I spent one Advent a few years ago in Guatemala with a mission team from my previous congregation, in a poor community near the mountains called Chicutama.
I was working at my last home for the week, building my last wood-stove for my final family before making the journey home for Christmas.
Weʼd just begun working. The husband and wife of the house were busy mixing mortar.
And even though here in Northern Virginia at their age theyʼd be snap-chatting and visiting colleges, in their part of the world they were married and busy surviving and making sure their three children did too.
While they mixed the mortar, I stepped into the doorway of their mud-block home, looking for their three little children, thinking Iʼd play with them or get them to smile or giggle or run away in pretend fear.
It was a one-room home, paid for by a relative who worked illegally here in the states. Tacked on the far wall was a cracked, laminated poster of multiplication tables.
In the righthand corner was a long branch from a pine tree, propped up in a pink plastic beach bucket and decorated with pieces of colored foil and plastic.
Thick smoke from a fire wafted into the room through the tin roof. Scavenged and saved bits of trash were stacked neatly on the dusty floor.
The bed was a mattress laid on top of cinder blocks just to the left of the door. The three children- a three year old boy named Jason, a girl a year or two older named Veronica and their sister- were sitting on the bed.
Jason didnʼt have any shoes and his feet were black with dirt and they looked cold. He had a rash on his cheeks and mites in his hair and his eyes were red and his nose was running black snot from the smoke.
They were sitting on the bed and Veronica was feeding them breakfast with a toy dollʼs spoon. She was feeding them Tortrix, lime-flavored corn chips like Fritos, and soda in a baby bottle.
Because that was the only thing they had to eat.
Because junk food is cheap.
And clean water is not and thatʼs all they could afford.
I know it’s lame.
In my pride, I was determined to take a picture of them— determined to take a picture of high and mighty do-gooding me with them. Because what says I’m better at putting Christ back into Christmas than you than a Facebook profile picture of you with some poor Save the Children children?
I was virtue-signaling before our President made it trendy.
I’d been blind to it. I hadn’t seen it, hadn’t noticed the calendar that hung in their cinder block wall above the bed— not until I turned my back to the children and pulled out my iPhone and stretched out my arm to take a selfie of the four of us.
I’d been blind, but then I saw.
Staring back at me from the glass screen of my shiny new phone.
The calendar on the wall— it was flipped to December. The top half had a picture of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. The straw in his manger looked gilded, and in his tiny right hand he held a cross no bigger than a baton.
At the bottom of the picture, in Christmas gold-leaf, was a scripture verse from the prophet Isaiah:
“Be strong; do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”
I looked at their reflection on the screen of my iPhone, the two little girls and the boy with my name, looking dirty and sick and shoeless, eating the only food they had while their mother and father worked with the kind of speed that comes from being sentenced to a lifetime of hard labor.
I looked at them there with the baby Jesus hanging above them on the wall along with the prophet Isaiah’s words in gilded italics as though to say to someone like me that Jesus Christ had come for them. And them only.
Staring at Jasonʼs dirty bare feet and bloodshot eyes and black runny nose whilst I wondered what altruistic-Instagram picture I’d post of myself when I retuned home, it finally scattered all the ways I’d always imagined this season and its story.
Looking at those three little children with Isaiah’s promise above their heads, it struck me: when I read the Christmas story, itʼs not fair for me to read myself into the place of Mary or Joseph or the shepherds or even the wise men.
I donʼt know what itʼs like to live under the heel of an empire. I donʼt know what itʼs like to have my life jerked around by the rich and the powerful. If I have a place in this story— let’s be honest— my place is in Rome with Caesar Augustus. Or maybe in the gated communities of Jerusalem, rubbing elbows with King Herod, Caesarʼs lackey. I mean, Iʼd rather count myself among Mary and Josephʼs family. Or at least among their friends (if they had any), waiting outside the manger with a balloon for the baby and a cigar for the father. Iʼd even settle for being one of the shepherds, whose dirty work disqualified them from religious life, but to whom the heavens nonetheless break open with angels and good news.
But what I realized that Advent years ago is thatʼs not my place in the story.
My place in the story is as a member of the empire.
Iʼm well-off. Iʼm not as sophisticated as Caesar Augustus, but Iʼm the beneficiary of an expensive Ivy League education.
I donʼt live in a castle but I do live in a home that plenty would call a palace.
Iʼm not a king or an emperor but I have more control over my life than probably even King Herod did back in the day. In other words, I’m not the poor who hungers for good news. I’m not. I’m not the captive who cries for liberty. I’m not the oppressed who yearns for exodus. I’m not lowly; I don’t need to be lifted up (thank you very much, but no thank you).
That Advent in Guatemala-
That’s when the truth stung me: Iʼm not sure I like my place in the Christmas story.
