Friday, December 20, 2019

Impeachment and the Song of Mary

He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; 
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 
He has brought down rulers from their thrones 
but has lifted up the humble.  
-Luke 1:51-52 (NIV)

This year, as Christmas closes in, for the third time in American history the House of Representatives has voted to impeach a President. For the third time in our history, a President will stand trial in the Senate.
     Like most Presidents, I suppose, this one has been polarizing. Presidents often inspire both blind love and irrational hatred, and arguably to a degree that far exceeds their actual importance. A presidency is best evaluated, probably, by historians who weren’t alive during its span. Whichever side of the aisle you fall on, though, and even if you don’t much care about politics, when a majority of the House votes to impeach it’s not a good day. It doesn’t seem like something either side should celebrate, even those who think the President is unfit for office. At best, an impeachment is a necessary but unpleasant duty. At worst, it’s a campaign tactic.     
     The fact that all this is happening before Christmas is reminding me, though, of what those of us who celebrate the significance of Christ’s birth actually believe. And maybe we need reminding. Because maybe we’re too quick to believe that it’s a President — or his downfall — that will ultimately ensure safety, security, and prosperity for ourselves and those we love.
     After the angel Gabriel visits Mary, the gospel of Luke attributes a song to her. We usually call it the Magnificat, after the first word in the Latin Vulgate New Testament. In the song, Mary glorifies God and celebrates having been chosen to give birth to Jesus. But she also sings about one other thing, something that I think is especially appropriate this Christmas as the news talks impeachment and maybe we worry about the divided state of our country.
     Mary believes that what God will do through the child she’s bringing into the world is the same brand of “mighty deeds” that he’s always done. And she lists those mighty deeds:
He has scattered those whose pride wells up from the arrogance of their hearts
He has brought down the powerful and lifted up those in humble circumstances
He has filled the hungry with good things and has sent the rich away empty
Between his mother and his Father, I guess it’s no surprise that Jesus made promises like, “the first will be last, and the last will be first,” or “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled,” or “those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Jesus’ conviction that the kingdom of God would overturn the values of every earthly kingdom was literally part of his DNA. It was baked into him from the womb.
     What we’re saying when we glorify the Lord for the birth of Jesus is that none of the values upon which we human beings typically build kingdoms, and by which we defend them, are the ones that God cares about. More than that, we’re saying that the values of human kingdoms are more typically antithetical to his kingdom. Pride in accomplishment, belief in our own strength, the ideas that might makes right and that the wealthy are more important than the poor — human kingdoms from the dawn of time have existed on those principles. But God is continually acting in history to scatter the proud, bring down the powerful, lift up the humble, fill the hungry, and empty out and toss away those who flaunt and hoard their wealth.  
     I’m not saying that the impeachment of our current President is God’s work. Neither do I know that it’s not. What I am saying is that those of us who believe in Jesus believe that God will lift up and bring down rulers until Jesus returns. I’m saying that our hope doesn’t depend on a King, or even a President. I’m saying that no kingdom is free from God’s judgment or essential to our well-being — not even the American kingdom. I’m saying that maybe we should be concerned a little less this Christmas about the powerful playing their power games and more about embodying God’s care for those in humble position. I’m saying that the truly important things in the world aren’t happening in Washington, D.C., but in our churches, homes, offices, and neighborhoods — wherever people who believe in Jesus and are energized and led by his Spirit make good on his mom’s promise that he will fill the hungry with good things.
     People turn to Presidents and Senators and Congressmen because they need hope. They need reassurance. They need to know that their voices matter and that they don’t have to be afraid and that, one day, they’ll have what’s missing from their lives. Well, God can and has used — and certainly still is using — those with political power to help people. But in the birth of Christ he told us that political power is just one tool that he uses, and that those he puts into power will also be taken down. God’s people are saved because God is merciful, and for no other reason. 
     And the form God’s mercy ultimately took was that of a baby in an animal shelter in a little town so far away from the important people and places that it was still called The City of David a thousand years after David sat on the throne.        
    The truly important things in the world — the things of ultimate significance and relevance to every person on earth — aren’t happening in Washington, D.C., this Christmas. Just like, on that night Bethlehem, they weren’t happening in Rome or Jerusalem. They were happening in Bethlehem, known only to a young working-class couple, her cousin and (somehow) her baby, a few shepherds, and group of astrologers from the East. Oh, and known to a numberless host of angels, and to a Father who was remembering to be merciful to his people.
     And he still remembers, even today. Long after the impeachment trial is over, long after these events are known only in history books, his mercy will remain. And so will the hope that was born when his mercy and powerful Word was given flesh. When everything about this presidency — and America itself — is a distant memory, Jesus will still be giving birth to that hope in the hearts of men and women. 
     Look for what matters this Christmas. It won’t be what most everyone thinks it is. 

