Searching for a Biblical Christmas – Careful What You Seek 3/8
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church
November 19th, 2017
So, last night, after the play, the idea came: what if we just left the tables up. And one person said: well, it’d be different. And it is. And maybe we like it, maybe we don’t. But, for today, this is how it is. And I’ve got two responses. First: any complaint you can submit in writing and I’ll be glad to read that and I’ll probably buy a bird and we can…
The second is: this is life. You show up and you think it’s going to be one way and suddenly it’s another way. And you have choices to make about how you’re going to cope with that. And either you cope with it or you don’t. And church is where we practice for life, right? Church, those hymns that we sing, you know why we sing them, right? So that when you’re in hospital or your mother is in hospice, or your spouse is in hospice, or you’re in hospice, you have a song to sing because singing changes us. So, we’re practicing for life.
So, it seemed okay to have chaos this morning. Is it going to work? And what worked was how you made room for one another, and how you talked with one another, and how you scooched over, and how you helped each other find a seat. And the biggest challenge that’s in front of you right now is where to put your eyes when you sing hymns. Because, when normal Sundays, we’re all facing forward and so we’re looking at the back of someone’s head and that okay. But now we’re looking at each other and when you’re singing, on Christ, the solid rock I stand, do you look into someone’s eyes? Is that creepy? Or what do we do? It’s awkward and it’s life, right? What do we do with our eyes? Okay, I’ll look up.
So, we’ve been talking now. We’re looking for that Old Testament foundation for Christmas. And we’ve spent two weeks talking about a terrible king, Jehoiakim, who ruled the southern kingdom of Judah. Jehoiakim was simply the last in the line of kings who were more interested in making themselves and their friends rich. And living in lavish residences and building new components to a palace with cedar walls and living luxurious lives at the expense of the nation.
All of this got God’s attention. And God used the prophet Jeremiah to bring ten charges against Jehoiakim. And if you weren’t here for the last two Sundays, I’m going to review them for you. Wealth is an identity of the nation; failing to pay workers for work performed; false bravado; sexual aggression; nepotism and cronyism; changing allegiances for convenience; lying; having tantrums; creating a culture of accumulation; and failure to care for the servants of the nation, especially veterans and their families. All of these together got God’s attention. When leaders choose money or loyalty to one another over providing care and stability to the nation; God is displeased. The same arrogance that led to Jehoiakim’s rise, led to his demise.
Funny thing about arrogance when it’s combined with greed; it consistently brings dishonor. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God declares a new kingdom is coming. A new king is coming. A righteous branch, who will reign wisely and execute justice and righteousness in the land. This all happened about 600 years before Jesus was born. And we’re laying out those Old Testament roots for Christmas. When Handel wrote The Messiah, he pulled a lot of imagery from Jeremiah. So when you hear The Messiah sung, maybe some of those words will strike a chord in you because you know the back-story now. Jehoiakim was the footnote of a thousand-and-a-half years of history.
Jehoiakim is the footnote of Judaism today. You can refer to Jehoiakim in a Jewish community and everyone there knows exactly what you’re talking about. You’re talking about the last in the line of failed kingship. You’re talking about selfishness. You’re talking about greed. That is the Old Testament foundation for so much of what Christmas stands against.
We leap forward 600 years. We encounter two people: Herod, who is extremely similar to Jehoiakim. This kind of character seems to repeat throughout history. And they seem to find their way into leadership positions. We could go through the list again and point by point it would line up between Herod and Jehoiakim. Greed, sexual lechery, bravado, nepotism, cronyism, deception, lying, explosive tantrums etc., etc.
The Romans did, actually, a fine job of taking care of their veterans. We will give them that. But we know how God feels about that kind of leadership because of Jeremiah. Dishonor and violation displease God. Herod, too, will become a footnote in history, of what it means to be arrogant, greedy and evil. His slaughter of the innocents, following Christmas, is just the tip of the iceberg of what arrogant tyrants are capable of.
But, this time, God has decided to do something different; which brings us to Mary, the polar opposite of Jehoiakim; the one whose son will be this new king. It was almost a year ago, a year ago in advent, when we talked about the three ways we can explain Mary’s pregnancy. Maybe you remember them or maybe you’re aware of them. There are only three. The one way is the way that Luke lays out, that for the pregnancy of a virgin; we can understand the attraction of that witness because it removes the potential for slut-shaming in a shame culture.
