Peace with No End: A Christmas Eve Sermon

Isaiah 9:2-7191-Van-Gogh-Starry-Nights-1

For unto us a child has been born…his authority shall grow, and there shall be endless peace.

Tonight, as we light the Christ-candle and remember the coming of Emmanuel – God with us – we are compelled to ask a simple question: what if? What if this child born in a manger many years ago has changed everything? What if our longing for peace, our hope for a new world is not in vain but rather as real as a child born to expectant parents, as a father embracing his wayward son?

We all yearn for a world without war and bloodshed. In light of the tragedy in Connecticut, we yearn for a world where children are not in danger from semi-automatic weapons and the perverse motives of the few. In light of the fighting in Syria, or the recent genocide in Darfur, or conflict in Gaza, or the ongoing skirmishes in Afghanistan, we hope for a world without military intervention, where tanks no longer roll over homesteads, where we no longer have to tolerate an acceptable amount of collateral damage or civilian casualties. Peace usually amounts to this: Lets take our instruments of violence and go home.

And so at Christmastime we sing songs about silent nights and peace on earth. But I wonder, what is it that we mean when we sing ‘peace on earth?’ Do we sing only of the end of war? Have our minds become so complicit in the dysfunction of our world that we can no longer imagine peace? Only the end of violence?

“For unto us a child is born…

Children are born every day into a world that lurches from crisis to crisis. They are a sign to us of a future. They are a picture of new possibility. For children are helpless and innocent. They know the face and voice of their parents almost immediately. They do not know what to do except to trust and as they grow, to explore. Children love with abandon. But they inevitably grow out of this. For as our children grow they learn to be less trusting and more careful. They learn to protect themselves and their hearts by withholding love, by excluding others, and by engaging in violence of their own. They become like us. And we call this loss of innocence maturity.

Inevitably, the hope we have for our children becomes mired in the same angst of the parents. The peace and possibility of a new life gets swallowed up by our crude world.

But what if a child was born whose entire life was a sign to us of a future? What if a child was born who did not only trust and love with abandon in the innocence of his first years, but who grew into maturity without learning the art of withholding love or excluding others for the sake of self-promotion? What if there was a child born to us who grew up and did not learn the ways of war or violence? What if there was a child born to us who grew up  and never learned to hoard his possessions, but who shared freely with any who had need, who looked out for the least of our brothers and sisters and took them in? What if there was a child born to us who never learned to hate his enemies, but rather learned to throw them dinner parties, and who responded to insults with love and compassion, to violence with the offer of forgiveness?

Would this child not upset the whole order of our world? Would this child not point to a wholly new way of picturing all of creation, such that we could never again speak of the survival of the fittest or taking an eye for an eye or of asserting my will by the point of a sword? Would not the kindness, compassion, and grace of this child simply shatter all that we have been led to believe?

Such a child born to us is the sign of a new world, a sign of a future that is trustworthy and good, that will come to pass. The Bible tells us in many places that this new world inaugurated by this child is characterized by peace or shalom. Shalom is an all-encompassing word that means the good life, it means wholeness, justice, reconciliation, and rest from all that ails us. It is the life we imagine and long for and yet never quite reach. It is the life of a new world; it is the life that this child grows up to demonstrate in the midst of this competitive, destructive, and fallen world.

The child grows up to be a man. We know him as Jesus. And he shows us that our pitiful and pitiable visions of peace ask for far too little. When we say “peace on earth” we really just want an end to war and violence and coercion. We are asking for a tylenol when we really should ask for the antidote.

But the tylenol is not peace. Peace is not only the absence of war or of conflict or violence. Peace is not just safety from that which might harm us. Rather, peace is presence, life, trust, love, rest. Peace is something real and material, not just the absence of bad stuff. Peace is as real as a child in a manger, as the embrace of a father for a wayward child. Peace is a new order made possible by this child who grows up to be king of a wholly unexpected kingdom, a kingdom characterized by shalom.

For unto us a child is born, and the government will rest upon his shoulders…and we will call him Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

As this child grows up, he begins to tell stories as a way of inviting us into this new order of shalom, of peace. In one instance, he tells us a story about a wayward son who acts hatefully and brings great shame on his father and his family. The son takes his father’s inheritance and spends it on disgraceful things. He ruins himself and he breaks his father’s heart. But the prodigal son runs out of money and hits rock bottom. In desperation he decides to come back to his father and beg for a job.

