Christmas in the Empire

On Christmas Eve we read a story about how a poor couple named Mary and Joseph were forced by imperial political decrees to pack up, to journey across the countryside (even though Mary was expecting a baby), to hold up in a cow stable, all as the result of Caesar’s enrollment. The Romans had the most power, and the biggest army of any Western country ever to conquer the Middle East. How are you going to keep these Jews in their place if you don’t enroll them? So Caesar Augustus decreed, and cruel King Herod enforced, the order that everybody had to go to the city of his or her ancestors and get registered. Mary and Joseph were Jews, under the heel of the vast Roman Empire, the greatest Empire the world has ever known, with the largest army of occupation — that is until us.

When I read the Christmas story, it is unfair for me to read myself into the places of Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, or even the wise men. This was their home. They are under the heel of the Empire, their lives jerked around by imperial decrees.

I live in Rome with Caesar Augustus, or maybe in Jerusalem up at the palace with that King Herod, lackey for the Roman overlords. I’d rather see myself as one of the relatives of Mary and Joseph. I wouldn’t mind being one of the shepherds, out working the night shift, surprised when the heavens filled with angels.

But that is not my place in the story. My place in the story is as a beneficiary of the Empire. I am well fixed. I don’t live up in the palace, but I live in a home which — with its modern conveniences and security — the majority of the world’s people would call a palace. I have been the beneficiary of a great classical education, and I am a citizen of a country that has dominated other countries, often without even trying to dominate other countries. We are the Empire.

I don’t like my particular place in the story of the first Christmas.

So when you think about it, in our context, it is odd in a way that so many of us should flock to church on a Christmas Eve. It is a bit strange that we should think that, in Christmas, we hear such unadulteratedly good news, that we should feel such warm feelings, and think that we are closer to God now than at any other time of the year.

I guess we ought to be of the same frame of mind as our cousin, King Herod. When he heard the word about the first Christmas, the Gospels say that he was filled with fear. Give Herod credit. He knew bad news when he heard it. He knew that the songs that the angels sang meant an attack upon his world, God taking sides with those on the margins, the people in the night out in the fields, the oppressed and the lowly.

But for the people up at the palace, the well fixed, the people on top, the masters of the Empire, Christmas was bad news. And many of them were perceptive enough to know it.

So maybe that is why we cover up Christmas with cheap sentimentally, turn it into a saccharine celebration. Maybe, in our heart of hearts, we know that Christmas means that God may not be with the Empire, but rather the Empire may be on a shaky foundation, and that, if we told the story straight, as the Bible tells it, we might have reason, like Herod (when he heard about the first Christmas) to fear.

Let us hear again the song of the angels:

“Do not be afraid; for see—I am brining you good news of great joy for all people: To you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 1:10)

The angel did not say good news for some people. The angel was bold to say good news for all people. All. Though the angel was singing to the shepherds, the angel meant the song for everybody. Herod no doubt had difficulty hearing the song, safely fortified as he was with his troops and his thick walled palace. Herod, the old fox, missed it.

But you haven’t missed it. Even though you are a card-carrying member as am I, of the greatest Empire that has ever ruled, you are in the right place to hear the news.
Good news this day. There is born for you a savior. Our flags, government, armies, cannot save. Only that baby saves. One who is born among the lowly and the poor, only that one saves.

He comes not only for the oppressed, not only for Israel, but for the oppressor, that is, for all. O that we in the Empire could hear that song, O that we could turn back to the Lord, change our ways, bow down before the manger, rather than before our power, acknowledge our need, and pledge allegiance to the Prince of Peace.

Because he is our prince too. He comes to form an empire, not the way this world builds empires, called the Kingdom of God. And he shall reign forever and ever, and of his reign there shall be no end.

Good News. For this day in the City of David is born a Savior, Christ the Lord. Good News for all. Amen.
William H. Willimon

In the Darkness, A Voice, Light

John 1:6-9, 19-23.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.

As a child, I was frightened of the dark. I grew up in a rural area and, when it was dark, it was really dark — no street lamps, no passing automobiles. Dark. How well I remember that long walk, which I would have to make, down our winding drive through the pine trees from the highway to our house. At the end of the drive though, as I came in sight of the house lights, there was often my mother’s reassuring, “Is that you?”

Nothing so tames the terrors of the darkness like a light, a voice.

John’s gospel opens by saying, “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” Israel was in darkness, the dark of political oppression. Judea was occupied by Rome. These are the people upon whom light has shined, says John.