     Look for what matters, and be a part of it.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Christ in Christmas

         The people walking in darkness 
have seen a great light; 
on those living in the land of deep darkness 
a light has dawned….
           For to us a child is born, 
to us a son is given, 
and the government will be on his shoulders. 
And he will be called 
  Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, 
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 
-Isaiah 9:2, 6 (NIV)

A Chattanooga, Tennessee, resident is really shining this Christmas.
     Chattanooga — where, it happens, I grew up — is the home of Miguel Wattson. Miguel lives at the Tennessee Aquarium. He’s an electric eel (Watt-son…get it?), and the Aquarium is making use of his unique talents to light up a Christmas tree near his tank. The AV Production specialist hooked up some sensors to Mr. Wattson’s tank, and his shocks — which he emits when he’s looking for food — cause the lights on the tree to flash on and off with varying degrees of brightness and power speakers that create sound effects. 
     The Aquarium had a tree-lighting ceremony last week that they called — bad pun alert — “Shocking Around the Christmas Tree.”
     One of the things I like about Christmas — and, in fact, the other holidays celebrated this time of year — is that light is an important tradition. Maybe it’s because it gets dark so much earlier this time of year, at least in this hemisphere. It’s nice, though, to drive through my neighborhood and see the lights strung on houses and bushes and trees, lighting up yards that are normally dark by 4:30. 
     Lights are certainly an appropriate symbol for Christmas, more so even than Santa Claus, Christmas trees, reindeer, or stockings hung by the chimney with care. Looking forward through the centuries, Isaiah saw a “great light”coming to illuminate people walking in darkness. He located that light in a child to be born, a child who would lead his people by relieving them from their oppression, taking away their burdens, turning war into peace, and establishing a new world of justice and righteousness.
     I know, most of us string lights without thinking of all that. We put them up thinking that they look pretty, or that they make us feel happy, and that’s fine. Putting them up might even be just one more chore we have to check off our Christmas to-do lists, in between buying gifts and baking cookies for the office Christmas exchange.      
     The problem is that a symbol that no longer connects to its meaning isn’t really a symbol anymore, is it?
     It’s hard to deny that something like that has happened with Christmas. Originally a feast day to mark the birth (or baptism) of Jesus, Christmas through the centuries kind of soaked up other celebrations and traditions. We sometimes decry the commercialization of Christmas in our age, forgetting that the industry built around the conglomeration of holiday traditions and gift-buying that we celebrate today arguably began in the 19th century. The early church wouldn’t have recognized the idealized Dickensian Christmases of 200 years ago any more than they would have recognized the multi-holiday winter celebrations of today. That isn’t a problem; there’s a lot about our world two thousand years later that the early church wouldn’t recognize. It’s just a fact. 
     Some Christians today think that we’re being persecuted if we’re not allowed to celebrate Christmas just like the Cratchetts in A Christmas Carol. But those Westernized Christmases of two hundred years ago were not necessarily any more Christian than our celebrations today.  Some Christians just choose not to be a part of the commercialization of the Holidays, effectively conceding to Santa Claus. More of us just kind of roll along with the current, putting up our trees and buying our gifts like everyone else, and occasionally remembering that, somehow, we need to “keep Christ in Christmas.”
     Which brings me back, somehow, to Miguel Wattson.
     If we want to keep Christ in Christmas, I really don’t think it’s going to be by going back in time to the good old days when every town square had a nativity scene and everyone said “Merry Christmas” to everyone else. Neither, obviously, are we going to keep Christ in Christmas by giving in to the impulse to max out all our credit cards and make Christmas into nothing more than a retail bacchanal. (Some predict Americans will spend $1 trillion on Christmas this year.) 
     To keep Christ in Christmas, look to the Christmas eel of Tennessee. Miguel Wattson is using what the Lord has given him to light his corner of the world this Christmas. If an eel can do it, so can we.
     “You are the light of the world,” Jesus told his disciples. Paul called the church “the body of Christ.” The light of Christ is generated in our world — if it’s generated at all — by people who follow him. That light that dawned at his birth on all those people walking in darkness dawns in our world when Christians live like he taught us to live and are busy doing the things he told us to do. Yes, it really is that simple. 
     So as the Holidays begin this year, you might ask yourself what the Lord has given you that you can use to light up the corner of the world that you inhabit. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. It won’t necessarily come in the form of an extravagant gift, or a perfectly set table, or a stylishly decorated home. The light of Christ is best seen in the dark places, so perhaps that’s where you should let the light he’s given you shine. Shine it where people are hurting, where they’re full of sorrow and regret and grief and pain. Shine it where people are lonely. Shine it by including in your celebrations those who otherwise would be sitting alone in empty apartments or houses. 
     Keep Christ in Christmas by making a giving list instead of a gift list. By serving instead of being served. Keep Christ in Christmas by forgiving those who have hurt you, and by asking for forgiveness from anyone you may have injured. Keep Christ in Christmas by being an agent of peace on earth, not just a recipient. Light up  your world with acts and words that glorify God, lift up Jesus, and proclaim the gospel.
      You might even create more light than Miguel Wattson. 

     I wouldn’t be shocked.