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Sermon: Olivewood and Guns. December 16, 2020

December 16, 2020

This sermon was preached at Morning and Evening Prayer for Advent on Wednesday, December 16, at Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, IL. The image is olivewood from Bethlehem, but this was not purchased by me. It was a gift from my mother, who made it to the Holy Land before I did. Be well, friends. You are loved.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace this day in the name of God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. Olivewood and guns. Those are the things I remember. Oh, certainly not the only things I remember from my day in Bethlehem three years ago. I remember well the Church of the Nativity, dating to the fourth century, and the Grotto beneath, where Jesus was born. God’s own Son, our Savior and Messiah, born in that spot. What a wonder to stand where heaven’s joy broke into this moribund world, light and life streaming through. Yet the day was bookended by olivewood and guns. Olivewood, because after we had spent our time at the birthplace of Jesus, we had the opportunity to view and purchase beautiful, hand-carved olivewood pieces. These were not mere trinkets of the Holy Land, but artful reminders of our Lord’s Incarnation. And guns. Guns, because when our group stepped off the bus from Jerusalem to Bethlehem that morning, we found ourselves subtly and suddenly surrounded by security guards. Four, maybe six, security guards with guns slung across their back. Certain details of this moment are crystal clear while others are amorphous. I don’t recall what about that day necessitated extra security. And this sermon is not an exploration of the politics of the conflict, past or present, in Israel and Palestine. That conversation, as important as it is, is for another time. The salient point, at least for me, is that I walked from a bus to the birthplace of Jesus surrounded by men with guns. The olivewood carvings I brought home with me have become treasured possessions, but it is my memory of the guns of Bethlehem that will never leave me. I’m not suggesting they should or should not have been there; the world is a complicated, broken place. I’m just saying that going to the birthplace of Jesus surrounded by armed men was an incongruous experience.
  2. Incongruous, but not unusual. Our sinful world has been out of sync with the God of grace and love since we brought sin and its attendant violence into the world. These well-known words from the prophet Micah, speaking of peace, were first spoken in a time of war. The Assyrian Empire had conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Judah, ruled by Hezekiah, was pushed to the brink. Sennacherib, king of Assyria, had taken hold of forty-six strong cities and many smaller towns, and laid siege to Jerusalem. No doubt hoping for an oracle of strength, a promise of power, they instead get Micah’s words: “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule.” From little Bethlehem, from where David, the littlest son of Jesse, was born. And what shall this new, ancient ruler do? Conquer and subdue? No. “He shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,” and “he shall be the one of peace.” In the midst of terror, war, and insecurity, God’s promise is peace. Peace, for that matter, that comes from places that are littlest and least expected.
  3. Hezekiah would stave off disaster for a time. He was a good king and faithful. But war and violence, uncertainty and insecurity, sin and death did not go away. Our fears and despair do not go away easily, either. But the promise of Bethlehem endures. While we give ourselves up to sin and death, Micah’s promise is that this shall end when “she who is labor has brought forth.” Or translated a bit differently, we will be delivered up until she delivers. And through her delivery, we shall be delivered. Micah helps us see hope in the midst of despair and disaster. Micah points to a future, and what a future it is! Food in abundance and peace for the people; a return from exile and security that comes not from earthly power or the threat of violence against others but from the very presence of the Lord.
  4. In little Bethlehem, city of David, the promise is fulfilled. Suffering under oppression and the constant threat of violence from Rome, Joseph and Mary go to be counted. And Mary – faithful Mary, carrying all of God’s promises, all of Israel’s hopes, within her womb – Mary delivers. And we are delivered. The Christ, whose origins go back not simply to David but to the eternal begetting of the Father, is born for us through Mary. In today’s devotion from Small, Dancing Light, Terry York evokes the well-loved hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”:
  5. “How wonderful it is to deposit our hopes and fears in the person of Christ. Fully God, fully human: angels sing and bow in mid-air above a baby that needs an earthly mother to keep it alive. Revelation and mystery live side by side as closely as do hopes and fears, and that’s encouraging because these opposites are present in us. Jesus redeems humanity from the manger as much as from the cross: wooden bookends that encase our story.”
  6. Olivewood and guns. I can’t speak with any certainty as to what sort of wood the manger was; it may not have been wood at all. No matter. When in the fullness of time God chose to enter this world, God comes in a manger, not with guns. With peace, not war. As a baby born in backwater Bethlehem, not one born to privilege, power, and wealth. As a king whose glory is found through giving that glory away, first in the manger, and then, finally and fully, upon the cross.
  7. Come, friends. The journey is almost complete. Advent draws us to Bethlehem once more and invites us to peek into the manger again. Bring with you your hopes and fears, your anxiety and pain, your yearning for a better world. Come, and lay down your weapons of malice and hate, of sin and selfishness. Come, soon, and see this One foretold by Micah: the newborn King, the Ancient of Days, the Good Shepherd, the hope for this world. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

And now may the peace that passes all human understanding keep you hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.

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