Saturday, January 13, 2018

Not Your Own

1 Corinthians 6:12-20
Ordinary 3
January 14, 2017
William G. Carter

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.“Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.” But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.

When we read the letters of Paul, we are quickly reminded how the church had to make its way on the frontier. Many cities and civilizations were well established. Yet the gospel was completely new, even strange.

Nowhere was this more awkward than the affluent city of Corinth. Situated as a port city in the southern part of Greece, the merchants enjoyed great wealth. With a strategic location for the travelers of the world, Corinth was a crossroads of world cultures and an intersection of new ideas.

At the top of the mountain overlooking the city was a temple to Aphrodite, the goddess of love. If you were looking for love, Corinth was a city that was prepared to meet your temporary needs. The temple employed about a thousand specialists (let's call them "love merchants"). Their commerce was blessed in the name of Aphrodite. If you get my drift.

The Apostle Paul landed in Corinth around the year 42 or 43 AD, and stayed for a while to preach the gospel. He made some friends and worked very hard. After a while, he built a congregation of about fifty souls. Then, as now, building a church was a difficult enterprise.

It's difficult because people have long established habits; the news better be pretty good on a Sunday morning for them to give up their blessed weekend. It's difficult because Paul preached the gospel from the traditions of Israel, proclaiming a Messiah to people who weren't looking for a Messiah, teaching the Ten Commandments to folks who had never thought of disciplining their lives.

It’s difficult because the Christian faith point to central mysteries that demand some mental work. If there was common sense in the message Paul preached, the Corinthians could lean forward and nod in agreement. Yet for him to speak, for instance, of a crucified Messiah, it sounded almost as foolish as the notion of a resurrection.

Nevertheless Paul made some traction. He established a congregation. Then he moved along. That was his custom: go to a major city with a lot of international traffic, start a congregation so the faith can pollinate and spread, and go somewhere else.

It was a good plan for starting churches, but tough for sustaining them. In Paul’s absence, questions bubbled up. The church says, “We know you didn’t have time to tell us everything, so what about this? What about that?” Five or six years after Paul departed, they sent their concerns in a letter. Somehow it gets to him and he responds. What we have in the letter we call First Corinthians is part of his response. It’s the second half of a conversation that we haven’t heard.

Yet we can piece together many of their concerns. Apparently one of the concerns is freedom. They heard Paul say, “We are free in Christ.” Thanks to Jesus, we are not bound to the status quo. We don’t have to do whatever everybody else around us is doing. We can claim a different set of values. We can live a different way. Thanks to the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we are free.

The Corinthians heard him say, “We are free,” and breathed a sigh of relief. In fact, that’s all they may have heard him say. We are free. I am free. And if that’s all you hear, it resonated with a long-established principle that still guides a lot of people in our own time and place. And here is the principle: that I can do anything I want. That I am free to pursue my own desires. That I am under no restriction about how I wish to live my life.

When my sister and I were teenagers, we were sitting on the couch one night watching a beauty pageant. One of the contestants declared, "I am my own person, I think for myself, I am responsible for my own dreams, and I am sufficiently empowered to pursue them."

My sister said, "Wow! She's got it together. I bet she's going to win." Indeed she did.

The idea sounds so enticing, that "I belong only to me," that "whatever I want to do, I can do." It sounds like freedom, but it’s something else.

This is the point at which the Apostle Paul enters the conversation. The word in the air is that “all things are legal for me,” a wonderful liberating freedom, and Paul quickly adds, “That doesn’t mean that all things are good and helpful.” You hear the difference?

He goes on: “Yes, all things are lawful, but some things dominate us, enslave us.” Think of the kid who starts smoking and then can’t give it up – that’s enslavement. Think of the man who loves good food and can’t get enough of it – it dominates him. Think of the person who takes a quick peek at a naughty picture, or puts a bet down on a card game, or kisses somebody they don’t even know. They felt free to do something, and then it builds, and grows, and takes over.

Is that freedom? No, it’s another form of enslavement. A lot of addictions begin with a supposition of freedom: that we are free to do whatever we want.

I’ve been a pastor long enough that I’ve heard the stories. The happily married man who fell into an internet chat room and couldn’t get out. The woman who did some babysitting on the side, and put the money on lottery tickets. The business man who took trips and ended up in places his family didn’t know about. All of them free, or so they thought, until all of them were enslaved.

