When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were
like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our
tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, "The Lord
has done great things for them." The Lord has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced. Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in
the Negeb. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who
go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts
of joy, carrying their sheaves.
"Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves; we will
come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves." I never sang songs like that in
the Presbyterian church when I was growing up, but I did at my great Uncle
Paulís mountain farm, where my momís large and religious family would gather
for reunions. My great Uncle Chuck, brother to Great Uncle Paul, married a
woman whose honor was in dispute, like Joseph did in the Christmas story. A
child was born to them, my second cousin Cheryl. I suppose it might have
been the shame surrounding the circumstances of her birth that drew her in
mid-life to an extremely personal faith in Jesus. She and her dad
particularly loved to sing old camp meeting hymns that I rarely heard
elsewhere: "The old rugged cross, where the dearest and best for a world of
lost sinners was slain." "I walk in the garden alone, while the dew is still
on the roses. . .He walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I
am his own. And the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever
known." "Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine. . ."
During my year in Vietnam cousin Cheryl sent me
fundamentalist books, hoping to make a convert. She didnít succeed, exactly.
I had too much book learning already and too much experience of strange
grace among my comrades in arms, who were Buddhists and animists and God
knows what all, to be content with her ways. But Cheryl did persuade me to
seek something I didnít know I was missing, that is, a personal relationship
with Jesus. I recognized later that that was the common theme running
through those old hymns which she and her dad loved so: a personal
relationship to a living Lord. Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! We
walk in the garden alone. He walks with me and he talks with me and he tells
me I am his own.
Strange as it seems, no teacher in Sunday school had ever
taught me that Jesus could be my friend-- someone to walk with and talk
with. Cheryl did. She sent me literature that said: If youíre skeptical
about this, just do an experiment. Ask Jesus to come into your heart. If you
think this is just hocus pocus, give it a try. What do you have to lose?
Now, I have always been one to try things for myself; and so, I went for it.
I asked Jesus to come into my heart. And he did. I experienced deep peace
and joy then, although nothing had changed around me. (I still had to go on
patrol.) "My peace I give to you," says Jesus in Johnís gospel, "not as the
world gives." Wasnít that the truth!--not just because the good book told me
so, but because I had run the experiment, and found out for myself. Those
old hymns tell about something very real and precious, a personal
relationship with a living Lord. Iím grateful to my fundamentalist kin for
awakening me to that kind of faith.
However, as I said, I could not be one of them. I could
not bear to read the Bible in their literal way, and I could not stay
fixated upon personal salvation. I suppose the Presbyterians had already
steeped me in the conviction that the good news about Jesus is much broader
than that. Jesus is much more than a friend, a counselor, a personal savior.
Heís Lord of life, not just my soul. When Paul wrote that nothing can
separate us from the love of God in Jesus, not powers or principalities, he
meant to convey the truth that Jesus is Lord of politics, too.
Now, I know that some of you get upset when I mention
politics from the pulpit; but if I didnít talk about politics at least from
time to time in connection with Jesus, then I would be shying away from an
important dimension of life in which Jesus is Lord. Restricting Christianity
to concerns about personal righteousness shrinks the lordship of Jesus. It
also turns a deaf ear to a good part of our Jewish heritage, the prophetic
part, which teaches that God saves a whole people, a people called out by
God for a special purpose, a people from whom God demands just use of power.
And what is the just use of power but good politics?
Last weekend a Jewish scholar, Amy-Jill Levine, lectured
at Westminster church in Wilmington about the Christmas story. Amy-Jill is
Jewish, but she has a deep respect for Christians, largely because she got
to know Catholics as she was growing up--even audited a confirmation class
with her Catholic best friend. Amy-Jill doesnít experience Jesus as her
personal savior, but she honors Christians who do. Christmas certainly is
about Godís spirit entering into human consciousness in an incomparably
personal way, she affirms. But Christmas is also about politics, she says;
not partisan politics mind you, but politics understood as Godís demand that
human beings use power justly. In other words, Christmas is every bit as
much about social justice as it is about the advent of a personal savior.
What are some evidences of that? Well, when Mary hears
from an angel that she is to bear the Messiah she rejoices and praises God
(in Luke 2: 46ff). She sings:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God
my Savior. . .for the Mighty One has done great things for me. . .he has
scattered the proud. . .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."
Now, if that isnít political talk, what is?
Another example: When Christians started preaching the
good news (evangelion) that Jesus was their Lord (kurios) and
savior (soteros), they were taking the emperorís language and using
it for their own purposes. For you see, we know from an inscription on a
lintel in the ruins of the ancient city of Ephesus that the Roman Emperor
Augustus Caesar had already published the good news (evangelion) that
he was the savior (soteros) of the world, and that he was Lord
(kurios). Augustus, incidentally, also encouraged the legend that he
was begotten by a god, and not in the usual way. So, the Christmas story can
be understood as a daring anti-story rebutting the propaganda of the
emperor. The good news to the people of the Roman Empire, therefore, was not
that Caesar was their lord and savior, but rather, Jesus was.
The story of the three magi (astrologers) following the
star to the place where the baby Jesus was born--that story, too can be
understood in a political way, said Amy-Jill. For it was very common in the
ancient world to look for signs in the heavens whenever something monumental
was about to happen on earth. And what was the monumental event in the
Christmas story? It was an anti-event: not that a promising baby was born to
royalty, but rather, to an ordinary couple; and not that he was born in a
palace, but rather, in a stable. Again, the details of the Christmas story
must have carried inescapable political meaning for people who were being
bombarded daily by propaganda that was designed to justify their subjection.
Our Advent passage this morning from Isaiah says: "The
spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has
sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to
proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God."
One has to work mighty hard not to hear the political
intent in that passage. Itís all about social justice, the goal of good
politics. The oppressed are going to be set free! The baddies are going to
get whatís coming to them! Thatís the same message we heard in Maryís
jubilant song. The old regime is about to end. Hallelujah! This is the stuff
we customarily read just before Christmas, church. But if we are fixated on
Jesus as just a personal savior, itís bound to go right over our heads.
Now, as Iím about to bring this sermon to a close, I
return to the title: "Bringing in the Sheaves." That doesnít seem very
political, does it? At first glance, Psalm 126, reads like a regular harvest
hymn. Thanks be to God, who will bring us a good crop and security from
want. "We will come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves"-- lovely
thanksgiving hymn. Ah, but if we know the historical context of this psalm,
we are likely to see more in it than a thanksgiving hymn. The psalm likely
derives from the time when the weary Jewish exiles were returning home from
Babylon. Resettling was mighty hard for them. Foreigners living there
werenít happy to see them return. They made their lives dangerous and
miserable. Thatís why the psalm says that the people of God were sewing in
tears. There wasnít any evidence that their labor would come to anything.
All the evidence pointed in the opposite direction. A sensible person would
have said: Why bother, letís be done with this. Letís get out of here! But
the psalmist had faith in God. Not just faith that he himself would be
saved, but that his people would be saved. So, he sang a crazily jubilant
song which said: I know that everything looks bleak, but I put my faith in
God. Godís gonna turn things around. Someday we shall overcome. There will
be peace, with justice. We sew in tears now, but we shall come rejoicing one
day, bringing in the sheaves. Thanks be to God! This is the Christmas good
news, personal and political: We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the