, the infant with a rather common name, born to a seemingly normal couple. But there were some who had more information, who knew that this infant’s birth was different, that in the birth of this baby they were seeing God’s long-awaited salvation. For them, this particular birth was in no way normal.

Given how ordinary – almost mundane – Christmas is for us, it is helpful to notice how these women and men responded to Jesus’ birth. What can the different responses by those who had some idea of the significance of this baby show us about our own predictable, ordinary, and tame responses?

Matthew and Luke tell the longest, most detailed accounts of Jesus’ birth and so from them we can quickly survey some of the responses. Right away we notice that some receive Jesus with joy, while others respond with doubt and rejection. This is not a simplistic observation; there are a variety of dynamic experiences within these two kinds of responses. For example, the joy Mary expresses in her song can’t be confused with temporary, superficial happiness. Her experience with the announcement of Jesus’ birth contains mystery, fear, and the promise of suffering. Or, to take an example from the other kind of response, Mary’s relative Zechariah the priest, when told of the birth of his own son who would prepare the way for Jesus, responds initially with cynical doubt. But later, at the birth of his son, he bursts into joyful song: Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. [Luke 1:68]

So there are two primary responses to the birth of Jesus: joy & rejection. And the question for those of us who have become too accustomed to the Christmas story is this: What is the difference between those who receive Jesus with joy and those who reject him?

We hear the answer in Mary’s song. Here it is the humble whom God is gracious to: For he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant; His mercy extends to those who fear him; He has lifted up the humble; He has filled the hungry with good things. On the other hand, in Mary’s song God opposes the proud: He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts; He has brought down rulers from their thrones; He has sent the rich away empty.

This is what matters. Those who are humble receive God’s salvation with joy. Those who are proud reject God’s plan of salvation, especially when it comes in the form of a helpless baby. The logic behind these responses isn’t complicated and both Mathew and Luke give us a few opportunities to see it play out.

While Zechariah is humbled and changes his response, another prideful rejecter goes to his grave. King Herod, whose massive building campaigns and paranoid murders take pride to another level, opposes the news of the infant king. His violent response forces Mary, Joseph, and Jesus into Egypt as refugees. Matthew records his eventual death in passing, evidence that God’s plan will move forward despite a megalomaniac like Herod. Luke, in the book of Acts, similarly records the death of Herod’s son as mere passing background to the Gospel’s spread throughout the world.

Thankfully there are many more examples of humble women and men who received Jesus with joy. There is Anna and Simeon, faithful warriors of prayer who knew their God’s salvation when they encountered the just-born Jesus in the temple. There are the shepherds – young, ostracized, and barely visible in their society – who were granted pride of place at the stable in Bethlehem. Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about. [Luke 2:15] And there are the Magi – possibly astronomers from Babylon – who, despite their wealth and status, traveled a vast distance to worship this new king. Their great humility overcame the temptations of their wealth and station; it overcame cultural and religious differences; their humility even overcame what must have been the great surprise that this new king was not at the palace in Jerusalem but in a small home in Galilee.

In these opposite responses we see why the humble receive the Lord: they know their great need. In their humility they know that it must be God who acts on their behalf. So Mary sings: For the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name; He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors. And because they know their great and terrible need, these humble men and women receive their Savior with joy and so they are rescued by him. They are filled by him. They are lifted up by him.

But the proud oppose this infant king because his birth threatens to unseat their own authority and agendas. They see no need for a Savior. Not this kind at least. They would be ok with a bit of spirituality added to their lives, maybe some religious practices to legitimize their selfishness. But not a king whose birth is announced by angelic warriors, whose agenda is articulated as a cosmic reversal of the rich and the poor; whose mandate is the completion of Israel’s agenda to rescue the world. No, for the proud this is too much by far. This king will require too much and so must be ignored, discredited, and opposed.

How do you respond to birth of God’s son?

Here we have a helpless infant, born into poverty and imperial occupation. Despite the soft-focus filter we put onto the nativity, this child will grow into the one who calls our allegiance into sharp contrast: Follow me; Sell everything; Let the dead bury the dead; If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off; Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.

Given the surprising and almost embarrassing way God enters our world, and given the completely alternative kingdom-of-heaven life that Jesus invites us into, it should be clear that only the humble could receive Jesus with joy. Only those who by experience or choice can see through this proud world’s lies can welcome the infant king. The proud will, of course, reject him. His arrival is undignified and his call is too costly. Mary’s song shows us who will welcome her son and why; who will reject her son and why. But her song also reveals what happens to the humble who accept their Savior with joy and the proud who reject him.

