Grim Joy, or Glorious Hope?
Week of Sunday December 21 - Advent 4
Gospel: Luke 1:26-37
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ 34Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ 35The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.’ 38Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.
This Advent, for the Sunday of Joy, I led the congregation in a liturgy that was more Lament than Joy. We lamented the appalling transformation of our nation into what a former Prime Minister has called "the most inhumane, the most uncaring and the most selfish of all the wealthy countries." I felt in my heart a deep grief for our nation which was reflected upon the faces of the congregation, and had agonised about whether to shape the service as I did.
No one heckled me− that once happened in another congregation. No one walked out. No one bailed me up over morning tea and let rip with a passionate defence of our national behaviour. People know the truth of who we are.
But could we please have the traditional carols on Christmas Day? We value the words in the hymns you choose− we don't have a hymn book− we appreciate that you try and get tunes we know, but could we have the traditional hymns on Christmas Day?
Who can blame them? Not me− sometimes more than half of me agrees!
Sometimes I wish my eyes hadn't been opened,
Just for an hour how sweet it would be
Not to be struggling, not to be striving,
But just sleep securely in our slavery.
Carol Etzler was writing especially for women…
But now that I've seen with my eyes, I can't close them,
because deep inside me somewhere I'd still know
the road that my sisters and I have to travel:
My heart would say, "Yes!" and my feet would say, "Go!"
… but the experience is something the same for all of us as we read the familiar gospel stories and come to the celebration of Christmas. It would be so good to back in Gladstone Methodist Church as a ten year old; six or even eight Christmas hymns, the briefest of homilies, and home for a massive feast with cousins and aunties and uncles and grandparents, as we lived in a safe world, innocent of all the horrors. Or, as adults, distracted for a few hours, or able to wilfully forget, perhaps aided by a beer or two.
It was as a ten year old− maybe only 8− that I went over to the sideboard for my third serve of the jellied peaches my mum has made at Christmas for as long as I can remember. Something stopped me… She found me standing immobilised, and asked what was wrong. I couldn't explain. I looked at the peaches and said, "I thought Christmas would be more than this..."
I've never been able to get Christmas "back in the box." And the feeling that "there must be more than this" has slowly grown, as has my horror at the naked barbarity of the world. It is a barbarity of which I am a part; it is written in my genes as survival at all costs. It is barbarity which lurks coiled to spring out of us, or co-opt us, in hysterical yet too often plotted genocides; Tasmania, Armenia, The Holocaust, Cambodia, Rwanda, the Balkans...
Yet in all this I have discovered a joy. A deep settled sense of what is good, of what is promised, and of what could be. It is this that Luke seeks to express, I think, in the reading for Advent 4, the Week of Hope.
He carefully draws a picture of the announced birth of Jesus which is contrasted to that of John the Baptist. Both are sent by God. Both are miraculous births in their own way. But Jesus is greater. (Brian Stoffregen has a neat table outlining this.)
The announcement of this birth is made into the same horrific world that we have discovered as we have grown older and as TV and the internet make it immediate. And these people lived in it, not at a safe distance. One could not know in Nazareth whether today would be the day Roman soldiers marched over the hill.
The "religious" overtones of the story are obvious: Jesus' family is of the house of David, whose dynasty would always rule Israel (2 Sam 7:1-11) Indeed, he would rule over the house of Jacob forever. He would be the Son of the Most High and there would be no end to his kingdom.
We forget, or do not realise, that "religious" as opposed to "political" is a distinction that is foreign to Luke. The announcement to Mary is a statement which overrides, which subverts, and which contradicts the supremacy of Imperial Rome.
Jesus' kingdom will have no end!? That would have the local Procurator sitting up and paying attention! " The Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David!?" Calling him "the Son of the Most High, " in the same breath would hardly have gone unnoticed by an empire where the Caesar was a Divine Son. Would the same procurator draw the conclusion that Luke's careful enumeration of the facts−
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria…
−reduces the Divine Augustus to a pawn in God's hands who helpfully and unwittingly gets Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem to fulfil the ancient prophecies?
So the scandal of the story in Luke's day is not that there is a virgin birth− they were commonplace and, I suspect, often not taken literally anyway− but that it is the beginning of a story where Jesus would "preach a kingdom which became a threat to those in authority and power. " Even for Jewish people who might welcome such a kingdom, "the offensive element of Jesus' birth is not the virgin conception, but that the king of the Jews would be born to such a poor family in an insignificant city at the outskirts of Israel."
