Peace on Earth and Goodwill towards all?

peace-on-earth

By Joe LaGuardia

In a recent article for USA Today, Robert Parham noted the oddity and the timeliness of God’s message of “peace on earth” to Mary and Joseph during the Christmas season.

He stated that peace was a ridiculous notion back then as it is now, a notion hard-pressed in human community filled with violence and vitriol, domination and oppression.

That first-century world was one of utter darkness: Rome was in charge, applying financial pressure through high taxes and a military economy.  Not many politicians were friends to families in Nazareth.  As one observer of Jesus noted, “What good can come out of Nazareth anyway?” (John 1:46).

And shortly after Jesus was born, during Epiphany, an infuriated Herod commanded the genocide of children throughout Bethlehem (Matt. 2:16-16).

Peace is certainly ridiculous because it assumes that we aspire to be better than this, to lift ourselves above the fray of retaliation and revenge, and seek avenues of justice and forgiveness instead.  After all, we know more than people did back then.  Ours is the age of Enlightenment, science, and technology.

But it is also ridiculous because it assumes we can follow in the footsteps of Jesus: When tortured and sentenced for crimes he did not commit, he forgave his oppressors, forever breaking the Cycle of revenge and showing us what true reconciliation looks like. No amount of science and social media can inspire that kind of peacemaking.

It is, however, that type of peace we Christians are to proclaim on Christmas, or whenever we are together, really.  In worship, we model what it means to look to God rather than ourselves.  Our praise and proclamation of Gospel is the alternative to a world that is “me first.”  In ministry, we surrender ourselves to learn and walk with that Galilean peasant rather than give in to princes who wield power.

In our missions, we practice restorative justice when we declare that all we own is to be shared with the “least of these,” bringing healing to those places still under the thumb of empire and hardship.

God’s peace in Christ was– and is–radically different than the militaristic values that set the tone of violence in Rome.  God’s peace in Christ sets a new tone for today too.

Yet, peace has been hard to find this season.  Leading up to the Christmas weekend, there was talk among politicians on Twitter concerning, of all things, nuclear escalation.  When we sang, “Peace on earth, goodwill to men,” in our hymnody this past weekend, there were over 50 shootings with at least a dozen fatalities in the city of Chicago alone.

Across the nation, there were multiple reports of violence and fighting–and at least one mass shooting threat–in malls, the very places where we purchase gifts for our children to remind them of the gift of Jesus.  Violence erupted in a Aurora, Colorado, mall of all places, a town victimized by a mass shooting some years back.  People should know better.

I am not sure how people who celebrate or observe Christmas can become violent, but this seems to play into the narrative that anger in America (or at least the perception of anger, as reflected in the nightly news and in our political rhetoric) is becoming a new norm this year.

Anger can only be tempered with intentional acts of love and kindness, and in the actual testifying to and spreading of the Gospel –the Good News– of Christ in our midst.  It was Jesus who walked among angry Roman soldiers who derided, dehumanized, and tortured him.  It was in the middle of that kind of storm that Jesus ushered in a silent witness of Good News of peace and calm, perhaps the loudest plea for non-violence anytime in history (Mark 15:16-20).

Civil Rights activist Ruby Sales learned long ago that tempering violence may be resolved with asking different questions of those who are angry and to do so right in the midst of violent communities.  She learned to ask, “Where does it hurt?”

We too–the church as a whole–must learn how to ask this question and listen to the answers.  Then we must, in turn, go into the public square and ask that question of neighbors and communities alike.

God came to us as Emmanuel not in places where we ought to be, but where we are: right in the middle of our hurt.  Jesus was born there not to leave us where we are, but to mature us to be vessels of peace who have experienced forgiveness and healing once and for all.  Remember that is was in the Gospel of Mark where a Roman soldier–once angry, but healed at the cross of Christ, who was the first human on record to declare, “This Jesus is indeed the Son of God!”

God’s peace in Jesus was a bold scheme, and I agree with Robert Parham that it does sound ridiculous, especially when we see a different picture painted across our nation on the nightly news.  But if we Christians can’t be the ones to be intentional in sharing God’s love and peace–to ask the hard questions of where it hurts–then who will?

The Truth of Epiphany and the Human Christ

394By Joe LaGuardia

Some of our Christmas carols make bold claims about Christ.  Some remind us of Jesus’ miraculous birth, while others recall the revelation of God’s Messiah to angels and sages.  Perhaps the greatest claim is made in the classic hymn, Away in a Manger, which states that when it came to baby Jesus, “No crying he made.”

Now that is a miracle.  I can only imagine  what it might be like to have a baby that never cries, whines, wets the bed, and learns the word “No.”

This baby is miraculous indeed.  He probably also knew intuitively how to share his toys, avoid back-talking his parents, and eat his vegetables. No wonder most of the artwork depicting the Christ child throughout history shows him as a miniature man in saintly repose.