That’s what Paul is warning his people about.

Ten years ago this spring, my dad and I took a tour of biblical sites in Greece. We spent a whole day in what’s left of Corinth. It is an astonishing place. Over there was the port, on the isthmus of Achaia. Over here, the market place, where goods, services, and news of the day were traded. And up there, the mountain that once housed the Temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, with a thousand of her servant in shacks going the whole way up the hill.

Our travel guide said, “Maybe the best way to explain Corinth is to tell you it was a sailor’s town.” At that, my dad began to blush. Out of high school, he had served in the navy. He knew what it meant to go ashore in a foreign city, a place you had never been to, a place you would never see again, a place where secrets would be kept and all pleasures were available for a price.

I said to my dad, “Did you ever go to a sailor’s town?” He was a pretty righteous man, so he blushed and sputtered a bit. Then he said, “Not me, not in that sense, but a lot of my ship mates did.” And the inference was the shore leave didn’t turn out well for most of them. As Dad went on to say, in his own modest way, they kept a lot of penicillin on the ship.  

“All things are lawful for me,” says the apostle Paul, “but not all things are beneficial.” “All things are lawful for me, but I will not be dominated by anything.”

It’s like the kid who goes into the shopping mall for the first time with a twenty dollar bill. Grandma sent it in a birthday card – twenty dollars! They can do whatever they want with it. They are free to spend it however they wish. Where to go first? Candy store? Clothing store? Get the ears pierced? Get something else pierced? Inevitably they discover most things they want will cost a lot more than twenty dollars, so they can’t wait to come back with more money and get whatever they want. They are free!

That kind of freedom is only an illusion. She is not “her own person.” She is merely a consumer. The consumer is that sub-class of the human species that believes that purchasing gives them purpose, that acquiring the external object will fill the hole in their own souls, that if they can only get more toys they will be content. It’s not freedom; it’s another form of slavery.

To this mindset, the apostle Paul speaks a Christian truth: that we don’t belong to ourselves. We belong to Christ. We are free from living like the rest of the pack because we belong to Christ. We are liberated from the need to consume other things, or consume other people, because our value comes from the love of Jesus, “who bought us at a price.”

In this passage, this is how he refers to the death and resurrection of the Lord, how it has both freed us from sin and death, but bound us to the One who truly gives life. “He bought us at a price.” The language is from the ancient slave market, where redemption meant purchasing a slave in order to set them free. That is the meaning of redemption.

So how should we live as free people? Paul says, “Glorify God with your body.” What a radical thing to say! Some people have always thought religion is supposed to free you from the baggage of flesh and blood, that somehow the liberating ideas will lift us out of our carcasses and closer to heaven. Absolutely not, says Paul. True faith begins by inhabiting our own skin, by walking on our own feet on the land where everybody else walks.

After all, we just celebrated Christmas, the stunning revelation that the Eternal God who is Spirit was found in a human baby named Jesus. The Word took flesh. God spoke in human words. In the human touch of Jesus, God healed aching human bodies and fed human stomachs. The word “spiritual” does not signify something amorphous. St. Athanasius put it this way, “God sanctified the body by being in it.”

Or as the apostle Paul declares in this word to the Corinthians, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?” By the way, Paul, which comes from God? Our bodies or the Holy Spirit? And the answer is “both.” Because we belong to God, for we’ve been adopted as the children of God. And what we do with our bodies is a reflection of God’s Spirit working in us and through us.

So the youth group kids said to their grandfather, “Grandpa, you have to stop smoking. Your lungs are a temple of the Holy Spirit.” And the mother can say to her teenager, “Please stop eating so much junk food; your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.” And the apostle Paul could say to all the Corinthian sailors who were wandering up the hill, “Knock it off; our bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit.”

It matters what we do with our skin and bones, it matters what we speak with our tongues and how well we take care of our feet. It matters if our A1-C is too high, or our blood pressure is too low, or if our PSA isn’t staying level. It matters if we don’t get enough exercise, or if we fill our blood stream with addictive substances, or if we intoxicate our minds with too much cable news. Our bodies matter, because our lives matter, because God can work to redeem the world through our bodies.

