Monday, January 04, 2016

Tender Mercy

Tender Mercy
Luke 1:46-55, 68-79[1]
If you’ve been listening to this year’s Gospel readings during Advent, you know already that the way Luke presents the birth of Jesus has an “edge” to it.  Zechariah’s sings at the birth of his son, John the Baptist, that will he prepare a people for the Lord to come.  His “preparation” for them would be to lead them into the “way of peace” (Lk. 1:79).  That may not sound “edgy,” but if you read on, you find that he was to do that by calling the people to repentance. And in his ministry, John would call the people to real, heartfelt, life-changing repentance.[2] Repentance that resulted in “bearing fruit worthy of repentance” (Lk. 3:8).[3] And he made it specific: those who had more than enough were to share with those who didn’t have enough, and those who had power were not to abuse it. That seems pretty challenging to me.
Mary’s song of praise has even more of an “edge” to it: we hear that one of the ways God’s work of restoration would come about is through the “Great Reversal”: the proud humbled, the powerful pulled down from their thrones, those who are stuffed go away empty-handed, while those who are disempowered are lifted up and those who are hungry are filled with good things (Luke 1:51-53).[4] Mary describes the overturning of the current system of destruction and oppression and violence by the ways of God’s kingdom: mercy, justice, and love.
There’s just no way to avoid the fact that there is a barb in the good news that God is working to restore the human family.[5]  That barb is this—those among us who flourish on the backs of others, those who wield power through violence of any kind will be overthrown and overturned.  It’s a message that may seem inappropriate for a Christmas Eve sermon. After all, this is a time when we’re supposed to feel good about ourselves. We come to Christmas Eve expecting to hear good news, not to be challenged.
But the truth of the matter is that we can’t have the one without the other. The Good News of the birth of Jesus is challenging. It confronts us and all of the ways we live that are contrary to God’s grace and mercy and love. And this contradiction begins with the fact that the one who is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Savior who will bring new life to the whole world, was not born in an ornate palace, but very likely in a cave that was used as a pen for livestock! Those of you who’ve been around livestock know what kind of place we’re talking about—not the sanitized version of the nativity we usually see! I think the reason for this is that in the birth of Jesus, God made it clear that he was doing something that was very different from the way our world works. And that’s the challenge we face—if we want to be a part of it, we have to be willing to change our ways to match up with God’s ways.
And yet, even here there is good news—the restoration that God promises is one in which some of us may suffer loss, but in the end we will all gain immeasurably more.  The future Mary and Zechariah looked forward to is a vision of the restoration of the whole human family.  Mary saw in the birth of her son the beginning of God’s saving plan that makes it possible to experience the joy and the vibrancy that God intends for us all.
What that means for those of us who are “full” and “rich” here and now is that the only way for us to sing Mary’s song with the same kind of joy—the joy of the “lowly” being lifted up—is if we actually work at lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry, and restoring those who are disenfranchised.[6] That was what Jesus came to do: God’s work of making all things new, of setting right the wrongs and lifting the burdens we all carry.  That’s why we celebrate Christmas.  It is a time for us to focus our attention on God’s work of healing this broken world.  It is a time of looking for the salvation that God has promised, and a time of singing for joy over what God is already doing among us.  And it is a time for us to join that work.
The Good News of Christmas is that we can look forward to something better than the violence and suffering and injustice all around us.  We can look forward to the kindness and generosity and compassion of our God being fulfilled for all the peoples of the world.  We have this hope because of the good news that in Jesus the Christ God has entered this world definitively to set everything right and to make all things new. It is this Good News, and the hope, peace, joy, and love it brings to us, that enables us to look past our fears and our hurts and our suspicions and view those around us with God’s compassionate love.[7] This joyful faith is what gives us energy to join in God’s work of transforming all creation by making a difference in our corner of the world.[8]
Jesus’ birth and life and death and resurrection constitute a challenge to the way we live our lives. We can no longer simply go about our lives wrapped up in our own concerns, ignoring the needs and suffering and hopes of those around us. We can no longer simply love those who love us back. We are called to give our lives away just as he did by loving others, all those we may consider other. But in the midst of that challenge that will very likely take all the faith, hope, and love we can muster, we can also remember that the birth of Jesus is Good News for us all. Because of that Good News we look forward to redemption, salvation, and forgiveness.  We can experience right now, in the midst of the difficulties of life, “the dawn from on high” through the “tender mercy of our God” that will bring the hope, peace, joy, and love God promises to us all (Lk. 1:78-79).[9]

[1] © 2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/24/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.2:461: “Μετάνοια [repentance] means a complete re-orientation, both inward and outward, of the whole man to the God who in a very real sense has turned to him in time. Πίστις [faith] means the unquestioning trust in this God which is the positive side of this re-orientation; the new life which is the only possible life after this event in the time which follows it.”
[3] Cf. R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreters Bible IX:87: “To say that we can never be worthy of God’s grace is to miss the point of John’s challenge. John calls instead for a change of life-style that reflects the genuineness of our repentance. Just as false love is not love at all, so also repentance that is not sincere is not repentance. There is an integrity to the repentant. … Their way of life, their priorities, commitments, personal relationships, passion for peace and justice, and their unplanned acts of compassion all give evidence of their compassion.”
[4] Cf. Ruth Ann Foster, “Mary’s Hymn of Praise in Luke 1:46-55,” Review and Expositor 100 (2003):451-463.  She says (p. 458), “Mary acknowledges God's mercy and love for the lowly and a radical reversal of normal human values in the coming messianic kingdom.”  Cf. also R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreters Bible IX: 55.
[5] Cf. Letty M. Russell, “God’s Great Reversal,” The Christian Century (Nov. 20, 1991): 1089.  She says, “God's great reversal may come too close to home as we hear that Christmas is about lifting up the ‘lowly,’ filling ‘the hungry with good things’ and ‘sending the rich away empty.’ Yet it is by joining in the their desire and work for deliverance that we find out the meaning of the good news of great joy.”
[6] Cf. Stephen Shoemaker, GodStories, 217-18: “There are only two ways you can enter the kingdom and experience its joy. One is to be among the poor, oppressed, bruised, blind, and brokenhearted; those to whom God comes as healing, comfort, justice, and freedom. The other way is to be among God’s people who are going to the poor, oppressed, bruised, blind, and brokenhearted and bringing God’s healing, comfort, justice, and freedom.”
[7] Cf. Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 62: “Only when we claim the love of God, the love that transcends all judgments, can we overcome all fear of judgment. When we have become completely free of the need to judge others, we will also become completely free from the fear of being judged.”
[8] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 338: “Faith can expend itself in the pain of love, ..., because it is upheld by the assurance of hope in the resurrection of the dead.
[9] Cf. Fred B. Craddock, Luke, 23-24, where he reminds us that Luke frames his account of the “new thing” God is doing in terms of “old stories” from the Hebrew Bible to establish a continuity in God’s work of redemption. He says (p. 24), “The new is at the door, to be sure, … . But for now, it is enough to be reassured that the new continues and fulfills the old, with the same God remembering covenants kept and making good on promises made.” 

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