Or we could wonder if she and Joseph have been active outside the bounds of marriage. It’s unlikely, but it’s one of three ways it could happen. Or we could roll around in our mind, like a big lopsided marble, our wondering if, perhaps Mary had been the victim of sexual violence and lecherous behavior. Given what we’ve witnessed in our culture, twenty centuries later, with the number of women who hash tagged “me too” and the number of men possessing power over women who have been identified as lecherous, aggressive and violating. It’s not hard to believe that possibility. And it’s not hard to see why, if that’s the gosh-awful truth, it sure would be tempting to incorporate a popular image from the Origin stories, of many kings of the day. Mom was a virgin, who was impregnated by divine mystery.
What’s interesting is if we allow history to speak here and we pause at these two, this footnote of history, Jehoiakim as the polar opposite of Mary. Jehoiakim was grabby. He was tight-fisted. He possessed everything to be in power and power over. Mary was open-handed. She was able to let go of control enough to wonder and to let God work in her and through her.
Jehoiakim ruled by decree. A tyrant, who gave orders and removed anyone who spoke words he did not like; Mary was open-minded. She was able to listen and hear what the message of the angel was for her. His lack of character provided tools to get what he wanted for himself. Her character provided tools for God to get what God needed done. Dishonor is what we see in King Jehoiakim, a historical footnote of selfish, greedy arrogance. What we see in Mary is faith. Pistis is the Greek word; wanting God’s way; wanting God’s kingdom more than my own way; even if it costs me something. His choices led down a predictable path to the destruction of his own nation.
Her choices led down a difficult path of discipleship, bringing into existence a new king and a kingdom. And I’m not sure how to say this, so I’m going to fumble through this part. But, somehow in this process, in ways I can’t entirely explain and probably shouldn’t, exactly what happened to Mary and how she became pregnant was no longer what determined who she was. I think one of the most important components of the Christmas story is it marks the beginning of the process of her discipleship. And contrary to what uptight church folk have said through the centuries, that is not determined by her sexuality. Historical Christianity has had an unhealthy obsession with female sexuality. And I find it interesting that from the beginning the Christmas story sets aside sexuality.
Reading about Jehoiakim in Jeremiah; in Josephus, the historian; in the recorded Rabbinic history; even reading Jesus’ reference to Jehoiakim, we could say undertone, but it’s too palpable to be an undertone. It’s an overtone. It’s a touchable presence. What I’m talking about is Jehoiakim’s futile desperation to find his voice. His life seems to be an anxious search for resonance. Becoming wilder and more frantic, almost un-hearable, to the point where Jehoiakim becomes: a caricature, a comic exaggeration of himself, a buffoon. The Big King.
But, Mary, in this process, finds her voice. And as the story progresses, her voice resonates of the deeper things, like what it means to have a soul. And what it means to be a disciple. So, of course, we want to know, we want to let Jehoiakim pass out of our thoughts. And we also want to wonder, how did Mary find her voice? We want to know exactly. What is the process that she followed?
There are churches you can attend — not this one — that will give you the steps of discipleship. There is a church not far from here, that has it all laid out for you in a pamphlet. Of course, you have to be baptized in that church, by that particular pastor. And then you have to take four courses on spirituality, taught by that pastor and you have to take four courses in scripture, taught by that pastor. And you have to take two courses in celebration of tongues. So, you have to speak in tongues. And then, you’re declared a disciple and you get a different nametag. And you’re identified as unique.
It’s not been my experience of what it means to form disciples. What I know to be absolutely true… I’ve seen all sorts of methods, I’ve seen all sorts of programs, but the truth of the matter is, there’s a whole lot of mystery and it’s an unpredictable, disorganized, messy, transformation of us. That’s discipleship.
Scripture tells us some things about Mary, though, in the midst of her unpredictable moments; her messiness of life. Her life was going this way. She got up that morning expecting it to be the same as it had been every week prior and things changed on this day. Scripture tells us some things about Mary that I think might help us as we think about our discipleship; things that contributed to Mary finding her own voice.