We know this to be true. In the name of Jesus, we do not feed the hungry by wishing it so; we prepare them meals. In the power of God, we do not comfort the grieving by praying for them from a distance; but by taking their hands and listening to their broken hearts. In the communion of the Holy Spirit, we do not correct the world’s injustices by merely thinking about them; we speak up with our tongues, organize up with our minds, step up with our feet, and push up for change.

Paul remembers his people and says, “You were bought with a price.” Look at the cross and consider the extravagant price!

And when it sinks in how much God has loved us to claim us as God’s own, it will make perfect sense to glorify God with our bodies.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Among the Wild Beasts

Mark 1:4-13
Baptism of the Lord
January 7, 2018
William G. Carter

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

We baptized a little boy named Henry last Sunday. His family was here. His church family was here. And all the elements of a true Christian baptism were here.

·         There was water: nobody gets baptized in the church without getting wet, and the preacher made sure Henry was good and wet.
·         There was the Word of God: first read from the scripture, then preached from the pulpit, and then pronounced by Henry’s grandfather as he presented the charge: “You belong to God,” I heard him say.
·         The Holy Spirit was here. We trust that as truth; a baptism is more than a social occasion, it’s a holy event, holy because of the presence of God.

So I asked our church administrator to inscribe Henry’s name in our book of records. “Henry Allen Taylor was baptized on December 31.” And that was that.

Well, not so fast. The baptism was done, but it was only the starting place. Now the Christian life begins, and there are going to be some bumps along the way. That’s how it goes for any of us, because that is how it went for Jesus.

As we heard a minute ago, Jesus went to the Jordan River to be baptized. It is his first appearance in the Gospel of Mark. We don’t know anything else about Jesus before he shows up at the river. We won’t know for three more chapters that he had a family. We won’t know until chapter six that he was known to be a wood cutter. We don’t know that Jesus came from a small town in the hill country of Galilee, way up north, far from Jerusalem. His home town was Nazareth, where he was raised, where everybody knew him and he lived a normal life.

As far as the Gospel of Mark cares, the life of Jesus begins when his head is covered with water. That’s when there were signs that God was up to something. Maybe nobody else noticed, but Jesus had a powerful experience. As he came up out of the water, he saw the sky rip open, he saw the Spirit come down on him like a dove. He heard the Voice from heaven: “You belong to me. You are my beloved, and I am delighted in you.”

These were not new words. They are lifted from the treasury of Israel and inscribed in the psalms. If all we remembered from this morning worship service were these words, it would be sufficient. God says, “You belong to me. You are beloved. I am delighted in you.”

But as we heard, that affirmation from God is not the end of the story. Jesus has to make his way forward after that spiritually rich moment. He has to live after the water dries off. By the third chapter of Mark’s book, we know it is going to be a bumpy road.

Not everybody wants to believe that. They think if they belong to God, if they respond to God’s holy claim on their lives, that everything else will go well, that the road ahead is easy street.

After all, didn’t we hear the promise spoken during little Henry’s baptism last week? “God gives us new life and guards us from evil…” And what is the prayer that we say all the time? “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

And we know why we declare the promise and say the prayer: because evil is real and temptation is all around us.”  I don’t need to tell you that; you already know it. And I don’t need to offer any illustrations; they would only make the sermon longer.

So just as soon as Jesus is baptized, he is tempted. It goes on for “forty days.” That’s a biblical euphemism for “a good long time.” It happens in “the wilderness.” That’s not a specific area, so much as a “desolate place.” It’s the lonely spot, the isolated location, the abandoned land where you have to work out the struggle.

Satan is there, not with a pitchfork and red pajamas, but in a business suit and a power tie. He is looking respectable and sounding helpful, because that is how temptation always comes. As Fred Craddock once said, “No self-respecting Satan would approach a person with offers of personal, social, and professional ruin. That is in the small print at the bottom of the temptation.”[1] Jesus is going to have to see the small print and do the hard work of sorting out the right thing to do.

And if that weren’t trouble enough, the Gospel of Mark says, “Jesus was with the wild beasts.”

First time somebody heard this in a Bible study, they said, “Oh, it’s like the prophet Isaiah once declared, the wolf will lie down with the lamb, the lion and the fatling together.” No, not exactly. The Greek word for wild beast signifies an animal with teeth, a snarling, hungry animal that can do real harm. You know, lions and tigers and bears. We cannot minimize the danger, simply because Jesus is baptized and belongs to God.

