Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Ghost of 1st Christmas Past: B.C.

The Ghost of 1st Christmas Past: B.C.
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
November 30, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Isaiah 9: 2-7
Matthew 4: 15-17

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
16     the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.”
17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”[1]

I'm excited to start another Advent Season. It is always a challenge to preach the Christmas Season because the story is so well known, it is hard to keep it fresh, but I really like my plan for the next four weeks, leading up to Christmas. I decided that I want to use the Dickens' A Christmas Carol idea of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future to look at the world and what Christmas means and should mean to us. Pretend for a second that the world is the Dickens protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge, and he is experiencing Christmas for the first time, on the first Christmas. The Ghost of Christmas Past would come to him and show him its history leading up to the birth of Christ, showing him the mistakes, missteps, and the ignorance of the pre Christmas world. The Ghost of Christmas Present would look at the world at the time of the birth of Christ. The Ghost of Christmas Future would take a look at Christmas after that first Christmas, leading us to today, when we wake up on Christmas morning in 2014, and see what it all could mean to us.
To begin the Ghost of Jacob Marley comes to us and shows how he has lived his life in the wrong way. I chose his message to Scrooge as the Prayer of Preparation for today:
“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
It held up its chain at arm’s length, as if that were the cause of all its unavailing grief, and flung it heavily upon the ground again.
“At this time of the rolling year,” the spectre said, “I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!”

