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Thursday, December 19, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 7:10-15, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25

In the strictest interpretation of the calendar on which the lectionary is based the Christmas season doesn’t begin until Christmas Day.  I grew up thinking of the “Christmas season” as the whole time between Thanksgiving and Christmas---and then it was over.  Our big “Christmas Sunday” was the Sunday before Christmas.  That continued in the churches I pastored over the years, and this coming Sunday will be a special musical Sunday at Kairos-Milwaukie United Church of Christ (as is usually the case).  Of course the commercial "Christmas season" now begins long before Thanksgiving, something many of us find disturbing.

Although one can see Christmas in the lectionary readings for Sunday, they didn’t seem to be as filled with the Christmas Spirit as I was ready for this year.  One has to look ahead to the three (yes, three!) sets of readings for Christmas Day, following the Roman Catholic tradition of a midnight mass, a mass at dawn, and one during the day on Christmas.  We have a candlelight service at 7 P.M. on Christmas Eve.  One church I served had a service at 11 P.M., ending at midnight, on Christmas Eve, the largest attended service of the year in the county where the church was located.

It seemed too much, though, to try to digest all those readings at our Tuesday morning breakfast, or in a single blog.  We decided to begin our breakfast discussion by sharing some of the things Christmas means to us.  Many meanings, theological and in terms of everyday experience, have been applied to Christmas.  I would argue that it can’t be captured in any one image or explanation or interpretation.  We talked about birth and babies, about new beginnings, about peace and justice, about healing and restoration.  I wish I had had with me words from Carl Sandberg, which I’ll share with you at the end of this blog entry, along with a story about how they came to me.

Each of this week’s lectionary readings can be read asking the question, “What does Christmas mean?”  What does it mean when we are surprised by God’s presence in our midst?  One of our breakfast discussion’s participants is fond of saying that God is with us when we are born and all through life to our moment of dying.  We don’t have to beg for God to be with us and save us.  God is already here.  I imagine most of those in the discussion would agree, but do we notice that presence?  Are there times we have to stop and pay attention, to notice and ponder and ask what it means?  Christmas can be such a time.

So, let’s look at this week’s texts.  Most were not written specifically as texts for interpreting the events we celebrate on Christmas, but all can be applied.

First, two of the texts deal with a birth---Isaiah and Matthew.  In fact, Matthew quotes from the Isaiah passage.  Although Christians have often taken the Isaiah text as a prophesy of the birth of Jesus, it had more to do with hope in the midst of the politics of Isaiah’s day than with a later event in Bethlehem.  The people, as so often happens, are threatened by the powers around them.  The reading from Isaiah, chapter seven, focuses upon Ahaz, king of Judah, who is listed by Matthew as one of Jesus’ ancestors.  (See Matthew 1:9)  He is described as having “given himself up to a life of wickedness, introducing many pagan and idolatrous customs.”  His approach to the enemy powers is to abandon his faith and make alliances with them.  He’s received the message that he must instead just trust God to get him through this mess, but he’s more or less given up on God.  (See Isaiah 7:1-9)

Issues about how to relate to enemies who threaten continue into our age.  The message here is that we’re not going to beat them by fighting them, but neither are we going to find peace by giving up our principles.  The way through is never easy, but it begins by giving up our fear.  If we live in constant fear of forces which seem threatening, we’re lost before we begin.

All that, though, is but prelude to this week’s reading.  Through Isaiah, the Lord speaks again to Ahaz, telling him to ask for a sign that will give him the confidence to trust through these times of trouble.  (Isaiah 7:10-11)  Ahaz’ response sounds pious.  He refuses to ask for a sign, saying, “I will not put the Lord to the test.”  (vs. 12)  His response masks his refusal to even consider listening for a word which might call him to a different approach.  Isaiah tells him that God will send a sign anyway.  “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”  (vs. 14)  There are other things in the passage.  The son is one who “shall eat curds and honey,” the food of a nomad, and one who will know “how to refuse the evil and choose the good.”  (vs. 15-16)  We could try to unpack those images, including considering at what age a child is able to distinguish between right and wrong.  We could also elaborate the political context by talking about “the land before whose two kings you are in dread.”  (vs. 16)

The basic focus, however, is upon a child, as is so often the case in scriptures.  (Remember that Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom includes a little child in the lead.  See Isaiah 11:6)  A child represents hope, new possibility.  We are given a new chance.  The threats of the past will not last forever.  New leadership will arise and new possibilities will open.  (Although our present pastoral leadership is certainly no threat, the uncertainties of unknown changes coming our way, turned our breakfast discussion to that process of change for a bit.  The call to trust and hope applies at so many levels.)

