This week, we have seen the end of the Iraq war and the closing of the Ford Plant. The Iraq war marked a new and dangerous strategy in global warfare. It was a preemptive strike. Even though Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, no connection to the 9/11 attacks, still we struck them so that they couldn’t later strike us. This was done in spite of millions of people in the streets protesting such an unprecedented action. Now eight years later, hundreds of billions of dollars spent and hundreds of thousands of lives lost, the war is over. The Christian Science Monitor reported in October that the Iraq war has cost over $800 billion since 2003. That’s $3,000 per second for eight and a half years. The war is over and yet, we’re scarred in the aftermath. Now, we have to help the warriors come back and integrate into our world. We hold this as a part of our narrative, if we remember it.
The Ford Plant closed, like so many others around the world and across the nation. It provided jobs and security to thousands of workers over several generations. And now the workers join the ranks of the unemployed and there is another toxic property up for redevelopment. What does any of this have to do with Advent or Christmas? Maybe nothing, but Jeremiah reminds us that we cannot ignore what is happening around us if we are to be faithful followers of the story.
The first chapter of Jeremiah is an odd scripture to read on this last Sunday in Advent. And yet it speaks to the pathos of living a faithful life. The faithful life is nothing if it is not a constant process of discerning our purpose here on earth. Am I called to bring the good news, the bad news, or the comfortable news? Am I here to be a good parent, a good son or daughter, a good citizen? Am I here to be a thorn in the side of the system that does evil? To pluck up to tear down to build and to plant, like Jeremiah? Am I here to just survive one day at a time? Why are we here?
And even if you have found the purpose, there is always the temptation to take the easy way out. We live in a world where convenience is king and queen. Like my friend Dave who said at his engagement party to Jeff. Jeff loves to camp and rough it. Dave said, “Oy, my idea of roughing it is a slow waiter.”
We have machines to make thing easier. Machines to wash dishes, to cut wood, to even ride our bikes for us. Can’t we just push a button or hire a service to do the work of a Christian? Wouldn’t that be a great Christmas gift? A Christian convenience card.
We want the easy way out. We want to take it easy. Easy is a value. We don’t want to overstress anything. Stress is bad for you. Just relax and go along to get along. We can’t really imagine walking from Galilee to Bethlehem. It’s like walking from Hinkley to Minneapolis. Pregnant no less. Couldn’t there be an app for that?
Mary and Joseph were victims, marching to the beat of the drum of Quirinius governor of Syria. They, like everyone else, had to make the trek, like lemmings obediently doing what Caesar said to do. Even though they didn’t like doing it, it was easier than resisting. Resisting could get you killed. Resisting could set in motion a series of events that just might lead to the crucifixion of your offspring. What good parent would choose that for their child? I’m sure they considered saying “not me.”
They were in good company. Moses said, “Not me, I stutter too much”, at the burning bush. Jeremiah said, “Not me, I’m too young” at his call. Esther said, “not me, I’m a foreigner with no power”, when God placed her in the royal court ‘for such a time as this.’ With a laugh Sarah said, “Not me, I’m too old”, when she found out she was pregnant. Paul said “not me I’m too much a vile sinner with a bloodlust in my heart,” when he met the blinding light on the road to Damascus. Mary said, “Not me, I’m just a young unwed woman. I can’t do this. Can’t you pick someone better, wiser, more experienced, braver, more audacious? Not me. Please not me.” Jesus even said “Not me” from the cross, “take this cup away from me.”
Scripture is filled with stories of people declaring that they’re not good enough, not brave enough, not smart enough, not rich enough, not important enough to carry on the work of God. They have believed everything that had been told them. They had played their role perfectly and it caused them to do absurd things. It caused them to carry coins in their pockets declaring that Caesar is Lord. It caused them to walk 80 miles or more because that was what was expected of them. And to make it worse, as they walked those 80 miles, they saw along the way, trees hung with the bodies of people who stepped out of line. Crucifixion was a brutal death, but worse than the death was the fact that people were left up there to rot and have their flesh eaten by wild animals. It was a very effective way to remind people not to step out of line. With each step they passed, they said to themselves, not me. Don’t let me end up like them. Look down, keep your nose clean, follow the rules and you might live another day. How dare God come to Mary or any of us and tell us that we are to offer something different? It’s a death sentence. “Not me, please not me.”