Was Jesus really like that?  Did Jesus rest in a manger that heavenly and grow up without any need for training, correction, or parental guidance?

We know that Jesus had growin’ up days like the rest of us, a fact we recognize during the season of Epiphany.  Twice in Luke 2 (vs. 40 and 52), scripture tells us that Jesus “grew in wisdom and in stature.”  What about the rest of Jesus’ maturation and growth?

As far as one blogger is concerned, Jesus did do all the things that babies and infants do, including cry.  But Jesus “never cried in a sinful way.”  That’s a stretch, and when I think back to when my children were infants, I don’t recall them crying in a sinful way either.  Babies cry; that’s how they communicate.

Our thoughts about baby Jesus, no matter how far-fetched they are, reveal something about our theology of Christ, which I would guess is not as developed as it should be.

Let me remind you, dear reader, that the orthodox view of Jesus’ personhood is that he is fully God and fully human.  Jesus was 100% of both.  He is, of course, without sin although even that theological premise rests on a single thread of scripture from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians (5:21).

The argument surrounding Jesus’ divinity and humanity was settled long ago in the fourth century.  At that time, priests, bishops, and other church leaders debated Jesus’ Christology and the incarnation.

One priest, Arius of the Church of Bancalis in Egypt, claimed that Jesus was fully human and therefore not the same “substance” (as a bishop, Alexander of Alexandria, claimed) as God.  This became known as the Arian Controversy.

Bishops across the empire settled the disagreement in the famous Council of Nicaea in 326 CE, when nearly 300 bishops argued that Jesus was both divine and human, not just like God, but God in the flesh.

The second verse of the classic Christmas hymn, O Come, All Ye Faithful, recites some of the theological statements that came out of the Council:

“True God of true God, Light from Light Eternal . . . Son of the Father, begotten, not created.”

In my own experience, I find it important to highlight both aspects of Jesus’ personhood.  He was fully divine, and Jesus, who was “one with the Father” (John 10:30) embodied God’s reign and bridged the gap between heaven and earth.  God chose to live among us in a particular place and time, a great admission of the value that God places on us humans.

Yet, Jesus is fully human and, therefore, did what most babies and children do.  At the same time, Jesus also suffered, felt the pain of grief, and faced hardship.  This is good news: When I face the same, Jesus–and, in turn, God–knows exactly how I feel.  In Jesus Christ, God has become an intimate sojourner with humanity.

I don’t think any of us like to think of Jesus as a baby who spit up, made messes, and threw his food to see if it stuck to the wall; but, he likely did.  It’s Jesus’ very humanity, however, that makes the Gospel for what it is.  If Jesus showed us the way, then we can follow in faith, hope, and love with the same confidence.

 

The Worshiping Church: An Epiphany Sermon

Wise-Men-01Text: Matthew 2:1-12

I.

What does it mean to be Christ’s Church? 

Some churches are defined by the families who make up the congregation.  One story is of a church made up of the Tate family.

Dick Tate was the patriarch of the family and had been a deacon for as long as anyone could remember.  He tried to tell everyone else what to do.  Dick had a brother, Row, who was just as strong-headed and tried to change everything every week. 

Dick had a wife, Agi. Together Dick and Agi had a daughter, Ira. 

Then there was the extended family.  Cousins Hesi always gave reasons why every new project was a bad idea, much to the chagrin of his brother Facili, who was rather good at administration.

Then you have the spiritual ones like Medi, who stayed in prayer all day long, and the hostile one, Ampu, who ended up leaving the church altogether.

And so you have all of the players of church trying to be and do the church, and all kinds of personalities that make up the stew that is the Body of Christ.   

But seriously folks, what does it mean to be Christ’s Church?

It was theologian Carmello Avarez who said of Christmas: “The birth of Jesus is an incarnational event that involved the daily experiences of simple and humble people who are transformed into chosen vessels of God’s purpose and blessing.”*

Over the next few weeks, we are going to look at different ways to be Christ’s Church, to be vessels of purpose and blessing.  Some of this may be familiar to you, but I think that we all need reminding of what it means to be the Body of Christ—especially now that the New Year is upon us and some much-needed resolutions are in order.

So, today, let’s resolve to be a “worshiping church.”

II.

Let’s start with a group of fellows who made it their business to look up at the stars and follow God’s paintbrush across the heavens in order to anticipate and await God’s coming Messiah upon earth.

We sometimes call them kings, especially in our hymnody, but really, this group is made up of various scientists of old—simple and humble men like you and me–who made a decision to let reason and knowledge fade into the background in exchange for faith and obedience to a Savior, a Savior that was lord over all that they studied and tried to master in the first place: 

Hear the words of Matthew 2:1-2:

“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

I go for walks at night sometimes.  Since Middle School, I cherish clear skies because I am amateur astronomer of sorts.  I can recognize constellations and tell you about this or that if you care, but I especially like the autumnal and winter skies because of how clear and fresh the sky looks, how bright and near those stars above us appear. 

