A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent – Luke 1
Recognizing that many do not make it to church on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, we usually read the entire birth narrative on the Fourth Sunday of Advent. This weekend’s release of Star Wars: Rouge One makes this sermon particularly appropiate.
The quotes in this sermon are from Steven Pinker’s book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” and Joseph Holub’s “Fear Not” The Acclamation sung, on the audio recording, prior to the sermon is “The Magnificat” from Holden Evening Prayer, by Marty Haugen, featuring Gary Curran and Linda Condy: Listen to the sermon here
This week as millions of people flock to theatres all over the world to see the latest Star Wars epic (Rogue One), I am reminded of the old joke: you know you might be Lutheran if, when you hear: “The force be with you.” you must fight the urge to say, “And also with you.” While I confess that I have not yet seen the new Star Wars movie, and my memories of the original Star Wars movie are decades old, my social media feeds have been filled with allusions to “The Force”. Over the course of the past few days, I’ve read more than a few articles from would be theologians, which insist that “The Force” of Star Wars is akin to the way many progressive Christians describe our understanding of God. While it is true that may of us who have long since given up images of God the portray the super-natural being who lives off in a galaxy far, far, away, who from time to time meddles in the affairs of earthlings, and many of us have indeed have embraced notions of God that reflect early Christian teachings about the One in whom we live and move and have our being.
The panentheistic view of God as the one who both lies at the very heart of reality and permeates reality so that God is in all and yet more that all, the one who lives and breathes, in, with, through, and beyond us, may on the surface bear a slight resemblance to “The Force” I can assure you that God is so very much more than the limited notions of “The Force”.
Right about now, I expect that some of you are wondering, why on earth I am rambling on about a childish science fiction movie just days before Christmas when I have all the ramifications of the greatest story every told from which to draw a sermon on this the fourth Sunday of Advent. Well bear with me for a bit, and if we are lucky and the force is with me, I try to explain just how Mary’s response to an angelic annunciation relates to our cultures fascination with “the force” and maybe just maybe assure you of the Good News that the God in whom we live and move and have our being is so much more of a force than the force that would be Jedi warriors all over the planet are embracing. The little that I do know about George Lucas’ force is that it inhabits a dualistic universe that is divided into to camps. On one side, we have “The Empire”, the dark evil side represented by the Sith, on the other side, the good side, the Rebellion, represented by the Jedi. The Force, is the name given to the collection of the energies of all living things that are fed into one Cosmic Force. The Force that is available to both Jedi Rebellion and the Empire of the Sith because The Force has two sides. The Force is neither malevolent or benevolent, neither good nor evil it has a bad side involving hate and fear, and it has a good side, involving love, charity, fairness and hope. The Force can be used for good or for evil. The Force is if you will, humanity write large, or the human psyche deified. The Force is nothing more than our collective strengths and weaknesses writ large.
The One in whom we live and move and have our being is so very much more than a way of talking about our collective strengths and weaknesses, so much more than humanity writ large, or our collective human psyche deified; for such a god is not much different than our notions of a personified deity, just one more version of the super-natural being up there or out there who deigns to meddle in the affairs of us lesser beings. No, the One in whom we live and move and have our being is beyond the simple notion of a force; indeed, beyond the beyond and beyond that also. But there is a force that does exist and that force may indeed be the most powerful force on earth. It is the force that is mentioned at least 365 times in the Bible. It is the force, which from time immemorial has motivated the actions and reactions of human beings. It is the force that which the storytellers of the bible speak of at lest 365 times, indeed it is the force which of which the Angel Gabriel refers to in the story we have passed down to us from the anonymous storyteller we call Luke. That force of which biblical storytellers speak of is fear. 365 times we are told to fear not, or have no fear, or do not be afraid. Fear is a force our ancestors knew well and fear is a force that is running rampant in our world. Fear is also a force that is being encouraged by modern empires that wield political, economic, and military power.
Be afraid we hear from politicians, political pundits, military experts, economic advisors, terrorists and even our friends and relatives. Be afraid, be very afraid. Why there are even preachers, pastors, televangelists, and theologians, who warn us to be afraid of the very God for whom we long. Be afraid, of judgment. Be afraid of the fires of hell. Be afraid of the end times. Be afraid of the rapture. Be afraid of being left behind. Be afraid of Jesus second coming. Be afraid of God. Be afraid. Be very afraid. Fear is a force that has untold numbers of adherents, whether they be religious, political, military or terrorist leaders, they are ready willing and able to tape into the force of fear. The force of fear is neither malevolent or benevolent, neither good nor evil it has a bad side involving hate and fear, and it has a good side, involving protection, defense, rescue, and survival. Fear is a force that evokes powerful responses; responses that can and indeed often do defy logic or common sense; response that not only impede human thriving, but response that destroy, degrade and even kill human progress, prosperity, peace and life itself.