Not me is what a lot of us say when faced with a challenge. We deflect, deny, even run away. And yet we are haunted by the abiding good news that taking a risk might bring. And so we come back to this Christmas season year after year, wondering about the risk that Mary took, the risk that Joseph took, the risk the wise men took, all to usher in the risk-filled life of Jesus.
God spoke a truth Jeremiah could not deny. The best part of the book is Jeremiah’s struggle with his sense of call. It’s his blatant and bare-knuckle arguing with God and his insatiable need to live with integrity.
If I say, ‘I will not mention God.
Or speak anymore in God’s name,’
There is within me something like a burning fire shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in and I cannot.”
This is the kernel of truth from God that is in our bones, all of our bones. It is the fire inside. It begs to come out. And when we feel like we are alone (and sometimes we are), we hear this word of assurance from God:
“Don’t be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.” Says YHWH(1:8). It was the only promise Jeremiah ever received in his life. He was abandoned by his friends and family. When he tried to stop preaching God confronted him again. God said: “Gird up your loins; stand up and tell them everything that I command you. Do not break down before them…I have made you a fortified city, an iron pillar, a bronze wall, against the whole land—against the kings of Judah, its princes, its priests, and the people of the land. They will fight against you; but they will not prevail against you, for I am with you to deliver you.”(Jeremiah 1:17-19)
Here’s the good news. If God can call an unwed mother from the sticks to usher in the heir of God’s presence on earth, then what is impossible for God? If God can call young, scared, inarticulate, lonely Jeremiah, what can God do with us? As George Williamson put it: “Jeremiah was crazy, anti-social, neurotic as a weasel, paranoid. He was impulsive, often exercising terrible judgment and an even worse temper. He alienated everybody, absolutely everybody. It is this man who late in his life can testify that God has said to him, “I know you. Since before you were born I know you. I know your craziness, your paranoia, know your neurosis, your temper, your manic-depressive tendencies and incurable unpopularity. I know your total inability to succeed at anything, your exhibitionism, your need to offend and to sabotage yourself. Since before you were born I know you. And it is you I choose.” (Jeremiah Go, September 9, 2001 FBC Granville)
That’s God’s response to our constant “Not me” tendency. We have all had to speak the truth when we don’t want to. It’s cost us, like it cost Jeremiah. And yet when we speak that truth, we connect with that higher power that restores us to sanity. It’s like we graft ourselves to another reality and we free ourselves from the shackles of self-doubt and shortsightedness and even naiveté.
Hear this, the miracle of Christmas is as much God inhabiting the person of Jesus as it is the audacious and brave response of Mary and Joseph and the wise men and the shepherds to break the rules, and prepare for something new and better. Like the prophets before them, they embraced the Good News of their call and the assurance of God’s presence.
Christmas is where we confront the “not me” impulse and try on the “sure me” shoes. We try on Mary and Joseph’s clothes and wonder about what might be gestating in ourselves. It’s the sure me shoes of Isaiah who said, “Here I am, Send me”.
This weekend, several of us got to meet with Roy Medley, the General Secretary of the American Baptist Churches, USA. He was in town to meet with churches doing ministry with Burmese refugees. He sang carols with us on Friday night. I got the chance to thank him for his courageous and thoughtful letter her wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as she visited Burma this past month. He called on her to urge the Burmese government to embrace human rights, ensure the religious liberty of the people and exercise justice and compassion for the Burmese Christian minority, the majority of whom are Baptists. I was proud of the prophetic stance that he took. It was a “Sure me” response to a horrific history of persecution.
What tidings of comfort and joy will you share? How can we enjoy peace on earth in this season? We are glad that a war has stopped, but for peace to break through, we need throughout the world equality, justice and respect without which peace is just a slogan. Jesus came so that we could embody peace, live it out with equity, encounter people with respect. When we respond, “sure me” to that call, the impulse to live in equity, respect and dignity, then Christmas has really come.
The Christmas miracle is the change from not me to sure, me. Sure us. We will work together to usher in the realm of God, along with some shepherds, wise folks and even an unsuspecting poor couple from up north. Sure, us together. That’s why we light candles. That’s why we ring bells. That’s why we pray. That’s why we give offerings. Sure me, “take my life and let it be consecrated God to thee. Take my moments and my days, let them flow in ceaseless praise.”
“Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light and usher in the morning. O shepherds shudder not with a fright, but hear the angel’s warning. ‘This child, now weak in infancy, our comforter and joy shall be, the power of Satan breaking, our peace eternal making.’”
Sure, me. Send me. I’m ready.