But here’s the thing. While Mark doesn’t specify the GPS coordinates of the “wilderness,” most folks of that time would generally know where the barren landscapes were. The tour buses still point them out. And according to the wildlife biologists, there probably weren’t lions and tigers and bears nearby.

No, these were another kind of wild beasts. If not literal, they were certainly symbolic, and they were real. Mark may be suggesting the kinds of beasts that all of us have to contend with, even if we never go to wild frontier or the zoo.

A lot of us know the well-worn but still helpful tale of the Cherokee chief teaching his grandson about life. “There’s a fight going on inside me,” he said to the boy, “a fight between two hungry wolves.”

One wolf is evil. He is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other wolf is good he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

That struggle of good versus evil is always with us. It is as old as the Garden of Eden, and as new as the latest Star Wars movie. We never outrun it.

But two things to learn from the Bible story we have heard today. First, Jesus goes into the wilderness because the Holy Spirit of God pushes him into the wilderness. Actually the verb is more forceful than that: the Spirit hurls him into the wilderness. He must go, and he must work through what it means to belong to God and not to belong to evil. It is the inevitable struggle, and if Jesus can’t face it, he will not be able to relate to us in our struggles, nor will he be qualified to save us in our weakness.

And the second thing to note is that, even though Satan is suggesting temptations, even though the wild beasts are lunging to claim his soul, Jesus is not alone. The Spirit of God that sends him to face temptation is also sending the angels to feed him, to sustain him, to provide him with daily bread, clarity of vision, and courage to do what’s right.

He is not alone, and neither are we. Even in those moments when God’s whisper of affirmation is a faint memory, even after the water of baptism has dried up, we can still ask for help. Whether the angels come in visible form or stay unseen, they are with us.

For God has already declared, “You belong to me. You are my beloved, and I am delighted with you.” As we come to the Lord’s Table again, we affirm that it’s all true. We can step out of our own struggles for the moment, take in the presence of Christ in bread and cup, and find the strength to keep going on the journey.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Fred B. Craddock, “Test Run,” in The Christian Century, 22 February 2003, p. 29. Retrieved from

Saturday, December 30, 2017

At the Right Time

Galatians 4:4-7
Christmas 1
December 31, 2017
William G. Carter

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

This is the only time that the apostle Paul mentions Christmas. Even so it is a glancing reference, the briefest of allusions: “God sent his Son, born of a woman.” No mention of a manger, no angels, shepherds, or wise men. Paul does not discuss Bethlehem or Joseph. We learn about them from Luke and Matthew. Even thought Paul is the most prolific author of the New Testament, in all his writings Christmas scores half a line: “God sent his Son, born of a woman.”

Yet in no way does this downplay the purpose of Christmas. Paul summarizes the purpose of Christ’s coming this way: “God sent his Son to make us God’s children.” He is talking, of course, to people in modern-day Turkey. The people of Galatia were Gentiles, far beyond the promises of Israel. And the Son of God comes for them, to adopt them into the Holy Family of Israel.

We belong to God because Jesus has come into the world to claim us. His life, his death, his resurrection gather us in. Through our faith, we are welcomed by God. That’s what Christmas is all about.

I would stop there, were it not for a little phrase that Paul slips in. The first Christmas arrives, says Paul, “when the fullness of time had come.” He says it comes “in the fullness of time.” I don’t know what that means.

This is New Year’s Eve. At midnight another twelve month cycle begins. Centuries ago somebody decided there were twelve months in a year, that all the months had somewhere between 28 and 31 days, that the months circle around again and again like a cat chasing its tail. And Paul speaks of the “fullness of time.” What does he mean by that?

We can say that time rolls along. Tomorrow is the day when all the calendars are discounted. You can’t sell them for full price after the date changes. As an irrepressible bargain hunter, I have often wondered why somebody charges so much for them in the first place. Today a fifteen dollar calendar is suddenly available for $1.99.  Simply put, it loses value after a certain date. Maybe that’s why the Dollar Store still can’t move that stack of 2015 pocket calendars at the bottom of their bin. Nobody wants them, even if the store considers them valuable enough to keep on the shelves.

We can also say time runs out. Food has an expiration date. You wouldn’t know that by looking in my refrigerator, but the health department says it is true. Perhaps it is time to toss that airtight packet of Curry Chicken that I picked up at the grocery store back in September. It may still be good. I don’t want to find out. It is past its time.

