The Christmas Window is Open

A sermon based on Mark 1-11
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on November 30, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
This is the first Sunday of Advent! Every Advent I begin by mentioning a pretty well known fact: . . . I love the Christmas Season. I start chomping-at-the-bit to talk about it around . . . well, July. I listen to carols at least once every summer and I read Christmas stories and start working on Advent and Christmas services way back then too. So I am all revved up by the time the holidays roll around. It’s not about some inner kid in me dazzled by tinsel and lights and presents that gets me going. Honest. It’s because for me Christianity is at its core about love and to me the holiday season is a grand time of year when we let love be at the core of our culture.

During the Christmas season most of us –maybe without even thinking about it– agree to live and move and have our being in love. It’s four weeks of watching out and caring for the well being of each other in a heightened fashion that we do not do the rest of the year.
My vocation, being a Christian pastor, done right IS – as far as I am concerned– about being a monger of peace and love. Monger means to deal or trade, to be a vender. My profession, my thing, is to be a pitchman for love and peace. Christmas is mostly about love and peace, it’s the time of year the wares I’m dealing in are most sought and bought into and brought about.

Oh sure, some folks complain, others try to take commercial advantage of the holidays or use it to try and pound their religious views home, but by and large most of us look for ways to spread love and peace around. We set out to give relatives, co-workers, friends, strangers and others goodness. We aim to tend to the well being of those we personally know, as well as strangers– people in general are the targets of our love at Christmas. It’s a pretty remarkable time of year.

I have long seen the Holiday Season as an annual window of time that we can stare through and see what life looks like with love at the center of our lives. In many ways life through that window looks the same. The sun still rises and sets, rain and snow fall–the world is still a beautiful awesome place. And, of course, truth be told at this time of year some relatives and acquaintances are still goofy and others self-centered and even abusive; and sadly illnesses and poverty and prisons exist, as does racism and sexism and other isms. But on this beautiful planet, at this beautiful time of year, we care for most everyone, we even focus on flawed and foibled and forgotten folks– this year we even see people across the nation addressing racism, standing up for justice – and the overwhelming majority are carefully using non-violent peaceful means.

At Christmas-time we not only amp up our love for loved ones, we dust off our love for humankind and we long for peace, even ache for it. We tell stories about love and peace and we sing songs about love and peace.

And it’s not just on Christmas Day that we do this. We sometimes forget that it is in anticipation of Christmas Day that our hearts grow bigger and that most of the good deeds take place. All Christmas Season long– the entire length of Advent– we get revved up for love and peace. In our preparation for Christmas Day we put more of Christ into our lives by acting lovingly.

To those that claim we need to keep Christ in Christmas, my response has long been get a grip! Look around you Christ is all about you, all that love that’s in that air . . . that’s Christ IN CHRISTMAS!

Christmas is not about jamming religious dogma and doctrine into others’ lives, it’s about love and it’s about peace – the very heart of Jesus’ Way.

The Advent Season Bible texts usually include what I like to think of as preparing-the-way texts. Many of us know that John the Baptist makes way in today’s text (we just learned this from the text Jene’ read) where John the Baptist is portrayed as the one prophesied in Isaiah to prepare the way of the Lord actually crying out in the wilderness “Prepare the way of the Lord make his paths straight.”

Elizabeth and Mary also make way in the Luke texts with their expectant mother songs and Sacred experiences with God. Joseph makes way in the Matthew text with his own Sacred experiences. But there are actually more than these named folks that get ready for Jesus, the Prince of Peace’s, coming on the scene. Angels and the Heavenly Host, lowly Shepherds watching their flock by night, and foreign Magi from afar get ready for Christ. It seems the cosmos far and wide prepares and anticipates. This is probably why we have non-Biblical stories of animals and drummer boys and such preparing and waiting too. It’s why we call this season Advent, which means “coming.” Advent is the time when we prepare for the coming, the birth, the Nativity of Jesus the Prince of Peace. And so on this first Sunday of Advent we lit a special candle for peace.

All of this preparatory stuff we do, all of this getting ready for Christmas, all of this anticipation for that one day, is more than about one holiday day, its about the promise of peace that Jesus’ conception begins. His birth promises the incarnation, the revelation of God in a human life.

And sure enough Jesus lives out such a life in a way that “discloses [] what can be seen of God in a human life” and he teaches and acts out how we can get to peace. 1.

In the story today Jesus can be heard at baptism to receive a message from God, to be the bearer of the Spirit of Peace from God. We are told that the Spirit descends upon him like a dove – the universal sign of peace throughout history and in many cultures. And I love this part, John the Baptist declared that while he (John) baptized with water, Jesus would “baptize . . . with the Holy Spirit.”

