Well, as we've been mentioning, for the past few Sundays here, there are going to be hundreds of Afghan refugee families that are going to be resettled right here in Michigan in the coming weeks and months. And we at Douglas UCC have put together a task force in hopes of supporting and sponsoring one of these families. For as scripture instructs us, we are not only to welcome the stranger, but we are to provide aid and comfort to the foreigner that is in our midst.
And you may remember a few years ago, during the season of Advent, our denomination, the United Church of Christ, produced yard signs that we had out in front of the church. The yard signs said, “This Christmas, we remember that Jesus was a refugee.”
And we know from the story from Matthew 2, that is the truth. Jesus was a refugee. But we don't really want to think about that during the Christmas season, do we? We’d much rather think this season of much happier things. But the truth of the matter is the time and place into which Jesus was born, wasn't really a happy one. It was a time of great despair and fear and injustice.
I know we'd like to think of the Nativity as a pretty little story like something out of a Disney movie. But you know, Mary was a poor, dark-skinned, unwed, pregnant teenager. She was an outcast. So she and Joseph had to make a grueling journey by donkey -- remember, she was pregnant -- almost 90 miles from Galilee to Bethlehem, for their baby to be born.
And when they got there, no one would welcome them. No one would offer them assistance, no one would give them refuge. And so we know the baby had to be born in an animal stable.
Now, we all love our animals. But an animal stable isn't the most pristine way for a baby to be born. In fact, we hear the baby's bed was a manger, which is the trough from which animals eat their food.
Now again, I know we at Christmas want to take the nativity story, and we want to put like a sparkly bow on it, and think it was just this beautiful thing. And it was beautiful. But we have to remember the circumstances and the conditions.
And then of course, after Jesus was born, Jesus and Mary and Joseph had to flee into Egypt. They were fleeing the wrath of King Herod. Some biblical scholars say that the holy family lived in Egypt for two years. They had to go into foreign lands, where they were strangers. They didn't speak the language, the people there practiced a different faith than they did. Jesus was a refugee.
And how extraordinary is that? That of all the people in the world, God chose him to be the Prince of Peace. And that peace, of course, is what we're talking about this second week of Advent, with the second advent candle standing for peace, because that is what the people of Jesus's day were expecting the Messiah would bring them -- a Messiah who would bring them peace from an unjust political regime, a Messiah who would bring them peace from repressive political and oppressive religious authorities, and a Messiah who would bring them peace from an unjust societal structure that designated, who was in and who was out, who was clean and who was unclean, who was saved and who was unsaved.
That may have been the world in which Jesus is born. But Jesus came to usher in a different way, not the way of the world, but the way of the Lord. And that's why our lectionary reading for today for the second Sunday of Advent is all about John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, who's out in the wilderness proclaiming, “Prepare ye the Way of the Lord.” You all know, this song from Godspell.
But what is the Way of the Lord that we are preparing for? What is it? Well, the Way of the Lord is the exact opposite of the way of the world. So the way of the Lord is the way of inclusive love, unconditional love and acceptance. The way of the Lord is the way of peace. And the way of the Lord is the way of justice.
It's why John the Baptist is out there before Jesus begins his ministry. Remember, Jesus didn't begin his ministry until the age of 30. But before then his cousin John the Baptist is out there getting people ready. That's why he's saying, Make way for the way of God, clear the path, get rid of anything that's standing in the way of peace. Let's tear down all the walls and barriers that are standing in the way of justice. So prepare ye the way of the Lord.
Now, that's my question for you this morning on the second Sunday of Advent -- What are you doing this Advent season to prepare for the way of the Lord?
I mean, I love that you're decorating your house and putting up lights and baking Christmas cookies. That's so nice. But what are you doing to prepare for the Way of the Lord? What are you doing in the way of peace, love, and justice?
Now, a lot of Christian churches around the country this time of year, they put out the Disney version of the Nativity, on the lawn in front of their church, you know what I'm talking about. It's that lighted up white Joseph and Mary with the blonde hair and the blue eyes, and the smiley little Jesus. Okay. That's, of course, not what they looked like.
