Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 20, 2015
Micah 5:2-5a Commentary
When the Lectionary dishes up just 3.5 verses, skipping the first verse of a chapter and stopping just halfway through the fifth verse, you just know it’s like putting blinders on us readers to keep us from seeing something on either side of the lection. I don’t know why they made this choice but lyric and lovely though verses 2-5a are of Micah 5, we cannot ignore that the happy news here is nestled in some sad news.
We cannot pretend that the verses surrounding this lection do not exist. Micah’s prediction of a ruler who would be Peace incarnate gains in brilliance and in realism when we see that he has to speak this promise right in the middle of a dark prediction of Israel’s impending military defeat and the suffering it would bring.
But then again, when CAN WE EVER speak of the Prince of Peace who is Christ the Lord without doing so from a context of surrounding darkness? When can we proclaim the gospel without having to do so in ways that stand in tension with the pain and suffering that are not just all around us in the wider world but that are quite literally right in front of us in even the church sanctuary on any given Sunday? Is anyone is unaware of the significant surrounding darkness here in Advent 2015? Our world is gripped by fear, is in mourning over victims of recent terrorism, and is engaged in what looks like a never-ending warfare.
Can the Prince of Peace be celebrated in a world at war?
Of course. This is WHY we celebrate God’s Christ.
When my students preach sermons in class, the one area of fairly consistent weakness is in the category of the sermon’s “Pastoral Care” dimension. Students just have not been pastors long enough yet to realize to whom they will preach their every sermon. Too often, then, their sermons come off as treatises about the problems and disappointments of life without necessarily evincing the sense that they are preaching directly to people who know such things intimately and from the inside (and who may well be experiencing them at that very moment, too).
But those of us who know our congregations pretty well cannot forget that our people know hardship—we can even scan the pews and name any number of very specific pains people bring with them into church each week. We preach into that pain, not despite it (and not, one hopes, by bracketing it!). People hardly need reminders of the darkness that surrounds them. What they do often need, though, is an honest acknowledgment of that painful darkness. Preaching rapidly grows hollow when it fails to embrace those tensions.
Micah has a hard word for his audience in Micah 5, and although he provides also an incredibly bright promise in the midst of it all, only those who can understand and (ultimately) experience the difficult parts of Micah’s message can appreciate just how luminous the promise is, too.
Sometimes those of us who preach think we’re doing people a favor by being upbeat, by relegating suffering to something long ago and far away. People need hope, we think. They need grace. They need direction. All true. But the adjective “realistic” should be set before those words or else it’s just so much church talk. People should not have to hang up their cares in the narthex along with their coats just to enter the sanctuary or in order to understand the messages that we preach.
Few times of the year tempt us more in that direction, however, than Advent and Christmas. I suspect that I need not detail the reasons why. But it’s a temptation to resist at this time above all times. If Christ cannot be incarnated into our real world and into our real families and all the hurts they know so well, then Hallmark wins and the whole season is a faux bright spot in the midst of the surrounding darkness. Then Advent/Christmas is a season that comes and goes but without much lasting effect on anyone. The Scrooges of the world may or may not wake up as all new people on Christmas morning but if there is one thing we know for sure, it is that most of this world’s Scrooges can breeze right through the holiday season with nary a change. And we might all feel a tidge more generous for a few weeks, but most people won’t act on that generosity, and before Epiphany comes, it’s all forgotten anyway.
Only if Christ Jesus the Lord, who is our Peace, can enter our darkness so as to make an everlasting change in our condition does the season have any meaning worth talking about (much less preaching about). So let’s not let Micah 5:1 or the other part of 5:5b have the last word. By no means! But let’s not disallow it from having any word, either.
Three years ago when we were last in the Year C Lectionary cycle, the Sunday that featured this text came a scant 5 days after a class of Kindergarten students had been shot up in a place called Newtown, Connecticut. This year we are still reeling from San Bernardino, Paris, Beirut . . . the list goes on (and will be added to no matter what we do).
There is a reason God had to go so far as to incarnate himself into this world to save it. The problem of evil is THAT bad, THAT tortured, THAT unresolvable from our side of things.
Immanuel means “God with us.” That’s the message we need. It also deepens the urgency of our call for that second Advent of our Lord: Maranatha, Come, Lord Jesus. Come.
In one of her most memorable sermons (and that’s saying something given the quality of her work!) Barbara Brown Taylor begins by talking about a ruined church she once saw in old Ephesus when she took a tour of Turkey/Asia Minor. Most of the church was gone save for a part of a mosaic that had once been the backdrop of the chancel area. The mosaic was of Christ the Lord looking out over the church with his hand raised in blessing. But in the ruined church only half the face remained and part of the hand-raised-in-blessing was gone, too. This became a metaphor for Taylor of Jesus’ constant blessing of—and his constant gaze out over—what is as often as not a church in ruins (and lives in ruins within that church, too).
But it was her closing illustration that sticks with anyone who has ever heard this sermon. For in it Taylor tells us of a woman, still recovering from a very intensive round of chemotherapy to treat an aggressive cancer, who did one of the Scripture readings at a Christmas Eve candlelight service. The woman lugged a small oxygen tank with her to the lectern and as she read words of gospel hope, that tank hissed rhythmically. And there was just something of that mixture of brokenness and hope, of the ruination of cancer and the Word of life that is the message of Christ’s incarnation that summed up the hope we hold to as Christian believers. We cannot shut the ruins of life out of the church. Indeed, we must not. For into that situation Christ himself came down here once upon a time to shore up flagging spirits, to lift up drooping hands, to stabilize wobbly knees, and to declare a promise that, as Micah reminds us, really does extend to the ends of the earth: “Behold, I make all things new.”
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