December 2009

by Pastor Marty

My 27 month old son Malakai loves books. The first thing he wants in the morning and the last thing he wants at night is to sit on our lap and plow through several books. Currently, he’s in the Christmas spirit with favorites about Jesus’ birth. Perhaps it’s because they are kids’ books, but all of the Christmas books we read to him focus significantly on the presence of animals at the birth of the Christ child. In one, “Old Ox” welcomes all “little ones” into his stable for warmth and safety. In another, the cattle guard the baby Jesus while Donkey warms Mary. In still another, each animal is in turn pictured as presenting the baby a precious gift similar to the wise men.

All of these stories can be attributed to “artistic license,” as Scripture does not include the literal presence of animals by Mary’s side while she delivered the Christ child. (Nor, for that matter, is there ever mention of a stable, or the location of Jesus’ actual birth!). However, there is a longstanding tradition to include the animals like the HMC Christmas choir who sang, “Ox and ass before him bow…” This tradition may have its genesis with St Francis of Assisi, the 12th century lover of animals who was the first to create what we know of as the nativity scene complete with animals, stable, shepherds, parents, magi, and baby Jesus. This picture is a mash up of all the stories spread throughout the gospels alongside a fair bit of creative license. Francis loved animals and nature, and one day, while Francis was traveling with some companions, they happened upon a place in the road where birds filled the trees on either side. Francis told his companions to “wait for me while I go to preach to my sisters the birds”. The birds surrounded him, drawn by the power of his voice, and not one of them flew away. Francis spoke to them:

My sister birds, you owe much to God, and you must always and in everyplace give praise to Him; for He has given you freedom to wing through the sky and He has clothed you… you neither sow nor reap, and God feeds you and gives you rivers and fountains for your thirst, and mountains and valleys for shelter, and tall trees for your nests. And although you neither know how to spin or weave, God dresses you and your children, for the Creator loves you greatly and He blesses you abundantly. Therefore… always seek to praise God.

No one knows for sure if animals were present at Jesus’ birth. But I, like Malakai and Francis, love to think they were! I love the picture of all creation praising God at the birth of the baby Savior! Creation praises God throughout the Psalms, in Joel, Amos and Revelation. And at one point in his ministry Jesus declares, “If these people were silent then the stones would cry out!”

And so, with a little artistic license, I invite you to take time this Friday (Christmas day) to be like the animals. Set aside time for family, for food, for presents and fun. But also set aside some time to worship God and Christ the newborn king. Pull out an old hymnbook and sing some songs together (we do that quite a bit at our house, and no one seems to mind when we’re off tune!). Read the Christmas stories from Scripture (Luke 2:1-20; Matthew 1:18-2:18; Psalm 148) and reflect silently for several minutes. Jot down a list of things that would be missing from your life and the world if Christmas had never happened. Attend a worship service at a local church near your home. Try a breath prayer: sit quietly for 15 minutes and, as you breathe in say to yourself “Immanuel”; as you breathe out think “God with us.” Find a way to worship that fits your personality, gifts, and mood. And by all means, do it with your dog laying peacefully on your lap! In all that you do this Birthday, be like the animals: Be awestruck at the glory of God in Christ!

The heavens and the angels, the sun, moon, and stars, all that dwell in the sea, and the mountains, and the air, all people, men and women, young and old, wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds,“Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 148).

ADVENT 2009:Visions for Peace-Plans for War

Tuesday night’s Presidential address did little to keep me in the Advent spirit. Plans to escalate war fly in the face of everything I believe is at the core of Christmas, and at the core of what our world needs.

The New Testament calls on various Old Testament texts in order to interpret the meaning of Jesus birth. Strangely these texts have nothing to do with generosity or the mental gymnastics necessary to believe its better to give than receive. No, the New Testament almost univocally pulls on texts that promise justice and peace, deliverance from real-world oppression, an upside-down kingdom, and political-economic-spiritual “light” – a new and better world for all as defined by God. The New Testament supplements those Old Testament readings with its own interpretations of the birth that sharpen the contrast between the President’s plan. “Peace on earth among those whom God favors (Luke 2:14).” “God sent his son into the world…that we might love one another (1John 4:7-12).” “The word became flesh… and was full of grace and truth (John 1).”

