Are you ready for Christmas? Are we ready for Christmas, America? I’m not sure we are. When Donald Trump promised to make America great again, we put him in the White House. But when Jesus came proclaiming good news to the poor, freedom to the captive, light for those who dwell in darkness; when Jesus came to make America loving again, we put him in a feeding trough. A feeding trough. A place where we throw away the brown ends of carrots, the peelings of potatoes; the place where we toss slop for pigs, and rats, and bones for dogs to fight over; that’s where the world put Jesus when he was born.
America, we were ready to make America great again. But I don’t think we’re ready for Christmas.
Maybe that’s okay. Mary and Joseph were not ready. Luke gives us a picture of a God born on the road. Even the angels, the angels who should know what’s happening and when, they weren’t ready. Did you notice that? They weren’t in the animal stall, where they should have been hovering above the shoulders of the holy family, they were in a field, nearby. They appeared to some shepherds there, and announced that this thing had happened. My guess is that they had been traveling at the speed of theological light, for hundreds if not millions or billions of years in a rush to get to the birthing suite for God, but then their stardust fuel ran out, their engine choked and sputtered, just above these shepherds and since they couldn’t go any farther, they told them. And shepherds, well, it was their workday. It was third shift, and they were no way ready for Christmas. The night was half spent, and there a long night yet to go. Rome wasn’t ready. Emperor Augustus was signing executive orders that all the world should be registered – he wasn’t ready for a new kind of rule breaking into his kleptocracy, certainly not from the likes of two immigrant parents.
America, you know this, in your heart you know it. We’re not ready I’m not ready, we’re not ready for Christ’s real presence. And this morning, I would love to say to you that America is ready, but if I did so, it would be false. It’s got its lights and its trees. Corporations are meeting or exceeding their sales goals. The stock market is growing. But our beloved country is not ready for the God of justice and peace. I’m pretty sure that the poor didn’t make much of an appearance in the new tax bill in D.C. The middle class is there, the rich are there, and the corporations are there. But I don’t see any room in our “economic inn” for the poor and the oppressed.
I don’t believe we are ready for Christ. For that power, that presence, America is not ready.
My beloved country, we readily comply with our contemporary Augustus, who decrees from a Rome or a Wall Street or a Washington DC, what time of year it is: time to be registered, time to buy, time to sell, time to move, time to be born, time to die. And we comply. Like sheep led to the slaughter.
The world obeyed Rome’s decree. Luke tells us that Joseph also went . . . to be registered, and Mary, pregnant with child, went with him. They complied with the decrees of Rome, just as we do. They complied with the culture that calls missiles peacemakers. They complied with a culture that dubs its most deadly weapons as the Mother of All Bombs – we actually christen bombs, the messengers of Thanatos, death, as our mother!
Joseph also went, and Mary with him. Americans also go. To Rome, to be registered, to be taxed, to be exploited, to be deported, or to profit from powers that keep the peace with the sword.
And yet, we know, in our hearts of hearts, that as we go, others weep. As we go, others bleed. As we go. . . .
Tina Forrester, of Baltimore — she’s one. She’s not ready for Christmas.
“Eighty-three murders in three months; 172 murders in six months; 336 in 2017, and my husband was No. 334,” Tina Forrester said. “I bet you, everybody’s Christmas is going to be spectacular, but mine, mine is going to be rifled with despair and the sound of my husband [James Forrester] being murdered over and over and over again. There were four murders the same day as my husband, and then I hear that the city leaders are getting a raise. . . .”
No. 334 James Forrester.
No. 335 Jonathan Tobash.
Savannah Tobash, a soldier in the U.S. Army stationed in Texas, returned to Baltimore on Wednesday. For Christmas you might have thought. Or for mourning, you might have guessed. She is the sister of a young black man, Jonathan “Johnny” Tobash, a Morgan State University student – or he was a student. On Monday night, less than three hours after James Forrester died, Jonathan became No. 335. Jonathan was also shot and killed in a robbery.
Are we ready for Christmas? America, my beloved country, are you ready for Christmas?
On Wednesday, in Texas, a six-year old boy, Kameron Prescott, his skin beautiful olive brown, was shot in the stomach when police opened fire on a woman who was suspected of stealing a car. Stealing a car. A car. Four officers opened fire on her as she tried to break into a mobile home. One of those bullets went through the sheet rock thin wall, into that six-year-old boy’s stomach.
On Thursday . . . just days before Christmas, the story said.
