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Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 21, 2014 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
All proclamations about God must be surrounded by silence—a silence that kneels before the ineffable mystery. . . . Knowledge of the divine must be knowledge we have received; it comes not from clever intellectualizing, imaginative speculation, or spiritual daydreaming, but from quiet attentive listening. Christian faith affirms that the One who is wholly other, who is obscured by the thick darkness of our own ignorance, has shined a light of self-revelation. This divine Word, being personal, has a name: Jesus Christ.
A preacher friend of mine recently told a story about trying to get to her daughter’s Christmas Vespers service at Smith College (Kathryn Johnston, Mechanicsburg Presbyterian Church, 12 December 2014 sermon: http://mechpresby.org/sermons/). She and her family live about five-and-a-half hours away, so they were already stressed out about not making it on time. But then, they discovered another reason for their stomachs to twist and turn. A protest was being planned to happen at the same time as the vespers service. In fact, the organizers of the protest planned it in such a way that they hoped it shut down the vespers service. Someone posted on the protest’s page on Facebook that shutting down that vespers service would be like interrupting the Rockefeller Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony in New York.
Now, my friend was supportive and active in protests in her own town. And she absolutely wanted the college kids to use their voices and to organize. And even if the protest did snarl traffic and end up interrupting the concert in some way, my friend would have probably joined the protest herself. She threw her ministerial collar into her bag just in case.
But when she read one protestor’s words of “No justice, no Christmas,” followed by a post that claimed people needed protest songs, not choir songs, her heart grieved. “They don’t know the story,” my friend wrote. We’ve not told them the story. They don’t know that the justice, mercy, and peace they demand are the justice, mercy, and peace the poets and prophets of scripture demanded too. They don’t know that the Advent season is a time during which we all demand for those things to be more fully in bloom here and now; when we cry out for God to tear open the heavens and come down; when we express our deep longing for God to set this messed-up world right and to show us how we might be of use in that reconciling and healing work.
Here at Fourth Presbyterian Church, we have heard those petitions voiced by the prophet Isaiah all throughout this entire Advent season. And my friend, a minister herself, knew that those calls for justice, mercy, and peace would be the words read and sung all throughout that college vespers service. No justice means the absolute need for Christmas. But we’ve not told them the story.
Indeed, the choir songs of Advent and Christmas are protest songs. Hear again one of the stanzas that our choir just sang: “This little babe so few days old is come to rifle Satan’s fold. All hell doth at his presence quake though he himself for cold do shake; for in this weak unarmed guise the gates of hell he will surprise” (Benjamin Britten’s “This Little Babe” from A Ceremony of Carols). Our Advent and Christmas songs are protest songs. For the story they proclaim—God’s story of incarnation, the story of God emptying God’s self of power in order to be one of us, one with us, flesh and blood and fully human—that story is actually a kind of protest song itself. The story of incarnation is part of God’s protest song of love.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. This One was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him and apart from him was not one single thing made. When what had been made was in union with him, there was Life, and this Life was the Light of the human race. And this Light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness did not put it out” (Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, pp. 3–4). With those words, our Gospel-writer John begins to sing his version of God’s song.
And as you probably noticed, John begins his version of God’s song in a way that is drastically different than the ways Luke and Matthew sing it. Both Luke and Matthew begin their versions of God’s song here, with us, in our time and history. Both of them give the kinds of details we are so used to hearing this Advent-Christmas time of year: the details of angel visits and dreams, of mangers as cribs and animals gathered round, of stars shining brightly and shepherds quaking. Those are the verses Matthew and Luke sing. But not John.
John’s version of God’s song is not one bit concerned with any of those details. Rather, instead of focusing on the actions of the human players at the moment of Christmas, John’s singing draws our attention to what God was doing way before Christmas even happened. That is where John begins his version of God’s song of love: back in the beginning, at the time of creation. And I have wondered if John sings it with such a long prelude to Christmas in order to help us remember that God did not just start calling and loving God’s people in the stable at Bethlehem or with the angels in the shepherds’ fields. Rather, John knew that God had revealed God’s presence before to God’s people.
From the moment of creation on, God has constantly tried to be in relationship with God’s creatures. Perhaps John wanted to point out God has been singing God’s protest song of love for a long, long time, lest we think incarnation was some kind of spur-of-the-moment holy decision. No, John sings, the incarnation was part of God’s plan, God’s protest song of love, all along.
