Advent 4 & Christmas Eve 2017
I love the Christmas story. The whole thing. The timid young Mary, the gracious and loving Joseph, the mysterious angels, the star struck Magi, the donkey ride, the camel trek, sheep and shepherds and the humble stable birth. I love it all. And as we gather this evening, on this Christmas Eve, I hope you will fall in love with this story too. Because tonight, we’re all welcome to close our eyes and become immersed in narrative; we’re invited to use our imaginations. And we’re encouraged, as we once again read and sing our way through the story of Christ’s birth, we are encouraged to see and taste and smell and feel what it might have been like to be in that place, in that moment. And finally, as we dim the lights this evening, and allow the words of Silent Night to seep into our souls, we’re all welcome to once again recognize that the Christ-child dwells within and around all of us. And that the spark of the Divine; the very presence of God through the Spirit, is longing to co-journey with us as we attempt to negotiate this world.
So, bearing all of this in mind, I chose the most Christmas-ey text I could think of this evening: Psalm 96. Psalm 96? Wouldn’t, I don’t know, um, Luke 2 or even Matthew 1 be more appropriate? Well, yes, and we’ll get to those later in the program. But this Psalm, along with several others, holds some very important background information as we think about the birth of Jesus tonight.
So, Psalm 96. This beautiful poem begins by describing a “new song.” But by “new song” the author doesn’t mean we’re going to sing a tune that has never been heard before, but rather that the hearer’s world is about to change. The Psalmist’s “new song” is the beginning of a new era in history; specifically, the Reign of God and what that Reign might look like.[i] You see, rather than an earthly king as sovereign over Israel, the Psalmist looks to God to fill that role. And this might seem obvious to us, but in the Ancient Near East, people gained their protection, their livelihood, prosperity, and any sense of justice by giving total allegiance to the king who ruled over their city or district. Being subject to the ruler guaranteed their safety and their way of life. But if you traveled outside your own city or district, you were immediately at the mercy of a different ruler, one who may or may not look favorably upon you. Such was life for the people of Old Testament times.[ii]
Okay, bear with me here, I’m getting to Christmas. I promise.
Now, the contracts that insured this way of life have, over time, become known as Suzerainty treaties. You see, each of these kings, or Suzerains, a fancy name for the king, had a twofold contract or agreement with the Emperor who ruled over all the lands. And the contract was really very simple. First, each king was expected to give full allegiance to the Emperor, and second, they were not allowed to declare war on another kingdom under the rule of the Empire. Complete loyalty to the sovereign and no fighting with your neighbors. This became the formula for all contracts, or covenants. So, when Psalm 96 was penned, it had this implicant understanding of covenant looming in the background.
But what did that covenant between God and humanity look like in real time? Well, using some beautiful imagery the author paints for us a picture of how this covenant might be lived-out. First, complete loyalty to the ruler, i.e., God. “Declare God’s glory among the nations;” the Psalmist writes, “declare God’s wondrous works among all people because the Lord is great and worthy of praise. Tell the nations, ‘the Lord rules!’”
And second part of the covenant, the part that leads us back to Christmas, is a desire for peace and justice among nations; this is the getting along with our neighbors’ part. Again, the words of the Psalmist, “God,” he says, “is coming to establish justice on the earth, establish justice in the world rightly, and establish justice among all people fairly.”
And that, my friends, is the essence of the incarnation. God chose to come into this world, humbly, as Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” And God came with a mission. God’s mission, Jesus’ ministry, was all about establishing justice on earth, rightly, and seeing that is was administered fairly.
But, on a more nuts and bolts level, how would this justice live-on after it was established? Well, Jesus’ answer harkens back to that suzerainty understanding of covenant. Loyalty to the ruler, God, and peaceful coexistence with our neighbor. In Jesus’ words: Love God with your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. That’s the essence of God’s justice. That’s finally the meaning of Christmas.
And that’s our calling tonight, in the coming year, and beyond. We are called to become co-establishers of this reign of justice. We are challenged as a community of faith to be the hands and feet, the heart and voice of God in this world. How? By standing up to injustice, by becoming a voice for those who have been silenced, by feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, visiting the lonely, and by remembering the forgotten.
This Christmas Eve, my friends, here in this service, as the cherished words of Silent Night seep into the very depths of your being, and these candles turn darkness into light; my prayer for all of us is that we will take our love for this story, and translate the love into a “new song.” A new song hope, and healing, and faith. A new song that ushers in a new era of justice and truly establishes that “peace on earth and goodwill to all” that we so desperately desire and need in the world today. A new song, my friends, that bends us toward justice; toward God. May it be so. Amen and Merry Christmas!
[i] Samuel Terrien. in The Psalms: Strophic Structure and Theological Commentary
(Grand Rapids: Eerdman. 2004) pg. 924
[ii] Nancy DeClaissé-Walford. Commentary on Psalm 96 (http://www.workingpreacher.org)