The sheriff’s office kept referring to Kameron as “that young man” – Sheriff, he was a six-year-old boy! And now he’s dead.
I’m not. Ready.
America, my beloved country, you are not ready. I don’t believe America is ready for Christmas. I’d like to cancel it this year. But I can’t do that. And somehow, I think it would be wrong to do so. But by the same token, it would be wrong to act as if all is well. As if our biggest dispute is whether we say, “happy holidays” or “merry Christmas”. There’s blood in our streets and perhaps, if we don’t act soon, on our hands,
Perhaps, it would be faithful for us, to interrupt the artificial light of this season with the uncreated light of God’s promise and presence.
To let our joyful anthems be interrupted with mournful lament.
To set down our forks full of feasting for a moment,
To pray with the hunger of a heart that longs and thirsts for justice.
To stop talking small and maybe,
for a moment,
to open up a big silence at our tables,
for people like Kameron’s mom,
or Jonathan’s sister,
for James’ wife . . .
for whom it doesn’t seem like night will ever end.
All the while, the stock market grows and the tears flow.
Maybe it’s time that we interrupted the false peace and false prosperity of the status quo, where we’re all alike registered, interrupt it with the true peace that only Christ can bring. The true peace you find in an animal’s stall, in a manger, the true peace that comes after labor.
Joseph also went, captive, like the rest of us, to powers over which he had no control. But his going was interrupted by God’s coming in Christ. The urgent requirements of labor. That event shifted the world’s center.
America also goes, registering its compliance with the powers and principalities of this present darkness. But by God’s grace, our compliance will be interrupted. Our festivals will be interrupted by the labor pains of those who weep. Our laughter by those who mourn. Our heart’s joy, by those who grieve.
By God’s grace, our compliance with the sharp labor pains of God’s justice, signaling the beginning of the new world, will culminate with the deep joy of a newborn child.
That’s the Christmas promise.
Luke is a curiosity as a writer. Luke’s narrator will ravish the reader with exquisitely detailed narratives of mercy. It’s close up, almost every brush stroke showing the sound of God’s mercy. But here, oddly, Luke doesn’t record Mary’s labor pains – in fact, Luke gives just two verses to the account of Jesus’ birth:
The time came for her to deliver the child.
She gave birth.
Wrapped in him bands of cloth.
Laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.
That’s it. And again, so curious, no labor pains in this story. Why? Could it be because Luke believes that we carry those labor pains in our bodies, this body of believers?
The labor of Christ commands our hearts with the urgency of God’s justice in the night half spent; the birth of Christ awakens our hearts with the good news of great joy, for unto you this day, is born a Savior, Emmanuel God with us. The manger is nothing compared to the child, the poverty nothing compared to the love, the suffering nothing compared to the joy.
Mary didn’t see her poverty. She rejoiced in her firstborn child, her labor complete and her cup overflowing. And yet, everything about God’s promise gets gathered up in that manger, a feeding trough for animals. Three times, Luke points the manger: at Jesus’ birth; the manger as a sign spoken of by the angel; and the shepherds confirm the revelation by seeing Jesus laying in a manger.
That will be a sign for you that Christmas is near – the labor pains of God’s justice.
Where you expected to see a throne,
look for a feeding trough.
Where you expected to see prosperity, look for poverty.
Where you expected to find nothing, see all things, even Christ.
Where tears have been your food day and night, making every day into a perpetual night, and every song of joy, a curse of pain, look on high, for our redeemer is near.
Make haste for Christ . . . just as Christ hastens for us.
The shepherds heard this message under cover of night, as they labored – but they were surrounded by heavenly light and angel’s song. Their night’s work interrupted, they went into holy labor, with holy haste to see what the Lord had done in Bethlehem. And, by God’s grace, their holy labor produced doxology. The work of mothers who weep, and soldiers who cry, and those who dwell in deep darkness – their work, which is really our work, America’s labor pains for justice, will be turned from groans into shouts of joy.
So Luke seems to testify.
But first comes the labor, first the contractions of our body with God’s justice. First the groan . . . it is a sign for you, for Christ is to be born in us.
Maybe we leave one gift unopened on Christmas day.
Cry my beloved country,
cry for Kameron Prescott,
child of God, child of the covenant.
Cry for his mother,
for her child is no more,
and she will not be comforted.
Tomorrow is Christmas.
And by God’s grace, we won’t be ready . . . but with holy haste, we will go to Bethlehem to see this thing that God has done.
December 24, 2017
First & Franklin Presbyerian Church
Baltimore, MD 21217