image credit: Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land
A sermon preached at St. Saviour's Pro-Cathedral (Nelson, BC)
There’s an image that’s been following me around on social media and online news these last few weeks. Perhaps you too have seen the nativity scene, that image of Jesus amidst the rubble. For the community of Christians that gather in Bethlehem, bringing this nativity to life has brought on tears as they connect the ancient story with their daily lives.
In the foreground, the animals rest on streets lined with destruction. Shepherds and Magi are barred from approaching the Christ Child by shards of concrete, emblematic of ruined city streets.
And then, as you look more closely, you notice Mary and Joseph separated from their very own child after having traveled those dangerous miles. Nine months pregnant from Nazareth to Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph search for their child in abject fear that all is lost, that the child will not survive.
How can they be sure, in the midst of the destruction of homes and hospitals, in the midst of incessant bombing, in the midst of the ongoing massacre, they will be reunited with their child once again?
This child of promise born into an impossible world brings new dimensions, and causes us to ask new new questions about the imagery in some of our favourite Christmas Hymns. Away in a Manger comes readily to mind.
Away in a manger
No crib for a bed
The little Lord Jesus
Lay down his sweet head
But in this version of the story, the story being told by the people of Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, this is no pastoral scene with the soft glow of stars or a baby so untouchable, so serene, so separated from the crisis of existence that he utters not a single cry. What about this one?
O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Describing the Nativity Scene in his church, Pastor Munther Isaac connects the dots between the Bethlehem of today and that of yesteryear, describing the ways in which Mary and Joseph search for Jesus like the families we see on TV, searching to find any sign of life under the rubble. What stillness? What sleep? What silence is to be found?
“It’s a difficult image,” he remarks. And indeed it is. War is not easy. It is not easy to imagine ourselves into the midst of a conflict on the other side of the world. It is not easy to imagine our way into the beleaguered heart of an expectant parent, whether Israeli or Palestinian. It is not easy to nuance our discussion of these things in ways that don't lead to greater harm. The longer I look at it, the more my glossy Canadian Christmas feels out of step, feels anesthetized to the reality of the world into which Jesus is born.
Like John the Baptist, this image is jarring, breaking us out of our numbness and addiction to comfort, calling us to repentance for the ways we have distanced ourselves from the suffering of the world. John’s is a voice crying out in the wilderness, a voice crying out with an immediacy that shocks us out of our stupor, calling us to pay care-filled attention to the divided world into which Christ is always being born.
But Pastor Isaac doesn’t stop with destruction. He knows that this is not the end. What we need in the midst of all that is happening, he says, is to keep a light burning as a sign of radical hope.
Christ is always being born into crisis. Christ is always being born into rubble. Christ is always being born into our lives, no matter how imperfect. Christ is always being born into human frailty. It is Christ who invites us to seek and to embody hope for this time and place.
Out on city streets, in stores and shopping malls, on radio stations and in Hallmark specials, the commercialized glitz and glam overloads our senses. And yet at church this week, there are only two candles–a candle for hope and another for peace–that light our way.
In this season of watchful waiting and faithful preparation; in this week that we are called to focus on peace, the world bombards us with noise. All too often we gloss over the reality of what is, wanting instead to skip ahead to the end of the story, assuring ourselves of an uncomplicated birth and a happy ending. An ending that is not so evident on the shell-shocked streets of Bethlehem today.
And this, it seems to me, is one of the gifts of Advent:
Advent draws our attention as much to the dark as to the light. To night and day, to dawn and dusk, to the shortening of days, the bare earth and frosty weather, the cycles of life and death, that will give way once more to life.
But not quite yet.
In Advent we dwell here without skipping ahead, believing that the fullness of God’s mystery, a mystery revealed in light, is incubated and nurtured in the darkness of night and the disorientation of the wilderness. Advent reminds us each and every year that faith is not born in triumph, but uncertainty. Good news is not proclaimed through marketing or coercion, but in personal witness. God’s love is not embodied in the abstract, but in fragile, vulnerable, interdependent relationship.
And so, for now, we wait in the darkness, the world around us illumined by the light of hope and of peace. We wander in the wilderness, dwelling in solidarity with the people in the land of the Holy One, listening as they bear witness to an impossible hope. We journey in the wilderness that comes before the birth of God’s dream in our midst.
How easy it is to forget that God creates the heavens and the earth out of darkness. It is out of black soil that God breathes life into the first peoples. It is out of the shroud and tomb that Jesus will be raised to new life after three days in the ground. It is in the dark of night, in the shadow of oppression, that Jesus was, that Jesus is, that Jesus always will be born.
That is to say, it is in the wild places, the untamed places, the uncertain places, the places of shadows, that God prepares our hearts, and the whole world to receive unexpected gifts.
As much as we want to skip ahead to the good stuff, Mark’s gospel–as action oriented as it is–begins the good news of the Son of God, with a ragged voice crying out in the wilderness, from amidst the rubble, at the fringes of society.