But before there was light, there was a voice. A voice in the darkness. That voice belonged to John, John the Baptist. John the Baptist is the voice who proclaims a light coming into the darkness.

All the gospels tell about John. And yet we get most of our detailed information about John from Matthew and Luke. They tell that he ate insects, lived in the dessert, wore camel hair. Strange. John’s gospel tells us none of this. All John tells us was that John the Baptist was “a voice.” We have got to figure out who he is and what he is up to by what John says.

People ask, “Who are you?”

John tells them that he is a mere forerunner. John also waits. He says that this one for whom he is preparing, is one who is great. But John doesn’t seem to know many details. He only knows that his coming will be light in the darkness, that great advent for which people are expecting.

We have song advent hymns of waiting, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.” “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Waiting is not easy for us. Waiting is particularly difficult, when we are waiting in the dark, when we can’t see the way forward, and there is no reassuring light, and we do not know whether we are going forward, or backward.

One feels so vulnerable in the dark. We like to be in control. We like to know that we are taking sure steps forward, meeting our goals, getting somewhere. But in the dark, one is unsure. One stumbles. And I don’t like to stumble.

Odd, sometimes people speak of the Christian life as fulfillment. “Now I have found Jesus.” “Now I have gotten my life together.” “Now I have turned myself over to God and I am saved.” It sounds like it’s all finished, done, complete, fulfilled.

But so much of the Christian life is spent waiting, yearning, leaning forward to that which we need, but do not yet have.

What are you waiting for? We speak too negatively of waiting. Show me a person who is not waiting, not yearning, not leaning forward, not standing on tiptoes hoping for something better, and I will show you a person who has given up hope for anything better. Someone who has settled down too comfortably in present arrangements.

And that’s part of the message of John the Baptist. His was a voice, a voice speaking into our darkness, telling us that there is dawn. He was a watchman, standing on the starlit hill, looking east, telling others that it was almost day.

Beyond, behind our deepest longing and yearning, that is really what we want. Our times of darkness are vivid reminders that we are, in truth, frail, vulnerable, and needy. We really are those who need deliverance. And our deliverance has got to be something beyond ourselves, someone greater than our own abilities to deliver.

John did not know the complete shape of that hope. John was a voice, a voice into the darkness, telling people not to give up hope, telling people that their yearning was not mere wishful thinking, that their longing was an act of faith, a deep and abiding belief that God cared, that God would come and deliver.

You may have read Victor Frankl’s classic account of his experiences in a Nazi death camp, Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl had been a successful therapist. While in the camp, he spent his time observing himself and his fellow inmates.

Frankl noted that some of the prisoners just wasted away and died quickly, even though they had no discernable physical ailments. He recalls one man who was doing reasonably well, considering the deplorable conditions of the camp. The man often talked of his dream to get out of the camp and to be united with his dear wife. Then the man received word that his wife had died in another prison camp. And in just a couple of days, the man died. Frankl concluded that the man died, not because of some bodily ailment, not because he lacked food or water, but because he lacked hope. He lacked hope that there was anything to be had beyond the darkness of the bleak prison, that there was anything beyond the present anguish of Nazis brutality. We can live, said Frankl, longer without bread than we can live without hope.

Hope that the light shines in the darkness.

We gather on this night as those who yearn, who desire, who are not yet fulfilled, but who are confident that light breaks into the darkness, and we shall see, and we shall know, and we shall be filled.

The light, the world’s light, our light, has a face, a name, Emmanuel.
Will Willimon

The Word became flesh

The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” John 1:1-14.

When I was new, people sometimes asked, “What has been your biggest challenge as a baby bishop?” They think I’m going to say, “Moving from an intellectual to a nonintellectual environment,” or “Having to work harder than I did as a professor,” something like that.

I’ve come to say that the most difficult part of being a bishop is to have to live, on a daily basis, in that great gap between who Jesus is (a marginalized, fanatical, Jewish prophet who was the God we didn’t expect) and what the church is (a rather sedate, rule-driven group of people who just want to be left alone so we can be “spiritual”). Jesus’ Body, the church, is the greatest challenge in following Jesus.

“I could believe in Jesus,” declared the poet, Shelley, “if only he did not drag behind him his leprous bride, the church.”

One of last year’s most popular church books was entitled, Leaving Church. Oh to rise above the muck and the mire of the corporeal and the ecclesiastical so that we can be free to descend ever more deeply into the subjective and the personal.

We’re in Advent, that time in the church year when we attempt to prepare for the shock of the Incarnation, the shock that God Almighty refused to stay above us but got down and dirty with us, in the flesh, moved in with us. Jesus Christ, Lord of Lords, has chosen to be a people, a family, this people, this church.