The humble find that their hope and faith have been well placed. They are lifted up. They are saved. Their lives are given meaning and dignity that cannot be coopted or stolen by this world. The proud, on the other hand, because they do not receive their Lord humbly will finally be humiliated by him. Zechariah is humiliated when is speech is taken from him; he’s left in silence to consider God’s surprising way of salvation. The Herods, despite all of their accomplishments, are remembered for their neurotic egos; they become the examples of all that is wrong in the world.

The humiliation experienced by those who reject Jesus is not the result of a petty, vindictive, and insecure God. It is, rather, the natural consequence experienced by those who oppose the very essence of God’s redemption in this world. Because, you see, it’s not that humility is some arbitrary perquisite for salvation. No, our humility places us within the very heart of God’s presence in this world. As Paul writes, And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! [Philippians 2:8] Author Brennan Manning, in keeping with this season, puts it this way: On a wintry night, in an obscure cave, the infant Jesus was a humble, naked, helpless God who allowed us to get close to him.

Our humility in response to the birth of Jesus is an imperfect but essential reflection of the humility of our God. The only one with the rationale for pride instead chose humility so that we could know and be known by God; that we could love and be loved by God. Do not let the birth of the world’s Savior be normal to you this year. Remember your great and desperate need for a Savior. Humble yourself with Mary, with the shepherds, and with the Magi. And if you find humiliating this old, strange, somewhat embarrassing story of God enfleshed as helpless, dependent infant… let even this turn you to the humble God, who for us and our salvation chose the humiliation of our humanity.

Daily Advent Reflections

We’re approaching the halfway point of Advent. This particular Advent season has been more hectic than typical for me, partly related to ministry and partly related to a home improvement project and a baby who is still learning to sleep. All that to say, I’ve been especially grateful to Michael for posting a daily Advent reflection on his blog. He’s taking Luke 1 as his starting point. If you’re not already doing so, subscribe to Michael’s blog and take a few minutes each morning to consider the questions and reflections he’s putting in front of us this Advent. You can jump right in, though you might appreciate going back and beginning with the first one.

Preaching After Ferguson: “I will shepherd the flock with justice.”

I’ve had a few requests asking about how our church worshipped yesterday, taking into account the non-indictment from Ferguson. Below is a lightly-edited version of my sermon. However, the most impactful part of the service were the testimonies given by eight members who told us about their responses to the news. After each person shared the church responded by praying a portion of a psalm.

Update: The podcast is now available and it includes the testimonies shared by eight members of our church.

Advent: Lament and Longing

Today is the first Sunday in Advent, the season that reminds us of the time when God’s people were awaiting the coming of the Messiah. Our passage, Ezekiel 34, was written during that waiting time: Babylon had conquered Judah; Ezekiel and others had been carried into exile; The Temple had been destroyed. Advent reminds us of the longing and laments these people felt as they prayed for God’s rescue to come.

Advent also reminds us that we await our Messiah’s return. We share with those ancient exiles the bitter awareness that life is far from what it should be; we share with them the hope for the Messiah to come and make all things right. Because things are not right.

When Michael Brown, an unarmed, 18 year old, college-bound, African American man with no criminal record was gunned down by a white police officer in Ferguson, we are reminded that things aren’t right.

When the young man’s body was left in the middle of the street for four hours in the August afternoon sun, we are reminded that things aren’t right.

When law enforcement responded to protests with tear gas and military grade weaponry, we are reminded that things aren’t right.

When a town like Ferguson can be 67% African American and yet 93% of arrests made by the mostly white police force are of the town’s black citizens, we are reminded that things aren’t right.

When Michael Brown’s personal life and motives are picked apart by a media looking for some reason to justify his killing, we are reminded that things aren’t right.

When the same state that ruled against the enslaved Dred Scott’s legal suit challenging his enslavement in 1847 releases video showing Michael Brown stealing a few cigarettes as justification for his death, we are reminded that things aren’t right.

When a grand jury meets for three months under the direction of a county prosecutor with close ties to the police department and a history of racial bias and decides not to indict the police officer who killed Michael Brown, we are reminded that things aren’t right.

When a black man is 21 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than a white man, we are reminded that things aren’t right.

When so many American citizens question the innocence of these slain men while conveniently overlooking our nation’s pathological robberies: we took the first nation’s land before taking their lives; we stole black bodies from Africa and placed them within a white supremacist system of cotton fields, Jim Crow laws, systematically designed ghettos, and money-making prisons; our towns and tax systems benefits from undocumented brown bodies who do the work we’re unwilling to do for wages we’d be offended by… we are reminded that things aren’t right.

Oppressive Shepherds and Opportunistic Sheep

In response to their new situation in Babylon, the exiles wanted to know what they were to do. Their king was dethroned, they’d been sent into exile, and now the temple was destroyed. In response to so much trauma and suffering, what were they to do? I was texting with a friend this week about the news from Ferguson and, at one point, he replied, “I’m not doing enough.” Like the exiles, we want to know what to do. But the Ezekiel passage doesn’t tell us what to do. Instead Ezekiel makes clear that nature of the injustice suffered by God’s people and it tells us what God will do about it.

