December 24, 2015

Looking for a Leader


Text: Isaiah 9:7: “His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom.”

Dear friends, I don’t at all mean to start your Christmas off on a troubling note, as if a sixty-eight-degree December-the-twenty-fourth in New England were not troubling enough. But I am your pastor, whether you know it or not, and because I am your pastor it is my solemn responsibility to speak the truth, whether delightful or difficult; and therefore I feel heavily the burden of reminding you that when we gather again exactly one year from tonight, on December the 24th of 2016, we will already know who our next president will be.

I don’t know about you, but if I think about that too much, I’m just about ready to climb out on the bridge railing with George Bailey. I suppose somehow it will all come out all right, but just the prospect of living through another ten months of what we’ve already seen and heard of the best we seem to be able to come up with as candidates—well, it fills me with something like dread.

We are looking for a leader. It is something we do on a regular cycle in our way of organizing our civic life. But after the year of trouble and turmoil we’ve had, with a world that seems to be coming unglued and a planet that seems a little wobbly in its orbit, the scale of the challenges ahead does not seem to be matched by the quality of leadership on offer. Our choices seem to range from self-conscious posturing to entitled presumption to self-absorbed narcissism. And we are—at least if we’re paying attention—a little discomfited at what lies ahead.

So—you might well be wondering—what does any of this have to do with the baby in the feeding trough, and the poor family huddling out in the barn because no one would take them in?

When I see all of you from this perch on Christmas Eve I always know that about half of you are people I might see on any given Sunday the other eleven months of the year here inside this little jewel-box of a church—and the other half are those of you who come from far and wide to find yourself here once a year on this night of nights and expecting that we will be here to see you. In fact we have been very busy getting the place ready for you.

This little space of eight minutes or so each year is the moment when the two conversations of our two groups come together, just for a little bit.

And what I know about all of us is that—whether we know it or not—when we come into this place on this night for this hour and this celebration, we are looking for a leader. That is the version of this story for grown-ups, after all.

We all know the version of the story we’re given as children, and that we give to our children when they come along. It’s the story about Mary and Joseph and the unkind innkeeper, and the barn and the donkeys and the cattle are lowing, and the shepherds out on the hill who are the first to get the news. But you know, even in the children’s version of the story there are people looking for a leader. For heaven’s sake, three of them are kings themselves.

It’s the grown-up version of this story that may be the one we need to give some deep reflection this year. Because we cannot understand what is distinctive, and crucially important, about the Christian understanding of God without understanding the grown-up version of this night.

And we are heading into a time in our history when is becoming increasingly important for us to understand these things, and increasingly difficult for us to know how to articulate them.

We know we live in a culture colored by many different and incompatible views on matters of religion and ultimate truth.

And it has never been more important to find the words to state those claims in ways that make clear our beliefs and leave room for others to state their claims as well.

And yet, dear friends, do not forget that on this very night, this Christmas Eve, there are people in the world who, because they will not refuse to call themselves Christians, will be killed.

So it is well to remind ourselves what they, and we, claim to be true.

We claim that the tiny, vulnerable baby lying in the food trough is the leader we are looking for—and what is more, that the world desperately needs.

We claim that God acted through the birth of this child, the teaching and ministry of the man he became, the death that he endured, and the life to which he was restored. And through all of that God acted for a very specific purpose: To break once and for all the endless, evil cycle of violence through which we fallen humans have foolishly sought safety and justice, and which we have wrongly excused by ascribing it to God.

When we hear those old words about the yoke of our burden and the bar across our shoulders, that is what the Bible is talking about. It is the burden of our love affair with violence, whether it’s in our statecraft or our political discourse or our entertainment or our sports on Sunday. It is the back-breaking bar of fear that keeps us stooped down and will not let us stand up to become the higher selves God made us to be.

This old story may seem creaky and threadbare. It may be hard to get back in the spirit of Christmas when it’s seventy degrees out on Christmas Eve and things are so bad at the mall that Macy’s puts up a giant sign that just says “Believe!” As though the purpose of our belief was to help Macy’s.

I know it may be hard. But this all actually happened. That baby really was born.

And if there seems to be more to this story than science will permit, God knows that the only way we’ve ever been able to improve our lives in the first place is to imagine the possibility of something true beyond what we can prove.

Well, this is the truth that we claim. The baby, the vulnerable, frightened child, was God’s solution to the problem of the leader we need. Because God knows that we—no matter how young or old, no matter how rich or poor, no matter how obscure or accomplished, whether we can admit it or not—every one of us is vulnerable and frightened, too.

And this is the truth we claim: When people started listening to the man that child became, when they started believing his message that love is more important than power, and that justice cannot not be found without mercy and forgiveness, it shook the very foundations of the world’s order, and frightened the holders of power so much that they could not risk letting him live.

And this is the truth that we claim: God’s purpose was not thwarted, but fulfilled, when they tried to kill him; because when it was all over, when Christmas at last became Easter, it showed finally and forever that violence cannot win in the end.

The leader who taught these things, who gave us the path out of this vale of tears, is the leader we are looking for. And that is the child that has been born to us. Authority—real authority—rests on his shoulders. His authority shall grow continually because we, and everyone else drawn in by this story, will find the courage and the compassion to follow him as leaders in our own day, living by the law of love.

Again this night we’ve gathered in this place to remind ourselves of a story. And in the days between now and the next time we hear it, we must hold on to the truth that we claim: Because of this story, and only because of this story, we still see the holy possibility of justice with righteousness; and someday, because of a God who came to us in our vulnerability, peace forevermore. Amen.