Luke 1:46-55, Luke 4:16-21
December 10, 2017
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
I have a number of creches in my house which I will be carefully unpacking this week to display on my window sills and high shelves. Most, like the one that I have been showing at Children’s Time, are ceramic and a few are made of delicately carved wood, so because they are fragile, I have to put them up where I won’t accidentally knock them over. At the end of the season, I will carefully wrap them in cloths and paper before putting them away because the weight of the stables and the beasts and the figures at the nativity piled on top of one another in their storage boxes can cause them to crack or can mar their finely painted faces. There is one creche, however, that doesn’t require such tender care, and it is this one made of stuffed felt. These figures, squat and potbellied, are full of cotton and stitched together with a heavy thread, and are so durable that I can display them without worry and in fact, at the end of the season, I just toss them in their storage box without any added protection. Now, as you can see, my disregard for the well being of this creche has left the characters far from pristine: the angel’s halo is a bit askew and her face is permanently stained by candle wax. The shepherd’s staff looks like it’s beat off one too many wolves and the wisemen could have used the shepherds’ help in keeping away whatever wild animals gnawed on them in their journey, most likely English Cocker Spaniels. Mary’s face is faded past her prime, and Joseph’s hair is the hair of a sleep deprived anxious man whose wife just gave birth to his first born son in a barn. Nevertheless, this creche is one of my oldest having survived years of children and pets. In fact, the figures of this creche are so hardy that I actually use them as packing material for my other creches: I cradle the delicate pieces of the other nativity scenes in the plump arms of this creche’s residents because I know these figures will protect the others from the world.
And so if you ask me which of my many creches is closest to the real scene two thousand years ago when Christ first entered our world, I would say without hesitation that it is this one. We may have turned the Christmas event into stained glass and porcelain — we may sing of silent nights, and an unworldly baby who can sleep in a cold manger without a whimper, of friendly beasts and bedecked kings, and of meek Mother Mary clad in robes of heavenly blue — but if that first Christmas was really such a delicate affair, Christ would have no power to save us. The world needed and continues to need a Christmas that can take more of a beating. We don’t need a Savior who has to be kept high up on a shelf out of harm’s way; we need a Savior who can step right into the middle of the brutality and the fighting and mudslinging, into the hurt, the worry, and the fear, into the worst that the world can do to us, and come out still standing. We need the real thing.
And thank God, God gave us the real thing. When the baby Jesus grew to be a man, he began his ministry by reading these words from Isaiah to the people: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” These are not meek and mild words; them’s fighting words. Just think about all of the times in history when captives have been freed and prisoners have been released and the oppressed have found justice; did any of them happen because their oppressors simply woke up one morning and realized the error of their ways? Did freedom come because the powerful suddenly decided it would be nice to invite the lowly to the table with them? They had to be confronted, challenged, and sometimes forced out of the way so that the less fortunate could receive help and hope. Jesus’s good news to the oppressed isn’t good news for the oppressors which is probably why they sought his death from the very beginning.
No, Jesus was no porcelain Savior and although we think about his Savior ways as coming from his Father’s side of the family, he apparently inherited a bit of his determination from his mother as well. In anticipation of Jesus’ birth, Mary sings in amazement, “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant,” and then she turns a fierce eye on society’s elite and warns: “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.”
I can almost imagine Mary, heavy with child, glaring at the priests and politicians passing by, calling out, “You’d better shape up, boys because my Son is coming soon and things are going to be different when he gets here!” The inclusive love that Jesus proclaims is not delicate and sweet but is a powerful compassion that has the potential to shake the very foundations of society by threatening our assumptions about who is the most important among us, and who has God’s ear. God listens not to the powerful but to the cries of the powerless. Christ’s compassion challenges entrenched injustice, it confronts bigotry, and it demands that we change.
“I will love you as you are,” Christ says to us, “but I will not leave you as you are.”
For those of us who are willing to admit that there are parts of ourselves and parts of society that desperately need to change, that is good news, but for those who like things just the way they are right now, thank you very much, Christ’s words are disturbing and threatening and those people are not going to change without a fight. And so we need a Savior who can step right into the middle of the brutality and the fighting and mudslinging, into the hurt, the worry, and the fear, into the worst that the world can do, and come out still standing. See in that manger the shadow of the cross and the light of the empty tomb? Know that this is exactly the kind of Savior that God has sent us.
And the Spirit which Jesus declared was upon him — the Spirit that caused him to proclaim good news to the poor, liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners — is now upon us because we are his disciples commissioned to speak his word of good news to our own time and in our own place. To be a disciple of Christ is to be anointed by Christ to continue to carry out his work in the world and act on his authority. Jesus was not an isolated moment when God came into the world and then left again to return to some heaven light years away; Christ came to show us the face of God and the nature of God’s compassion, to take on the world’s worst on the cross and rise to walk again in the resurrection, and then he put his spirit upon his disciples — Peter, James, Paul, and now you and me —to do the same. Jesus didn’t hire an advertising agency or start a political party to carry on after he was gone; he chose and commissioned disciples to continue his work. And for two thousand years, God’s saving work in the world has continued through those who have accepted the call of discipleship, who have had the courage and strength of love to step right into the middle of the brutality and the fighting and mudslinging, into the hurt, the worry, and the fear, into the worst that the world can do, to proclaim good news for the oppressed, liberty for the captives, and release for the prisoners, trusting that as people of the risen Savior, we will come out still standing.