And what if the Roman's advisors told the him of the specifically Jewish reading of the text:
Luke sets the story amid the cries of the Jewish people for liberation from Rome’s oppression, Rome’s forced ‘peace’. In Isaiah 7:14, ‘A young woman shall conceive and bear a son and you shall call his name Emmanuel, God with us’, Isaiah in his day offered a sign of deliverance for Judah from the threatening alliance of its northern compatriots of Israel with the Syrians. Here the sign has been recycled to point to coming liberation from the Romans. (Loader)
Where is the Joy in this subversive text which can only lead to more oppression as Rome tries to stamp it out? The subversion is still present; governments still persecute Christians.
For me the joy and the hope reside in the rest of the story of Luke and the other gospels. This is only the beginning. For we see that the horror of the world in which we live is challenged by another way of living. It is Jesus' way of compassion. Despite occasional visions of eternal fire the gospels do not extinguish Jesus' compassion, or God's love. Instead they highlight the foundation of Jesus' compassion, taking it from shallow do-goodery or self-aggrandisement, or even from naïve hopefulness, to a raw power which is salvational.
For in Jesus' death
for the first time in human history… the scapegoat[ is allowed] to speak. [The scapegoat pulls] aside the religious myth that has hidden the victims from our eyes and hushed those we have killed in the name of God. [We] hear the voice of the victim. (Beck)
The power of Jesus' compassion comes from his being an innocent victim. Being compassionate is to give away our power, and to give up our rights. It is to stand in the shoes of the victimised when we are innocent. We stand with them. It means we become scapegoats, too. The powers that be will need to "kill" us too, will need to make us "evil," too, to justify their own goodness. They will project onto us. And we will become like Jesus, revealing the innocence of the victim to the world.
So it happened in WA this week. The protestors in the Foreign Minister's office were stripped searched− women clergy and all.
At the Perth Watch House each of the church leaders was refused the opportunity to seek legal advice, stripped naked and searched. The church leaders repeatedly expressed that they did not consent to the search, and repeatedly advised police that they were not in possession of firearms or drugs.
What led to this?
The Immigration Minister attempted to send 25 babies and their families to Nauru on Friday 5 December, but later relented and delayed their departure until 30 January. Across Australia on Wednesday more than 50 church leaders staged sit-ins in the offices of government politicians to dramatise the danger to these babies and to seek a change in the decision. (ibid)
The only justification for such searching is that there is reasonable suspicion that the people are armed, or carrying drugs. So as one of my friends said, they let them sit in the foreign ministers office for 7 hours when they suspected they were armed!?
When it all began, "staff at the office offered us cups of tea. We had developed very good rapport with staff throughout the day inc the police staff earlier in the day whom we offered home made choc chip biscuits to go with their tea." (I corresponded with one of the folk involved.)
But the reaction of The State steps in− the powers that be− and civility is lost as its victimising of refugees is exposed for what it is. This is the overreaction to the power of love which pours hot coals on the head.
The final end of living like Jesus would be to be killed like him, and sometimes this happens− God protect us. Yet nothing else has touched me in the way this story has. Violence is not redemptive. There remains only non violently telling the truth of what is, and standing alongside the victims.
This is to lose all power, as did Jesus on the cross, but to gain the greatest power of all, which is love, love which gives.
Is this the grimmest of joys, a desperate home to regain some kind of joy from a horrifying world? No, this is joy as opposed to the happy accidents of life that mean we are unbothered and safe at the moment. The world is not a safe place. Happiness is ultimately luck, its root is the word hap. Joy and blessedness is to know meaning, to find purpose, and to have a realistic hope.
And this is hope, because we can see that even an ordinary human can live this path and do spectacular things, and great acts of power. Do I think for a moment that Jesus was some perfect uber-human who did not know fear, who did not fail in his aspirations, who did not have human shortcomings and despair of his following of God? No. He failed. He struggled. He gave up. Just as I would, and have, and will.
And that's where the joy is. Because we still talk about him. He is still alive to the world in so many ways. Augustus is dead and gone; the second millennium since the death of The Divine Son has passed almost unnoticed. Rome is one more seething city; the empire has long fallen. But Jesus is.
And I can be. I can, small as I am, be something useful in the universe. I can give. I can stand alongside. I can be free from the oppression. Like Jesus I will fail often. But what I am, what we can all be, is the embodiment of the only true power, which is Love.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!