According to the prophet Isaiah-
Not only is the promised Messiah not for someone like me, the Messiah is promised by God exactly in order to be against someone like me.
As the Messiah’s mother sings:
“He has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their seats; and has exalted the humble and meek. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.”
I hate to put a crimp in your Christmas cheer, but that’s most of us. Just by virtue of living in the Empire Called America, that’s you and me.
Just listen again to today’s text:
The coming of Christ isn’t jolly, glad tidings for everyone.
Today’s text actually begins in chapter 34 where the prophet Isaiah says:
“The Lord is enraged…he has doomed the greedy and faithless nations. The Lord has a sword to be sated with blood…and a coming day of vengeance.”
Have yourself a merry little Christmas.
I mean you have to give King Herod credit.
Herod was not stupid. He knew bad news when he heard it.
Herod knew enough of his Bible to know the prophet Isaiah had promised that when God takes flesh in the Messiah, God would take sides:
With those on margins.
With the people working the night shift.
And with those working out in the fields.
With those stuck in detention centers (and those who die in them.)
For Herod, for the white-collared and the well-off and the people at the top of the ladder, for the movers and shakers of the empire— the coming of Christ was bad news not good news.
And they were smart enough to know it.
John the Baptist riffs on Isaiah’s image of the Highway that the coming God will clear for God’s put-upon People. He riffs on it right before he condemns the likes of us as a brood of vipers and warns us, in our affluent indifference, to flee from the fire of Christ’s coming wrath.
Maybe we should think twice before moralizing about putting Christ back into Christmas. Maybe we should be careful what we wish for.
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense.
Show of hands— how many of you put that on your Christmas cards this year?
Every year, just like King Herod, we try to do away with Jesus— not by the sword but with sentimentality.
I wonder if it’s because we don’t know how the Christmas story can be good news for people like us.
If it’s good news of great joy for people like Isaiah and Mary, John the Baptist and shepherds, then how is it good news for rich people like us?
The word our Lord gives to the angel to announce is that the invasion of Christ into the world is good news of great joy not for some people.
Not good news of great joy for the poor alone.
Not good news of great joy for the oppressed exclusively.
Not good news of great joy just for the humble or the hungry.
The word God gives Gabriel to deliver is that the arrival of Christ among us is good news of great joy for all the people.
All the people.
So, if Isaiah is right and Mary is right and John the Baptist is right, then how is the angel Gabriel right too?
How is Christmas good news for rich, proud, powerful people like most of us?
A few years ago the New York Times did a story about a black pastor named William James in East Harlem. The pastor, the article noted, was famous in his community for his work on behalf of the destitute and the downtrodden. The author of the article writes:
“The streets of the neighborhood are lined with storefront churches, as many as five on a block, and some of the ministers said it was difficult to get across the Christmas message of hope, joy, and celebration to those who have so little. But Reverend James disagrees. ‘The Christmas message,’ he said, ‘the good news to the poor, is that ‘you’re not going to be poor anymore.’ ‘That message is a lot easier,’ the pastor said, ‘than trying to get across the Christmas message to the rich that they’re not going to be selfish anymore.’
Notice what the pastor didn’t say to the Times reporter.
He didn’t say the Christmas message to the rich is “You shouldn’t be selfish anymore.” He didn’t say: “Empty your pockets, or else. Make yourself low lest you who are first be lost forever.” He didn’t even say: “Sinner, repent of your selfishness.”
He just said: “You’re not going to be selfish anymore.”
You’re not going to be like that anymore.
As though, it’s not up to us what will be done to us.
As though, you are at best a bystander to what will be done upon you.
What is promised by God through the prophet Isaiah, what prompts the God-bearer Mary to sing— it’s not simply a rearranging of the old order of things, with the poor and the rich changing stations in the old creation.
The Gospel is bigger and more radical than shuffling up tax brackets.
What the prophets promise and what Mary extols is God’s work of a New Creation begun in a New Adam born to another Eve. That’s why the angel Gabriel is the one to announce the news. Gabriel is the one who showed the First Adam and Eve the exit from Eden and stood guard by the entrance. Now, at the opening of a new testament, he announces the news of a new creation through a New Adam.
What the prophets promise and Mary praises is not condemnation for some (the rich and the powerful) and consolation for others (the poor and the powerless).
It’s not condemnation for some but consolation for others; it’s the transformation of all.
Just as God did at the Tower of Babel, the scattering of the proud and the powerful from their high places— the emptying of the rich— it is for their blessing. It is the work of God’s grace.
That’s what the prophet Isaiah is getting at in our passage from chapter 35 today.
Just as the desert will one day no longer be dry, just as the wilderness shall blossom and thirsty ground will become springs of water, so too the proud will become humble and the mighty will lie down with lambs and the rich will be made selfish no more.
The coming of God’s justice in Jesus Christ who is our Judge is not for the sake of revenge. It’s for the sake of the righteousness of God.
