What is True This Season? Unto us a child is born…

December 17, 2017
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 1:39-45

We’ve been making our way, cautiously, through the season of Advent. Walking in the shadows. Not sure of our direction. Anxious at every turn.

Picking our way through the scandalous debris that litters our path… rampant sexual misconduct and misogyny…worsening disparities…unbridled greed… relentless racism…deceit masquerading as public service.

It’s not an easy road we trod this Advent in America. We’re looking for light leading to a new day. We’re looking for Bethlehem, but it seems far, far away.

On the journey toward Christmas this year at Westminster we’ve turned to the South African theologian Allan Boesak to help us imagine the coming incarnation. The Advent Credo he wrote in 1983 in the bleakest days of apartheid stood as a bulwark against all that would obscure the light of God’s love and justice in that time and place.

The Credo rejects the false notion that the way things are is the way things always will be. Change is in the air: that’s an Advent ambition, the confidence of Christmas.

Listen to these lines:

It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word.

It is not true that war and destruction rule forever.

This is true: Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, his name shall be called wonderful counselor, mighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of peace.

Those South African Christians went to the well of their faith and drew deeply from it when they stood up against the lies and brutality of apartheid. The prophets gave them courage: “The people who walked in darkness,” Isaiah said,

“Have seen a great light;

those who lived in a land of deep darkness

— on them light has shined.”

The message of this season, of this pre-Christmas moment, is that a Great Reversal is on the way. What once was dark will be infused with light. Oppression will be overturned and systems that dehumanize will end. Bankrupt values that tear down will yield to principles that build up.

In the aftermath of apartheid South Africa set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to help the nation heal. We may need such a process in this land someday.

For followers of Jesus, Christmas is the biblical equivalent of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where lies are no longer left to stand unchallenged and people slowly learn to trust one another again, where justice is restored and hope is given a fighting chance.

It is not true that that war and destruction rule forever. It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word.

In our context, cultural and political polarities have a vice-grip on all of us, on all sides of all perspectives. We slip too easily into a posture of disgust toward the other, merely because we disagree, or look or sound different, or worship in another way, or vote for another party. Vitriol has become our go-to place, odium the path of least resistance. We’re in danger of losing sight of national unity or any sense of shared purpose as a people. Will we ever emerge from the darkness in which we now walk.

Senator-elect Doug Jones’ words this week in Alabama offered a ray of light in a miasma of political gloom. He spoke of “dignity and respect,” of “common courtesy and decency,” of everyone getting “a fair shake…regardless of what zip code you live in.”

It is not true that we must accept a society torn by division and animosity and hatred.

It is not true that we cannot disagree without dismissing the other.

It is not true that we have nothing in common with one another.

This is true: Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.

By its very simplicity the birth undoes the complex entanglements of our world. The plain reality of Christmas is a human baby born in an out-of-the-way village on the outskirts of nowhere to a couple not yet married. That is the unpretentious counterweight to so much in our world today, and to every complicated, arcane doctrinal affirmation made in the name of our faith tradition. It all boils down to this: unto us a son is given.

The story itself has a way of reminding us of its commonplace, everyday nature. Mary greets her cousin Elizabeth who’s further along with her own pregnancy. The baby Elizabeth is carrying “leaps in her womb” at the sound Mary’s voice. Women who’ve carried a child know the sensation. The baby shifts and kicks and pushes and generally makes its presence known. In our household I’ve seen it and felt it from the outside: life stirring within, its own gestating Advent.

Incarnation begins like that, as does the narrative of every one of us, every person on the face of the earth. Sometimes we over-spiritualize the nativity and gloss over and forget its sheer humanity.

The story of Christmas begins like your story and mine, with the birth of a child, and in that birth – in every birth – there’s a glimpse of the holy. The transcendent becomes immanent. Darkness is dispelled. The world turns toward the light as the prophets said it would. We learn to love again.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says,

“There is no road to human solidarity that does not begin with moral particularity – by coming to know what it means to be a child, a parent, a neighbor, a friend. We learn to love humanity by loving specific human beings. There is no short-cut.” (The Dignity of Difference; New York: Continuum, 2013; p. 58)

It’s no wonder God felt compelled to enter our earthly fray. In the midst of the chaos in which we dwell, we had to learn once more the power of love, the power of love to make things right.

It is not true that we must walk in darkness.

This is true: Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulders, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

The Great Reversal has begun.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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