Now John’s version of the song makes its crescendo and hits the high note with verse 14. Here is how Eugene Peterson translates it: “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood” (Eugene Peterson, The Message). And for me, it is precisely when John hits that note, makes this claim, when his version of God’s song of love takes on an even deeper resonance of protest, for here is just some of what I think God is protesting by offering this gift we call incarnation. See if you can hear the song for yourself:
When the Word becomes flesh and blood and moves into our neighborhood, what we call incarnation, it is God’s protest song against all that tries to demean us—against all the voices that tell us we are not enough to be loved, to be worthy. Incarnation is God’s protest song against our own behavior with each other that seeks more to create walls and mistrust rather than to seek cooperation and peace. Incarnation is God’s protest song against the evil that does not think twice about massacring 130 kids in Pakistan for the so-called purpose of revenge. It is God’s protest song against the horror and tragedy that teenage kids will kill each other for a coat. It is God’s protest song against all that separates us from each other and attempts to separate us from God. It is God’s protest song against our idea that somehow, if I am going to be OK, you cannot be because there is not enough to go around. Incarnation is God’s protest song against the unspoken claim in this country that it is just the American way when the rich get way richer and the poor get way poorer and people just shrug in complicity because no one knows how to change the system. Incarnation is God’s protest song against all voices that say violence is somehow redemptive and returning evil for evil is justified. Incarnation is God’s protest song against Boko Haram and anyone who would dare claim girl children are not as valuable as boy children so they have the God-given right to take them away and to sell them off. Do you hear God’s protest song yet?
The Word becoming flesh and blood, what we call the mystery and gift of incarnation, is God’s protest song of love. The Word becoming flesh and blood and moving into the neighborhood is God’s protest song that stands up to all the powers and the principalities that still fight against justice, mercy, and peace. You see, those protestors who wanted to interrupt vespers must not have known the story. Because while “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is indeed a choir song, a congregational hymn, it is also a protest song. We shall not be fooled into thinking otherwise.
But it is not just that one. Every time we sing “Away in a manger, no crib for his bed, the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head,” we are singing a protest song that claims there is a power we cannot even imagine contained in such holy vulnerability. Every time we sing “Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace! Hail the sun of righteousness! Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings,” we are singing a protest song that claims this one who was born into poverty and through pain will be the only one who gets to have the last word on any life, on all life, and from what we see in Jesus that word will certainly be a Word of light and mercy and love and healing. Every time we sing “Joy to the world, the Lord has come: let earth receive her King,” we are singing a protest song against any other ruler or thing that might try and claim sovereignty over our lives and try to tell us who we are.
Do you hear God’s protest song of love yet?
Listen to how Frederick Dale Bruner sings God’s protest song of love in his great commentary on this Gospel of John: “This flesh-borne revelation is the greatest thrill of the Prologue: the fact that the invisible God came down in and into the human life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and explained [God’s self] in this clearest and most credible way is itself gospel, very good news” (Bruner, p. 8). Or listen to this verse sung by Augustine: “God became human so that humans could become again, in reality, human” (quoted in Bruner, p. 33).
By this incredible and amazing gift and mystery we call incarnation, God was singing out for all to hear, “You are my beloved ones. I have called you by name and you are mine. And now I will show you in a way you might understand.” As my former theology professor Shirley Guthrie used to sing, “If you want to know how God feels about us and all humanity, look at Jesus.” Jesus is God’s self, God’s soul, God’s life force in the flesh (Barbara Brown Taylor, Pulpit Resource, 2 January 2000, p. 5). Do you hear the song yet?
The vespers service happened as planned, by the way. During the more contemplative pieces, my friend could hear the voices outside singing their protests songs, chanting the chants we have all heard, maybe chanted ourselves. She reflected that somehow it all made sense together, really. They were different versions of the same songs; they were just being sung in different ways, with different harmonies. But both those inside and those outside were singing the same melody, even if some of those singing did not know the story. At the end of the vespers service, the Dean of Religious Life at Smith went outside to invite the protestors in so they might sing their version of protest songs inside, as a closing part of that worship service. So the protestors walked in with their banners and slowly began to sing.
Here is how my friend’s wife, Martha Spong, described that moment: “They sounded apprehensive at first. We listened intently to pick out the words: ‘We who believe in freedom cannot rest. We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.’ Then, their voices swelled and the melody spread throughout the congregation. Feet stamped, hands clapped, and harmonies expanded. We all sang the same song,” she concluded (Martha Spong, “On the Wrong Side of Vespers,” the blog of the Christian Century, December 2014).
And I cannot help but wonder if maybe, just maybe, a few of those folks—those who had sat inside and those who had stood outside—if a few of them started to hear the story anew that night: the story of a God who loves us, who loves all humanity, who loves this creation so much that God will protest anything that tries to tell us or anyone else otherwise.
"O come, O come, Emmanuel, for we who believe in freedom cannot rest until you come" (adapted from the closing line of Martha Spong’s blog on “On the Wrong Side of Vespers”).