On top of both of those accounts, the Christian church for 2,000 years has pulled various Old Testament texts to highlight the Messianic expectation of God’s people. These texts are a highlight reel of what they expected when Messiah (who turned out to be Jesus) finally came. Consistent with the two categories above, peace, justice, love, the upside-down kingdom are mentioned throughout our history of Advent. Perhaps my favorite of these is Isaiah 11:1-10, one of the grandest and most fascinating pictures of God’s kingdom ever! Isaiah’s picture of wolves and lambs together is an extraordinary picture of how the world will look when God answers the prayer: “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10).”

As the President spoke directly into the faces of future soldiers who will die for his war plans, I found myself begging instead for the words of Isaiah 11:9: “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of God.” And what is this knowledge of God that Isaiah tells us about? That “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together (11:6).” The message of Advent/Christmas is not security based on military might; nor is it the President’s catchy twist of words that “right makes might.” Violence under any name is still misguided, and ill-equipped to accomplish the necessary ends for Afghanistan or any region. Isaiah counters the “myth of redemptive violence” with his promise the coming Christ-child will overcome evil with his word of righteousness, faithfulness, and peace. Righteousness as pictured in the Old Testament is “the right ordering of the world according to God’s intention, with a special bias toward the poor and the outcast (John E. Toews, pg 401).” Proper ordering of Afghanistan does not include more war or a longstanding imperial presence. It includes faithfulness in relationship and nonviolence that leads to love of enemies. “When we hear the good news of the love of God,…our response includes… placing full trust in God alone…When we who once were God’s enemies are reconciled with God through Christ, we also experience reconciliation with others (Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, Article 8: Salvation).”

This is an extraordinary voice this Christmas season! This is what we are called to be about. As the body of Christ, our fellowship is a foretaste of this vision, our worship is designed to celebrate it, our Christian education must be about forming people to be the type of people who work for this vision, our outreach works to spread it, and our giving is directed towards this end!

But this Advent vision was alarmingly absent from the President’s plan. The President sadly chose not to listen to the strategy of Isaiah but rather to listen to his war council.  He erroneously chose to believe one story over another: the story that proclaims violence can and does solve our problems.

But, as Christians, that is not our story.

Ours is the only story that can “win” in Afghanistan.

This Christmas, I grieve violence done in our name. I grieve that we are not creative enough to think of new and different plans. I grieve our inability to read the history of violence as being woefully deficient. I grieve our incalculable spending for destruction and our petty spending for development. I grieve the loss of life in American and Afghan families. I grieve that the church has yet to muster up a nonviolent training program (Isaiah 2:4 says that when Messiah comes they “shall not learn war anymore”) to rival that of Westpoint. But mostly, I grieve that another story besides that of Jesus birth has so captured our attention again this year that once again we will miss hearing the angels song: “Peace!”

I pray that you would believe Christmas is more than generosity and more than a miraculous virgin birth. Much moreso, it is the birth of a miraculous picture of the world as it should be! This Christmas, may we all come to more deeply believe in the proper ordering of our world as Isaiah saw it, and the story of peace that Scripture so boldly proclaims. Will you join me in this prayer for “righteousness”:

Your kingdom come, your will be done, in Afghanistan as it is in heaven. AMEN

Advent Prayer
Mary’s Song-
can we sing it on a bleak mid-winter midnight
while we wait for good news
and the wars just get worse
and the children keep dying?

Is the Child winning the battle
and we just can’t see well enough?

But we can pray- that the hope of the world
keeps being born in us
and God will do the rest! AMEN

Words for Worship 2, #175 by Linea Reimer Geiser.