Take for example the problem of violence. There is a myriad of possible responses to violence, but the most powerful response of all is fear. Our fear of violence defies logic. These days we are obsessed by our fear. Despite the fact that we are living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence, we are overcome by our fear of violence. We are afraid, very afraid. We are so afraid that we have convinced ourselves that terrorists are everywhere. Terrorists are in our luggage, they are even in our shoes, and if we’re not careful, very, very, very careful, these terrorists will kill us all. So, without question we line up to take off our shoes and to be scanned over and over again. And it’s not just terrorists that we need to worry about, it’s the criminals, there are thugs out there who will commit all manner of unspeakable crimes against you, so we lock ourselves up and shut ourselves off and we keep the criminals at bay. This despite the fact that crime is at an all time low, in this country and indeed in the world. Crime rates have been decreasing for decades. Children are safer on our streets than they were back in the fifties and the sixties. We are safer than we have ever been.
Logic requires that we know the facts before responding to events. Well here are some facts:
In the middle ages there were approximately 100 murders per 100,000 people.
In the 20th century there was only 1 murder per 100,000 people.
Since 1945, there has been a steep decline in interstate wars, deadly ethnic riots, and military coups.
Rape continues to decline.
Violence against children continues to decline.
Capital punishment is being abolished in 2 or 3 nations every year.
Almost every metric with regard to violence spells out the same result, violence is decreasing year after year after year.
The world is a safer place than it has ever been.
In his book “the Better Angels of Our Nature”, Steven Pinker insists that: “If you base your beliefs about the state of the world on what you read in the news, your beliefs will be incorrect. This is not because of a conspiracy among journalists to hide or distort the truth. It’s because of an interaction between the nature of news—it’s about things that happen, particularly bad things—and the nature of human cognition.
Forty years ago Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky showed that people base their estimates of risk on how easily they can recall examples from memory. As long as rates of violence have not fallen to zero, the news media will always have examples of violence to serve us. It’s only by (1) counting the violent incidents, (2) scaling them by the number of opportunities for violence to occur, and (3) seeing how this ratio changes over time that one can get an objective sense of trends in violence. When one does this, one sees that global trends show no reversal of the historical decline of violence, today there is just one exception to the reality of the steady decline in violence over time and that is the effects of the war in Syria, a continuation of the decline.”
Pinker sees that there is good reason for us to hope that even the catastrophic events in Syria can be mitigated by one aspect of human development that comes to us as a gift of human evolution and that gift is the expansion of circles of empathy. As our ability socialize increases exponentially, so too do our circles of empathy. We now have the ability to care for people we will never meet or know. Where the force of fear once served us well in our struggle to survive, the force of fear now threatens our very survival. Do not be afraid, have no fear, fear not.
The anonymous gospel storyteller that we call Luke continues to weave his tale of Jesus who lived in a far more frightening world than we shall ever know, and lived and died for the belief that responding to violence and terror out of fear with more violence and terror was not the way to achieve peace. Jesus taught a way of being in the world; a way consistent with his Jewish faith, a way that begins with the words, “do not be afraid.” Words that echoed down to Jesus from his ancestors, who told stories about Abraham who was called into a new way of life with the words, “Do not be afraid!” Words that echo down from the mouth of Moses who cried out to an enslaved people, “Fear not!” “Do not be afraid”. Words that echo from the story of the young Jeremiah who heard words attributed to Yahweh, “Do not be afraid” and had the audacity to speak to speak to a fearful people. Words that the anonymous gospel storytellers attributed to Jesus himself when he spoke to his followers. Words that we would do well to remember when we ask what it was that these gospel storytellers were trying to convey to us. Why did the storyteller we call Luke offer the story of the young girl Mary heading the words of the angelic messenger Gabriel, “Do not be afraid” by responding courageously with the words we now call the Magnificat:
“My soul proclaims your greatness, O God,
and my spirit rejoices in you, my Saviour.
For you have looked with favour
upon your lowly servant,
and from this day forward
all generations will call be blessed.
For you, the Almighty, have done great things for me,
and holy is your NAME.
Your mercy reaches from age to age
for those who fear you.
You have shown strength with your arm;
You have scattered the proud in their conceit;
You have deposed the mighty from their thrones
and raised the lowly to high places.
You have filled the hungry with good things,
while you have sent the rich away empty.