Go out just after sunset on a clear sky during this time, and you will catch a glimpse of my favorite star on the western horizon.  It’s the brightest star and the first to say hello because its not a star at all, but the planet Venus. 

Venus is named after the Greek goddess of love and this planet is called Venus because of all the heavenly bodies in the sky, it is the prettiest. 

On my walks, I start out looking at the sky as a wanna-be scientist.  I get my bearings and recall all of the knowledge I learned in school, but then as soon as I spot Venus or Mars or Jupiter, my senses give way to wonder and awe.

I occasionally have an epiphany and realize just how small and how infinitesimal my life—our planet—really is and just how big God is.

I am reminded of the words of Albert Eisntein who said that “The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical.  It is the source of all true art and science.”

The place where our knowledge and reason ends and our awareness of God’s presence and mystery and love and grandeur begins is the very place in which worship erupts. 

That’s how I think it was for these wise friends in our lesson today—They had a professional occupation to study the stars and determine God’s movement in history, but they had to gain the awareness that when God did move, they had to step outside of their occupation and venture forth through the wilderness in faith, reaching back to God with arms spread towards the very heavens they studied: 

A worshiping church is a community of spiritual friends who are always looking for God’s movement, always willing to step out in faith, and always eager to respond to God rather than be content with just sharing  knowledge about God.

III.

A community of spiritual friends!  Did you know that spiritual friendship is actually a historic part of Christ’s Church and dates all the way back to the third and fourth centuries?

Whereas friends share information about the weather or hobbies, spiritual friends are intentional in joining God in a rhythm of faith that sees all of life as one lived in glory to God and God alone.  

Questions among spiritual friends are different than those posed between regular friends.  Spiritual friends ask questions such as these:

  • How are you doing spiritually?  I mean, really, how are you doing?
  •  How are you experiencing God this week?
  •  How have you responded to God this week?
  • What new ways of worship can we join in together as a response to God?
  •   How can I pray for you this week?

When these wise spiritual friends in Matthew “observe” God’s star, they do it together and they respond together.  They respond in faith, they share their faith, they find joy in their faith—together.

IV.

What about the next verse: Matthew 2:3–

“When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.”

There was once a newly-wedded couple going through a hard time in their marriage, and sought the advice of the minister who performed the wedding.  They were nominal Christians, the type who went to church a few times a year, mostly holidays.

They sat down with the minister and the wife started telling her—the minister—how she felt a need to attend church and study her Bible more.  She just had that gut feeling that God was tugging on her heart, wanting more from her—a commitment followed by real obedience.   Yet, whenever she brought this up to her husband, her husband responded negatively and with sarcasm.

Even there in the little room the church used for counseling, as the wife told the minister her issues, the minister could sense the husband fidgeting in his seat.  She followed up with a question to the husband of how he felt about his wife’s need for a deeper commitment to her faith.

The husband was not necessarily angry or upset; he was simply anxious that she wanted something more than she had wanted him.  The minister sensed that he felt threatened by his wife’s new-found calling.

The call to follow God and to give God glory rather than seek our own glory is threatening to a world who does not understand the rigors and sacrifice required of us Christians.  

Here, in this scripture lesson, Herod, like that young bride’s husband, felt threatened by the idea that there might be a king who is in charge rather than him, and that this king might show Herod and the whole governmental system for what they truly were—mere servants to the King of kings and Lord of lords.

I hear often of how Christians are persecuted for this or that in our nation.  Some of us here at Trinity subscribe to Voice of the Martyrs, a magazine that bears testimony to those Christians around the world who are persecuted for their faith from China to the Middle East. 

I must be honest:  After reading these stories in which people are killed or maimed for their faith—in places like Sudan or Egypt or Syria—I don’t really see some of the things we go through in America as persecution.  We are inconvenienced more than anything else; we haven’t been rounded up yet.

But, even if we were persecuted here in the States, why should we be surprised?  Neither the Bible nor Christ himself ever promised that Christ’s Church would be protected by any man-made document or institution no matter what those authorities may say. 

A worshiping Church knows that following God and making God center of its life and provision will make the world uncomfortable.  

When Jesus was born, the whole world was turned upside down and God’s vessels became the nexus of power from whence God’s very kingdom had come, all of the authorities—from princes to priests, from kings to courtly officials were threatened and tried to squash that off-beat movement.

This is the stuff of prophetic witness: We tell the world how God is at work and how God’s inclusive Kingdom will bring justice and mercy to those who are often on the margins of society; but we also gain a prophetic inheritance marked by persecution. 

