(A day later, I realize that this is more than a sermon. It belongs under my “Extraordinary and Mundane” heading too.)
Focus: Lk 2:8-14
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
Brothers and sisters, I must tell you something. This is not just religious language. This is also the language of the Roman Empire.
The language of the Angels is not unfamiliar to the original readers of Luke. Do you know that Caesar Augustus was called “Savior and Lord”? The term “savior” meant that the emperor had brought “peace” to the empire. Do you know that there was an inscription that hailed the arrival of Augustus as “good news” or “the gospel”? Do you know that the emperor was called a son of god? I just read to you that Augustus was able to make a decree and “the whole world” needed to be registered. Sounds like a godlike power.
The language of the Angels and Empire is often the same; so don’t get caught up in the language. That might be shocking to some, but use your spiritual eyes, ears, and heart. Luke is trying to tell us something. In verse 1 somebody named Augustus who is Emperor appears to have the power to make a decree that the whole world must respond. The decree even makes Joseph and Mary travel. It seems like this man has a lot of power and his words and the message that goes forth in his name shapes the world. But look down in verse 14, we are told there is a God out here, who touches heaven and earth… and his angel makes a decree that has shepherds traveling to see Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. In a move so masterful that we might miss it, Luke has just shown us that God and the Emperor are not the same, even if they sometimes make similar decrees and speak a similar language. But there is a difference between them.
These are questions we should ask ourselves whenever we receive news: 1) who is delivering the message? Are they an agent of empire or an agent of God? 2) Who is receiving the message first? Is it nobility like Quirinius (the governor of Syria) or some lowly shepherds who live out in the fields and working that night shift? 3) Where does the message lead? To a palace or to a manger?
We lose our holiness because we begin to equate being on top with holiness and being on the bottom with waywardness.
Advent tells us, advent reminds us, advent forces us to remember that The Message from Heaven comes first to the Bottom, the Below, the marginalized, and the overlooked. But we don’t hear God though…
We must be HOLY… set apart… different. To be Holy today is to know that we don’t look for God at the top… we look for God at the Bottom… This is what Holiness always means because human beings have not changed much. Despite our best intentions, we often think that those who are on top are commissioned by God and the universe… but those are our ways. We still confuse domination with authority and authority with goodness… but those are our ways. All too often, we end up becoming invested in those things that are on the top and cease to be invested in God and so we lose our holiness. We lose our holiness because we begin to equate “being on top” with holiness and “being on the bottom” with waywardness. We lose our holiness because we make holiness a mark of social status instead of a mark of social difference. We make Holiness into being better than others and so prove ourselves to be idolatrous. Because if Holiness means we are better than everyone else, then we are still invested in being on top and not in the God who comes to shepherds working a night shift–or as a baby in a feeding trough.
“God’s ways are not our ways” should be uttered before the ish hits the fan. It’s not an explanation of evil. It’s a declaration that God is holy.
And so we must look to the bottom. We must look low. We are not valorizing the bottom, the poor and marginalized–but there is something that the marginalized will always reveal–they reveal that the basis of our social and worldly arrangements are sinful and divisive. The poor reveal in no uncertain terms that our social situation is unholy. That a child is starving right now when abundance and opulence are in our midst–our social fabric ain’t even trying to be holy. The marginalized reveal that we should divest and repent.
Brothers and sisters, in the words of Obama–“let me be clear”: Holiness includes but is not limited to morality or acting right or following the right rituals… please hear me now. While holiness includes morality and ritual–there is something else, something much more fundamental to holiness than our morals and rituals. Holiness begins with the recognition that there are certain things about God that are radically different than us. God’s ways are not our ways. And that statement “God’s ways are not our ways” should not become a cliche that we use whenever things don’t go our way. “God’s ways are not our ways” should be uttered before the ish hits the fan. It’s not an explanation of evil. It’s a declaration that God is holy. That’s what that statement is about. God’s ways are not our ways. God doesn’t do things the way we do things. That statement is Holiness 101. Though God is like us and present with us–God is also unlike us and mysteriously removed from us.
But we don’t hear God tho….
So in our everyday lives, Holiness is about HOW we ultimately look at the world and WHERE we first look in the world to discern the move of God. Are we willing to consider everyday that our measures of success are not God’s measures of success? Are we willing to look to Abel, the Widow, the Orphan, and the Poor and not the kings and priests because God looks there first–which doesn’t mean that God only looks there. Are we willing to consider these things? And after we consider these things, are we willing to repent and relinquish those old ways of doing things and bear fruit worthy of repentance?