Matthew tells the story of another birth.  In his quote from Isaiah, the “young woman” becomes a “virgin.”  (Matthew 1:23)  Matthew is trying to help us see God in the birth of this child.  In his time and place, it was virgins who gave birth to Gods.  His whole story seems to center on trying to establish a “virgin birth.”  It begins with Mary and Joseph “before they lived together” (vs. 18) and ends noting that Joseph “had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son.”  (vs. 25)  In between we are told about Joseph’s discomfort with stepping in as the father of someone else’s child and the visit of an angel to reassure him.

There are so many lines to pursue in terms of human experience and theological interpretations.  Sometimes we get so caught up in sidelines that are foreign to our time and place, that we miss the focus upon God with us and what that means.  Isaiah’s message, repeated by Matthew, is that “‘they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’”  (vs. 23)  In Matthew’s account, Joseph is also told “to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  (vs. 21)  The reading ends with the words, “and he named him Jesus.”  (vs. 25)  The name “Jesus’ means “God saves.”

If the meaning of Christmas is somehow found in the seemingly small things of life, like the birth of a child (which in my book is never a “small thing”), such small things are seen as the source of cosmic shifts of global consequence.  Humanity is given another chance.

The birth of a child is an answer to the cry recorded in Psalm 80.  “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.”  It’s a refrain that occurs in vss. 3, 7, and 19.

Paul’s epistle to the Romans reminds us that this shift includes an inclusiveness perhaps not imagined before.  He too speaks of a “Son” “promised beforehand through” God’s prophets, again a descendant of David “according to the flesh.”  (Romans 1:2-3)  The reading is part of his greeting to the Romans, at the beginning of this letter.  He is, among other things, introducing himself by giving a summary of the Gospel he is going to elaborate in his lengthy letter.  He does not dwell upon a birth but upon a resurrection.  The one of whom he speaks “was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.”  The purpose I see in Paul’s introduction comes in verses 5-7.  He declares that Gentiles, even Romans, are included.  God does not love just a small tribe of wandering Hebrews, and their descendants.  God’s love reaches out to all peoples and all nations.  Rome was a symbol, in those days, of the entire world.  Paul talks about the inclusion of “all the Gentiles . . . including yourselves.”  (vss. 5-6)  The letter is addressed “to all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints.”  (vs. 7)

The message of Christmas is a message of inclusive love, and it begins with a baby.

So, what does Carl Sandburg have to do with all this?  His words come to me from Hawaii, where we visited a small church one Sunday on our recent trip.  The Hokuloa United Church of Christ, on the big island, north of Kona, keeps in touch with its visitors.  E-mails come weekly, and snail mail brings us their church newsletter.  The current newsletter was in our mailbox when we got home from the Tuesday morning breakfast discussion.  Pastor John P. Hoover’s column includes these words from a writing entitled “Remembrance Rock,” written in 1948 by Carl Sandburg.

“A baby is God’s opinion that life should go on.  A book that does nothing to you is dead.  A baby, whether it does anything to you, represents life.  If a bad fire should break out in this house and I had my choice of saving the library or the babies, I would save what is alive.  Never will a time come when the most marvelous recent invention is as marvelous as a newborn baby.  The finest of our precision watches, the most super-colossal of our supercargo planes, don’t compare with a newborn baby in the number and ingenuity of coils and springs, in the flow and change of chemical solutions, in time devices and interrelated parts that are irreplaceable.  A baby is very modern.  Yet it is also the oldest of the ancients.  A baby doesn’t know he is a hoary and venerable antique---but he is.  Before man learned how to make an alphabet, how to make a wheel, how to make a fire, he knew how to make a baby---with the great help of woman and his God and Maker.”

If I’d had those words, I would have thrown them into the breakfast discussion about the meaning of Christmas.  I’m throwing them in now.  Celebrate Christmas by paying attention to the little things that make a difference, to babies and new beginnings and second chances.  They have cosmic significance and communicate God’s love for all peoples and nations, including you and me.  Merry Christmas!

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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