And sure enough it is the very Spirit of peace Jesus takes with him and lives out and is even remembered as giving and leaving his followers, Jesus baptizes us with the Holy Spirit of peace: “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you” he says in John 14 (27).
We can hear the Way of the Peace Spirit coming to Jesus in the very first story in the very first Gospel ever written–our lesson today. There is no Nativity, no baby Jesus story in the Book of Mark, but it does start off with the very same notion that Jesus came to bring peace . . . Peace . . . Peace. I chose to start off with peace on the First Sunday of Advent this year because peace is the ultimate goal and destination. It is God’s wish more than it is even our wish.

Innate in virtually all human beings is a sense, a call to best-ness. Think about it, everyone desires the best and to be the best. We may disagree on what best means, we may not act on the desire to be our best, but the desire is always there beckoning us. We are hardwired with a message –a command– to seek and achieve best-ness. As Christians we can hear that “hardwire beckoning” as God’s call to us all. And ultimately it is a call to shalom, to peace. The famous Isaiah Christmas prophesy (9:6) makes this claim about Jesus

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.

In Luke (1:78-79) Zechariah (Elizabeth’s dad) proclaims THIS prophesy about the coming of Jesus:

By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Then upon the arrival of Jesus, at his very birth in the Gospel of Luke, the angel of the Lord and a “multitude of host” proclaim Jesus arrival with the heavenly desire for “peace on earth good will to all.”

The term peace is used a lot at Christmas time and in our Christmas stories. While ‘peace” often means the absence of war in our secular use of the term, “peace” in the Bible stories – especially those related to Christmas– has a broader and more positive definition. The Hebrew term for peace is “Shalom” which simply put, means fullness and well being. (Westminister Dictionary of Theological Terms). The Greek word for peace in the New Testament is “Eirene” and “[t]he Jewish concept of [shalom] undergirds the Christian view of peace. “ (Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. V, p 207). So Christmas peace is not just about the absence of war–it is about that, but also much, much more.

When Rome brought its peace, the Pax Romana, to Palestine an “absence of war” type “peace” was made and kept with brutality and violence, and it imposed terrible oppression upon the vast majority of people. That lack of war was not peace— and there sure as heck was not well being.

The gift God provided on the first Christmas was THE WAY to real bonafide peace, the shalom, eirene , peace of the Bible– the well being of the world. This is the thing God longs for and calls us to.

The Anchor Bible Dictionary say this about Biblical peace:

In one form or another the notions of wholeness, health and completeness inform all the variants of the word. Peace is not, then, simply a negative, the absence of war. Peace is a positive notion, a notion with its own content.

The Westminister Dictionary of Theological Terms notes that peace

It is much more than the lack of war and points to full societal and personal well being, coupled with righteousness and possible only as a gift of God.

That gift of God for Christians arrived in a very humble family, in a very humble place in the form of a very humble baby on Christmas Day two thousand years ago. Through the baby Jesus the promise of peace is set before us every year swaddled. A Way a life – a Way to Peace– waiting to be unwrapped. It is a gift from God not because Jesus could snap his fingers or wave his wand and make peace – well being for all– to happen in an instant. The First Christmas gift of God incarnate was never meant to be that.

Jesus’ arrival was not the promise of magic in a minute, making peace in a form that requires no work from us. His arrival provided, and provides, a way to peace, a way to well being–well being for all. That’s a heck of a fine Christmas gift! But we, we humans, we have to unwrap it and fully see and use it and do our part to make it work.

Love, is another word we use a lot in church and it is important that we remember in the Bible it means, as the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms puts it
Strong feeling of personal affection, care and desire for the well being of others. It is the primary characteristic of God’s nature and the supreme expression of Christian faith and action.

Love means desire and action for the well being of others. Peace means well being. In order to get peace (well being) we need love (the desire for it). . . makes sense.
I mentioned earlier that “ Innate in virtually all human beings is a sense, a call to best-ness. . .” and that “ We may disagree on what best means . . .” For Christians the call to best-ness is wanting well being for the world, that is another way of saying a desire for well-being, which we just heard means love.

Jesus taught us how to love so that we might achieve peace. And so coming full circle, all this Christmas stuff is about all of us in our culture acting on our call to best-ness, our desire for well being. The aim is peace but the energy drawing the bowstring back and letting it fly toward God’s target of peace, is love in action.

The reason your Rev gets so revved about Christmas season is because Advent undeniably evidences that we are capable of drawing that bowstring back and letting it – non-violently– fly toward the target of peace bringing the Reign of God to earth now. We do it to such a degree at Christmas time that we can feel – I can feel– heaven breaking in. It’s exhilarating! It’s love pulled back and shot like cupid’s love arrows at everyone and it’s not Valentines love, but God’s love and what a difference it makes!

I love this time of year! We consciously live and move and have our being in love, in God. I am quite certain God loves this time of year too, and longs for us to learn to do it all year long all life long.

Love is The Way that leads to peace.  AMEN.

1. Borg, Marcus, Speaking Christian, 85. The section on Jesus in this book by Dr. Borg inspired much of the general incarnation theology in this sermon.