A Sermon for University Congregational Church
Sunday, December 25, 2016—Christmas Morning
Paul E. Ellis Jackson
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. –Isaiah 9:6
It is possible to become discouraged about the injustice we see everywhere. But God did not promise us that the world would be humane and just. He gives us the gift of life and allows us to choose the way we will use our limited time on earth. It is an awesome opportunity. Cesar Chavez
The standard definition of the word “gift” is two-fold. First, the word is defined as a thing given willingly to someone without payment; a present. I hope all of us received a present during this season. We understand this concept pretty well and have a series of words and phrases to assist us with our expectations concerning gifts and gift-giving. “It’s the thought that matters” “Don’t look a gift-horse in the mouth” “Did you keep the receipt”. The second definition is also quite familiar: A gift is a natural ability or talent. Such as someone having the gift of musical ability or the gift of an ability to sew really well. Both definitions acknowledge that a gift is something we receive that we did little or nothing to deserve. And today is the center of our “season of giving”—Christmas—where we re-interpret ancient religious practices of gift-giving to mirror the giving of the gifts to the Christ-child.
But what about “the gift”? The one we take completely for granted. The gift that we we’re given on the day of our first breath? What about the gift that is our lives? Not a single one present in this room signed up for this, right? No one here willed themselves into fleshly substance, correct? None of us were just a consciousness floating in the cosmos and said, “hey, I need a physical presence so I can walk around on a dangerous planet and interact with others of my kind”. Nope. One day we were not here and the next day we were here.
So where does this idea of thinking of our lives as a gift come from? Maya Angalou, our great fierce poetess, writes in her book “Wouldn’t Take Nothing for my Journey Now” : “Living well is an art that can be developed: a love of life and ability to take great pleasure from small offerings and assurance that the world owes you nothing and that every gift is exactly that, a gift.” The realization that you are here and the world owes you not one thing is a stark lesson to learn. Many of us never learn it. In fact, I’m not big on the idea that there are two kinds of people in the world, one group does this and one group does that. ‘m not big on these types of divisions, but I do think there is something important here: People who realize that they are here and that this world owes them nothing, not one thing, then they begin to realize that everything that comes to them is a gift. Everything. There’s a powerful thing that happens to the lenses of your eyes when you start to see your life as a gift. You begin to see that others in your life are gifts as well. You begin to see that their lives are not only gifts to themselves, but can be gifts to the world. There’s a two-way street here—your life is a gift to you—and it can be a gift to others as well.
When the early Christ-following Jews were building their communities, they needed ways to prove that their Jesus was indeed the Christ foretold in ancient Hebrew documents. There were a number of possible phrases and scriptures to pull from, but the most poetic words (and the ones that would come later to serve as the basis for Handel’s masterpiece “Messiah”) are found in Isaiah. Hear these ancient words for an ancient people and their faith: “ The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined. 3 You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.4 For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. 5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.6 For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.” These scriptures are called the “Oracle for the Messianic King” and here we have a people, in the pre-exilic period, this is before they were subjugated by the Assyrians, so we have the Hebrew People living in the State of Judah and we have a street preach, Isaiah, talking to the crowd. And in the scripture I read, Isaiah is laying out the drama of the Hebrew People. A plea for a King worthy of their loyalty, and a homeland to call their own. It was a rhetorical act on the part of the early Christ-following Jews to use these well-known verses as proof that their Jesus was the real Christ. Now, I don’t want to get into all of the theology of this important doctrine this morning. We all know this story. I want to look at the over-arching metaphor of hope and light that is in the Hebrew Bible words.
God loves God’s creation so much and God love us, God’s children so much, that God desires to be in relationship with us. The God of the Hebrew people, who is indeed the God of the Hebrew Bible, (and in my theology the God of my understanding),–this God lives in covenant with us. For the Hebrew people this covenant was life-giving and life-sustaining. In fact, because life for the Hebrew People was so difficult, living out of relationship with God could be fatal, because living outside of relationship with God meant you were outside of relationship with the community and without the community—you were lost. So imagine during their darkest times, when their enemies would be poised on their borders, ready for the slightest excuse to invade. Imagine the anxiety of not knowing for certain what your future held. Would you again become enslaved to an invading power? Would you have to watch your people again become fodder for the more powerful wars machines of the age? Would you have to see your leaders cozy up to occupying force and their leaders? Would you have to watch your beloved kings adopted the mannerisms and customs and, yes, sometimes, even the religions of the invading, occupying force?
