Christmas Eve, 24 December 2005
Isaiah 7:10 Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test. 13Then Isaiah said: "Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.
Salaam and grace to you from the Holy Land, the birthplace of our savior, Jesus the baby.
From out of the swirl of holiday acts and celebrations and the burden of daily living, people come to the manger seeking peace. It is the task of those who proclaim the Good News of Christ to point the way to God's eternal peace. For those of us in the Holy Land it is a difficult task indeed. The question engulfs us: Will the people in this sacred place ever be allowed to live in peace with their sisters and brothers? Are we destined to hear the hollow words of peace where there is no justice, of calm that is only an illusion? Where are the signs of peace?
In the reading from Isaiah, God addresses King Ahaz of Judah who faces hard choices about how to keep his people from being destroyed by two allies, the kings of Syria and Ephraim, the kingdom of Judah's kin that had broken away in a painful divide. God told Ahaz not to fear these kings, for they would not succeed in conquering him. God even invited the King to ask for a sign that this assurance was true, but Ahaz refused on the pretext of being too humble to trouble God. The truth was, the prophet Isaiah had been prophesying and offering signs to the King and his people that the way to avoid destruction was not in alliances with the powerful but in faithful covenant with their God of justice and righteousness. The truth was, Ahaz had already decided to put his trust in his own interpretation of the signs of the time and seek an alliance with the regional superpower, Assyria, a move that he considered politically correct, but which, according to Isaiah, would ultimately lead his people to destruction.
But doesn't the prophetic Christmas text also describe our time today? People like Ahaz like to side with the power. Power is the sign of our world. This power is driving our world to destruction. This power is justifying injustice with subtle arguments, defending occupation with the argument of security, using violence in the name of self-defense and terror for political gain, and causing division among nations with the goal of domination.One would warn that all of this causes political and religious extremism and more xenophobia and neo-colonialism in our modern world. Power exercised in such a way fosters self-adulation among the powerful and frightens poor nations, driving them to seek the favor of the powerful as if they were gods.
Many of us are asking what to do. Who will help us? With what power shall we align ourselves in order to survive? With the power of weapons? With the power of violence or terror? Or do we just give up? Powerlessness breeds hopelessness and it has dangerous consequences. What kind of future could there be for us? What kind of life? In his situation King Ahaz saw only war and crushing defeat ahead. He could not accept God's words of assurance. When God offered to give him a sign of his own choosing, he declined because, sign or no sign, the powers against him seemed much more real and much stronger than the truthfulness of God's words. But such hopelessness breeds faithlessness, and God has hard words for Ahaz's faithlessness. It wearies God, and God says, "If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all." Oh, but how can we stand? God help us!
Out of great mercy, God gives Ahaz a sign in spite of himself: a young woman is to give birth to a child who will be named Immanuel, "God is with us." By the time this child is old enough to know right from wrong, the danger will be past; the threatened destruction will never materialize. The threatening power would have departed so dramatically that many mothers in Judah would name their newborn sons "Immanuel," God is with us. In other words, Immanuel would become a very popular child's name in the years ahead. However, the name would be a sign as proof to Ahaz, not that the Syrio-Ephraimite threat had already vanished, but that God was thus acknowledged to be with his people. The choice of the name Immanuel would be a mark on the part of the mothers contrasting with Ahaz's lack of faith. It was the faith of such simple, devout folk which ultimately would be rewarded. Isaiah here and elsewhere predicts the survival of a remnant, through whom God's own choice as King and Messiah would one day come. Judgment could not be God's last word for God's own people; the day would come when the virgin would conceive and bear a Son whose name would signify the final and definitive salvation of his people (Matthew 1:21). Then at last, God's presence would be with his people in a very different and wonderful way, experienced not in the sudden absence of the enemies but rather in the abiding presence of the Son of God.
