Joyeux Noel (Sermon)

Below is the text of a sermon I preached last Sunday at Peace Fellowship Church, here in Washington, D.C. It’s not exact, and there may be an audio version of it some where online.

One of the reasons I am excited to share a bit today is because I love Advent. In the last few years of my life, Advent has really become a special season for me. Like the season of Lent, it is a cyclical reminder to reflect on our lives, to recognize the good and the bad, to repent, and to prepare for Christ. In fact, in its earliest days, the Advent season was the same length as Lent.

There’s something about Advent that really moves me. But it wasn’t until recently that I came to a more tangible sense of what it’s really about. Immediately after I graduated from college, I spent the better part of a year living in Durham in a Christian community. I lived in a small house with a family of 3 (and expecting a 2nd child) and another single man and we shared money, meals, and life together with 5 others at another house. Being the youngest child in my family, I’d never spent much time around a pregnant woman, and my friend Sarah gave birth just as Advent was beginning. Perhaps some of you can relate: the final few weeks of the pregnancy were filled with a tangible, visceral sense of absolute need to have that baby arrive. The pregnancy had been difficult, the husband had lost his job just two months prior, stress and anxiety were high as we awaited this new baby.

In a quiet moment during morning prayer that year, I had a serious “Aha!” moment, where I connected the pregnancy of Mary with the Advent season. Somehow, Advent is to be our pregnancy, our final four weeks before a new creation springs forth. Maybe Mary Ruth and Brett can understand that a little better now.

Every year, we’re reminded to wait. I imagine, though, that sometimes we ask ourselves, “What are we waiting for?”

Of course, the Sunday School Answer is “Jesus.” Everyone knows “Jesus is the reason for the season,” but I’m not sure we always have an accurate picture of what that even means.

But Isaiah helps us to imagine exactly what it is that we’re waiting for. This passage, written while Israel was an exiled people ruled by a foreign king, sets the tone for how we should approach Advent. Isaiah recognized the darkness surrounding them, the despair, a sense that perhaps they’d been forgotten. We read in Psalms that “By the water of Babylon, we lay down and wept for thee Zion.” But there is hope, he says, for the people walking in darkness have seen a great light. On them, a light has shone.

It is important here to note that Isaiah is addressing a people, a community. Isaiah does not preach that an individual will be shone a light, but that this hope is for the people. God is looking to restore broken communities, communities injured by violence, oppression, injustice, and sin.

Isaiah continues, looking forward to a righteous king who will end oppression and war, whose authority grows over time and whose reign brings about peace for Israel. This king will establish his reign justly and will signal an end to the years of Israel’s bad kings and foreign rulers. Isaiah remembers, fondly, King David, and expects that this king will re-establish the Davidic Monarchy. We must also realize that Isaiah paints David in some rosy colors—it would be difficult to call David a Prince of Peace, if we remember how David committed adultery and then sent the husband of Bathsheba to die on the front lines of battle. It would be like being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while in the middle of two wars. But Isaiah feels the pain of war and bloodshed and welcomes a day when it will end.

No, Isaiah dreams of a king even more righteous than David. Yet, I believe that Isaiah’s vision is ultimately limited; while inspiring, hopeful, and beautiful, Isaiah still envisions a typical-style monarch who will bring the nations under his rule. This is not to say that Isaiah is wrong, but rather that God has an even still deeper vision, even more beautiful, and even more scandalous. If you remember even further back in the Old Testament in 1 Samuel, when the people ask for a king, God says, “You don’t need a king like other nations; I will be your king.” But the people forsook God, and so Israel has been stuck, thinking inside the box of kings. Isaiah, for all the beauty of his vision, is still thinking inside that box.

But the Incarnation of Jesus at Christmas teaches us to think outside the box of kings and emperors and presidents. Jesus’ birth isn’t a return to the Davidic Monarchy, but the Divine Monarchy, where the throne of God is among people (as Revelation envisions). The kingdom of God breaks in, like a thief, on a cold night in a dark animal cave. The Prince of Peace is born a poor and homeless in the shadow of the Roman Empire. He quickly becomes a refugee, as his unwed teenage mother flees with him to avoid the slaughter of innocents. This king, this kingdom, are anything but typical. And so, Isaiah’s words take on a new meaning in Jesus. Jesus fulfills this prophecy in ways Isaiah could never have imagined, redefining the entire notion of a righteous king and a righteous God.