Any of us listening know the right thing for the father to do. In our understanding, the father must protect his own honour and shame the son. The son should be adequately sorry so that the father will not be taken advantage of again. Only after the son has payed for his crime could reconciliation be possible.

But the kingdom of shalom is surprising and different than we might expect. In the story that Jesus tells, the father sees the son coming, and goes running out the door to throw his arms around his son. By running, the father brings shame on himself. By throwing his arms around the son, the father takes upon himself the humiliation of the son so that he might again welcome his son into his family.

This is a picture what God is like.

This child born to us is the very presence of God – the father running toward the wayward son. In this child, God humbles himself so that we might again be restored into God’s family. In this child, in Jesus, God gives his own wealth, his own reputation, his own life so that we might again live. So that we might again be whole. And this is why our longings for peace are almost always too modest.

On the night that the Christ-Child was born, angels appeared in the night sky to announce his birth to shepherds. After telling of the birth, they began singing “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to humanity, upon whom his favour rests.”

And this is both the sign of peace and our confident hope that such peace is possible and real. This child is born to us as an unwavering sign that God’s favour rests on us.

This child, Jesus, grows up and remains with us even today because God so loves the world. And so we wait now for Jesus to come again and fulfill the work of peace that he has begun and pointed toward, for we know that shalom is not our doing, but the creative gift of God.

Tonight we rest in the loving arms of our God, for we know Emmanuel – God is with us. And we anticipate the fulfillment of God’s intentions for us and our world, when all things will be made new, when he will wipe every tear, when there will be no more war, when we will live in such communion with God that there will be no more need for the sun.

For unto us a child is born, and the kingdom of shalom will rest upon his shoulders…for his authority shall grow continuously, and there shall be endless peace.

Oh! Save Us from the Shopocalypse!

This Sunday is the first Sunday in Advent and last Friday was the official beginning of the Christmas shopping season. Funny how those two go together even while they inhabit different worlds. Advent marks a season of expectation and anticipation in the Christian calendar. In Theology of Hope, Jurgen Moltmann writes movingly about

Adventus as a core theological claim and posture. The God of Jesus Christ is the coming one; and so the whole posture of Christian theology is one of anticipation and expectation. To speak of God is to speak of one who comes as a disruptive surprise and also as a gift. It is to talk about a new future breaking into the crisis of the present. Advent is a season of expectancy. It is a season oriented and shaped by a world-altering Gift: Emmanuel. The coming of God, and the gift of God’s presence holds and shapes our attention in a way that can make us hopeful and present to ourselves, our world, one another, and God. Joy to the World. For the birth of a child discloses that our present is full of the Presence.

But there is a parallel universe. For when Black Friday rolls around, we also say that Christmas is coming. By this, of course, we mean that ‘Santa Claus is coming to town’ in the form of name brand clothing, robotic toys, jewelry, video games, even a new Lexus with a red bow-tie on top. It is a season marked not by the Gift, but by mountains of gifts that open up a yawning chasm, a fundamental absence. The Presence becomes buried in presents that will focus our attention for a few brief moments before their final resting place in the basement, garage, or landfill. If Advent marks the holding of our attention on the coming of God, Black Friday marks the complete disintegration of attention in the stream-of-consciousness demand for all that glitters. If Advent anticipates the novum – the breaking-in of the new – then Black Friday anticipates the nose job – cosmetic improvement while on the way to death. And yet, we have such trouble untangling one – Christmas as consumption – from the other – Christmas as expectant hope.

Last night, I watched a documentary called What Would Jesus Buy. It is now five years old, and is free on YouTube. The documentary traces the journey of ‘The Church of Stop-Shopping’ in their journey from New York to Los Angeles during the Christmas season. The group is a satirical Gospel Choir led by the charismatic Reverend Billy. They play off all the usual tropes of the traveling charismatic/pentecostal revival. They are not afraid of open-air singing and preaching. They observe Finney’s ‘New Measures’ by using the choir to stir up the crowd, building toward the moment when Reverend Billy will come running on stage with his perfectly styled hair, preacher’s collar, and his white traveling-evangelist suit. Reverend Billy’s message is full of ‘Hallelujah’s’ and ‘Amens’. As he works the crowd and works up a sweat, he performs exorcisms and is slain in the Spirit. Visually and aurally, it looks and sounds like a pentecostal revival in search of lost souls.