John is not illuminated by the city and its bright lights, but surrounded by wild beauty, of palm and thistle, henbane and pomegranate, caper, sage and wild oat.
John appears with wildness in the wilderness in the shadows of the occupying forces.
John appears bold and wild, proclaiming prophetic news of God’s dream for all humanity, a dream that makes no sense in the face of massacre after massacre in first Century Judea.
The insurgent Romans execute men, strip children of their culture, impose stories of their own, leaving people demoralized and tormented, made to hunger and thirst not only for some sort of spiritualized righteousness, but for justice, for life’s basic necessities: food and water and a safe place to sleep. Yearning for enough resources to live after towns and crops have been decimated by a plague of biblical proportion
What does John do, but turn these livelihood-destroying locusts into a snack? John proclaims a gospel that declares the impossible: that the people of God will be fed, even by their oppressors.
John appears displaced and homeless, suffering with his people, trauma after trauma, feasting on the legion of locusts who had come to seek and kill and destroy. Crickets and bug protein, “bugs and bites,” a perfect pairing with Nelson Brewing’s Wild Honey Blonde.
In those days, the people of Jerusalem and Judea came out to the wilderness, to experience the wild claims of the one who painted a picture of a new way of living.
Not a way of comfort and ease. Not a way of passive acquiescence to the pacifying force, not quiet resignation to a society working as it was designed to, leaving people destitute in its wake.
They have come to follow John’s way of active resistance, in response to the consuming fire of faith: A faith that God is living; A faith that God is active; A faith that God will make all things new; A faith that puts this radical belief into action.
And so when the people join him down by the riverside, they come in expectation of a salvation and a peace that they have not yet seen; a salvation and a peace of which they have only ever dreamed; a salvation and a peace that is not simply about a far-off time in the sweet by-and-by, but salvation that takes root in the midst of this life: salvation in the lives we are living in the sweet here and now.
What is salvation for someone who is displaced or homeless
But a home filled with friends, and a fridge full of delicious food?
What is salvation for someone who is isolated,
But companionship, and the opportunity to give and receive love?
What is salvation for someone stripped of their culture
But a community recovering the ancient ways, making them new?
What is salvation for a bombed out community
But a ceasefire and access to much needed supplies?
What is salvation for people estranged,
But the first steps towards reconciliation?
What is salvation for a persecuted minority
But protection of one’s right to live free from oppression?
What is salvation for a church no longer triumphant
But the assurance that God is about to do something new?
John paints a picture of a world yet to be born. A world where every valley shall be lifted, every mountain and hill will be made low so that all may dwell on level ground. John paints a picture of a world not yet tasted, not yet seen. He paints a picture of a world that doesn’t come incrementally, but that will break in on the world as it is so that all might all experience the world as it ought to be.
A world of care. A world of love. A world in which people experience connection and intimacy. A world in which people have enough to make it through the day. A world where people are not discriminated against because of any of the intersections of their personhood and identity, but accepted, embraced, for their unique embodiment of God in all their glory.
This advent seems darker than most. Not because of the state of my heart so much as my acknowledgment of the state of the world. This world and our lives are rife with conflict and crisis. At times it leaves me feeling numb. And yet, God’s vision is so much greater.
This is the tightrope I’m walking this season: The fine line between the world as it is and the world God’s dreams into being. A dream is for the healing of the nations, of our communities, of our relationships, of our selves.
This is why we pray, and this is why we join John in the Wilderness: to clear a way through lives lived with love, compassion, and care. This is why we cry out throughout this season, “Maranatha! Lord Jesus, Come Soon.” We cry out because the vision that we have, though it is not here yet, is one worth praying for. It is a vision worth working towards.
And it is our work, dear church. It is our work alongside the rough-around-the-edges John the Baptist, and Jesus, who follows in John’s footsteps. It is our work, with John and with Jesus who turns the whole world upside down with his call to turn from the ways that wound our lives, the lives of others, and the life of the world.
What John is doing, and what we are invited to in this time, is to turn our hearts, to turn our lives, to focus our community life ever more towards self-giving love.
We hear John crying out against the religious and political leaders, criticizing them for their indifference, criticizing them for the suffering caused by the things they have done and failed to do.
And what he invites them, what he invites us into—in the way only a prophet can—is to become a renewed people with a renewed imagination to energize and focus us in the days ahead.
Can you imagine a world where hierarchies are flattened, where conflicts cease?
Can you imagine a world where all might journey on level ground?
Can you imagine a world where all have enough? Not more, not less.
Can you imagine a world where all know they are enough? Not bloated with self importance or deflated with self-deprecation.
Imagine a world where all know they are beloved, where all have enough. And start working together with God–in ways big and small, step by step, to realize that dream. The good news is that we need not stay numb to the reality of this world.
There is, in fact, a road to peace. On that road we find John. On that road we find Jesus. On that road we'll walk hand in hand, joined by many others, that together we will walk in peace one day.