Bonhoeffer, before he went willingly to be hanged by the Nazis was forced by God unwillingly to hang out in the church. There he discovered the power of a God incarnate. Bonhoeffer, put it this way:

A truth, a doctrine, or a religion need no space for themselves. They are disembodied entities. They are heard, learnt, and apprehended, and that is all. But the incarnate son of God needs not only ears or hearts, but living [people] who will follow him. That is why he called his disciples into a literal, bodily following, and thus made his fellowship with them a visible reality… Having been called they could no longer remain in obscurity, they were the light that must shine, the city on the hill which must be seen.

In my own life, the church that previously had been relegated to the margins of the university as a “sometimes helpful spiritual influence,” has now assumed a large place. As a bishop the church has for me, in Bonhoeffer’s words, “taken up room”. It’s a “Treasure in earthen vessels,” (2 Cor. 4:5-7) yes, but it is also for me the sprawling, cracked earthen vessel that takes so much of my time there’s precious little room left for the treasure.

To be a lay or ordained leader of the church is to be called to care for the visibility of the church, the corporeal mass, the machinery. This task is particularly trying in age in the grip of anti-institutionalism and solipsistic spirituality.

Jerome Burce calls our age that of “spiritual agnosticism” (Marcus Borg and the so-called “Progressive Christians”) in which “The Fundamental truth claim of our culture with respect to matters spiritual is that we cannot know about them with anything approaching sufficient certainty to command the allegiance or shape the conduct or, least of all, correct the spiritual and/or moral opinions of another.”

Flee the Body in order to ascend to some disincarnate spiritual realm. Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” last year was, “You” – we have lost interest in anything but us.

Professor Bart Ehrmann, professor at the University of North Carolina, wrote a bestselling book, Misquoting Jesus. Surprise, there are all sort of stenographic errors in scripture, errors of transcription and questionable renderings of what the Jesus Seminar says Jesus said. So Ehrmann ends his book asking present day Christians (Ehrmann was a fundamentalist as a kid and appears not quite to have grown out of it), “Do you really want to put your trust in a flawed, thoroughly human book like the Bible?”

Well Bart, just where on earth would we put our trust? We actually believe that God became flesh, took on our flawed, thoroughly human corporeal nature. So if we’re going to put our trust in God, it will have to be in this God, it will have to be here, now, the same God who has condescended to take up room among us as the United Methodist Church. When we put our trust in the “thoroughly human” we actually believe we’re putting our trust in God who loved us enough to become human.

We can’t love Jesus without loving his body. It is a crucified body, to be sure, in bad shape, statistically speaking, but a body all the more in need of a loving caress.

We are those called, at this time in the history of Christendom, to worry about what constitutes a church, to be a sign of the visible unity of the church, to keep encouraging members of the body to honor one another, and sometimes even to promise a dead, decadent body nothing less than resurrection. An embodied, incarnate Christ sanctifies our mundane ecclesiastical body work as his. The church is Christ’s way of taking up room in his still being redeemed world.

The night I was ordained, a bishop laid hands on my head, repeating the ancient words of the Ordinal, “Never forget that the ones to whom you are called to minister are the ones for whom he died.” There I was, wondering, “Will the church appreciate my superior training? Will I get an all-electric parsonage?”

And there was the church, once again forcing me to be a Chalcedonian Christian, once again forcing me to believe in the blessed Incarnation, once again telling me, “The often disheartening, sometimes disappointing ones I’m making you fortunate enough to serve, are the ones for whom I died. This is my idea of salvation. Don’t mess it up.”

Oh the challenge of believing the Incarnation!
Will Willimon

The Challenge of Advent

After my first Advent/Christmas at the university Chapel where I used to preach, I noted that sermons during this season frequently received negative responses from some in the congregation. What’s the problem? Is not this a prelude to one of the Christian year’s most joyous seasons?

One person emerged after I had preached at the Advent service at another University Chapel and accused me of “promoting irresponsible passivity” in my sermon. “You should remind us,” he said, “We are educated, responsible people who have been given the gifts to make the world a better place.”

Yet what was I to preach, stuck as I was with the repeated Advent gospel assertion that God really has come in Jesus Christ to do for us what we could not do for ourselves? How could I calibrate the Hebrew scriptures’ prophetic announcement that history had again become interesting not because we had at last gotten organized but because God was moving among us. In short, my critic had gotten more than a whiff of eschatology and found its odor distinctly offensive to his activist, educated, progressive sensibilities. He, like most of us, would rather get better than be born again. He like most of us, wants a world improved rather than made new.