But rather than fixating on the usual forms of oppression, Reverend Billy exorcises the mastery of MasterCard and the demons of consumer desire. He rants against the barrage of the big box store and the seductive sensuality of the sale. In Billy’s world, we are caught in a destructive web of consumer demand and debt; the more we buy, the less satisfaction we have, and then the more we feel we need to buy.

As a documentary, the film feels a bit like a Michael Moore movie at times. It does not just use the form of the traveling evangelist to underscore a message, the film itself is evangelistic. It is full of claims about slave-labor supply chains for big box stores, it laments the loss of ‘Main Street America’ and encourages folks to buy local and to be informed about unethical business practices. In their world, the average American is enslaved by the multi-national corporation, so naturally Wal-Mart, Disney, and Starbucks become frequent targets. Few attempts are made to seek comment from those organizations they challenge, or even from commentators like Nicholas Kristoff of the New York Times who argues for a more nuanced approach to ‘sweat shops’ in the most impoverished parts of the world. (Kristoff, who is often a fierce advocate for human rights around the world, argues in a NYTimes editorial that in instances of extreme poverty sweat shops – though morally repugnant – are not a total negative, and so we should be careful to create policies that will not take away economic opportunity from the most vulnerable while still encouraging better work conditions.)

Like a ‘fire and brimstone’ preacher, Billy is long on sin and short on grace. Throughout the film, Billy acknowledges that he can articulate the problem but he’s uncertain of the solution. In one scene, he kneels down and prays for forgiveness to “The Great Unknown” (one of his names for God) while he is pumping diesel fuel into the bus they use to travel across the country. He recognizes his complicity in the system of oppression even as he seeks to call others out of it. In honest and frank moments in the film, he (and his companions) admit that they hope to simply cause people to stop, to pause, think, and begin asking questions. Like the ‘catcher in the rye,’ they don’t have much of a positive agenda except to help slow us down in our rush for the cliff.

I find this is often the problem with any of the usual rants on North American consumerism. After the financial crisis of 2008, we can all articulate the problem from the perspective of runaway debt and unsustainable borrowing. I think there is also a growing awareness of the ecological, societal, and spiritual consequences of runaway consumer desire. We are destroying ourselves, one another, and the earth. We are now much more aware of injustice in the supply chains for big box stores, and many of my friends and neighbors do attempt to buy and live local. And yet, we are inevitable hypocrites because we benefit from an entire system that is distorted and oppressive. We have no ‘pure’ or clean place to stand.

And so I find that many of our Christian attempts to ‘rescue’ Advent from Christmas consumerism tends to come across as a less winsome (and less humorous) version of Reverend Billy: all sin, no gospel.

Near the end of the movie, however, Reverend Billy stumbles upon a gospel for the indebted consumer. After ‘dedicating’ a baby in front of a Staples and declaring her free from consumer desire, Billy and his group sneak into Disneyland on Christmas Day under the auspices of a Brooklyn church choir. As they are staging a parade in which they announce Mickey Mouse as the Anti-Christ (and get promptly arrested by the police), the film cuts in and out of an interview with an observer of American culture. The observer says that Disneyland is the picture of the consumer-driven world. It is the Main Street America of our wish-fulfillment rather than reality. It is a place without clocks – where time does not exist – and where we can live in the past or the future but never the present. The past and future are open to my manipulation. I can shape them to meet and fulfill my desires. But the present is ‘other’ and beyond my control. It may or may not conform to my desires. I think that short explanation of Disney also clarifies the endless cycle of desire – like a hamster on a wheel – that drives our consumer addiction. As consumers, we can live in a false world of our own creation. But we must keep buying to sustain it. As such, we run from the demands of the present. Consumerism is a world without time.

In the final monologue, Reverend Billy picks up on this theme of the present and asks his congregants to give presence this Christmas rather than to buy presents. He refers to the Christmas story – that a child born to us will grow up to teach us peace – and claims that this hope is not an exclusively Christian one. In the end, Reverend Billy (who is not a reverend, and not necessarily a Christian) discovers Advent as gospel. This season is one of presence and being present as we anticipate the Gift that we cannot buy, manipulate, steal, or control, which comes as pure grace. But we can’t expect this, or live in light of it, unless we get off the carousel of consumer desire. Maybe stopping is gospel after all.