Maybe that’s why Jesus instructed us to pray for our daily bread. By Friday it goes stale. So pray for your bread a day at a time.

Some are worried that the world has an expiration date: too many people, too few resources, too many erratic elements that could blow everything up. Many were worried when the Mayan calendar was due to conclude on December 21, 2012.  All of the Mayans out there were terrified until the date came and went.

Lives have expiration dates. Hate to bring that up, but it is true. We expire sometime after we turn stale. The ancient poet of the Psalms observed this without pinning it down to an actuarial table. “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.” (Psalm 90:10). Our days are numbered and somebody in heaven is counting them. Knowing this is the beginning of wisdom.

We resist the reality. The last time we sang the hymn, “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past,” we got to the line that says, “Time like an ever-rolling stream soon bears us all away.” A lady said to me at the door, “I don’t like that verse.” None of us do. It is a reminder that time runs out.

But Paul says, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman.” That little verse has sent all kinds of amateur historians to the books. They come back and tell us all the reasons why it was a perfect time for Jesus to be born. The first bump they encounter is that Jesus was not born in the Year Zero; he was born before the death of King Herod, and that occurred in 4 BC.

The second bump is that Jesus was not surrounded by careful historians when he was born; he was surrounded by sheep herders, none of whom saw any value in reading, writing, or remembering history. Third, he was not born at midnight between December 24 and December 25. Those sheep herders would have been in the fields in the springtime, not in the winter.

Listen, we don’t know the exact time and date when Jesus was born. That’s OK. All the amateur historians return scratching their heads, if only because ancient history is a little bit ambiguous. All we really do know is that sometime in the fourth century the Christians took over an annual pagan festival that was scheduled each December 25 in the Roman Empire. They called it Christ Mass. Ever since, no matter how hard the Christians tried, that annual festival has remained pretty pagan.

Yet “in the fullness of time,” Jesus arrived. In the fullness of time.

Malcom Gladwell says that some moments reach a “tipping point.” Big things happens when enough little things line up. Ideas converge. Opinions accumulate. A revolution begins when enough people think it is needed, when enough people are willing to risk their own necks to create a change. Some people look at the global circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth, and declare God has reached a tipping point: the empire was heartless, people were cruel to one another, sinners were destroying their lives. So God stepped in and said, “It’s time to send Jesus.” True enough, Christ has come and begun to make a difference.

Yet last time anybody checked, the empires are still heartless, people are still cruel, and sinners are still making a mess of most things.

That leads me to say that the key is not the “when” but the “what.” For some divine reason of timing, Jesus came when he did. The Child of God came to make us children of God. It happened off anybody’s map, in a world that largely has stayed asleep. Whenever this mission of God has been discovered, it has always been resisted. All the tyrants out there still debate the claim that God has on anybody. Plus a surprisingly large number of selfish people would profess that they belong to themselves before they ever belong to God.

And yet Christ has come. So my New Year’s gift to you is a poem by Madeleine L’Engle called “First Coming.”

He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.

He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine. He did not wait

till hearts were pure. In joy he came
to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.

He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.

We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice![1]

God did not wait to send Jesus. God refuses to let people stay enslaved to one another, much less enslaved to their own desires. God comes to free people from the ways of destruction, and to claim them as his own. God doesn’t want any one of us to perish, so that’s why God sends Jesus. It happens “in the fullness of time.”

That Greek word for “fullness” is a wonderful word, a word that suggests abundance. Full as in “spilling over.” Here is the sense of it: when the time is filled up, when the moment is pregnant with possibilities, when something new is just waiting to burst forth, everything was ready for God to come.
From the outset, I hope it’s that kind of year for you. Not a year for you to be killing time, but an abundant  year when something new and holy can happen within you. I pray that with the time we have left, we fill it with the praises of God and blessings for our neighbors. And let this be a year full of mercy, that we leave behind in this tired old year all our lingering hurts and grudges, and embrace the healing that Christ has come to give.

And I pray that, among all our resolutions, we resolve to be the children of God. To be content as God’s children. To receive the blessings of God with a thankful heart, and to pass them along to others with generous hearts and hands.

