Mount Olive Lutheran Church
Home About Worship Music and Arts Parish Life Learning Outreach News Contact
Mount Olive Lutheran Church

Monday, December 24, 2012

Did You Get What You Want?

The true plan of God, the revelation of which has begun at Christmas, is incredibly risky, and with our chaos and tumult and desire for other ways, we might miss it.  But it is the only way to true peace on earth.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Eve of the Nativity of Our Lord; text: Luke 2:1-20

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

There has been much conversation and concern among Christian clergy in the past weeks over how to welcome Christmas into a world which also carries within it the death of innocent children, not just in Connecticut but daily all over this planet, though the events of the past weeks have pushed the concern to the forefront.  This world seems as brutal as it always has been, and though we claim “peace on earth” tonight and for the next weeks, we find precious little peace in our world or in our hearts.

It is one of the deepest challenges to the Christmas proclamation, and not just this year.  If this celebration is merely a denial of the world’s reality, a chance for us to come inside and be mesmerized by beautiful things and sing wistfully of peace, while the war and pain rages on outside, if our Christmas joy is not capable of addressing the real world problems that were in our newspapers this morning and most certainly will be in them again tomorrow morning, we really ought to stop doing it.  How we face that challenge, that 2,000 years of time have come and gone since the birth of the One we call Prince of Peace, and still it seems to be the same as it always has been, that’s our concern.

There is a carol which powerfully addresses this concern, but not if we sing it from our worship book.  Or even from the former green book.  Only if we open the old, red book does it help us.  Because the last two editions of Lutheran worship books from our tradition have omitted a key stanza.

This carol is actually one Lutherans have struggled with somewhat, because it never mentions Jesus’ birth.  It was written by an American Unitarian, Edmund Sears, and though it is immensely popular in the culture, many older Lutheran books omitted it.  The carol is “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” and all it talks about is the angels’ song, not Jesus.  But not every hymn needs to speak every truth we believe, and there is something powerful going on in this carol which spoke to me a great deal in these past weeks.  That is, if you sing all five stanzas.

It’s powerful, because this is the angels’ song the carol keeps mentioning: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth.”  That’s what the angels sang.  Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth.  That’s what the coming of the Son of God is to bring.  There is little else we could hope for from God more needed, more desperately wanted, than that peace on earth.  And that, the carol sings about.

But listen to the missing words:
   Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;
   Beneath the angel-strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
   And man, at war with man, hears not the love song which they bring . . .

For 2,000 years the world has suffered with sin and strife, in spite of the angels’ song of peace, that’s what that stanza sings.  And that is the struggle we have with Christmas.  No matter how much peace we find in here tonight, the real world rages on.  As if nothing has happened, or will happen.

Tonight we need more than ever to know the truth about what God is really giving us, a truth that is strong enough to carry us through all the bleak midwinters of this world, not just one night a year of the magic of a baby in a manger.

A point to start is the question that need implies:  What is it that you want from God at Christmas?

We often pin so many hopes and dreams on Christmas.  We hope that our families will all be together, that we all get along, that we find peace in our lives, peace in our hearts, rest for our spirits.

And we hope for more than just ourselves.  We hope that the pain we see in the world will lessen, that we will find real peace on this earth.  That God’s coming is making a difference.

There is reason for us to expect that.  We hear such promises of what we will receive that we can’t help believing them.  Listen to Isaiah tonight: endless peace will come, with justice and righteousness.  Listen to the angels tonight: peace on earth, good will to all.

But for us, we who will open newspapers tomorrow or watch the news again, we who go back to our own lives, it’s hard to maintain hope in these being fulfilled.  We face massacres here and abroad, and wars here and abroad, all on top of our own difficulties and struggles.  And we thought that Christmas meant God was doing something about that.  That’s what we sing and say, anyway.

But here’s the question: what if God is doing something different than we wanted or expected?  What if Christmas tells us that God’s answer to the evil and pain of this world is not what we thought it would be, but something else?  If that’s true, that’s something we ought to know.

We should pay attention, because it’s clear that what we think we want is not what we get.

The Messiah we get at Christmas isn’t the Messiah we thought we wanted.

We often talk about how Jesus was not the Messiah everyone wanted or expected in his day.  Some expected an earthly king.  Others a revolutionary.  Others a priest-like person who didn’t associate with the kinds of people Jesus did.  In the end, Jesus was rejected by the leaders of his people as not being the Anointed of God.  He wasn’t what they wanted.