All prophets who give voice to God’s love and threaten the status quo become the objects of ridicule and shame.    That’s why the worshipping church takes on the likeness of Jesus, who being equal with God did not count that equality with God something to be grasped, but humbled himself even to the point of death, even unto the cross.  If Jesus sacrificed his own rights long ago in exchange for love and forgiveness, then why shouldn’t we?

V.

Oddly, in our scripture lesson today, Herod responded with what seems to be good intentions:  Verse 8 says that Herod instructed the magi to tell him where this king is:

“Bring me word that I too may also go and pay homage to him.” 

If we feel too comfortable in the world because things are going our way, then we might have bought into Herod’s schemes because sometimes the world mimics worship: It will say the right things and strive to win the hearts and minds—and, in many cases, the pocketbooks—of Jesus’ followers, but it will come off as shallow and cliché. 

The magi intended to worship while Herod pretended to worship!   

Be weary, Church, of a sensational media or celebrity culture that tries to mimic worship to our Lord and King.  But how do you discern the difference?

True worship is that which always bends towards justice rooted in inclusive compassion and sacrifice.  It is good news to the ears of those who have yet to know Christ as Lord, not bad news that turns them away. 

Mimicry, however, is that which bends away from justice and heads towards judgment, hostile or divisive speech, and exclusivity—even if it is enshrouded in biblical truth, it is a false gospel. 

If it is not Good News to the unbelieving ear and only bad news, than it is not that message of hope that Jesus gave to His Church.

Hope is why these magi, foreigners who were not Jews, recognized the love of God in that baby and gave homage to him.

A Worshiping Church bears testimony of the Good News of Jesus Christ that includes all God’s children, even those who seem foreign and unfamiliar, and that facilitates a kind of hospitality that allows strangers to cast off their strangeness.

VI.

Lastly, what can we learn from verses 10 and 11:

“When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

This passage shows us that the magi’s knowledge of the Messiah moved to the worship of the Messiah because the magi no longer saw God’s purpose as an intellectual pursuit.  Their heads and bodies, minds and hearts move from looking heavenward to bending towards the earth at the feet of the baby Jesus.

I remember in college and seminary, some friends and I used to hold study groups.  We would parse words and discuss sections in the Bible for hours.  We would debate the historicity of certain parts and try to figure out the puzzles presented in other parts.

We had our books and our scholars, our Greek and Hebrew flash cards and our commentaries.  We were Bible nerds, but we spent so much time talking about God we rarely had the time to hear from God and talk to God.

There came a point at which we had to shut the books and put down the commentaries, and let the Holy Spirit bring us to our knees in prayer. 

How often did you pray this week?  We need to be a church on our knees—pastor included—and to pray for those on our prayer list, for friends and family, for our neighbors, and even for our enemies.    And we need to get out of our heads to do so—to include our whole body and spirit, to present Jesus with the gifts of our lives and the gifts that God has given us.

A worshiping Church is one that brings God all glory, gives back all that reflects God’s glory, and surrenders all that distracts us from God’s glory.  It is one that continually lays everything at Jesus’ feet and takes a proactive posture of giving up our very crowns before the throne of God.

VII.

Worship is a costly venture: Notice that the magi did not come to Jesus empty-handed.  Their sense of awe and joy and wonder produced worship that was physical, that cost something of them and their lives.  

Sometimes we feel far from God or we hesitate going to church because we do come with empty hands.  I would challenge you to go beyond the wealth and resources that we mistakenly use to measure our love for God, and reach into your very heart to see what kind of gifts you’ve kept from God and need to place at Jesus’ feet.  

When we do this type of exercise, no one should come to God empty-handed.

  • We could, for instance, place our gold before Jesus—that very costly resource that we hold so dear, be it the golden calf of money or electronics or treasures.
  • We could place our frankincense at the feet of Jesus—those things that bring us delight and threaten to replace God, be it addiction or lust or coveting or adultery of body, mind, or spirit.
  • We could place myrrh before Jesus, myrrh being that very spice used to anoint the deceased in the ancient world.  This is a call for us to surrender, if anything, our fear of death and the notion that death has the final say and ultimate victory over our life.  Only when we break out from fearing death do we move into living life fully in the joy of Christ.

That’s what these magi did:  They bent towards earth, pulled their thoughts and minds out of the sky, and gave all they had because Jesus was the only one who offered that priceless gift of eternal life, salvation to all people.  Jesus was—and is—the only person worthy of all our worship.

VIII.

Today is the day of the Magi in the Christian year.  It is epiphany, the time when we also wake up to God’s movement in our lives and respond to God by worshipping Him in Spirit and in truth, not only as individuals, but as a community whose very call it is to be the Body of Christ.  Arise for your light has come!  Amen and Amen!

*Source: Feasting on the Gospel, Matthew Volume 1, eds. Cynthia Jarvis and Elizabeth Johnson, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013, pp. 14-18.