Christmas in Iowa

A sermon preached by Christopher L, Webber on at St. Pail’s Church Bantam Connecticut on Christmas Eve 2011

Aren’t you glad you don’t live in Iowa?  Can you imagine what it’s been like for the last few weeks when you wanted to do Christmas planning, make decisions about gifts, set up a tree, all of that, and night and day you were being told you need to vote for – well, you know the names – or maybe you don’t because it’s not our problem, not at the moment anyway.

But suppose you did live in Iowa  and now you still had to face another nine days from Christmas until after New Year’s Day of being constantly told  that you needed to vote for candidate X to save the world. Turn on your television or radio,  pick up your newspaper and there it is again. I saw recently that already the independent Political Action Committees have spent six million dollars and there are only three million Iowans and that doesn’t include the money the campaigns have spent themselves.

It’s times like this when you can be glad to be a Christian because one thing a Christian knows is  it doesn’t really matter.  Don’t misunderstand.  Yes, it’s important and I think most of us ought to pay more attention to politics than we do. But it’s not THAT important.  Whoever wins in Iowa, whoever wins the Republican nomination, whoever is elected president for the next four years, if you are a Christian, you have a perspective that makes a critical difference. Not one of these candidates is going to save the world.  That’s been done.  Jesus did it already. And the best any one of them can hope to do is make things a bit better for a little while – maybe.

I think the problem we have in American politics (and there are historical reasons for it)  is expecting too much. Whether it’s Iran’s nuclear program  or the cost of health care or dozens of other similar issues, one man or woman will not resolve it any time soon. Give me a break.  These are human beings; nothing more. We tend to forget that. They’re human; they’re limited by their experience and wisdom and advisors and pressure from every side.

We’re not choosing a messiah.  But we figure if we could just get  a different president,  we could live in a better neighborhood  and the kids would get better marks and my car wouldn’t ever break down  and I would never again be frustrated by my computer or spouse or job  or the NY Mets. If we just elected the right president,  it would all be just fine.  Christians know better.  Christians know what human beings are because we read the Bible.

I was listening to a call in program on radio a couple of weeks ago and a caller was telling the host  who is pretty far to the right that the problem with Libertarians (who are even further to the right) is that they think they can save the world  but, he said, they forget  that human beings are sinful.  The host said “Oh no, that’s a terrible point of view.” “It’s the Christian faith,” said the caller;  “Read your Bible.”  But the host hung up on him saying, “Terrible, Terrible.”

But the caller had it right.  And, yes, not just Libertarians but liberals and conservatives  of any and every party and clearly the talk show host tend to forget the basic Biblical doctrine of human nature: we are born in sin, raised in a sinful society, soaked in sin from birth to death. You cannot even go from breakfast to dinner a single day without one single self-centered thought: “I need.  I want.”  Can’t be done.  And every candidate for office –  all of them – have flaws.  They’re like us. They’re human.  And if you are frustrated now, you will also be frustrated this time next year  and the year after and the year after no matter who is elected.  We need to know that.  We need to keep politics in perspective.

I hear that there are certain churches and clergy in Iowa who take sides, line up behind one candidate or another  as the best for Christians to support. Big mistake.  The church and clergy are here  to talk about God, not candidate X, and to remind everyone who will listen  that no candidate is perfect even if saying that offends half the congregation.  But the minute we look to someone  other than Jesus as a Savior,  that minute, we are in big trouble.  And bigger trouble because we set our human hopes too high.

We haven’t changed that much, you know, in 2000 years.  The people of Israel 2000 years ago were frustrated by long years of Roman rule and they wanted freedom  and they imagined that God would send them a Messiah to set things right – beat up the Romans, “take our country back,” as they say, lower the tax rate, end the occupation,  get me a better job  and a house in a nicer neighborhood.  That’s what they wanted and it’s what most people still want.  But what they got – well, what they got was what you’ve seen in the pictures  on the Christmas cards –  touched up a bit, photo shopped to make the animals look friendlier and the straw look softer  and all that but what they got, bottom line, was a baby who couldn’t change a single thing.

What they got was a Messiah who told them to turn the other cheek and get on with it.  What they got was Jesus. What they got was so angry and frustrated because they thought they knew what God would do  – that God would give them what they wanted – that they couldn’t see what God was doing  and they killed their own Savior. And we’ve been doing it ever since.

We believe we know what God is doing in the world and can’t hear what others are saying who have a different vision.  If I were not a Christian  and heard Christians denouncing each other as happens in this country today I would never go near a church.  When faithful Christians line up on opposite sides it’s time to stop shouting and try to listen. It’s time to look and see what God is doing  and try to listen  and encourage others to listen or look carefully at what they see and pray for guidance and deeper understanding.

Let me tell you what I see.  Let me tell you what I see God doing.  You can see it yourself on almost every Christmas card. I see a newborn baby lying in a manger and I hear God saying: “Look and learn.”

Now, that is not what people wanted in Jesus time or in ours. It’s not a lower income tax  or a super majority in Congress or a fence high enough to stop illegal immigrants  or universal health care or an eternal supply of non-polluting energy or an army strong enough to control  Iraq and Iran and Pakistan and North Korea and all the places in the world  that are angry at somebody. If that’s our need, this is no answer.  A baby has no power to do that. But God sees deeper than we do and sends us a baby. And you see, a baby solves none of our problems  in any obvious way.  A baby has no power to change anything. But a baby does what no politician can do:  he calls out of us – evokes in us – love and joy and hope. He calls it out of us.  He doesn’t give it to us or compel us to respond but draws out of us, evokes in us,  love and healing and peace.

What happens to a roomful of people  standing and talking about one thing and another, their concerns, their frustrations,  when someone comes in with a baby. The whole atmosphere changes, doesn’t it?  The emphasis is no longer on my concerns, what I want or need, but about the joy and hope of a new life. And that’s the whole difference.  People were hoping that God would do it for them, come down from above in power and solve their problems but God came instead into our lives, lived among us as one of us and never compelled, never threatened,  never raised an army or increased taxes but showed us the power of love.

It’s so simple and so basic and so hard to see because of our self-centeredness. But change comes from love, not power.

The people of India fought the British for a century and lost, and then followed Ghandi’s non-resistance to freedom. Northern armies attempted to remake the south  after the Civil War by military rule and brought on the Ku Klux Klan  and an epidemic of lynching that lasted a hundred years, but then Martin Luther King Jr and others set about to use the power of love and non-resistance and the south began to change and did change and will never again be the same.

There have been great conquerors in history:  Genghis Khan and Napoleon and Stalin and Hitler  wh brought death and destruction but changed nothing.  And there is that baby in the manger who transformed the Roman Empire and changed the world.

Think how in recent centuries a wave of missionaries  went out and changed the world. Anywhere you travel in Asia or Africa  you find schools and hospitals  planted by missionaries where no such things had been  but are commonplace now.

We have two models of change on display in the middle east:  Iraq where the American military spent ten years  trying to build democracy and Egypt where young people have set out to build democracy with no military power all.  We can’t tell yet what will happen, but I have more hope for Egypt than Iraq.

I think we need to bear the Christmas gospel in mind  as we move on into an election year. I ask that you keep this picture of Bethlehem in mind as you go on with your life.  Remember what God has done and see what God asks us to do by humbling ourselves, putting others first, trusting in love not power. Isaiah said it centuries before Bethlehem: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord of Hosts.”

That’s exactly right.  And now we have seen it ourselves. And now the world needs to see that Spirit  in you and me.

Leave a comment

Your comment