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Monthly Archives: December 2011

At Upper Room, we’re developing a tradition of sharing God’s Word through poetry instead of sermons on special holidays. (For a recent example, see Mike’s poem from this year’s Christ the King Sunday.)  Since it’s my turn to preach for Christmas Eve tonight, I’m following suit and sharing a poem which I wrote this week based on the lectionary texts for tonight: Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2:11-14, and Luke 2:1-20. The title and theme of the poem come from Titus 2:11, “For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people.” In order to preserve the formatting, I’m sharing the poem here in a PDF: “The Grace of God Appeared“.

Merry Christmas!

I went Christmas caroling two nights ago with a group of people from Upper Room’s partner congregation in Greenfield. It was delightful, despite the fact that it was freezing out and by the time we finished I couldn’t feel my fingers. For an hour we walked up and down the streets of Greenfield, singing songs about Christ to whomever answered their doors.

Midway through the night, it hit me just how radical and subversive this gesture of holiday cheer actually was. We were singing lyrics like “Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day to save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray.” At any other time of the year, in any other way, if you knocked on someone’s door and told them they had gone astray and were under the influence of the devil, you would have a door slammed in your face. Knock on a door to announce the reign of a king who transcends all earthly authority and people will think you’re mad. Knock on a door to invite people to come adore with you a baby you think is God, and you’ll at least get some raised eyebrows. But sing it in a Christmas carol, and people smile and thank you.

I noticed a similar phenomenon this morning when I was working at the cafe.  We had the radio playing Christmas music, and every other song was singing truth about Jesus loud and clear enough to offend anyone who would actually listen closely. But no one complained. Is it because they weren’t really listening? Or is it because the truth behind the lyrics is part of the perennial appeal of Christmas music? If Christmas carolers and the radio can sing so freely this time of year about the birth of Jesus to people who may not believe in Him, what prevents us from speaking publicly about Jesus in other contexts?

Lesslie Newbigin spoke of the Gospel as “public truth.” He wrote, “Truth must be public truth, truth for all. A private truth for a limited circle of believers is no truth at all. Even the most devout faith will sooner or later falter and fail unless those who hold it are willing to bring it into public debate and to test it against experience in every area of life” (Foolishness to the Greeks, page 117). The good news of “Joy to the World” is a public truth, one which we should be able to share with confidence any time of year in any appropriate situation.  If we’re timid in sharing the Gospel in less sugar-coated forms than Christmas carols, we should pause to question why.  Do we fear rejection or dismissal? Do we fear that we won’t be able to answer the questions of others?  Why do we hesitate?

I have never been and have no desire to be a door-to-door evangelist.  That’s far from how I believe the Gospel is best communicated in our context.  But I want to have the same boldness in speaking about Jesus in any context that I had on Sunday night when we were knocking on doors and singing, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”  I want to speak with the confidence that the public truth of the Gospel really brings “tidings of comfort and joy” all year-round.

This Advent, some friends and I have been reading Jacob of Serug‘s Hymns On the Mother of God.  Jacob was a fifth century monk, priest, and poet in the Syriac Church, and these hymns display the rich poetic interpretations of scripture that others in his tradition (like St. Ephrem the Syrian) were known for.  And in Jacob’s interpretations of Mary’s life and the Nativity, he has used beautiful poetry to talk about Mary’s virtues and the beautiful mystery of the Incarnation.  She is humble, pure, discerning, and wise and so she is chosen to bear the Son of God.  As Jacob imagines the priest Zechariah telling Mary, “that One whose glory fills heaven is in your womb. / The One who forms babes in all wombs dwells in you, Mary, because of this the babes exult and are glad in Him” (p. 55).

What struck me today in Jacob, however, was his depiction of Mary telling Joseph about her pregnancy.  Jacob has combined Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts and has placed Mary’s visit to Elizabeth and Zechariah (Luke 1:39-56) before Joseph’s awareness of Mary’s pregnancy (Matthew 1:18).  He envisions Mary telling Joseph about the Baby in her womb, interpreting to him the words of the angel Gabriel and the words of the Hebrew prophets as Zechariah and Elizabeth had taught her:

The Virgin also, with loud voice and uncovered face, spoke with him, without a bride’s veil. / And with the revelations and interpretations of the prophecy, she was urging him not to doubt on account of her conception. / He marvelled at her while listening to her, what must he do! The Word is great and who can believe in it without revelation. / She was telling him the words which she heard from the angel, and she was narrating to him how the priests in Judea had received it. / She was also reminding him what the prophets spoke;  he trembled while remaining steadfast, and he firmly believed everything, while hesitating.

Mary is presented elsewhere in Jacob in comparison to the liturgical items of the temple: she’s the ark containing God’s Word, an altar, a mercy-seat. But here Mary is a preacher.  And she presents a beautiful model for proclamation.  First, she’s speaking from a position of vulnerability.  Pregnant before her marriage, she could easily have been ostracized and shamed.  To speak out in such a situation required boldness, a freedom from fear of how Joseph would react.  Mary is humble and modest, but she speaks with confidence, a confidence that comes not from her own strength but because “The Word is great” within her.   She speaks what she’s received from the angel and what she’s been taught by Zechariah and Elizabeth, so she claims no authority for herself.  Yet she speaks confidently in order to inspire faith in Joseph. Altogether, she’s speaking, as the commitments of the House of St. Michael the Archangel say, both “with confidence and humility“.  The two go hand-in-hand.

Modesty and boldness, humility and confidence, are not polar opposites.  Each requires the other.  Confidence without humility is arrogance.  A lack of confidence also does not equal humility.  Mary displayed great courage speaking “with a loud voice and uncovered face” and “urging [Joseph] not to doubt”, and yet she is the epitome of humility for Jacob of Serug.  May God grant us such bold modesty.