Now, we have to confess that while it is nice to think that Christ entrusts us with such a lofty work as this, we often give in to despair and doubt. We are, after all, human beings who are frail in body and too often weak in soul and many times we admit that we wonder if we in the smallness of our lives can possibly make a difference. I read a post on Facebook recently in which a person said, “[Isn’t it funny that] when people talk about traveling to the past, they worry about radically changing the present by doing something small but barely anyone in the present really thinks that they can radically change the present by doing something small.” 1 In other words, in our science fiction, history is so vulnerable to human interaction that time travelers have to be careful not to sneeze at the wrong time for fear of causing a cascade of events that may result in the demise of nations in the future, but here in real time, the world feels so much more immovable and invulnerable to our actions. We can’t imagine how our one small life could ever overturn the injustices entrenched in society. But the writer, Philip Yancey, says that we are wrong to think in this way and he tells a story that shows just how wrong we are.
In 2004, Victor Yushchenko ran for President of Ukraine. The party in power was corrupt and cruel and fearful of Yushchenko’s popularity, government officials attempted to assassinate him by poison. He barely survived, and his face was left permanently disfigured by the chemicals he ingested but he persisted in his candidacy. On the day of the election, Yushchenko was comfortably in the lead but the ruling party tampered with the results and instructed the state-run television station to report the false results. Accordingly, the night of the election, the news anchor read, “Ladies and gentlemen, we announce that the challenger Victor Yushchenko has been decisively defeated.”
In the lower right-hand corner of the screen, however, a woman by the name of Natalia Dmitruk was providing a translation service for the deaf community. As the news presenter regurgitated the lies of the regime, Natalia Dmitruk refused to translate them. Instead she signed, “I’m addressing all the deaf citizens of Ukraine. They are lying and I’m ashamed to translate those lies. Yushchenko is our president.”
The deaf community sprang into gear. They text-messaged their friends about the fraudulent result and as news spread of Natalia’s act of defiance increasing numbers of journalists were inspired to likewise tell the truth. Over the coming weeks the “Orange Revolution” occurred as a million people wearing orange made their way to the capital city of Kiev demanding a new election. The government was forced to meet their demands, a new election was held, and Victor Yushchenko became president.
Philip Yancey writes, “When I heard the story behind the orange revolution, the image of a small screen of truth in the corner of the big screen became for me an ideal picture of the church. You see we as a church do not control the big screen. (When we do, we usually mess it up.) Go to any magazine rack or turn on the television and you see a consistent message. What matters is how beautiful you are, how much money or power you have…. we focus on the superrich….”
“Our society is hardly unique,” Yancy continues. “Throughout history, nations have always glorified winners, not losers. Then, like the sign language translator in the lower right-hand corner of the screen, along comes a person named Jesus who says in effect, ‘Don’t believe the big screen – they’re lying. It’s the poor who are blessed, not the rich. Mourners are blessed too, as well as those who hunger and thirst, and the persecuted. Those who go through life thinking they’re on top end up on the bottom. And those who go through life feeling they’re on the bottom end up on the top. After all, what does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose his soul?’” 2
We are commissioned as the disciples of Christ who came proclaiming good news to the oppressed to continue to challenge oppression and seek justice, to bring God’s vision of the world into being. We have to not only help those who are poor with their immediate needs by providing Christmas baskets, and food pantries, and coats to clothe them in the winter, but we have to change the policies of our society so that they can get the education they need to get out of their poverty, so that young parents can receive day care services that will allow them to work, and so that they can find jobs that will provide living wages. We need to combat entrenched racism and sexism, and work at community building. Two weeks ago, Nancy told us that when Haiti Outreach began helping Haitian communities build wells in their villages, the ruling powers were not happy. The wells not only provide the Haitian people with clean water; they also provide them with some independence. Haiti Outreach teaches them how to organize their community, how to make decisions together, and how to establish local oversight of the well, all skills which lead to increased self-confidence and empowerment, things that threaten the powerful. Building a well might seem like a small thing but it is a crack in the system of injustice which keeps the people of Haiti in oppression. We, as disciples of Christ, are commissioned to keep hammering away at that injustice and widening the cracks until oppression is toppled.
In August, when neo-Nazi’s marched in Charlottesville shouting anti-semitic and racist slogans, Amie quickly organized a counter-rally in Hornell condemning the bigotry of the alt-right. Members of the community, including many members of this church, stood with signs saying, “Honk if you hate Nazis,” and dozens of cars drove by that little group on the corner, honking their horns and waving, encouraged and reminded that we can be better people than what we were seeing in Charlottesville. It was perhaps a small thing, and bigotry wasn’t ended by that protest, but bigotry was challenged, love uplifted, and Christ’s call was answered in that moment.
And last week, Melissa handed out poinsettias during coffee hour, purchased by members of the church to support the Allegany-Cattaraugus-Chautauqua Fund for Women. Concerned that the counties of the Southerntier have poverty rates higher than both state and national rates, Melissa, Trish, and two other women from the community recently began the ACC Fund for Women to provide small loans and financial assistance to women who are seeking ways of bettering their lives and rising out of poverty. They will be helping women pursue continued education, career development, and start small businesses. These acts can free women and their families from the chains of oppression that have kept them from flourishing, and so in their work and our support of them, Melissa and Trish have answer the call of Christ.
And I could go on. As a church, through good times and bad, we have continued to do the work of Christ, and we will continue to do that work because that is why we are here. We are the disciples of Christ, commissioned to act on his behalf to challenge society’s assumptions that keep God’s children in bondage and suffering, and his Spirit is upon us now. The world needs people who have the courage and strength of love to step right into the middle of the brutality and the fighting and mudslinging, into the hurt, the worry, and the fear, into the worst that the world can do, to proclaim good news for the oppressed, liberty for the captives, and release for the prisoners, and we will be those people, trusting that as disciples of the risen Savior, we will come out of the fray still standing, and God’s kingdom will be triumphant.
1. shared on Facebook, original post by Sonyaliloguy
2. Philip Yancey, What Good Is God, pp. 184-186