Happy New Year. Happy Abundant New Year.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

[1] Madeleine L’Engle, The Ordering of Love (New York: Shaw Books, 2005) p. 242.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Waking Up to Christmas

Luke 2:15-20
Christmas Eve
William G. Carter

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 
But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

It was a beautiful Christmas Eve service, a lot like this. The white lights sparkled. The music warmed every heart. The Bible stories carried everybody to another time and place.

As it concluded with a musical flourish, everybody stood to depart and go home. Everybody, it seems, except for one woman who sat about halfway back on the aisle. The ushers waited patiently as she sat in silence. Finally, they looked at their watches. The evening chores were finished. It was time to lock up and go home.

So one of the ushers approached her, cleared his throat, and she looked up with a beatific smile. As if to explain herself, she said, “It all seems like a dream, and I don't want to wake up"

We know, don’t we, what she was speaking about? Christmas Eve was a moment of deep beauty. The music transported all present to another place. There was a thick presence of peace in a room accurately called a sanctuary. Nobody wanted it to end.

But may I go on record? When Christmas morning comes, I would like to wake up.

There is a popular distortion of that word “spirituality.” The distorted view is that we can be removed from the world. The intent is to get out of the mud where everybody else resides. The goal is to be lifted into heaven, and thus be fished out this mess. But that’s the dream – the false dream. Christmas calls us to wake up to reality.

This little baby whose birth we celebrate was raised by a carpenter. He had splinters in his hands. He probably hit his thumb with a hammer. So consider this: if God didn't like the physical world, he should not have created it. If God didn't love the world, God should not have come to it. If God didn't care for the poor and the needy, the baby Jesus should not have been found among us as a peasant infant, placed in a feeding trough, and raised by day laborers.

But it is precisely because God does love the world, the real world, the physical world, that Christmas happens. It was God’s way of saying, “Wake up. This life matters.”

Christian faith is not primarily about the next life. It's about this life, the only life we have. When the New Testament speaks of “life of eternity,” it is pointing to a quality of existence that begins here and now. God has come among us in Jesus. As we trust this as truth, true life proceeds. When we wake up to this truth, we live as if life matters. Sometimes we have to make some changes to embrace it, especially to rid ourselves of the toxic dreams.

Like the Lake Wobegon story about the Lutheran minister who went Christmas shopping. He was tired and weary and worn-out, even before he drove thirty-five miles to the Mega-Mart. Then he had to fight for a parking space, was shoved around by the crowds, treated rudely by the stressed-out sales clerks, all beneath those strange lights designed to drive you slowly insane. And he said, “Why? Why am I doing this, all to buy a video game called ‘Annihilation’? Why? Who’s running Christmas?”

For him, it was a wake-up call, a moment to step out of the strong current of consumption, to look for an alternative to Annihilation. Yes, there is violence in the real world; even know King Herod is convening his soldiers to try and snuff out the Light of the world. Because of Jesus, we know Herod is stuck in his own bad dream. When we wake up to Christmas, we don’t have to live by the nightmares of consumption and violence. Simplicity and compassion are the holy gifts given to be shared.

At the heart of Christmas, we wake up from the false separation of flesh from spirit. When Jesus is born, body and soul are held together. When we recognize God in this little child, we are affirming God has a blood stream, calluses on the feet, and avoids eating bad fish. As certain as Jesus was transfigured into a pillar of fire, he came down to heal a child with epilepsy. The bright mountaintop and the dark valley are held together.

What we are singing tonight is that heaven and earth intersect. God and sinners are reconciled. Word takes flesh, so we shall not separate what God has joined together. We wake up to see the wonder of what it means to have the creator of heaven and earth living among us. It means every life has been dignified by the presence of God – your life matters, your neighbor’s life matters, the poor and the needy are God’s royalty.

So maybe we step out of time for a few minutes tonight. We light our candles and sing our carols. And we do this, not to escape the world, but that we might enter it more deeply. Not to run away from pain, but to welcome the healing that comes from the mercy and peace of God.

And that means tomorrow, when we walk up, we get about living as if God is truly with us. Thanks to the birth of Jesus, the Word can take flesh once again - in us.

There’s a poem from the Quaker mystic Howard Thurman called “The Work of Christmas.”(1) I can’t think of a better description of what it means to wake up to Christmas. So let me put it into the air and let it do its work:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.