Verses 34:1-16 are directed to the shepherds, those in positions of power and leadership. Woe to you writes Ezekiel. God is angry with them for what they’ve not done as well as the ways they’ve abused their power.

You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally.

As a result of their unjust rule, the people are scattered, wandering, and being devoured.

Verses 34:17-31 are directed toward the sheep, the people. Some of them, according to Ezekiel have taken advantage of the unjust system created and maintained by the shepherds. Ezekiel charges them: You’ve eaten your fill then trampled the pasture so others can’t eat; You’ve muddied the water so others can’t drink; You’ve abused the weak sheep and driven them away.

And what will God do about the wicked shepherds and opportunist sheep?

 23 I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. 24 I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the Lord have spoken.

This is pointing toward Jesus, the Messiah anticipated by the exiles and their descendants right up until that surprising night in Bethlehem. But look closely and see that the metaphor of shepherd is closer to a righteous judge.This shepherd will remove corrupt leaders. He will judge those who have benefitted themselves through an evil system.

What Will You Do When The Shepherd Returns?

The exiles awaited this “one shepherd” to come. We await his return. So how will you respond when this good shepherd and righteous judge returns? There will be many who great his return with celebration and relief. There will be some, like the shepherds in Ezekiel 34, who will be terrified because their opposition to this return king has been unmistakable.

And then there will be others of us who are like the fat sheep in this passage and like the goats in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25:31-46. In response to the righteous judge this group will respond, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ Those within this group know there is something wrong with our world. We know, on some level, that game is rigged. We know that our nation resembles a democracy to some and a kleptocracy to so many others. But because we generally don’t feel the wickedness of our society we are quickly distracted. We choose to invest in the small circle of our insulated existence rather than the lives of the overlooked and oppressed.

And here is the truth according to God’s word: the judge will pronounce sentence on those powerful people who oversaw the unjust system AS WELL as on those who quietly benefitted from the unjust system.

Which group do you fall within? If you’re unsure, imagine for a moment that Jesus returned today. Imagine the realization that the good shepherd and righteous judge had come to make all things right and new. What would you feel? Would you run to greet this shepherd and judge, knowing that your salvation and vindication had arrived? Would you run the other way, knowing that your day of hollow and wicked rule had come to an end? Or would stand frozen in uncertainty? Unsure of what the Messiah’s return means for someone as middle of the road, as under the radar, as inconspicuous as you? As me?

Jesus In Ferguson

As much as we want to know what to do in the aftermath of Ferguson, as much as the exiles wanted to know what to do in the aftermath of their desolation, Ezekiel is more interested in what God will do. And what God does in the face of such evil is to send us a shepherd, a servant, a prince, his only Son.

And the trajectory of Jesus’ life makes it very clear to us where he would stand in the streets of Ferguson:

His motives are questioned and his reputation slandered.

His body is dehumanized so that his execution could be justified.

He dies in the afternoon sun, a spectacle meant to remind the onlookers who holds the power.

In life he is marginalized and in death he is brutalized.

Are we talking about Michael Brown or Jesus? Yes.

Are we talking about 12 year old Tamir Rice or Jesus? Yes.

Are we talking about John Crawford shot in a Wal-Mart or Jesus? Yes.

Are we talking about Marissa Alexander, imprisoned for firing a warning shot at an abusive husband yet unprotected by the same stand your ground laws used by others, or are we talking about Jesus? Yes.

This is what God’s salvation looks like. We start with what God does, and because of what God does through Jesus and because of HOW God does it through a broken and bruised body, we in turn must look at the black and brown lives that are continually being broken and bruised, not in spite of how our society works but precisely because of how our society works.To paraphrase Ta-nehis Coates, a society structured around the dehumanization of black and brown people is having its intended effect.

And Jesus, the Bible makes clear, stands with those on the receiving end of our society’s violence.

I won’t wrap this sermon up cleanly or neatly. All we have done this morning is acknowledge the reality experienced by so many in our world, a reality we walk back into now. There very well may be things for you to do. But start instead with what God will do and ask yourself how you will respond on that day. How will you receive the returning shepherd and judge? Will you run to him in relief and joy? Then do so now, carrying with you every emotion and thought that you’ve known this week. On that day will you run the other way, knowing that your days of vapid and abusive power have come to end? Or might you be like the fat sheep or the surprised goats, frozen in uncertainty?

The possibility for a joyful reunion exists for all of us, but it requires that we embrace the cross of Jesus and all of its implications.