You have come to the aid of Israel your servant,
Mindful of your mercy—
the promises you made to our ancestors—
to Sarah and Abraham
and their descendants forever.”
Do not be afraid. Fear not. Have no fear. Over and over again 365 times, that one time for every day of the year! Do not be afraid. “Fear has consequences, and fear always distorts our perceptions of reality. Afraid of failure – consequence: Don’t take a risk. Afraid to trust – consequence: withhold yourself. What are you afraid of? Death? Disability? Illness? Cancer? Immigrants? Strangers? Being wrong? Going to Hell? Muslims? Terrorism? Foreigners? Being alone? Growing old? Unemployment?
What are you afraid of and what are the consequences of your fear? Are you fearful to even acknowledge that you are afraid?
There is such a thing as healthy fear.
However, it’s in the nature of fear to want to take over – to dominate – to strangulate – to manipulate – and so often we capitulate – and in so doing we lose our freedom, become closed within ourselves, and we fail to realize our true human potential, a fuller humanity – and most significantly we give up on LOVE.
The one thing that can put up an almost impenetrable barrier keeping God’s life-giving Spirit out; blocking God’s love from flowing into our lives is FEAR!
Fear has that kind of awesome power!
Fear has the power to stifle a human life.
Fear has the negative energy to keep you from living fully in the present.
Fear has the power to lock you up within yourself and throw away the key!
How many human dreams have died unrealized in the ashes of fear?
How many broken relationships have never been mended because of the power of fear?
How much forgiveness has never been asked for, and how much forgiveness has ever been put on ice all because of fear?
How much pain has been inflicted because of fear?
How much pain has not been comforted all because of fear?
How much prejudice has been passed from one generation to the next through the force of fear?
How much social injustice has continued unabated because of fear?
How much ignorance has gone unchallenged because of fear?
How much compassion has been withheld because of fear?
How much manipulation of the masses has been achieved using fear?
I said before that just like The Force in Star Wars, force fear is neither malevolent or benevolent, neither good nor evil. Fear has a bad side and a good side. But there is an entity that is far more powerful than The Force or the force of fear, indeed of any force in the cosmos and that entity is the One in whom we live and move and have our being. The One we call God. The God we know who IS love. God is benevolent and not malevolent. God is good and not evil. God IS LOVE. And LOVE if it is really LOVE is benevolent. And LOVE if it is really LOVE is good.
When we respond to the realties of life in the world out of the LOVE that lives and breathes in, with, through, and beyond us, we respond with a power far more capable than the force of fear.
Progressive Theologian, Joseph Holub writes that, “In Galatians the Apostle Paul said,
Jesus was “born of a woman.” That’s Paul’s way of saying he was a human being like you and me. He was a human being. There was nothing about him that gave him an advantage over anybody else, because if he had an advantage his life would not be credible and his challenges to love would not be credible. That’s what makes his life so remarkable – the most remarkable life ever lived because he lived it without any advantage, and he lived it without being controlled and dominated by fear. When we follow Jesus through the gospels we see a most remarkable thing; that time and time again he reached through boundaries of fear that were impassible barriers for everyone else – forbidden religious barriers; ethnic barriers; racial barriers; gender barriers; economic barriers; social barriers – the most formidable barriers of his time. Why? How? Because the life of Jesus, the most remarkable life ever lived, was characterized and shaped by the LOVE of God. Jesus trusted LOVE and “perfect loves casts out all fear.”
We are living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence. Violence is lower than it has ever been. Crime is lower. We are healthier and we live longer. But there is still violence, and crime, and disease, and worst of all there is still poverty. This grand human adventure is far more challenging than any intergalactic fantasy that Hollywood can offer us.
If we are prepared to respond to violence, crime, disease, and poverty not with the force of fear, but out of the power of the ONE who lives and breathes, in, with, through, and beyond us, the ONE who is LOVE, the ONE we call God, then forget all about greeting one another with the trite, May the Force be with you. And if you’ll excuse this Star Trek fan, who after all has far more to work with, because Star Trek is deeper and richer in its mythological prowess, so rather than, “The Force be with you.” Let me greet you, with “Live long and prosper.” “Live long and prosper” which although it is often credited to Mr. Spock who added that hand gesture which I’ve never could master. Anyway, Lenard Nimoy who played Mr. Spock gives credit for the both the gesture and the greeting to his own memories of his childhood impressions of the Jewish Benedictions he was blessed with.
“Live long and prosper.”
“Do not be afraid. Fear not. Have no fear.”
Like the woman Mary, let the LOVE that lives in, with, through, and beyond you, love through you.
So, that all the world may know the peace that comes through LOVE. Amen.