Sunday, December 23, 2018
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Rev. Brent Newberry
Tis the season of decorated trees and decked out sanctuaries. Fireplaces aglow, carols and presents and cookies on hand. Even familiar Scriptures like today’s warm our hearts with their familiarity and hope.
Were we to have read the surrounding chapters of Micah’s text this morning, we’d be surprised at how different the setting is from ours.
Far from the niceties of a 21stcentury American Christmas, the people of God are under threat. The kingdom of Israel had been divided centuries earlier, into a Northern and Southern kingdom, and as this text was composed, the larger Northern Kingdom had just been decimated and exiled by the expansive Assyrian empire. Not quite Holden or Shrewsbury in 2018. More like Syria in 2018. Or Central America. Or Myanmar. Or a host of other places that people once called home.
Earlier in his prophetic words, Micah warns the people of the Southern kingdom, Judah, that the same fate awaits them if they don’t change how they are living: they must rid themselves of their idols, their way of living that put caring for themselves above caring for their neighbors.
This word was offered, while refugees poured into their land from the Northern Kingdom, people fleeing for a chance to live the one life they get — safe from terror and violence and oppression.
Not quite the heart-warming story we tell around the fire as we sip our eggnog, huh? Maybe someone should get out the bourbon.
The people of God needed hope, and that’s where Micah’s words from today’s reading come in.
Out of you, Bethlehem, of the little clan of Judah, out of you will come for me, the Chosen One who will reign by the strength of a peace that is love.
Indeed, the prophet goes on in the next chapter, to instruct the people, underdogs as they were, with these familiar words: God requires only that we do justice,
and walk humbly with God.
So, amidst the war and violence and looming invasion, the story of God offered a vision of hope to the people in need. It would involve coming together, caring for one another, essentially, making God first again in their lives.
The influx of refugees would be just the first of many opportunities for the people of Judah to put caring for others above their own welfare. And in so doing, it would be for their nation’s welfare. Because in God’s story, in God’s vision for this world, loveis the animating force of peace.
Not military strength; that was the Assyrian way. Not political savvy or accumulation of wealth; that’s the typical American way of peace.
Micah, here, and Jesus, later, makes it plain, our saving hope is a peace that comes only through love.
Now, we might not be overrun by war on our homeland, but we are besieged by grief, by debt, by pressures and stresses and shame.
We might not live under the threat of military invasion, but we are inflicted with maladies of the body and mind.
We might not fear the violence of weapons, but we suffer the wounds of fractured relationships and broken families and weary spirits.
We might not be on the verge of exile, but we know what it’s like to feel alone, to play by someone else’s rules, to be in bondage to unfair expectations.
Like the people of Judah in the 8thcentury before Christ, we need hope, too. But also like the people of Judah in the 8thcentury before Christ, we need to heed the warnings of the prophet not to live only caring for ourselves to the neglect of taking care of our neighbors.
So then, what are we to do?
Perhaps the people of Toledo, Ohio, might offer us a clue.
A few weeks ago, Alyssa Emrick noticed a persistent weed on the side of the road. She and her family were stopped at an intersection when she mentioned how this weed looked like the lonely tree in a Charlie Brown Christmas.
So, fun family that they are, the Emricks quickly returned to the intersection with ornaments and tinsel in hand. Over the next few days, Alyssa noticed posts on social media of their newly festive Christmas weed. People added lights and a tree skirt, and soon it even had its own Facebook page titled, the “Toledo Christmas Weed.”
As its popularity spread, it soon became home to wrapped presents, warm winter gear, and even non-perishable items. The goodness became so contagious that the Christmas weed could no longer hold all the toys and free gifts, so a nearby streetlight began to accumulate donations as well. Even when someone stole the original Christmas Weed (what a Grinch), it didn’t stop them. Someone just brought a dead potted plant instead, and they continued their joyful giving.
Said one resident about the phenomenon:
“A community coming together and creating something beautiful out of a weed — there is a lesson to be learned here; With love, caring and attention, anything, and anyone, can be a light to others.”
And therein lies the hope of Micah, the hope of Christmas, the hope for us:
We find our hope not in what we can shore up for ourselves, but in the peace that is made by our love.
In the most unlikely and unexpected of ways, the undaunted love of God is at work in us, like a resilient Christmas Weed in wintry Toledo.
And that’s the hope for our broken and hurting world. A God who is with us and at work in us, who chooses to work through usby our love for one another.
If a city can come together around a weed — as inspirational as that might be —
then surely, surely,
we can come together around our neighbors,
those living, breathing human beings
who experience homelessness and
housing discrimination and
drug abuse and
domestic violence and
God’s story is a story of embodied love, in Jesus, and now in us. It’s a story of hope for usto the extent our love is rooted in actions of justice and compassion for ourneighbors.
Tis the season for decorating trees.
May it also mark the beginning of so much more.