Sleepers, awake. Christ is born, right here, in the real world.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

(1)  "The Work of Christmas" in The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations (1985)

Saturday, December 23, 2017

A Revolutionary Christmas

Luke 1:46-55
Advent 4
December 24, 2017
William G. Carter

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
  for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
       Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
  for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
  His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
  He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
  he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
  He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
  according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

It’s one of the most beautiful poems in all of scripture. The song of Mary is often called “the Magnificat,” the title taken from the Latin word for “magnify.” These lyrical words have been set to music by a list of composers a mile long, including Telemann, Bach, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Vaughan Williams, Rachmaninoff, Arvo Part, and John Rutter.[1] You're certainly welcome to hum the words as I preach along.

But I'm sure you noticed, even in the setting of the text that came as our first hymn, that the text of the poem is explosive.

When Adolf Hitler was rising to power in 1933, Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached a sermon on the words. He said, "It is the most passionate, most vehement, one might almost say, most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. It is not the gentle, sweet, dreamy Mary that we so often see portrayed in pictures, but the passionate, powerful, proud, enthusiastic Mary, who speaks here. None of the sweet, sugary, or childish tones that we find so often in our Christmas hymns, but a hard, strong, uncompromising song of bringing down rulers from their thrones and humbling the lords of this world."[2]

If you desire a stress-free, merry little Christmas, this will not be the text for you. It's certainly not the kind of text we're going to encounter on the Hallmark channel, where the holiday movies are mostly about white people in expensive houses having travel difficulties and angst about their relationships. No, the Magnificat is about revolution.

Did you know that when the British ruled India, this text was not allowed to be sung in the churches? Or that the government of Guatemala was brutally keeping an oppressive thumb on its people, the rulers reportedly banned people from even reading the text out loud? [3]

Writing from a privileged university position in Britain, C.S. Lewis said, "The Magnificat is terrifying," one of the Bible texts "which should make our blood run cold." He points out, "There are no cursings here, no hatred, no self-righteousness. Instead, there is mere statement. He has scattered the proud, cast down the mighty, sent the rich empty away...not (stated) with fierce exultation, yet -- who can mistake the tone? -- in a calm and terrible gladness."[4]

I wish I could soften the text for us somehow, perhaps make it as sweet as a snicker doodle, or lilt like a Bethlehem lullabye. But this is the Bible, the real Bible. And if we are courage enough and honest enough to hear what the Bible is saying, we will hear that there is a revolution brewing -- and it is God’s revolution. And the revolution is called “Christmas.”

This passage comes in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, a book that focuses entirely on Jesus. Mary’s song is an overture of the whole story, a plot summary of the Gospel of Luke.

Christmas, as you remember, begins with an inconvenient birth. Emperor Augustus sits on his throne in far-away Rome. He has to raise funding for the soldiers he has sent to occupy the troublesome hotspot of Palestine. So he decides to take a census and count all the people who live there, so he can put the tax burden on their shoulders. They will pay for the Roman soldiers who occupy their land.

Meanwhile, the Emperor of the Universe announces the Savior of the World will be born in a little town that hardly anybody remembers. Ancient king David was born there a thousand years before. Not only that, the angel messengers are not sent to announce the news in the palaces of the global powers, but to anonymous sheep herders in the hills – they are nobodies, who will probably not even show up on Caesar’s census.

Do you see the move? The powerful, like Caesar, are brought down from their thrones, and the lowly are lifted up. And this is God’s doing.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus will fill the hungry with good things. He will fill their hearts with the truth about God, he will fill their stomachs with fish and bread, and he will fill their broken bones and fractured spirits with the healing power of God. The needy and the poor will flock to Jesus like sheep who need a shepherd.

Meanwhile, his work will also capture the imagination of those who are well off, who also come with their own needs. Jesus will heal everybody without discriminating, never asking how much they can pay.

But if they want to use him for their own purposes, they will be disappointed. One rich man wanted to buy some eternal life; Jesus said, “OK, give everything away to the poor and follow me.” The rich man went away empty. It’s just like mother Mary said.

Or this: “He has shown strength with his arm.” Jesus will calm the raging storm, and cast out the craziness from a wild man. He will breathe resurrection life into children who died too soon, and empower the crippled to stand up straight with dignity.

But “he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,” beginning with those who schemed to eliminate him. Over and over again, he slips away from their murderous intents, first in Nazareth (4:30), then at a dinner party with scribes and Pharisees (11:53), even on the road to the cross that he freely chooses (13:31). When his enemies finally do condemn him and put him on the cross, Jesus slips away on the third day. In the Gospel of Christ, it does not pay to be proud.