To be Holy is to understand that we cannot love God if we do not love our neighbors and we normally don’t regard people at the bottom of society as our neighbors. We are either trying to distance ourselves from them or make sure we are not them.
Why do we try to discern God’s will by looking to Caesar and his palace instead of asking the shepherds working that graveyard shift what they saw out in them fields? Will the Big House ever save us–even if one of us is running the Big House? Advent tells us that the answer from heaven comes from and to the bottom–in a feeding trough for animals is where you’ll find God’s will. But in the words of Rodney O and Joe Cooley… You Don’t Hear Me tho’….
This gospel is a stumbling block and foolishness. God is asking us to look for Jesus in a barn and not in the White House? The gospel is a stumbling block and foolishness. God is asking us to look for salvation in a baby and not in a grown man? The gospel is a stumbling block and foolishness. God is asking us to look for the Messiah amongst the lowly and not the CEOs, presidents, prime ministers, despots, and emperors? When it comes to salvation, God is asking us to consider the testimony of a woman working the graveyard shift and not an FBI agent. This gospel is a stumbling block and foolishness! The gospel is a stumbling block and foolishness. God says to us, the answer is at the bottom, so bring those mountains down, so that you won’t bow down to the mountains. Bring those mountains down, so you won’t worship those at the top of the mountain. And raise those valleys so that you can see what I’m doing…
Y’all don’t hear me though… (Says God)
God says I’m about to send an angel to these shepherds working the night shift. I’m about to disclose what I’m doing to these teenagers and the manager at the Mickey D’s working the 24 hour drivethru at 2am in the morning… In the midst of their wages that can’t provide for them, in the midst of them dropping some french fries in some grease, in the midst of all that… Angels come and say: there’s salvation in this world, and it ain’t in the white house or with the CEO of Mickey D’s. Some one has been anointed by God and he was just born, but he wasn’t born in Kasier or Alta Bates or Sutter or Stanford… He was born in a trailer park….
But you don’t hear me though (says God)…
The Lord has arrived! And he doesn’t have a black box with a little red button. He doesn’t have armed services or guns. He doesn’t wave the banner of stars and stripes. He doesn’t claim his skin color, his wealth, his ethnicity, his religion, his hood makes him better than you. In fact, he can’t do it, because he’s just a baby. He can’t even do anything right now. Can’t talk or read. Can’t perform ‘nam sign. But somehow, he can still save. If you can believe that a baby can save us, then you understand that with God all things are possible. If you can accept that a baby laying in a feeding trough is anointed then you understand that to be invested in prestige, power, wealth, and domination is not the way of God. Because if God can be found in a baby, because if salvation can be found in a baby, because if love can be found in a trough where the livestock feed, if God can be found there, if you really can believe that, then you understand that the Kingdom of God truly is among us now… And if you believe that foolishness and that scandal, then you can look at the world and see that we are invested in things that are ungodly, divisive, and absurd.
And an army of heavenly host showed up with that angel, and them shepherds working that nightshift out in the fields witnessed what our ancestors sang in the fields over 150 years ago, “I know I been changed; the angels in heaven done signed my name.” And they didn’t need Massa in the Big House to make that declaration or sign free papers.
There’s a God out here, y’all. There’s a God out here, y’all. So I’m channeling Luke’s gospel and Build an Ark and I say to you…
Put down your gun and pick up this baby
Put down your political parties and pick up this baby
Put down your smartphone and pick up this baby
Put down your money and pick up this baby
Put down your remote and pick up this baby
Put down your traditions and pick up this baby
Put down your Bibles and pick up this baby
Put down your burdens and pick up this baby
Put down your death and pick up life
Put down your power and pick up your vulnerability
Put down your domination and pick up some community
Pick up this baby. Pick up this baby. Come see this baby!!!
Pick up this baby in this feeding trough for animals.
Put down Trump and listen to these shepherds
Put down Obama and listen to these shepherds
Put down social media and listen to these shepherds
Put down the talking heads and listen to these shepherds
Put down your Bibles and listen to these shepherds…
Salvation is here.
The Answer is here. The savior is here. The messiah is here. The Lord is here.
Faith Hope and Love
©2016 M. J. Sales