Fortunately, or not, depending on how you look at it, but in my opinion, fortunately, the Hebrew People had their prophetic voices to rise up and remind them of their commitment to God. Isaiah loudly proclaims that the soon-to-come Jewish messiah will deliver them from their bondage and will assist them in creating their great kingdom in their promised land. Isaiah is speaking to the crowd in front of him about what was happening right then and there. Isaiah was not fortune-telling—He was reminding them that they are promised a messiah and he will come. And Isaiah was also telling the Hebrew People what they needed to hear: Yes, times are tough and it looks really bad for us (again). But our God is a good God and will provide us with what we need. And indeed the God of the Hebrew People delivers them again and again.
So what are we to make of this prophetic voice today? I’ll repeat Isaiah’s words: “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Isaiah is speaking in the present tense. The scripture is about the “now” that they were living in then. So, was there a messiah that was going to do all of these things for them? The perpetual waiting, the constant anticipation of the Messiah must have been extremely frustrating to someone who had heard this over and over again. And yet—their messiah may very well have been born—they didn’t know. Funny thing about saviors is that you don’t know you’re saved until after the act. So, they would have listened, and hope would have again been kindled in their hearts. In the darkest hours just before their country was to be invaded yet again, they were listening to stories of future kings and a savior who would rescue them and they still had faith in that savior.
So God loves us. God sends hope in the midst of darkest night. God has given us each other, to work together and to be God’s hands and feet in the world. God has given us a world of sublime beauty that needs our stewardship. And God asks so little of us. It seems to me that we really have been given a world and lives that can be useful—if we but choose to make them so.
Cesar Chavez, who founded the United Farm Workers Union, looked at God’s world and the condition of his people, the Mexicans who were trying to make a better life for themselves here in the United States,–he looked at our world and he said: “It is possible to become discouraged about the injustice we see everywhere. But God did not promise us that the world would be humane and just. [God] gives us the gift of life and allows us to choose the way we will use our limited time on earth. It is an awesome opportunity.” God gives us life. That is one awesome opportunity.
So what will you do with your gift? Some of us built great families and legacies in flesh and blood that will long outlast us. Some of us choose to build great businesses and industries and help the world that way. Some of us become part of something else—we become part of a hospital and work to help the sick. Some of us become part of a banking institution and work with the world’s currency and capital and leverage that work to help our world. Some of us decide to join with the schools and colleges and universities and work to transfer the current culture to the future—we teach our children about the world. What we all end up doing is actually give our lives away….yes, I know we’re paid money often for these labors, but it’s not enough. No amount of money can ever make-up for the time we spend on our lives. SO there must be something else going on here. We give our lives away but we also get the energy and love from the lives of those around us. It’s a great-big sharing of time and energy that, when done well, can benefit every single person on the planet. And yet, we know it’s not being done very well, because there is so much want…so much ignorance…so much need. Ignorance and want. That remind me of another Christmas prophecy….a more modern one.
Charles Dickens wrote in his brilliant critique of the capitalist system, A Christmas Carol, these portentous words: “‘Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,’ said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe,’ but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw.’ ‘It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,’ was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. ‘Look here.’ From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment. ‘Oh, Man. look here. Look, look, down here.’ exclaimed the Ghost. They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meager, ragged, scowling,
wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shriveled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread. Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude. ‘Spirit. Are they yours?’ Scrooge could say no more.
‘They are Man’s,’ said the Spirit, looking down upon them. ‘And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the
writing be erased. Deny it.’ cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. ‘Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.’
I think Charles Dickens has quite a prophetic voice here, don’t you? Isn’t he reminding God’s people of what God wants us to know…and then do? Recognize and correct ignorance and want. It’s that simple. And our Victorian Prophet is telling us, what people in every age have always known, ignorance equals doom. So I suppose willful ignorance equals willful doom, then, doesn’t it? But our modern prophet, Dickens, also gives us the gift of reconciliation and hope and the narrative has Scrooge changing his ways before it’s too late. The prophet’s words are indeed a gift to all of us.
So just as the gift of words from Dickens rings true today, so does the gift of words from the ancient prophets—people who so want us to be in covenant with God. And so does the gift of the life of Jesus resonate to this very day—the gift of being shown that there is another way to live—and that we can do this without the constraining doctrine of orthodoxy.. That we can live moral, good lives without the yoke of Empire. That our lives are indeed gifts if we can but unbind them from the yoke of our egos. Your life is a precious gift. What will you do with your gift?
Amen. Please rise as Teresa sings for us our choral benediction—a fun little Christmas song—All I Want For Christmas.