Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Sermon for December 2 -- Advent 1

The Radiance of Christ
December 2, 2007

I learned about Jesus' birth while wearing a bathrobe. Each Advent season I got a part in the Christmas pageant, generally as either a shepherd or a wise man. At the appropriate moment, I shuffled into place and said my line—usually only one, occasionally two -- “Let us go to Jerusalem!” or “We have seen his star shining in the east.” The idea was to show Jesus' birth as history, but effort at historical authenticity never went too far. I always thought we should have real sheep and camels in the pageant. My ideas were always overruled by the Sunday School superintendent.

There are troubling parts of the Christmas story that were never told. Herod’s slaughtering of the innocents doesn’t get a lot of stage time in Christmas pageants. But it’s part of the story. We are not even aware of another violent subplot to our Christmas story. It comes from the Hanukkah story. Hanukkah is not the modern Jewish alternative to Christmas. The holiday actually began 200 years before the birth of Jesus. Hanukkah is the story of the survival of the Jewish religion against impossible odds. It is the story of a bloody fight for Jewish independence. It was a world suffering from political and religious stress, a world more like modern Afghanistan or Iraq or Israel than anything I learned by wearing my bathrobe during a Christmas pageant.

After Alexander the Great died, his empire was divided into different regions. Israel and its surrounding countries were ruled by a dynasty called the Seleucids. Our story begins with the reign of a Seleucid king named Antiochus IV. He decided that all of his territory would become unified under Greek language and culture. He sent messengers to Jerusalem, instructing Jews to stop practicing their religion and to adopt his national unity religion. Antiochus banned sacrifices in the temple. To make his point, he sacrificed a pig on the temple altar and erected a statue of Zeus in the holy place. The Jewish religion was outlawed. Anyone who resisted was executed cruelly.

In reaction, the priest named Mattathias and his sons led a bloody guerrilla uprising against Antiochus and his successors. They mostly succeeded, winning some independence for the Jewish state. On the eve of battle, the troops prayed to God for victory. They fasted, they read the Law. They were pious, devoted Jews. They were also courageous and ferocious Jews whose bravery ultimately defeats their enemies. The greatest hero was Judas Maccabeus, an outstanding general who led his outnumbered army to victory upon victory.

Hanukkah began when the victorious Jews returned to their desecrated Tample and rededicated it to the worship of God. That’s why Hanukkah is sometimes called the Feast of Dedication. We read about Jesus attending the Feast of Dedication in the Gospel of John.

In Jesus' day, 200 years later, the political situation remains strikingly similar. Instead of the Seleucids, the Romans now Rule. Instead of Antiochus, Jesus faces King Herod, the vicious puppet King of Rome. Instead of The Maccabees, Jesus is born to a world where a group called The Zealots oppose Rome through violent resistance. There were other groups who chose peaceful responses like Saducees, Pharisees, and Essenes. They all defined themselves by answering two crucial questions: "What do we do about Rome?" and, "What kind of people should we be?" These are the same questions asked today by Kurds facing Iraq, by Palestinians facing Israel, by Basques facing Spain. They are, by their nature, highly emotive questions, and they frequently lead to violence.

The birth of Jesus inaugurates a new way to answer those questions. He is called the Prince of Peace. He is a new king, born in humility. In his adult life, Jesus does things that anger almost everybody. To the Zealots he is not enough of a revolutionary. Jesus rejects the way of the Essenes by mixing with and ministering to society. He horrifies the Pharisees in his disregard of ceremonial purity. The Sadducees call Jesus a blasphemer.

Jesus is also anti-Maccabean. Understand the impact of this. It’s the same as saying that an American is anti-George Washington – against the revolutionary heroes who defined our nation. But Jesus resistes the ways of the Maccabees. When someone strikes you, he says, turn the other cheek. When someone forces you to carry a load for a mile, give him another mile. Love your enemies. Judas Maccabeus could not have followed Jesus without giving up the way of revolt and taking up his cross.

Against the backdrop of Jewish History, Jesus changes the terms of Israel's faith. The natural tendency is to accentuate our differences with our enemies, to draw clear lines and to assault the foe head on. That’s part of the story of Hanukkah. Jesus, however, does not follow the script. Jesus suggests that the truly evil empire is not headquartered in Rome. The power to do good or evil resides in human will. We can choose to hide our light, or we can choose to let our light shine. For some, it may shine like a beacon – like a Christmas star. For others, the light may shine like a humble Hanukkah candle. Either way, light shines in the darkness and exposes the places where evil intentions lurk.

Hanukah is time to remember when the Jews took back their Temple and rededicated it to the worship of God. They relit the temple torches, celebrating that the light of God had returned to the people.

Our second gospel reading tells the story about Jesus being transformed into radiant light on the mountaintop. We usually read that story right before Lent. But imagine if this is really a Hanukkah story. I think Matthew wrote his gospel as a collection of Jesus stories for Jewish worship. The earliest Christians were still considered themselves Jewish. They wanted to hear the stories of Jesus during their important holidays. The synagogue had a liturgical year in which the great moments of Jewish history were relived. Matthew’s gospel allowed worshippers to remember Jesus in the context of their own worship. And the text for Hanukkah would have been the story of the transfiguration.

In this story, Jesus becomes the new temple on whom the light of God rests. Jesus becomes the new meeting place between God and human life. Hanukah celebrates the light of God being restored to the Temple. Transfiguration celebrates the light of God resting on Jesus.

Well, up to this point you put up with a lot of history and theological thinking. Here’s the point. The radiance of Christ does not shine upon you. It shines from within you. We need to go only as far as our own hearts to make contact with the divine. Life might be better if we can remember that this Advent season. The light of Christ can transform our lives and the lives around us. But in doing so we will be challenged to change. The radiance of Christ challenges us to see who we really are, and love each other not just because of what we know but also in spite of what we know about each other. We very easily choose to live in darkness if it were not for the light of Christ that calls us, and compels us to live a new way as co-creators of a new life of peace and justice. We are challenged to help create a world where the meek will come out on top; the hungry go to the front of the food line; the powerful wash the feet of the homeless; where children are protected and life is cherished. We work for justice, seek peace, give ourselves away in service to others, love our enemies, show respect to the elderly, honoring one another and ourselves.
Take some time to reflect this Advent season about who you are. Even as we live our lives in this world, we don’t belong to it. We belong to God. So let God’s light shine.

I close with poem from Marry Oliver called “When Death Comes.”

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I made my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

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