Fourth Advent: December 20, 2020



I hope our call to worship this morning seemed, at least, a little familiar. Last week, we talked about how Mary was, let’s say “undervalued” by the Reformation and remains so by many Protestant churches. There are other practices the Reformation stripped away that we have come to regret. In the 1800s, a movement began in the Protestant church to recognize the beauty of some of the older Roman Catholic liturgy and prayers. One of those is the set of antiphons, or short sentences, traditionally used by the Catholic Church near the end of Advent. This set, known as the “O Antiphons” consisted of seven short prayers. Traditionally, one would be used during Vespers, or evening prayer, in the seven days before Christmas Eve. We do not have evening prayer, at least not as a body, so I used them all. I hope they seem familiar, because they are also the basis for our hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” the title of which comes from the seventh of these short prayers, though the hymn writers moved it to the first position.

The hymn itself began with English speaking Catholics living in exile in France in the 1500s and 1600s. In the 1800s, Protestants finally saw the beaty in both the prayer and the hymn, reworked it, and added to the translation from the Latin. We have lost the origin of the prayer itself—the earliest records of it take it back to the rule of Charlemagne, more than 1,000 years ago. The origins of the tune are similarly lost to time—the oldest known occurrence is in a French processional from the 1500s, though it may be even older.

Another Catholic practice the Reformers fought against was Christmas itself.

There is a picture circulating on Facebook noting that the early Massachusetts Colony, those we now call the Puritans, though it seems they would have preferred to call themselves Separatists, discouraged Christmas from the colony’s inception in 1621, and outright banned the holiday from 1659 to 1681. Even after the outright ban ceased, Protestant ministers in the colony continued to preach against Christmas—seeing it as altogether too Catholic, as not as a celebration of Christ, but as a celebration of drunkenness and excess more closely linked to pagan Roman celebrations of Saturn and Sol Invictus. Christmas, with its revelry was also a general source of the great Puritan bugaboo, disorder.

Lest you think these objections to Christmas were just the product of overly strict Puritans in the 1600s, let me add that Christmas was not a public holiday in Scotland between 1640 and 1958, just 62 years ago, a date in many of your lifetimes, and the Church of Scotland, our parent church, continued to resist for a few years after that.

There are a few reasonable arguments in the anti-Christmas camp. First, we have no way of knowing when Jesus was actually born—there is no Biblical reference from which we can infer a date—but we can be fairly certain that it was not December, if for no other reason than the fact that winter nights in and around Bethlehem do get cold—cold enough that shepherds and their flocks would not be spending the night outside. Sometime in the spring seems more likely, but, again, we cannot be sure. So, this does mean that the date of Christmas is something that we humans just kind of picked.

And yes, we, and by we, I mean the early Church, picked a day that was near a great many holidays in other religious traditions—this cluster of traditions occurrs around the winter solstice because, for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, it is cold. It is dark. The days have been getting shorter for three months, and the turn to longer days and the promise of increasing light and warmth is something worth celebrating.

And, as our scripture from 2 Samuel reminds us, we do not build these things for God. David wants to build God a Temple, but God says no…or, not yet, if you read a bit beyond the passage. God does not need our mighty buildings, our lasting monuments, or even our holy days. God asks us for one day of seven, and even that, Jesus says, was made for us. But we, we are fickle creatures, and we need more. We need reminders, we need celebrations, we need to build in time to remind ourselves of God’s works and God’s love. David did not build a Temple, and Solomon did not build a Temple for God—God allowed the Temple to be built for us.

The “O Antiphons,” I think, recognize this, and include two references, two days, that connect to this passage from 2 Samuel. The third and fourth prayers invoke, respectively, the “Root of Jesse’s stem” and “Key of David.” Jesse, for those who need the reminder, is not just the source of the name for the tree over my left shoulder, but was David’s father, and thus the father of the Davidic Dynasty that ruled first the combined Israel and then the Southern Kingdom, Judah, until the conquest by the Babylonians that began the Exile.

The Davidic Dynasty was not a flash in the pan, it did last for a few hundred years, but it was never perfect. David himself, though much loved by God, was far from a perfect man, but just as God chose Noah to renew the Earth, just as God chose Abraham, and Jacob, to carry God’s promise to the world, God chose David to establish God’s own dynasty.

But God does not work in the ways we want. God rarely works in the ways we expect. Early readers of 2 Samuel would have read this text as establishing a political dynasty, a permanent earthly king to rule God’s people on earth. Those expectation were shattered by the exile, by the destruction of Solomon’s Temple and the removal of the Davidic dynasty from all political power.

And so, for generations and centuries, people waited for God to remember God’s promise. People waited for a military leader, like David, to come and restore the fortunes of Israel, to throw off the rule of the successive empires who swept over the region—first Babylon, then Persia, then Greece, then Rome.

But God does not work in the ways we want. God rarely works in the ways we expect. God did not send a military ruler to turn the wheel until Israel was back on top. God did not send a general to crush Israel’s enemies. God does not work in the ways we want or expect.

God came to us in Jesus, politically a twig on the lowest branch of the Jesse tree. God came to us in Jesus, born to Mary, an unwed teen whose fiancé needed divine intervention not to leave her. God came to us in Jesus. And yes, the tradition of giving gifts for Christmas comes from the three wise men, who came with their gift of gold, a recognition of Jesus as a king. The three wise men also brought other gifts, frankincense, the incense burned in the temple, as a recognition of Jesus as a priest, and myrrh, used in embalming, foreshadowing Jesus’ death.

For centuries, people waited for a new David to restore the Kingdom of Israel on earth. God came to us in Jesus to reject that vision, to reject an earthly kingdom, because the things we build here do not last. God came to us in Jesus because our salvation can never come from the sword, can never come from the barrel of a gun, can never come from military power. God came to us in Jesus because our salvation does not lie in a politician, will not be achieved by four more years or the next election. God came to us in Jesus because those things are obstacles at worst and distractions at best. The things we build may, like Christmas, like Sunday worship, point us toward God, but God came to us in Jesus because God does not work in the ways we want or expect, and so we need Advent, and Christmas, to remind us to look for the unexpected, to look for the moments of joy and inspiration that bring us closer to God and that break us out of our self-constructed silos of race, class, political party, gender and even nation and see that our hope does not lie in anything we build, but in the overpowering love of God.

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