The first thing that Mary does is that she finds in herself something that is distinctive. She listens to the angel who tells her: you are called and you are gifted in some unique ways. We’ll read a little bit later that when Mary is singing with Elizabeth, one of the songs that she sings is: He Took Notice of Me. I thought I was a nobody. He told me I was somebody. She let that voice be the voice that she heard. Not the voice of her critics. You know your critics. Do you have them? Do you listen to them? They beat you up from the inside. Mary heard. This is, I think, what it means to be faithful. Pistis, wanting God’s way for us more than we want anything else. And she was able to hear a higher calling for her life and it gave her purpose and it gave her meaning.
The second thing that happened for Mary is, she got smart and said: isolation is going to wipe me out. I’m going to go and be with Elizabeth, her older cousin, two towns over. There may have been some big sister-ing that went on with Elizabeth, her older cousin, maybe mentoring, although, the mentoring process is equally messy. And anybody… Anytime anybody says: I’m going to be your mentor, watch out, it never works that way. The mentee has to find the mentor at the right time when they’re ready to listen.
She stayed with Elizabeth and there was a whole lot of listening that went on. And there was some singing that went on. But, mostly, though, I’m guessing Elizabeth was the conversation partner Mary needed to process what she was going through. But, Elizabeth was pregnant in a very unexpected circumstance. Mary was pregnant in a very unexpected circumstance. They might be able to say some things. They sang together. I think that’s one of the strengths that the church has to offer us is we’re always going to run into somebody who might see things the way we see things. And we can hear from them what we can’t hear on our own.
And that is the third thing. I wonder how Mary processed her frustration because she was a simple peasant girl, she was poor. And I’m wondering where she processed her feelings about what happened to her, whatever it was. Maybe the only thing that happened to her, she was born poor and she wondered why those folks have it all and we got nothing. We work harder than they do. Or maybe there was abuse and Mary had to process that, so there would have been anger. I read Mary’s song, which follows our text today. Mary’s song is a song about justice coming. God has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. God has brought down rulers from their thrones. I wonder who Mary’s talking about there. Could it be Jehoiakim?
God has lifted the humble. God has filled the hungry with good things. God has sent away the rich, empty. Mary’s song, go home and read it today, for our culture, and see what it says to you.
The fourth thing that Mary did in her unpredictable moments, the text tells us: she treasured these things in her heart. She engaged in contemplation. Which feels weird to us because we truly do believe and our practice reveals, we believe that our importance comes through our busyness? We have an increased function of frenetic activity. We can’t get farther than eight inches from our phone. We’ll plug it in bedside. And if we really want to sleep, we turn it upside down so the light won’t wake us. But that’s about as far as we get, except when we take a shower. I don’t want you to tell me how many take it into the toilet with you.
That’s us. We think, by connection, we’re important. What about the importance of being disconnected from this world so that we can contemplate a different way. We can pull back. We can wonder. We can think. We can lose ourselves in God. Is that possible through your iPhone? I haven’t found it yet.
None of these by itself is discipleship. But all of these are the choices that Mary is making. These are the ways that she processed what was happening to her. And these are the ways that she will process what will happen to her son. These are the ways she made decisions about the kind of Mom she was going to be. And you can be certain that was Jesus practiced a lot of it came from what he learned from watching his mother.
All of them, together, lead us to our discipleship. Discipleship, really, is how we are. How we are the imitation of Christ, yes. But, more than that, it’s how we are with each other. How we treat one another. How we act around one another. How we are with strangers, how we make room at the table.
Now, I tell you and I don’t like to end patting you on the back, but I have to tell you, I’ve come, this last year, to realize your discipleship runs deep because of how you are with one another. The People Group, how they are with one another. The WOW Group, Women of the Word. UMW, the bible study on Tuesday mornings, how you are with one another. The Youth Group here, how you are with one another. When you come for a meeting on a committee, how you are with one another. Pick who you imitate.
Jehoiakim seems very familiar in our current culture. Arrogance and greed always lead to the same outcome. Or you could imitate Mary because discipleship always leads to the same outcome. Pick Mary.