Sunday, December 25, 2016

December 24, Christmas Eve: The Prince of Peace

Good evening, and welcome to the 362nd Christmas of our congregation. Whoever you are, wherever you come from, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or something else, no matter what your belief or unbelief, whether you worship Christ or admire him, we are glad that you came here tonight.

Let me acknowledge the musicians and singers and readers for tonight. I welcome my colleague Cantor Josh Breitzer from Congregation Beth Elohim who will read the second lesson and sing the Akeda. It is a precious gift. Michael Daves, I thank you, and your guest singers with you. I thank especially our music director Aleeza Meir, our kapellmeisterin, who makes this service happen. You may not applaud them during the service, but you may applaud them now.

 The candles are all alight. Later in the service it will get dark. I’m instructing you not to turn on your cell-phone lights. Please just enjoy the candlelight. If you can’t make out all the lyrics in the bulletin, then just sing what you can from memory. Most of the words will come to you. So would you kindly turn off all your mobile devices right now and keep them off?

I love the traditions and the hymns of the holidays, but if they provide you your only knowledge of Christian doctrine, then it might surprise you that the New Testament never appeals to the Virgin Birth of Jesus to establish his divinity; it rather derives his divinity from his Resurrection. The mystery of the Virgin Birth is certainly told by the Gospels, but its immediate import, if anything, is a negative comment about men, and the sexual rights of men, of which I will not say more right now!

So what this feast of the Incarnation celebrates is the opposite of the exaltation of a man to godhood. Rather, we marvel at God’s voluntary humiliation, the great made small, the high made low, the glorious made humble, the almighty choosing to be powerless. You know, “What if God was one of us, just a stranger on the bus.” The omnipotent creator of the universe now fully at the mercy of the MTA. It’s as if God had to surrender all of God’s divine right and privilege, and be absolutely weak and poor and small, just to earn the right to be God again at Easter.

That God should behave like this is not new with Christians. We got it from Israel. It’s already in the Torah. When God first identified with Abram, who was Abram? Nobody. Not a prince nor a priest, not a doctor, not a lawyer, a nobody. When God identified with the twelve tribes of Jacob, who were they? A rabble of slaves descended from a despicable band of brothers who were boorish brigands among the civilized Canaanites. When God identified with Israel and Judah, what were they but two scrabbling minor principalities, critiqued by their own prophets, both of them ending in total failure. God said, “I’m with them! Here I am!” And the other gods and goddesses said, “What kind of a self-loathing, self-hating god are you?”

Why does God behave this way? For love, for love’s sake, God is mad with love, as mad as Don Quixote. This lavish love of God is taught by the Torah and the Prophets. And then we Christians take it a further step, that God identifies with us so far as literally to become one of us, and one of us in poverty, weakness, and dishonor. Again for love, but for something else as well. For peace.

By doing this God demonstrates that God is for peace, full stop. The angels said so to the shepherds. For in such a humble and vulnerable status, what other recourse do you have? So it’s not just that God stands for peace, but God lies down for peace.

We have been troubled by the rise in violence around us. The congregation heard me preach on violence the last four weeks. Yesterday we heard of a new arms race of nuclear weapons. We’ve felt the increase in aggression as the necessary means to make us great again. This is just another version of one historic vision for humanity, the vision shared by empire after empire since ancient times, the brutal vision of how to be strong and great and powerful. It makes some sense; Plato and Aristotle agreed with it, and it goes with nature: kill or be killed, if you’re not on top you’re on the bottom. And if we have gods we contrive our gods to back this up. Christians too often do this too.

Tonight the story reminds us that the God of the gospels does not back this up, that this God as a baby is on the bottom, and as a young man gets killed, for in the life of Jesus, God lies down for peace. This presents the other vision of humanity, which is so unnatural that it takes a miracle. The Incarnation should remind us every year what the God of the Prophets and the Gospels really is for, that God is for peace, full stop.

This is the reason behind the communion of the saints, that God does not build walls. This is the reason for the forgiveness of sins, that God does not stand upon his rights. This is the reason for the resurrection of the body, that God wants healing over judgment, and this is the reason for the life everlasting, the God offers unconditioned hospitality. This is why God’s light shines in the darkness that we weave around ourselves, to find us in our fear and misery of our own making.

The lessons that follow tonight will tell you where to look for God and what kind of God to look for. They tell you what God stands for. You will hear Cantor Breitzer chant the blessing of Abraham, whose hand was stayed from violence. You will hear the vision of Isaiah, of the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. 

That’s why you came here tonight, for the light that shines in the darkness, to see the other vision once again, to be reminded of the hope, to be quickened by the music, and to confirm it when you sing. This is the kind of thing you want to believe, the challenge you accept, this is the kind of life you want to live, that’s why you are here. You did right to come here tonight. God bless you one and all.

Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Meeter, All Rights Reserved.

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