The truth is, we’re in the same boat.  We love the Christmas story.   We’re amazed that the people of Jesus’ day couldn’t see he was truly God’s Son, the Messiah.

But we don’t love the implications of what Jesus’ birth as a human child means for how the world works.   What we get in the baby in the manger isn’t what we want for our everyday lives, or for the world.  We think we’d rather have a God who intervened a little more often.  It turns out, we still think that God’s Messiah ought to be and act like the people of Jesus’ day thought.  We’re in full agreement with them.

The real truth about Christmas is this: it is a foolish, risky plan of God.  That’s what is so hard for us, why we can’t see the hope in what God did in that manger 2,000 years ago.  When we think about the problems of the world that are so huge, and ask, “Why doesn’t God do something about that?” we are saying that we don’t like what God did at Christmas.

Listen:  when Jesus was born in a manger in Bethlehem, the amazing thing was not the star.  Not the angels.  Not the shepherds.  Not the beautiful music, if there was any.  No, the amazing, risky, foolish thing is that God risked the salvation of the entire world on becoming one of us in this child, who would grow not to take over the world and fix it by force, but grow to lead the world back into obedience to God and love of God and neighbor.

This world is incredibly dangerous for children, we know that all too well.  So from the start, God’s plan was a gamble.  But even when Jesus grew up, the plan was a tremendous risk, this plan to lead us back to God instead of forcing us.

Do you see it?  God, the creator of the universe, decided not to force us to be good, but to lead us to be good.  The stakes are high: God is hoping that it will work, but it’s entirely possible that we’ll all keep being evil, and the world never gets better.

And for 2,000 years that has seemed to have happened.  But as the hymnwriter said, the problem is not that the angels’ song is wrong, or that the promise is false.

It is that “man, at war with man” (not the language we use for humanity anymore, and probably the reason the stanza was omitted from our books, since there’s no way to poetically re-write it using five syllables and still have such a powerful and succinct summary of the truth), the problem is that we are at war with ourselves, with each other, with our own kind so much, that we cannot hear the song of peace and love God is giving us.  The noise of our chaos, our fighting, our self-centeredness overwhelms the song of the angels.  Our need for God to be what we want God to be closes our ears to hearing what God is actually doing.

But here is also the truth: for 2,000 years, God’s plan has been working, as well, slowly but surely.

Peace has spread, as promised, but not by force.  Through love of one person for another, through the Spirit that the risen Messiah gives us.  Exactly as God hoped would happen when he came in person to live with us, teach us, love us, lead us.

And frankly, from a human view, it is inefficient, it’s costly, it’s risky, and it’s just plain crazy.  It would have been cleaner and neater for God to just take over the world and bring peace by force.  And some days, in the real world, we wish God would do that.  Only that wouldn’t bring about the peace God truly hopes for and wants.

God actually wants people to willingly follow, willingly obey, willingly love.  And so God’s Son was born to us.  To teach us, to show us God’s love, and a way to live.  To die and rise to break sin and death’s power over us.

Our Christmas gift from God is not that this is a beautiful story.  It is that it is life for us.  The true beauty of this Christmas Eve is not in the sweet story or sweet music.  It is that God has come to be in our hearts, to live with us and change us.  To bring peace to our lives and our world through you and through me.

And that is a reality that lasts far beyond this night.  That is a gift of love and peace, of transformation, that will carry us through the rest of our lives, until we can sing with the angels ourselves.  A gift that has the strength to face the suffering and evil of this world and transform it into the peace on earth God has always intended.

So, did you get what you wanted from God this Christmas?

Maybe not, if you wanted God to use power to bring peace to your life and to the world.  But you got what you needed: God’s power in you, God’s love in your life, God’s will to guide you.  And that is what is most important.

Listen again to the missing stanza, this time with the last line included:
   Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;
   Beneath the angel-strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
   And man, at war with man, hears not the love song which they bring:
   O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing.

What is Mr. Sears’ answer for us tonight?  Hush the noise, all you in strife, and hear the angels sing.  Hush the noise of our complaining that God doesn’t come and listen to the joy that God is already here.  Hush the noise of our struggling with our own selves and with others, the noise of our self-centeredness, the noise of our shouting at each other, the noise of our hatred, the noise of our wars, the noise of our fears, hush all that noise, and listen to the peace that God is giving us.

We didn’t get what we thought we wanted.  But we got what we needed.  So let’s hush our noise, and hear the angels sing.  They have something very important to say.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

No comments:

Post a Comment


Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Reconciling in ChristRIC

Copyright 2014 Mount Olive Lutheran Church