Sunday, November 27, 2016

Making Change

Isaiah 9:6-7, Luke 1: 46-47, 52-55
November 27, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Our first reading is a part of the scripture you hear nearly every Christmas Eve, from the prophet Isaiah. In these two verses we hear the prophecy of the promised child. “Three times in the book of Isaiah a child is a sign of a new era of prosperity, the ‘God with us’ pronouncement of Isaiah 7:10-17. The child is used as a symbol three times in Isaiah 11:1-10. The shoot of Jesse begins and ends the unit. The same chapter paints a picture of peaceable kingdom, where a child shall lead them. Isaiah 9 likewise announces a new era,. The sign of this new era will be a child.”[1] Let’s listen for how this child will change everything in Isaiah 9:6-7

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Our gospel reading is heard every year during Advent. In the first chapter of Luke, “the archangel Gabriel has extended his astounding invitation. Mary has given her astonishing yes. … She flees: toward her kinswoman, toward refuge, toward sanctuary. In the home of Elizabeth, … Mary finds what she most needs. Elizabeth gathers and enfolds her. Welcomes her. Blesses her. In response to Elizabeth’s blessing, Mary sings. And how she sings! She sings of a God who brings down the powerful, who lifts up the lowly, who fills the hungry with good things. Strangely, wonderfully, Mary sings of a God who not only will do these things, but who has done these things. She sings as if God has already accomplished the redemption and restoration of the world.[2] Let’s listen to her song of the way God is making change in Luke 1:46-47, 52-55:

46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

You know Scrooge, don’t you? Let me introduce him to you, in Charles Dickens’ own words.
“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.”

Yes, you know him, even if you have never read Dickens’ book. Perhaps you don’t know how this story goes. But here is how it begins: “Once upon a time—of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve —old Scrooge sat busy in his counting-house. The door of Scrooge's counting-house was open that he might keep his eye upon his clerk, [Bob Cratchit] who in a dismal little cell beyond, a sort of tank, was copying letters. "A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!" cried a cheerful voice.
It was the voice of Scrooge's nephew, [Fred].
"Bah!" said Scrooge, "Humbug!"

Of course he would say that, Scrooge would. Of what earthly use is the story of Christmas to a man like that?! In his world, when the visitors come to ask for his contributions for the poor, he offers not blessing but curse: “I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: prisons, workhouses, the treadmill and the poor law. They cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there."

I looked up these establishments, which Scrooge supported with his taxes. The treadmill was a horrifying proposition. Prisoners were forced to step on the 24 spokes of a large paddle wheel, climbing it like a modern StairMaster. As the spokes turned, the gears were used to pump water or crush grain. (Hence the eventual name treadmill.) They worked in grueling 8-hour shifts, climbing the equivalent of 7,200 feet. The exertion, combined with poor diets, often led to injury and illness …, In 1824, prison guard James Hardie credited the device with taming New York’s more defiant inmates. He wrote that it was the treadmill’s “monotonous steadiness, and not its severity, which constitutes its terror.”[3]

The poor laws to which Scrooge refers provided relief for the poor, but only under certain stringent conditions. “the poor were housed in workhouses, clothed and fed –[ minimally]. Children who entered the workhouse would receive some schooling. In return for this care, all workhouse paupers would have to work for several hours each day…. [they were not paid] The poor themselves hated and feared the threat of the workhouse so much that there were riots in northern towns.”[4] People would rather die than go to such places.

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” 

Of what earthly use is the birth of Jesus to a man like that? Why should he care about another child born into poverty? He was too consumed with counting his money to consider giving it. He was too wrapped up in himself to consider wrapping a gift. He said it himself: “If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas,' on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!” Bah humbug!

If we are honest, there have been moments during every Advent, when we have said, or at least thought it: “Bah! Humbug! Not one more charitable appeal, not one more activity, not one more request for donations! I’ve got enough to do, with buying and wrapping gifts, caring for my family. There’s no excuse for people who won’t take care of themselves. Why don’t they lift themselves out of poverty by their own bootstraps? They’re simply taking advantage of others!”

Maybe you’ve never been that Scroogy, But there are plenty of Scrooges in our world.
You’ve met Scrooge, somewhere in your life, perhaps you shook his hand and admired him for his skill in business, perhaps you wondered what was the secret of his wealth. Perhaps you worked for him, and wondered what would ever please him enough to give you a raise.Perhaps you had business dealings with him, and walked away shaking your head, wondering how he could be so cruel.

Scrooge is still alive and well. Some things never change.
In the coming weeks, as we hear again the story of Scrooge,
it will be the same story with the same events and the same ending.
The story once told does not change.

We also will hear again the story of the birth of Jesus. It is not, however, a static story, unless we fail to participate in it. Then it is as much a fable or fairy tale as anything Dickens wrote. The words of the story are the same every year; it is our response, the change it evokes in us, that make Christmas a time of transformation. The story itself does not changes, but it changes us.

We hear the words of Isaiah and perhaps we hear Handel’s Messiah: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. We don’t stop to regard those words as anything more than music, never thinking much about what it means that this babe in the manger is wonderful, mighty, everlasting, the prince of peace. This sweet little baby is all that? He is going to do all that? Yes, the prophet assures us. “His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace.”

Mary’s song affirms this, not only in the future, but right now! God is not simply going to do this, but in the birth of this child, it is already accomplished: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Oh, really? That has already happened?
That’s not what the world looks like. That’s not what Scrooge’s economy looks like.
In his world, it is “Every man for himself” even as the carolers sing, “God bless you merry gentlemen” Bah, humbug! you say?

But God’s story, God’s Christmas carol, says otherwise. God’s Christmas carol strengthens us and empowers us to change and to bring about change for others, to bring Mary’s song into reality: to lift up the lowly, to fill the hungry with good things.

Columnist Michael Gerson says, “Christianity teaches that everyone broken, sick and lonely – everyone beneath our notice or beneath our contempt – is, somehow, Christ among us. ‘Those people’ are also ‘our people.’ We show [them] civility and respect, not because the men and women who share our path always deserve it or return it, but because they bear a divine image that can never be completely erased. No change of president or shift in the composition of the Supreme Court can result in the repeal of the Golden Rule.”[5] This Prince of Peace who comes to us as a tiny infant is God-with-us, “disguised under every type of humanity that treads the earth,” according to Dorothy Day.

Through Christ in us, as we participate in the incarnation,
God takes the sorrow of this wounded world and turns it into joy.

Through Christ in us,
God takes those broken on the treadmill of poverty and restores them to wholeness.

Through Christ in us,
God lifts up the lowly, binds up the broken-hearted, speaks peace to violence.

The prophet sang of God’s change-making, from captivity and war to freedom and peace. Mary sang of our change-making God, who makes wholeness from what is broken, who restores the fortunes of those who have nothing, who rescues us from bondage and sets us free. This is the message of Christmas, the song of peace, the song of the world.

As you came into the sanctuary for worship today, you were given a small bell on a card.
Keep one of these cards, and take another for a friend. We encourage you to put this bell on your keychain, or your coat, as a reminder of the peace of Christ, ringing out across the universe, to waken us to our own transformation, 
making change in our hearts, 
making change in our homes,
making change in our community, 
making change in our world.

The miracle has just begun…in YOU…for the sake of the world.
God bless us, every one.


[5] Gerson, Michael. “Evangelical disquiet contrasts with season of hope” Washington Post, 11/23/16

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