I think Jesus Christ's claim when he says, "Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near" was deeply in Charles Dickens mind when he wrote Marley's speech. If the kingdom of God has come, then our business is "charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence. It is caring for others. It is love, but before Christmas, those are certainly not the ways of the world. The pre Christmas world looks at benevolence, and selflessness, and love and emphatically says, Bah Humbug! For the world has grown cynical like the miserly scrooge, hurt by history, failed hope. The very story that the Ghost of Christmas past comes to show.
Cynicism came to thrive because there seems to be no reward for selfless, benevolent, faithful behavior, like Marley claims and Christmas calls us to. So the Ghost of Christmas past rushes "the world" to look at itself in the past, before Christ ever came. The world sees itself as a world not run by the meek, but by the strong, and the strong get to dictate the way things work, what goes on, and most importantly, they even get to dictate what is true, and such is the source of their power. Basically what we see developing is the strong offering a combination of violence and then protection from violence--and conflict and then protection from conflict. The Ghost of Christmas past shows people working to provide food, build shelter, raise children, but there are some who do not work. They don't need to, they are strong enough just to take. We see these strong men threaten to destroy what is made, and then offer to protect the people from other strong men. We see the development of gods and traditions and religions to consolidate the power. And we see these gods reflecting the same values as the strong men, might makes right, whatever you want you take, if you can, you should. Most of these Ancient religions see the world as a combination of conflicting forces. There is no real order to any of it, just a parallel of the way human beings work. The strong force the weak to do what they want, from the top down in an intricate balance of favors, threats, dominance, and submission, and people find ways to manipulate from below, but it is always just a dangerous and precarious game. The world is hard and uncaring because people are hard an uncaring. Those in power want to keep their power. Those not in power want to take it from them, and those at the bottom are just trying to make it through.
So the Ghost of Christmas past whisks us away and we find ourselves in a strange building in which rests statues, all the idols of the ancient world. We see animals, and crosses between animals, we see beautiful perfections of the human form. We see priceless artifacts of the past, but when we look in the eyes of each statue we see. . . not morals and benevolence, but instead oppression, for this is what ancient idolatry is all about. We see behind each of the statues the priests that speak for them, we see the sacrifices they have the people offer, we see ritual, and through the sacrifices and ritual we see the real wielding of power, fear. Each of these statues were built on fear and control, giving people false hope that they can do something to control their fate in the world filled with conflict instead of order. But amidst all of this the truth about God and created order is first whispered and heard despite the deafening volume of the widespread idolatry.
We get our first glimpse of it in the ancient city of Ur, and so the Ghost of Christmas Past rushes us backward through history and time to the City of Ur, and there we see Abram who leaves everything he knows behind in Ur to follow this whispering invisible God in the wilderness. Ur is a city state in Mesopotamia. The oldest complete piece of literature in existence is about the King of a Town called Uruk, found on two stone tablets that rest at the bottom of the great wall, many people believe it to be the same, and we see it as the same by the Ghost of Christmas Past. In that town we see a king called Gilgamesh, he builds great walls to protect his people from the outside. He offers them safety, protection, security, at least from outsiders, and that's the rub. . . no one is there to protect the people from him. He's seen as 2/3's god and 1/3 man. . . strong, wise, much better than anyone else, the obvious right one to rule, but we see in him also a brutal, unfeeling, uncompassionate, tyrant. And the people are crying out for relief from him. . . but he is the only source of their salvation.
From there we are whisked away to another City, this time the seat of the Egyptian Empire, to Pharaoh. The cries are the same, help us, save us, but there is a new people under the thumb. It appears that the people of Abram, whose name was changed to Abraham, have once again found themselves under a strong man's tyrannical rule. They call out in their slavery for salvation, and they are heard by God again, the same God who called Abraham out of his dangerous situation. This time the message manifests itself in a man named Moses, a man raised in the palace, but again has become a refugee in the desert. Moses returns again to Egypt and we see him standing up to the Pharaoh, and he is successful, but this is hardly the norm. We see the mighty army following close behind these people of Moses, but a Pillar of Fire blocks their way, and the seas part and the people escape. The Ghost of Christmas past explains that this is a glimpse though of the power of Christmas, a glimpse of what could be in the midst of what is. And out of that event, the world is introduced to law. . . but time moves on and it isn't enough. It isn't enough and it is too much all the same because people haven't changed, the world hasn't changed, cynicism still is the majority.
The ghost of Christmas past whisks us again forward, this time to Jerusalem, in the time of the judges, this the last judge, Samuel. Since the time of Moses, these people, the Israelites have lived in the land they were promised, and they were different from the rest of the world. There was no king, no strong man, just law, and God. But the people wished to be like the rest of the world, they wanted a king, they wanted protection, and security, they wanted to be like the rest of the world. . . they had lost hope, had lost faith, and they wanted a king, and Samuel warned them.
These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; 12 and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15 He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16 He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattleb and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
Samuel knew this because that is what kings do. And we like Scrooge, call out, how could they want that, had they so soon forgotten. Much like Scrooge who is seeing his lovely Isobel, and the life they could have had. . . The world regrets. . . because the we can see ourselves again choosing darkness over light. "Ghost, show me no more, I know what happens next"
But the ghost of Christmas Past again whisks us forward, and there we are in the palace and we see the king David, and across the way is the lovely Bathsheba, Uriah's the Hittite's wife, and we see David making the order. . . send Uriah to the front of the battle so that he will die. David sends Uriah to his death, David the man after God's own heart, the faithful slayer of Goliath, the once humble shepherd who did not seek power, now with the power of King uses it like Kings do, to advance their own way. And again the world shuttered to see the history unfolding because he remembered what happened next. Brother's fighting against each other, against their father, and then a succession of kings, spiraling downward into ruin. Prophet after prophet's warning, all ignored. The world can see it again and again, over and over. Isaiah, and Jeremiah, Amos, and Hosea, Elijah, the same message, all ignored. Until finally the hope is destroyed.
The nations finally rise and destroy the light. Babylon and Assyria, new strong men, Empires conquer and exile the people, extinguish the light and again oppression is the norm. Empire after Empire. . . Emperor after Emperor. . . Nebuchadnezzar, then the Persians, Darius, Xerxes.  . . then the Macedonians. . . .Philip and Alexander. . . then finally the Romans. Could that history have been averted, was there hope, could the light be found again?
The world had grown cynical. . . humbug, of course not. Power is the only thing that is. . . people are greedy. . . there is no goodness. . . other than what the strong give. The strong at least give us some security, we'll take it because better just doesn't exist. What would we do with it anyway, just waste it, lose it. The Greeks started with freedom too, but they ended in empire. . . so too the Romans and their republic. . . none of it was built to last because people just cannot handle freedom, we don't know enough, we can rule ourselves, there is no God we can depend on anyway right, just men, the biggest, brightest, and strongest. They are our only hope.
The Ghost of Christmas past looked at the world one last time and gave his lasting message. You just do not see the truth. You are blinded by your fear, blinded by the lie, that there is no God, that it is all a lie, that the speaking of Creation really didn't happen, and so fear dictates your path rather than faith. Didn't you see faith at work with Abraham? Didn't you see faith at work with Moses? And the judges. . . sure there was pain and suffering, but God was never far, the darkness was always there but the light was stronger. Open your eyes to it, or you will forever live in chains. I must go now, but you will see in the rest of the story the power of the light. It is not new, but perhaps this time you will see, because it will rest inside  your heart, it will come embodied in one of you, and will be restorative, redeeming, and saving. Humbug is your song now, but perhaps after this season of Christmas you will change that tune. Perhaps not. So long.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mt 4:15-17). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
b Gk: Heb young men
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (1 Sa 8:11-18). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.