Monday, December 24, 2018

Christmas Eve (early)

Luke 2
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Sometimes we just need a little good news. has published 99 Good News Stories You Probably Didn’t Hear About in 2018, a wonderful counterpoint to the prevailing narrative that many of us have lodged in our head. We need a little good news, so here are just five of the 99 to share tonight:

Following China’s ban on ivory last year, 90% of the public indicate support for the ban, ivory demand has dropped by almost half, and poaching rates are falling in places like Kenya. (WWF)

Niger revealed that it has planted 200 million new trees in three decades, the largest positive transformation of the environment in African history. (Guardian)

The United Nations Development Programme released a new report showing that 271 million people in India have moved out of poverty since 2005, reducing the country’s poverty rate by nearly half in a single decade. (Times of India)

Adidas expects to sell 5 million pairs of shoes made from ocean plastic this year, and committed to using only recycled plastic in its products by 2024. (CNN)

A study of crime and related statistics in California has revealed that in the last generation, arrests of teenagers have fallen by 80%, murder arrests by 85%, imprisonments reduced by 88%, teen births down by 75%, school dropouts by half, and college enrolments are up by 45%. (Sacbee)

Sometimes we just need a little good news. Part of our human nature is the capacity to sour on people, ideas, and our world itself. Once soured, once convinced of a particular direction or narrative, it becomes increasingly difficult to reverse course. Distrust of institutions, failing relationships, even poor economic performance on a larger scale can often be traced back to a shift in perception.

So, 2018, how did that work out? I’m stealing from next Sunday’s sermon for a moment to acknowledge that the storyline of 2018, the ‘year in review’ that we hear this time of year is hardly something to write home about. I won’t trouble you with a reminder, since we’ve had these conversations already. It is enough to say that something has changed in the last couple of years, and there is a sense that 2018 was part of the narrative that ‘things may get worse, before they get better.’

Part of the problem of this push-pull of ideas is that it’s all very subjective. I can say a handful of things that most could find a way to agree with:

Things are getting better
Things were getting better, but now they’re getting worse
It was better in the past
The past was terrible: it’s much better now
Whatever I’m experiencing, someone has it worse and someone has it better.

So, for example, what about shepherds in their fields abiding? Better or worse? They received “good news of great joy” but did they need it? Were they being saved from something? Were their lives miserable?

Plenty of homiletical ink has been spilled about life in first-century Palestine, that near-eastern, Roman-occupied, more-or-less a backwater that God chose to enter our world. What was it like? Was it really so bad? And where do they fall within the question of better, worse, terrible, and so on?

So, what do we know? Looking at Jesus’ home in the Galilee, it wasn’t as rural or remote as we imagine. There were as many as 200 villages in a small region, and three Roman cities, one a regional capital and another a busy seaside resort. There was plenty of work for skilled people such as carpenters, and Lake Tiberius was rich with fish.

While the majority were poor, farmers, fishers, and day labourers, the archaeology reveals surprising things: Children’s toys such as “whistles, rattles, toy animals on wheels, hoops, and spinning tops have been found” by archaeologists. Graven images were forbidden, so there are no paintings to show the style of dress or colours, but the rule wasn’t strictly enforced, since dolls for children have been found.

Historians describe small family groupings—taking meals in common—with a favourite pastime being after-dinner conversation long into the night. Board games were popular too, perhaps for the young people or when conversation became too contentious. Early in the day people ate bread, olives and cheese, with the larger evening meal featuring lentil stew, more bread, and fish, of course, for the those near the water.

In other words, not so bad, and not unlike the experience of many of our families if we went back even a half-dozen generations. Our friends in their fields abiding enjoyed companionship, meaningful labour, and extended family networks. There was no fast food or big box stores, but even as I say this I feel like I’m making a case for the past. Medicine was a problem, along with conquest and war, but by in large, lives were lived in a way that we could recognize and perhaps even envy just a little.

So what was missing? At this point I need to be careful as I describe spiritual lives, since Judaism remains one of the world’s great religions. And Jesus—as a good Jew—would remind us that his program was reform rather than creating something new. Nevertheless, his own words provide the framework we need describe what was missing, and why tonight is so important.

For our shepherds, God was to be feared, and obeyed, but not really loved. Sore afraid was not uncommon, with a healthy fear of failure relating to God’s commands and the laws that governed this relationship. Insiders and outsiders were carefully delineated, with such makers driving people apart rather than drawing the community together as intended. Much later, Jesus would find an obscure verse in Leviticus to define the problem and define his project: love your neighbour as yourself.

But tonight, the message is a simple one, “I bring you good news of great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you.” If you’ll forgive me a little Greek, they announced a σωτήρ (so-tir), a saviour, a deliverer, a preserver. The message of this wee lad would take years to develop, but the meaning was immediate: God entered our world in a new way—to deliver us from estrangement, to preserve us for a life with God, and to save us from ourselves.

In other words, whatever nations rise and fall, however the Dow might rise or fall, even the vicissitudes of our own lives—these mean little in the arc of God’s desire to enter our lives. Emmanuel, God-with-us, is a source of comfort and joy, awe but not fear, forgiveness and reconciliation, all in the glory of God. Amen.


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