Advent is the season of “the last (Greek: eschatos) things,” a time of winter death in nature, the ending of another year. Yet it is also the beginning of the church year, a time of birth at Bethlehem, a time when we know not whether to name what is happening among us as “ending” or “beginning” for it feels both as if something old is dying and something new is being born.

Christian eschatology, like Jewish eschatology before it, makes a claim about the future in which the Creator of the world at the beginning is fully revealed as the world’s Redeemer at the end. Eschatology is more a matter of Who? than When? “The end” is not so much a matter of chronology (When?) but rather a debate over who, in the end, is in charge. The hope for the coming of Christ in fullness (Christ’s Parousia) has nothing to do with the hope engendered by wishful thinking, a positive mental attitude or creative social programming.

Advent promises us that, when all has been said and done by God, in us as individuals, in our political/social/economic structures, in the whole cosmos, God will reign. What God is doing among us, for us, often despite us is large, cosmic, political, nothing less than “a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1).

Our individual hope is grounded in the promised cosmic dismantling and reconstructive transformation which God is doing in the whole world. John Howard Yoder was pointing to the eschatological nature of our hope when he suggested that the word “revolution” was a bit closer to the root meaning of euangelion than merely “good news” The good news of Advent is that we are being met, reconstructed by a God who intends to make all things new.

President Bush stood before congress and, paraphrasing a beloved old hymn, said, “there is power, wonderworking power in….the good American people.” That’s not what Christians believe.

More than likely, Advent eschatology offends us for more mundane reasons. I am at church seeking personal advice for how to have a happy marriage or how to get along with the boss next week, only to have Advent wrench my gaze in our subjectivity in its insistence that whatever God is about in the Advent of Jesus, it is something quite large, quite cosmic, quite strange and humanly unmanageable, something more significant than me. I am not the master of history.

So let us begin with the honest admission that our real problem with these Advent/Christmas texts is largely political and economic. Tell me, “This world is ending. God has little vested interest in the present order,” I shall hear it as bad news.

However, for a mother in a barrio in Mexico City who has lost four of her six children to starvation, to hear, “This present world is not what God had in mind. God is not finished, indeed is now moving, to break down and to rebuild in Jesus,” I presume that would sound something like gospel. For her the Advent/Christmas message presages a revolutionary conflagration.

A great deal depends, in regard to our receptivity to these texts, on where we happen to be standing at the time when we get the news, “God is coming.”

It’s Advent. Let the revolution begin.
William H. Willimon

Advent Angels

As we begin the Christian season of Advent I am reminded of one of my heroes, Pastor Alfred Depp, courageous Lutheran who was eventually hung by the Nazis. Pastor Depp wrote from his prison cell about the comfort that is to be found, even in the worst of situations, in the promises of Advent. Advent is not a time in which our church celebrates the presence of God, the salvation of the world; it is the time when we focus upon the promises of Incarnation, the promise of the advent of the light that “shines in the darkness.”

I see Advent this year with greater intensity and anticipation than ever before.
Walking up and down in my cell, three paces this way and three paces that way,
with my hands in irons and ahead of me an uncertain fate, I have a new and
different understanding of God’s promise of redemption and release.

This reminds me of the angel that was given to me two years ago for Advent by a kind person. The angel bore the inscription, “Rejoice, for the Lord is near.” The
angel was destroyed by a bomb. A bomb killed the man who gave it to me, and I
often feel he is doing me the service of an angel.

The horror of these times would be unendurable unless we kept being cheered and set upright again by the promises that are spoken. The angels of annunciation, speaking their message of blessing into the midst of anguish, scattering their seed of blessing that will one day spring up amid the night, call us to hope. These are not yet the loud angels of rejoicing and fulfillment that come out into the open, the angels
of Advent. Quiet, inconspicuous, they come into rooms and before hearts as they
did then. Quietly the bring God’s questions and proclaim to us the wonders of
God, for whom nothing is impossible.

For all its earnestness, Advent is a time of inner security, because we have received a message. Oh, if it ever happens that we forget the message and the promises; if all we know is the four walls and the prison windows of our gray days; if we can no longer hear the gentle step of the announcing angels; if our soul no longer is at once shaken and exalted by their whispered word–then it will be all over with us. We are
living wasted time and are dead before they do us any harm.

–Alfred Delp, “The Shaking Reality of Advent,” in When the Time Was Fulfilled, Farmington, PA: Plough, 1965, pg. 16.

William H. Willimon