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Sermon – “From You” – December 23, 2012

Sermon for December 23, 2012

The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

From You Psalm 80: 1-7; MIcah 5: 2- 5a; Luke 1: 39-55

A farmer made the acquaintance of a small community of immigrants, and learned that they would be happy to be hired to do the kind of farm labor, like weeding, which is necessary, but tedious and low-paying. He arranged to pick up various kin and cousins of the man he knew best, and drove them to the garden patch, and went to work with them. He was surprised at how hard they worked, and pleased.

Later he said as much to the foreign-born man he’d first befriended. The man smiled, and said how amazed the hired men had been that the farmer himself had done the same work as they did. They expected the boss to find himself something easier to do.

There were, indeed, easier tasks than the work for which he’d hired them, and the next time he got that gang together he put them weeding and went and sat in the shade and worked on accounts and correspondence and other paper business. That was the pattern for the next couple of sessions, but by the end of the third time the farmer noticed that the laborers weren’t working as well as they had before. They were missing more of the weeds and not getting as far in the rows. That was the last time he hired them.

He had a superior position to them, of which they reminded him by their surprise at his sharing the job the first time, and that made him open to the suggestion that he take it easier than them. Once they were on their own, they felt empowered, and they found a way to make life easier on themselves.

This is a humble example of the famous saying of Lord Acton: “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Who is free from the instinct to feather his or her own nest, to assure his own comfort, to push his agenda, to exploit his position to get the upper hand? Who has, once in possession of any degree of power, resisted corruption?

I begin this way because the promise of Christmas in the gospel of Luke has so much to do with a new social order, in which the strong no longer dominate the weak, that we need to think about the human tendency to lord it over others.

Another, and related instance, arose at my twentieth college reunion. People got together in a big group to consider how life had changed since college, and broke down into smaller groups to discuss that. Someone said that, when he was in his early twenties, and had almost no money at all, he’d been relatively willing generously to share what he had with good causes, but that as his earning power increased, and his comfort and affluence grew, he found it increasingly difficult to give financial support unselfishly. When all the small groups shared what they’d discussed around the room at large, that was the insight which got the most assent. Everyone recognized that it had been true–that there was something about having more which tended to make one more selfish.

The media is full of ranters identifying who to blame for our difficulties, and this typically is done by repeating, over and over again, that one political party or the other has an agenda which either is ruining the country or would ruin the country. You can’t talk about the expectation of a savior in the days of the Emperor Augustus without talking politics, because what were people hoping to be saved from? They wanted God to save them from being oppressed and exploited by people with political power over them.

What I’ve noticed about the political parties is this. There’s a desire to identify one of the parties with a lax attitude on drug addiction and personal morality, but when the scandals break, it’s bipartisan. There’s a desire to identify one of the parties with greed, but when you see where the money is, it’s bipartisan. Each daims a higher character, and good individuals work for both.. Everyone, however, suffers from the same temptation, because with position comes property and privilege. It is as much human nature for them to look to their own comfort and that of their peers as it is for the farmer to stop working alongside his hired help once it’s pointed out that he doesn’t have to. No matter what a person’s political philosophy or religious loyalty, it is difficult and unusual, when the opportunity is there, to resist using power over others for one’s own good instead of for others’ good.

Another way to make this point is to quote a big-league baseball manager giving his opinion on a player who was involved in a trade. He praised the player, said he’d be good for the new team’s clubhouse, that he’d be a positive influence on younger players learning to be professional. The manager said the notable thing about the player was that he was unselfish in a selfish society. Now, it’s hard for baseball players to be unselfish because they tend to be rewarded on the basis of their own individual performance, but this manager didn’t just indict baseball with being a selfish world. He said, just as offhand and as if it were as obvious to everyone as any other sports truism, that our whole society is selfish. Well, that’s because it’s made up of human beings.

That’s always the problem, isn’t it? That was the problem when Caesar Augustus was on the throne in Rome and that was the problem when Silvio Berlusconi was in power in Rome a couple of years ago. The Old Testament’s instincts about this aren’t too sophisticated–they’re human nature, also. What does the prophecy from Micah have to say about God’s promised help? After speaking of the ruler to be born in Bethlehem, who shall be, as the prophecy says, in the beginning of verse 5, “the one of peace,” it goes on to say, “If the Asssyrians come into our land and tread upon our soil, we wil raise against them seven shepherds and eigtht installed as rulers. They shall rule the land of Assyria with the sword, and the land of Nimrod with the drawn sword; they shall rescue us from the Assyrians if they come into our land or tread within our border.” That’s the only solution which people can imagine before God does send a Savior, that the way to be rescued from violence is by using more effective violence. The way to escape being oppressed is to oppress the oppressor. God’s will is that we switch places–we suffered by being on the bottom and now we’re going to have it good by being on top.

You see this over and over again in the world. This is human nature. This is the human nature which goes into the speech Mary makes in response to Elizabeth’s recognition that Mary is carrying the Savior. What does Mary see God as achieving? As scattering the proud in the imagination of their hearts, as casting the powerful down from their thrones, and sending the rich away hungry, while lifting up the lowly to prominence, and feeding the needy with good things. It’s a reversal, but it’s the same thing– it’s the same expectation of those with clout using it to further their own selfish benefits, and nothing changing when the world becomes more just than the old rascals being reduced and the former lowly getting their chance to capitalize on possessing power.

It was a commonplace years ago to explain the change in Jesus’ popularity between Palm Sunday and Good Friday by saying that the people were looking for a military savior and violent domination of their enemies and Jesus’ pacifism and appeals to principles disappointed them. Well, who today believes any better in preferring self- sacrifice to inflicting harm? With Easter behind us, how far along are we in entrusting our lives to justice and generosity instead of force? No matter how comforted we are to bury our dead in Christ, and to hear again about resurrection, to what extent have we accepted the need to take up the cross, and count on the goodness of God instead of the advantage we possess over those whom we fear?

Jesus will base transforming the world not on rotating the different social and economic classes through the roles of winner and loser, but on showing them that trusting God is good; on demonstrating the possibility of human relations based on the power of love instead of upon the love of power; by living a life for God that results in God’s making that life eternal. The hope of the world is not political upheaval, or social revolution, because all that does is repeat the pattern. The hope for the world is a universal reformation of individual hearts, and everyone ought to be ambitious of being the first. That’s what the Savior has come to offer, both by example and by appealing to the goodness within each of us, that we can aspire to more faithful lives, and like Christ believe in living for others rather than living for ourselves.

If you dare that, will you accomplish Mary’s vision? No; the poor will always be among you. What can be achieved is not a utopia of the fair distribution of gifts–certainly not in terms of genetics, culture, or circumstance– but saving yourself from being corrupted, preventing yourself from acting as a selfish, God-ignoring spirit foreign to the spirit of the people of God, being a collaborator with evil, traitor to your own flesh and blood, and an underminer of covenant.

That chance for redemption comes, not with a reversal of your fortune from outside, but from a resolution of who you shall be within yourself. Christmas gives you, in the manger and in the life of Jesus which follows, another pattern to oppose to the same-old, same-old of the world. Pray that God help you accept this gift, this Christmas season, and in the year before you.

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