The kingdom of God is announced by angels, declaring joyfully “PEACE on EARTH,” made possible only by the birth of the true Prince of Peace. But it’s not just what happens that is crucial here, but how it happens: 1)God’s kingdom does not come all at once, as if by takeover from a military, but rather it eeks into the world, little by little 2) we learn that God’s character is most fully revealed in what the world calls weakness: a helpless, vulnerable baby is God Incarnate. I find it so striking that the two most important and poignant images in all of Christian thought are of Jesus the King as a baby in a manger and Jesus the King with a crown of thorns on his head on a Roman cross. The bookends of Jesus’ life are marked by vulnerability and weakness, dismissed so easily by the rest of the world. God’s power is revealed in weakness, God’s glory in humiliation, God’s love in death. Indeed, the Christmas story points us to the depth of God’s love, not only that in that God takes human form, but that this way of being in the world, the way of downward mobility and weakness, of servant leadership, leads to the greatest love:  of one’s enemies, modeled at the cross.

To me, this is what is so beautiful about Scripture and prophecy, that God does far more with Isaiah’s words than he could have thought—that’s what makes it inspired! Without Jesus, Isaiah’s words are just another good campaign speech—hopeful for change, but not any different from what’s come before. Israel has had kings, all of them a concession by God. Jesus comes and says, “no more concessions; I am.”

I would say that most Christmas celebrations don’t wrestle with this side of the story. We like to stay in the comfortable, cozy Jesus found in “Away in a Manger,” which teaches us that God dwells in the sky and that God’s great desire is for us to be taken from this world there. Christmas becomes about family togetherness, the giving of gifts, the enjoying of food. These are not bad things, but the birth of Jesus throws out our definition of family, starting a new family of God. The birth of Jesus is God’s message not that God wants to take us to heaven in the sky, but that God is breaking into the world through the back window and wants to dwell among US. The birth of Jesus declares to the principalities and authorities of this world, “Your reign is over, my kingdom is here.” Do we know that THIS is what we await at Christmas? This is what the world awaits at Christmas, even if it doesn’t know it! All creation is groaning, Paul says, at the birth pangs of what God is about to do. Will we proclaim this, like the angels, the messengers of God, declaring Peace on Earth?

And yet, the truly remarkable feature of the kingdom Jesus preaches, in contrast to typical kingdoms, is that we are called and given the opportunity to take part in it. We get to dream dreams and work with Christ to bring Isaiah’s vision to be. Isaiah gives us the vision, Christ shows us the way to live out God’s kind of power—through weakness. We need God-given imagination, though, to think outside of the boxes our world presents us with. God’s kingdom flips the logic of this world upside down, and to live and act like Jesus, we need to prayer for that kind of creativity.

But I worry that our imagination, our vision, is limited by our context. Like Isaiah, will we stay in the box of kings and presidents? I worry that our definition of the Prince of Peace is more like David, imagining a President who can use military might to crush evil with violence instead of realizing we have a savior who took the violence of his enemies upon himself. Will we become the peacemakers who display the scandalous enemy-love of God in Christ Jesus?

If we will, there will be consequences. So we must ask ourselves, “Where does God call us to preach this good news of peace on earth and love for our enemies?” As the church universal, will we say “no” to war and violence, done often in the name and blessing of our God? Will we cry out in the wilderness, as drones are used to kill our brothers and sisters all over the world?

As Peace Fellowship Church, will we live out our name? Will we be peace in this neighborhood, in this part of the city? Will we teach this nonviolent love to others? Will we be a witness to the transforming way of servant leadership and what the world calls weakness? Will we trust God and take risks in this area? Isaiah dreams of a restored community, a community of Shalom; do we share that dream and are we willing to take part? Broken communities are often stuck in cycles that cannot be disrupted with the sam old answers. I work for a community arts program that offers the arts to families who wouldn’t be able to afford it other wise, and part of my reason for being a part of that organization is because I believe the arts can be God’s way of teaching people to think creatively about the problems of their own community, to learn new answers to old questions. How can Peace be an agent of transformation in the imagination of this community?

And as individuals, will we practice enemy-love? Will we get in the way of violence, physical, verbal, emotional, violence in our world? At our workplaces, in our families? Will we speak the peace and love of Jesus to each other, daring to receive insult without returning? Will we let Christ’s love begin with us and flow outward to the world?

I mentioned consequences. We live in a violent world, in which we are called to live gently. But the world will not always like it—living out this love means coming into conflict with the reigning kingdoms—cultural, governmental, corporate, military—who may respond with the only way they know: violence. In World War I, on Christmas Eve, enemy troops at various places in the war decided to put and end to their fighting, even for just one night. The movie Joyeux Noel tells a story based on this Christmas Eve Truce, of how French, Scottish, and German soldiers put down their guns to share Christmas together and then were unable to kill each other afterward. It is a hopeful, touching story that offers a glimpse into what the Incarnation teaches us that Isaiah is all about. These weren’t activists or preachers, these were ordinary men who upon having an encounter with the Prince of Peace, could not help but give in and love their enemies. But not everyone was thrilled about the “fraternizing” that happens in this story, when a priest says Mass and then the troops exchange gifts and music and play games together.

See the video in the post below.

With the sobering reality of how scandalous God’s love is, I invite you to wait in urgent expectation for the coming of the Prince of Peace. Amen.

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