We Wait

I’ve seen very few new movies this year but I suspect that even if I’d seen a bunch more I’d still think 12 Years A Slave was the year’s best. Here’s a short reflection provoked by the film that I wrote last week for our church newsletter.

“Daddy, are we getting close?” I won’t even try to guess how many times Eliot asked me some version of that question during our nine hour drive to (and from) Tennessee for Thanksgiving. Waiting is hard for active little boys.

12_years_a_slave_jpgOf course, much waiting is far harder – more painful – than a long card ride to visit people who love you. On Monday I was finally able to see 12 Years A Slave. Of the film’s many powerful themes I was especially struck by the pervasiveness of waiting, of enslaved and oppressed people who had little recourse but to wait. Their waiting was overseen by lying preachers, paternalistic plantation owners, and sadistic overseers. But more than the unimaginable waiting, what overwhelmed me was the presence of hope among many of the enslaved women and men. Despite the attempts by those who claimed ownership over their bodies to dehumanize them, these individuals anticipated an end to their suffering, to their waiting. A shared cup of water, a song sung in the field, a letter written in secret all pointed to an end beyond the waiting. In so many different ways they bore witness that the insufferable waiting would not have the last word, that their lives could never be defined or reduced by the so-called master.

Thanks be to God that we are not forced to wait in similar ways. The longings and anticipations most of us know are so far removed from those portrayed in 12 Years A Slave we could almost overlook the places of waiting in our own lives. That would be a mistake. Waiting is a trait of our cracked humanity within an unjust word. To ignore our longings for restoration, completion, and fulfillment would be to miss something essential about our lives… and our futures.

The Advent season is the reminder that we wait. The world portrayed in 12 Years A Slave may have changed, but suffering and injustices are as pervasive in our world now as they were then. On Christmas we celebrate the Messiah’s coming; during Advent we remember that we await His return. We remember that we live in the gap between how things are and how they will be one day. We remember that we are a waiting people and that our waiting has an end, that a day will come when waiting no longer has a place in our lives. Until that day, let us live as hopeful people whose lives – even during the waiting – are claimed and defined only by the God who who patiently waits for us.

Grieving Every Slain Child

We welcomed a guest preacher at New Community this morning, so I took a few minutes before his sermon to reflect on the violence of this past week before we spent time in silence and prayer.

Stained Glass Window in 16th Street Baptist Church.
Stained Glass Window in 16th Street Baptist Church.

Early on a Sunday morning in September 1953, four members of the Alabama Klu Klux Klan placed dynamite under the steps of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.  A few hours later, when the church was full, the bomb exploded killing four girls, ranging in age from 11-14.  Three days later Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. stood before their families and community to eulogize the victims.  Towards the end of his sermon he said the following,

Life is hard, at times as hard as crucible steel. It has its bleak and difficult moments. Like the ever-flowing waters of the river, life has its moments of drought and its moments of flood. Like the ever-changing cycle of the seasons, life has the soothing warmth of its summers and the piercing chill of its winters. And if one will hold on, he will discover that God walks with him, and that God is able to lift you from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope, and transform dark and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of inner peace.

For many families in Newton, Connecticut, the past few days have been as hard as crucible steel.  The sheer magnitude of this crime threatens to overshadow the unique grief of each parent, each grandparent, and each friend.  What happened in that school on Friday was demonic, an expression of a present evil we would prefer to ignore but cannot avoid.  This week we are reminded that our enemy knows no distinction between race or class or geography.   Like a lion, he prowls around looking for someone – anyone – to devour.

So while our country mourns the lives devoured in Connecticut, we, the reconciled people of God, cannot overlook the lives devoured in our own city.  488 lives taken so far in Chicago in 2012, many of them young men and young women.  Our nation is shocked that such evil would be visited upon Newton: an affluent town, 95% white, that has known only one murder in the past decade.  But we, the reconciled people of God, must know and speak aloud that murder and violence anywhere – including the neighborhoods within our city where outsiders crassly expect such things to happen – that any such violence is an act of profound injustice, a stench to a holy God in whose image these children are made.

Reverend King was right about the bleak and difficult moments of life and he was also right about the God who walks with us, “who lifts you from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope.”  This is what we remember during Advent: that the Son of God, for our salvation, stepped into the grief of our world.  So we do not need to rush past this pain.  We don’t need to medicate our lament with distraction or entertainment.  The man of sorrows who bore our sin allows us to stop and grieve.  The same one who ensures our hope and our future, the one on whom all evil was brought to bear, the one whose body could not be held by our ancient enemy, death, He grants the courage this morning lament this present evil age.  He is our example of righteous living for the advancement of God’s kingdom.  And He too gives us the hope that one day, such grief will be a fading memory and nothing more.