A sermon written for Christmas in July Sunday.
I’m a self-professed West Wing nerd. I can admit my fixation.
The West Wing is the television show that defined my formative college and young adult years. I own all seven series on DVD which I periodically watch from start to finish. I own a copy of The West Wing Script Book written by the show’s creator and writer, Aaron Sorkin. I’m also guilty of proclaiming my intent to vote: Jedidiah Bartlet for President. And I’ve recently become a regular audience member for The West Wing Weekly podcast, an episode-by-episode discussion of the series hosted by a former cast member.
Through the podcast I was reminded of a fantastic episode in Season One: In Excelsis Deo, and I was also reminded that it’s time for me to watch the series from the start again. This Christmas-y episode authentically and emotionally presents to the audience several hot-button issues, including homelessness and veteran’s care.
I offer you the NBC episode guide:
“As Christmas Eve approaches, President Bartlet eagerly sneaks out of the White House for some last-minute Christmas shopping, while a haunted Toby learns more about a forgotten Korean War hero who died alone on the district’s cold streets wearing a coat that Toby once donated to charity. In other hushed corridors, Sam and Josh ignore Leo’s advice and consult Sam’s call-girl-friend concerning her confidential clientele when one political rival hints at exposing Leo’s previous drug problem. C.J. wonders aloud about the President’s public response to a notorious hate crime while her personal resolve weakens as persistent reporter continues to ask her out.”
In short, Senior Staffer Toby Ziegler uses the President’s name to arrange a military honor guard and a funeral for a homeless Korean War veteran.
The artistic work in this particular episode beautifully juxtaposes:
the affluence of Capital Hill with poverty in the city,
the warmth of the White House Christmas celebrations with the bitter cold life on the streets,
concern over saving one job with failing to employ veterans,
the joy of holiday celebrations and the sadness of grief.
Similarly, our Lukan version of the annunciation is one full of juxtapositions. This is the story of the announcement of a royal birth… to the shepherds living in the fields.
Any birth is a celebration. A royal birth is an event.
When Duchess Kate and Prince William were expecting their children, international media had a field day for the nine months she was pregnant with each child, and they still clamor to share stories of the children as they grow.
A royal birth…it was not the same as the royal birth.
“10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’”
Recently at Presbyterian Youth Triennium, Dr. Rodger Nishioka shared that we have a job to do. Our job, like the shepherds, is to pay attention. Our job is to witness the joys and troubles of others, and then go…
…go and see what is going on so that we can learn what we need to learn…
…go and see what is to be seen so that we can go and share with the world…
…go and witness miracles to bring light into someone’s darkness…
…go and witness plights of our neighbors in order to shine light on them for the world to know.
Our job, according to Dr. Nishioka, is “when we see something, we must say something.”
Isaiah wants us to see our neighbors.
I’m glad we’re exploring the birth of our Lord today outside of the Advent and Christmas season, because too often we’re wrapped up in the things that need to be done during that season to stop and praise God accordingly and be attuned to the darkness around as the prophets’ appeal to us.
Isaiah speaks the uncomfortable words that we don’t want to hear or face during the joy of the Christmas season.
“land of deep darkness”
“rod of his oppressor”
“garments rolled in blood”
The reality of Scripture is this: God chose, “at the moment God appeared in human form,” to be present in the middle of the muck. The story of God’s appearance to the lowly, dirty, filthy, stinky, isolated shepherds – that’s the Holy Family’s story.
This royal family’s story is not one of palaces,
rather it’s one of migration at the requirement of the government.
It’s not the story media outlets waited days outside a hospital to share,
rather it’s one of angels appearing in the middle of the field and telling the outcasts to go and tell the others.
This birth mom didn’t have a relaxing few days leading up to labor,
rather she was busy traveling with no time to rest or prepare before her son was born.
The word we get from Isaiah and Luke is of God who appears in the middle of everything to those who don’t have leisure time to sit and praise the way God should be praised. The story we get is that God came to us bringing good news for the defeated, the outcasts, the downtrodden, the uncomfortable – this is not an announcement for the privileged and the comfortable.
The Wonderful Counselor has come. Mighty God has born. Our Everlasting Father is here with us. The Prince of Peace is establishing a government of justice and righteousness and unending accord.
And the first ones to hear about it all: the shepherds. The fieldworkers. The unclean ones. Those who aren’t deserving. Because that’s where God chooses to be present. And when they learned of the birth, they said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this ting that has happened to us, which the Lord has made known to us.” And after that: “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (v. 20).
Scholar David Lose says this about our passages today:
“But note: when God decided to get personally involved, God didn’t come to punish, or frighten, or scold, or threaten, or any of the other things that are often attributed to God (sometimes even by people in the church!). Instead, God came to tell us that we are loved, deeply, truly, and forever.”
I think that was Toby’s goal with the veteran: to show the respect, gratitude, appreciation, and even love that the man merited. Toby recognized that his position, his privilege, afforded him the ability to do something of significance for someone else. Sure, he was chastised for his choice to invoke the President’s name without authorization, but he stood firm in is resolve that he made the right decision.
When President Bartlet says to him,
“Toby, if we start pulling strings like this you don’t think every homeless veteran will come out of the woodwork?,” he responds without hesitation “I can only hope, Sir.”
We have been employed through this birth narrative. We have been given a job for Christmas. We must open our eyes. We must open our ears. We must expect the unexpected to happen to us, or to someone else. And we must be prepared to go and say something.
“When God surveyed humanity and realized how dark and difficult our days could be, how confused we get about our identity and place, how many painful things we do to each other out of that confusion and insecurity, God decided to do something about it. And so after giving the law and sending the prophets, God got involved. Personally, intimately involved with God’s fallen creation. And just to make sure we got the point, God first brought that message embodied in the flesh by Jesus to people the world was pretty sure weren’t particularly important or, for that matter, loved: no account shepherds, an unwed teenage mom, astrologers practicing a whole different religion. All of this to show that God wasn’t going to leave anyone behind. That God’s message of love was for all. As in everyone, whether the world thought you were important or lovable or not. And that’s still the way it is.”
Good or bad, when God appears in the middle of everything – in a night club in Florida, in a mass service in France, in an elementary school in Connecticut, at the birth of a child, in the gathering of superior athletes from across the globe for the Olympics, in the delight of a child playing – when God appears in the midst, it’s because God’s chosen to appear there and has chosen for us to bear witness.
We are expected to respond as faithfully as the shepherds.
When God gets involved, it’s time for us to get to work.
Where there is darkness, we must create spaces of light, trust and peace.
Where there is elation, we must magnify the good news with praise to our Creator for the joy.
But either way, we speak. We say something. We go, we share.
We proclaim. We protest.
We ingest the things which God has made known to us,
and we act…we do…we say something, accordingly.
To the God in our midst – the God of infants, exhausted moms and overwhelmed dads, frightened shepherds and elated angels – the God who came to bring us salvation and peace and love and hope, be all glory, honor, majesty, prayers, and praise.
 Dr. Rodger Nishioka, Presbyterian Youth Triennium, July 19, 2016