The prophet Isaiah’s poetry is unparalleled in scripture, maybe in all of literature.
Luke and Matthew have written us luminous nativity stories with which we love to costume our kids, yet neither the Christmas stories nor the prophets’ poetry are self-interpreting.
The meaning of Isaiah’s prophecies, the meaning of Luke’s nativity— it’s not self-evident in the poetry and stories themselves.
The creche by itself does not communicate the meaning of the Christmas manger.
And without the meaning of it, we’re just like the ladies in the hoop skirts at Mt. Vernon.
We’re just dressing up and rehearsing an old, old story once a year.
That’s why, historically, every Advent the church listens not only to the prophets and to Mary and John but to the Apostle Paul as well.
In other words, we need the Apostle Paul to tell us what the poetry and story mean.
And when Paul gathers up these images from the prophets, from Mary and John the Baptist— Paul announces that in the coming of Jesus Christ the righteousness of God has been revealed.
I am not ashamed of the good news of great joy, for in it the righteousness of God is invading, Paul says.
The free gift given in Christ Jesus to all is for the sake of God’s righteousness for all, Paul says. Even for the ungodly.
Justification— the righteousness of God— that’s what’s missing when we reduce the Gospel to a cliche like “God is love” or to a cliff note like “Christianity is about forgiveness.”
God is love and Christianity is about forgiveness, but love and forgiveness are too weak of words for what God does.
For St. Paul, and for Isaiah for that matter, the righteousness of God is absolutely central to their message, but it’s easy for us to miss the radicality of it.
I’ve told you all this before but Pat Vaughn swears you weren’t paying attention.
So, listen up: in Hebrew and in Greek, righteousness and justice and judgment and justification and rectification are all the same word.
It’s all the same word, and it functions as a verb.
God’s judgment is God’s justice, and God’s justice is God’s righteousness and God’s righteousness is God’s justification— it’s all God’s rectification; it’s all God’s work of right-making.
So when we profess in the Apostles’ Creed about Christ coming again “…to judge the quick and the dead…” we’re saying that he will come again to rectify not only the wrong in us but the wrong we have wrought in the world.
And when Paul declares: I am not ashamed of the good news of great joy for in it the righteousness of God is revealed, he’s saying I am not ashamed of the Gospel for in it the right-making work of God is revealed.
And when Paul preaches that we are justified by the free gift of the blood of Christ through faith alone, he’s saying that Almighty God is able to do mighty acts to make right in and through the one who trusts in the cross of Christ alone.
You see— the Gospel is about more than love and forgiveness.
God has forgiven all your sins, yes.
God loves you just as you are, double true.
But the God who comes among us as we are, who loves you as you are— he loves you too much to leave you as you are. He loves you too much to leave you forgiven and forgiven alone. Thanks be to God that God loves me as I am, but, God, I don’t want to remain as I am— my wife certainly doesn’t want God to leave me as I am.
I don’t want to be selfish anymore!
The righteousness of God— that’s the meaning behind the manger.
The God who already declared you righteous at your baptism is yet at work to make you what he has by grace called you.
God has been and God is and God will make right all that is wrong in his creation until all things are made new and one day even ungodly people like you and me are remade in the image of the New Adam, Jesus Christ.
That’s what that pastor in Harlem was getting at— the hope of the rich is not the rich person’s capacity to humble himself and make himself unselfish.
His only hope— our only hope— is that the God who justifies us will also one day rectify us. Make us right. And not only us…the wilderness and the dry land, the streams and the desert. All of creation.
For people like us, our hope— our only hope— is not that we will make ourselves humble and unselfish because someone exhorted us: Be more like Mary!
Our hope is that the God who invaded our world by an incarnation is a God who is advancing even now, determined not to let me have my own way forever.
God is at work— in the church.
God is at work, opening our blind affluent eyes to the need around us.
God is at work, unstopping our deaf ears to the cries of the oppressed.
God is at work, loosening the paralyzing grip greed has upon…me at least.
That Advent in Guatemala, after our weekʼs work was complete, the women of the village cooked a meal for us and thanked us.
These are women who, in their lifetimes, have been victimized by dictators and armed thugs. These are refugees whose people over generations have been displaced and pushed into mountains as their land was stolen by the rich. These are poor women whose husbands and sons either have been killed by civil war or are living as economic exiles here in the states or are being held in detention centers.
And there I was. Neither poor nor oppressed, already filled with good things.
Jasonʼs 17 year old mother was there. Out of her poverty, she gave me with a little tapestry sheʼd sewn. Then she embraced me and she said into my ear: “Merry Christmas.”
I opened the tapestry and looked at it.
She’d stitched the words to Mary’s song on it, including that last line about the rich being sent empty away. The tapestry shook in my hands. My knees suddenly felt feeble.
Like I’d just been swept off my throne.