by Mike Clymer
December 9, 2007
Advent is the season of preparation and expectation, as we anticipate the coming of the Christ and all that means for our world. But I wonder how ready the shepherds were on that night long ago as they were keeping watch over their flocks, when the angels appeared to them, heralding “good news of great joy” about a savior being born in a manger. I wonder what preparation, what background they had for understanding the significance of that proclamation? Had they heard the vision of the prophet Isaiah read earlier about the branch growing out of the root of Jesse, and the wolf living with the lamb in a new peaceable kingdom? (I wonder what they would have thought of that!) Were they familiar with Psalm 72, in which their ancestral shepherd/poet/king David prays to God for a leader who will:defend the cause of the poor and give deliverance to the needy, whose coming will be like rain that falls on the mown grass and like showers that water the earth, and under whose reign righteousness will flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more.
We know that whatever their background knowledge was, they responded immediately by going to find the baby Jesus, spreading the amazing news they had been told, and praising and glorifying God for all they had seen and heard. But I still wonder how they came to understand and interpret that night as their lives progressed. Years later, were they among the crowds of people who heard John the Baptist proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near”? Did they hear John call the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers” and warn them to “produce fruit worthy of repentance”? Were any of those shepherds in the Jordan River when John said, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me, and he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Did they make the connection that John the Baptist was talking about the same person they had visited in the manger in Bethlehem? And did any of those shepherds live to see the adult Jesus begin his ministry and proclaim in his own voice the arrival of the kingdom of God? Did any of them become a follower of the adult Messiah they had worshiped as an infant?
What about us? In the second week of Advent we are called to “take heart,” like the shepherds, at the truth and hope in the message delivered by the angels that night near Bethlehem. I believe that is the same truth and hope found in the vision of Isaiah, and in the psalm of David, and in the preaching of John the Baptist, and in the teaching of Jesus – the good news that the world as we know it is to be transformed into the world as God intended it. How well prepared are we to have our lives and our world transformed?
I have been accused of being a pessimist, so some of you may take a sunnier view of things, but let me gently suggest that it’s easy to be pessimistic about the possibility of transformation in this world. It’s easy be troubled by the casual acceptance of ongoing oppression and violence in this country and in many other countries. It’s easy to be dismayed by the ravages of war and poverty, and to believe that nothing can be done about them. It’s easy to be confused by the value-messages we are bombarded with in our media and culture, and to begin to assume that yes, life really is about material consumption, and exacting revenge on our enemies, and relying on our own selves. It’s easy to despair of ever finding an honest person, or of ever overcoming an addiction, or of ever not feeling depressed. Even when we read of the angels proclaiming the arrival of Jesus as news of great joy, we know that the centuries that follow will continue to be full of atrocities and oppression and evil – and that too much of it will actually be committed in the name of Christ. The Crusades will spread Christianity through warfare, early Anabaptists will be persecuted and tortured by the Catholic Church, the Bible will be used to justify the slavery of African-Americans, the church will preach the subordination of women and exclude them from ministry, and on and on it goes. So many people have suffered at the hands of Christians that yes, even after the angels’ announcement, it’s easy to be pessimistic about the prospects of real transformation.
But I’m not as pessimistic as I may seem, because the truth is I do find hope in the angels’ message, and in Isaiah’s vision and the psalmist’s prayer, and in the preaching of John the Baptist. And the hope I find is the truth I learn there – the truth about Jesus, and what his arrival means for me and for the whole world. The hope I find is the truth I learn about God – that God is a God of Love, that God is a God of Peace. The world as we know it has its own version of truth – it’s what is commonly referred to as “reality” or “the way things are,” or what the Bible refers to as “earthly wisdom.” All the sources of pessimism I just listed come under this worldly version of truth. But the truth about God is that God is a God of Grace and Mercy, and a God of Justice and Righteousness. It doesn’t matter that people may do or say to the contrary, even if they use God’s name – they can’t change the truth about God that Jesus represents. And so I take heart. I take heart in the Gospel Truth that God so loved the created world that God didn’t give up on it, didn’t give up on us, didn’t give up on me.
I take heart in the vision of God’s “Holy Mountain,” where all creation has come back into right relationship with God, where shalom is restored, where violence and destruction have no place, where the poor and meek find justice and solace and worth. I take heart that God’s concern, in the words of the psalmist, is in defending the cause of the poor, and giving deliverance to the needy, that righteousness may flourish and peace abound. I take heart in these things not because I am poor, but because knowing that God’s nature bends toward Peace and Justice gives me hope. It’s easy to be pessimistic about the realities in this world, but I have great hope – great hope – in the redemption offered by our loving Creator. In the redemption made possible by Jesus’ birth, and life, and death, and resurrection.
The kingdom of God that John the Baptist foretold, the kingdom of the Holy Mountain Isaiah described, is an upside-down kingdom. It is based on God’s truth, not this world’s reality. How we anticipate and prepare for that kingdom may depend on who we are. The poor and needy and meek of the earth may be more receptive to the Gospel Truth than those of us, like myself (and the Pharisees and Sadducees before me), who enjoy a certain level of wealth and prosperity and power in the world as it is now. John the Baptist (and later Jesus himself) had harsh words for those who seemed more comfortable with the arrangements of this world than with any new, redemptive reality. Walter Brueggemann writes that the promise of the coming of Jesus “is not social evolution or developmental improvement. It is the inversion of the present, in which the devalued will become properly valued. So the promise is, at the same time, an enormous hope and a heavy judgement on how things now are.” Brueggemann goes on to write, “Advent is for pondering the promise. And so it is a time for joy. But Advent is also a time for sober inventory, to face how deeply enmeshed in and committed to the old regime we are.”
This morning I’d like to conclude by having us imagine ourselves as the shepherds in the Christmas story. After all, we live in our own fields today, don’t we, and we each have our own flocks to watch over. As we tend to the flocks of our everyday life – our families, our jobs, our causes and concerns, our own personal issues – how do we receive the angels’ gospel announcement? Are we yearning for a savior, a king who will defend the cause of the poor and give deliverance to the needy, who will be like the showers that water the earth? Are our hearts longing for that holy mountain where the lion and ox graze together and children need fear no harm? Do we thrill at the prospect of transformation, of the “inversion of the present”? Do we sense the need for our lives to be turned inside out, for our world to be turned upside-down? Are we even willing and ready to bear fruit worthy of repentance, if that is what is required in God’s kingdom?
As we sit in our fields watching over our flocks, do we ever wonder what the Truth is about God? Do we ponder the nature of the One who created us, and our fields, and our flocks? Do we despair, sometimes, at the reality of our lives? Are we pessimistic, maybe, about the way things are in the world? “Take heart,” proclaims the Christmas angel, “I bring you Good News…”