But you may remember two years ago, when there were children in cages at our nation's border detention centers, that some of our UCC churches put their nativity set inside of a cage. In fact, one of our UCC churches took the baby Jesus and put it in its own separate cage, separated and alone from Mary and Joseph.
And again, I know it's not what we want to focus on, during the Christmas season, we don't want to think about that. We want to think about much happier things. But the truth of the matter is that Jesus was a refugee. And that really is what the real Christmas story is about.
You know, Jesus would later tell his apostles, when I was hungry, you gave me something to eat. When I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink. When I was naked, you clothed me. When I was sick, you helped me, when I was in prison, you visited me. And the disciples said, “Rabbi, when did we ever see you any of those ways? We never saw you naked or hungry or in prison.” And Jesus said, “Whatever you did to the least of these in your midst, you did to me.”
So my friends, if we're really serious, this Christmas season, about keeping Christ in Christmas, and welcoming the Christ child this year, we have to care more for the least of these in our midst than we do our own self interests. And if we're really serious about preparing the way of the Lord, then we have to be about the work of peace and justice in the world. If we're going to prepare the way of the Lord, that means we're preparing for the coming of the kingdom, or as we in the progressive church call it, the “Kin-dom.” A world where all people are one, a just world for all.
Now, Jesus is not going to come back and do that for us. I told you last Sunday, it's not about the baby Jesus. It's about us. The Advent season is a time for us to prepare for the birth of the Christ light within us so that we can participate in the incarnation.
I loved the Words of Integration and Guidance this morning that Eric read for us from Reverend Lewis. She says all of us can participate in the incarnation. When we do justice, act mercifully, when we say the truth. When we help free the oppressed, These are all acts of incarnation, she says. In other words, the second coming of the Christ happens within us. But we have to make way for that, we have to prepare for it. We, like Mary, have to give consent, we have to say yes to becoming pregnant with the light. So that in this world full of darkness right now, we can give birth to the light, the light that will transform the world. That is the good news of this Advent season, that we the people, during this time of darkness, we've seen a great light. And we know that light is on its way and is born in us.
And so this Advent season, let us usher in that Light. Let us Prepare the way of the Lord. And let every heart prepare Him room.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration & Guidance
by Rev. Crystal St. Marie Lewis
I had been taught that Jesus was uniquely God, and that humans lacked the capacity to achieve such a powerful union with the Divine. This perspective had made Jesus so unlike me that I could hardly relate to him at all. It wasn’t until I realized that Jesus would likely not buy into the Christian tradition’s effort to turn him into a superman of sorts. He himself said that those who follow his example would do “greater things” than what had been recorded about him in the Gospels. I began to view the incarnation story as “myth,” which Saint Stephanus described as “something that never occurred, but is always happening” — and I found that the incarnation was more powerful for me than ever when read as myth. The incarnation is a process that we can all participate in. When we do justice, act mercifully, stand up for the truth and fight to free the oppressed, those are acts of incarnation. Those acts are acts of embodied love, and where there is love, there is God. I no longer view Christmas as a commemoration of the day when a cosmic superman came to Earth. I now understand Advent as a time of renewed focus and commitment to the lifestyle exhibited by Jesus. During Advent, I try to determine if the Spirit of God is found in the way I live my life. Am I bringing justice, healing, mercy, love and acceptance to the world? And more importantly — Am I standing for truth? The story of God “coming down” to Earth reminds me that this world matters. For me, the narrative about Jesus being “born of a virgin” is now a symbol for how the Creator’s will for justice and mercy can be carried out by people of all walks of life, regardless of their social status, gender or age. And the miracles remind me that anything is possible in a world where people are willing to unselfishly empty themselves. I find this understanding of the incarnation more life-giving than any Christian doctrine I have ever known, and I am grateful for the change in perspective.
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