Sunday, December 18, 2016

Sermon: Christmas Identities

Matthew 1:18-25
Christmas Identities
James Sledge                                                                           December 18, 2016

It’s getting close enough to Christmas that the gospel reading for today actually speaks of Christmas. It’s not what most of us think of as the Christmas story, but it’s all that Matthew’s gospel has. (Matthew also tells of the visit from the Magi, but Jesus may have been two or so when that happened.)
Nearly a hundred years ago, today’s gospel, along with the annunciation to Mary in Luke, provided ammunition in something known as the fundamentalist controversy. To be ordained in the Presbyterian Church back then required belief in a set of fundamentals, one of them being the virgin birth. This was part of a larger fight about the truth of the Bible. In this case it led to a rather ridiculous argument about whether or not the gospels got the science and biology of Jesus right. Never mind that the gospel writers had no notion of such things.
We’re still living with residue of those fights. There is a Christianity that insists on a literal reading of the Bible with cut and dried meanings to the text. It’s a view that’s not very tolerant of questions and tends toward a “believe it or else” mentality.
Then there’s a Christianity not at all bothered by whether or not Mary is a virgin. It’s perfectly content to accept scientific notions of evolution, the Big Bang, and so on. But this Christianity sometimes struggles with just what role Scripture plays in the life of faith. Often Scripture is “true” only if it doesn’t contradict science or my sense of what is possible, and so it cannot really tell me much of consequence that I don’t already know from other sources. 
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Recently a church member dropped by the office with a concern. He wasn’t upset with me or with anyone else. Rather he had a nagging worry that the church had lost its way in some sense. Not just this church, but others like it. It seemed to him that our sort of congregation is often a nice group of like-minded individuals, many who do a great deal to make the world a better place. But he wasn’t sure there was much distinctly Christian about it.
As we discussed his concerns, it seemed to me that he was speaking of an issue that has troubled me for some time, one of identity, specifically Christian identity.

Four or five years ago, Brian McLaren wrote a book with the cumbersome title, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World. He argued that Christian identity in our time has two primary options. One, labeled “Strong/Hostile,” is very clear on what it believes and what is true, but it tends to view outsiders either as targets for conversion or as threats.
The other option, labeled “Weak/Benign,” rarely attempts to convert others and is tolerant and open to them, but this is accomplished largely by watering down any distinct Christian identity. Many Mainline, Progressive Christians are found here, and often our sense of who we are is rooted more in our progressivism, openness, or tolerance than it is in our faith.
It is possible to slide along the continuum between these two options. I can discover a stronger identity, but that typically means less tolerance of the other. Or I can become more tolerant, but at the cost of weakening my identity. McLaren’s book seeks an entirely different choice, a “Strong/Benevolent” identity that has nothing to do with this polarity.
I doubt this polarity even existed in Jesus’ day, but his father Joseph clearly had a strong, religious identity. Our reading says he was a “righteous man.” This term “righteous” is not merely an adjective. It is designation stating that Joseph is a faithful keeper of the Law, one judged right in God’s eyes. He is much more than a good, moral guy. He has a certain religious purity. But now a dream tells him to act counter this identity, tells him to violate the very Law at the core of his identity, the Law that requires him to divorce Mary.
How many of us would act at odds with our core identity because we thought we heard God telling us to do so? How many of us would do something fundamentally against our identities as liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, intellectuals, Americans, consumers, our profession, or whatever else informs our most basic understanding of who we are? Is there any authority, religious or otherwise, that could transcend our current identity, causing us to act in a way we would never have done before? That is what happens to Joseph.
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In just a few moments, we will celebrate the sacrament of Baptism. Often the introduction to baptism includes these words from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. Paul lists the primary identities of his day and says that all these disappear in Christ. Something Joseph had perhaps already discovered.
I’m not sure we usually associate Christmas with radical notions of new identities and new ways of acting. Christmas is a sweet story with a baby and some animals, perfect for live nativity scenes at churches or the lovely cr├Ęches many of us have in our homes. Christmas feels warm and good and hopeful, but we don’t really expect it to change us.
But it turns Joseph’s life upside down. He must act in ways he never imagined he would. And in the next story in Matthew’s gospel, that story of the Magi, he and his family must flee, becoming refugees lest Jesus be killed by King Herod. The world may think that Christmas is a pretty innocuous holiday, but a Messiah and king who demand that people discover completely new identities, that’s something else altogether.
Christ is born. Glory in the highest heaven. And in the waters of baptism, we are joined to him. At the waters, the question is asked, and the promise is made.
“Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love?”
“I will, with God’s help.”
Made new in Christ, let us worship and serve our king, our Savior, our Lord.

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