Mary sings all of this on the second page of Luke’s book, long before it happens. How did she know? Was she a prophet? Was the Spirit of God filling her with wisdom and insight? Yes, most certainly; God gives holy wisdom to women. That will be another theme in the Gospel of Luke. But there’s more to it than that.

Mary knows about the revolution of God because she knows her Bible. Even if she was illiterate, like most teenage young women of her time and place, she had heard the scriptures so frequently that she took them into her soul. That’s why the Song of Mary, this Magnificat, is full of treasured promises from the Hebrew Bible.

The primary source is the Song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10), another barren woman that God gifted with a child. Hannah’s song in the first book of Samuel begins with the words, “My soul magnifies the Lord,” and pretty much lays out the same script. But Mary’s song of praise also takes verses from the Psalms, the prophets, the book of Job, even the Wisdom of Sirach. She doesn’t need to sing something original because the promises are already there.

What Mary announces is that the revolution is going to happen in Jesus. God is going to start changing the world through the birth of Mary’s child. And the revolution is going to continue in those who trust her son and trust her words. God’s new creation is not for those who are proud and arrogant. It’s not for those who use their power to plunder and take advantage of others. The promises of God are for the hungry, not the satiated; for the lowly, not the lofty; for those who mourn, not those who demean others (6:20-26).

As Jesus will say after he grows up, “Blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.” (7:23)

To perceive Christmas as a revolution, and not merely as a holiday of over consumption, will involve taking stock of where we stand, the kind of thing that Jesus invites us to do repeatedly. For instance: “The first shall be last, and the last will be first.” Well, which ones are we?

If we scramble to the top of the heap, using every device and desire to claw our way ahead of everyone else, we will miss out on God, who is born to peasants and placed in a feeding trough. Those first in line may convince themselves that they have an advantage over others, but the truth is that they are missing out on the joy of actually being of service to those in need.

Or, again: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (18:14). Which ones are we? Is life about inflating the resume, advancing the career, impressing the neighbors, standing on the tips of your toes? Or is it about standing with your feet flat on the floor, down to earth, accessible, available, and real.

Just the other night, I stood with a young friend at a Christmas party, watching his two little kids twirl and spin to “Jingle Bell Rock.” He was telling me his hopes to enlarge his business and make a name for himself. I interrupted as kindly as I could, pointed to his kids, and said, “This has to come before everything else. You could blink and they’ll be grown up. Don’t miss out on your kids.” He looked a little stunned. Just then his wife came up, nodded at the little girl, and said, “Could you change a stinky diaper?” Ah, how the exalted have been humbled.

Mary sings of God’s revolution, a fundamental realignment to how God created the world in the beginning. This revolution will not carried out with the weapons and armaments to which our world has become addicted, but a revolution undertaken through kindness. It's every bit as subversive, maybe more so, because it means that, thanks to the birth of Jesus among us, this old, weary world "is about to turn."

The spiritual writer Kathleen Norris puts it this way:

The Magnificat reminds us that what we most value, all that gives us status - power, pride, strength and wealth - can be a barrier to receiving what God has in store for us. If we have it all, or think we can buy it all, there will be no Christmas for us. If we are full of ourselves, there will be no room for God to enter our hearts at Christmas. Mary's prayer of praise, like many of the psalms, calls us to consider our true condition: God is God, and we are the creatures God formed out of earth...

And if we hope to rise in God's new creation, where love and justice will reign triumphant, our responsibility, here and now, is to reject the temptation to employ power and force and oppression against those weaker than ourselves. We honor the Incarnation best by honoring God's image in all people, and seeking to make this world into a place of welcome for the Prince of Peace.[5]

I can't think of a better Christmas wish for any of us, than "to make this world into a place of welcome for the Prince of Peace." It matters how we lives, what we do with these lives, and how we prepare the Way for Christ to live among us. For he is coming in the fullness of his power, and he will make everything as God intends it to be.

So we can join our hearts with Mary, who says:

My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn,
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn.[6]

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] See the partial list: 
[4] C. S. Lewis, "The Psalms" in Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1967) 120-121.
[5] Kathleen Norris, God With Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2007) 113-114.
[6] Rory Cooney, "Canticle of the Turning," GIA Publications.