Matthew drew on this passage when telling his story of the birth of Jesus. For Jesus was born in a time of such powerlessness leading to hopelessness, pulling people to faithlessness. In Matthew's gospel we see a troubled region dominated by violent politics. Again another king, Herod this time, fears the power of a rival king announced to him by wise men. Since this king was to be born in Bethlehem, Herod killed the children of Bethlehem and made the newborn Jesus a refugee. There were no angels singing peace on earth and making shepherds glad in this story. Neither heaven nor earth could rejoice at such a time. Nevertheless in this powerlessness, there is "God with us," plunging into the depths of the sorrow of his people.
Although this child Jesus grew to know right from wrong, he allowed himself to absorb all the hopelessness and faithlessness of his people as if it were his own, even dying shamefully on the cross, apparently defeated by the powers of the time. But God raised him from the dead and made him king in a realm encompassing all heaven and earth. He is a different kind of king, a king who comes in ways we don't always recognize to places we wouldn't expect. It is as Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons said in the second century, "It was for this reason that the Lord gave a sign here below and in heaven above that man had not asked for. Man had neither hoped that a virgin could be with child and bear a son…nor that this child would be God with us, coming down to the earth below in search of the sheep that was lost (which he himself had made) and once again ascending on high and offering in trust to the Father the man he had found."
No power on earth frightens our Immanuel. So self-confident is he that he shares not only his power, but his very life, body, blood, and breath with us through water, bread, wine, all permeated by his own Holy Spirit. Through the Holy Spirit, God shapes our lives to look like Jesus' life. Our hope is not in the politics or the powerbrokers. Our hope is in the power and presence of God with us, creating something new, transforming us with love, giving us a different way of living. Our hope is in the One born among us, in the very midst of the walls and the gates and the turmoil. Our hope is in the One who, by his willingness to enter into the darkness and sufferings of this world, forges a new path of light through them. "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined" (Isaiah 9:2).
We need another Isaiah who would stand in the midst of us and say, "I want to give the powerless and the powerful a sign. This sign is that the virgin will conceive and bear Immanuel. Will you accept the powerlessness of Immanuel instead of the power of the powerful? I wish I could stand today and tell my people that freedom is coming soon. I wish I could tell the Israelis and Palestinians alike that fear and insecurity will no longer characterize the Holy Land, no fear of bloodshed and killing, or violence, or wall, or home demolition. But, insofar as I cannot give this message, I can tell both nations not to trust power but to trust the sign of God, the Immanuel, the God with us. God's power comes in apparent weakness. In our powerlessness we have to go to the manger and trust Immanuel, who can change this fear into trust, injustice into justice, and hatred into the power of compassion and forgiveness and love.
In the United States in the 1960s, many African Americans were looking for signs of hope and finding grim realities. Martin Luther King Jr. and others like him forged a new path of nonviolent love, courage and commitment. In 1968, four days before he was killed, he preached his last Sunday sermon about how he felt people of that time were "sleeping through a revolution." Sometimes, I think that the world now is sleeping through a "devolution:" We focus on outer, superficial signs of progress and events but ignore that we are going backward in our abilities to treat one another with simple human dignity. Instead of progressing toward finding alternatives to war and bloodshed, we are relying more and more on militarization, violence and coercion. What Dr. King said then is still relevant now:
"Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood [and sisterhood]. We must all learn to live together as brothers [and sisters] or we will all perish together as fools."
Our hope is in the power of God born that quiet, dark, Bethlehem night that propels people of faith and courage to live lives dedicated to human love, dignity, justice and peace. Our signs of hope are everywhere we see people overcoming great obstacles of fear, anger and bigotry to foster the greater humanity of love and justice. Our signs of hope are not in the politics but the people and power of God. These people and their work do not necessarily make news headlines or get media attention, but they are the signs that, as Dr. King said, allow us to "hew out of the mountain of despair the stone of hope."
One sign of hope that we have received from our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world is the presence of people to walk with us in our lives and in our experiences. At the request of the heads of the local churches in Jerusalem, the World Council of Churches began its Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) three years ago. Accompaniers do not come with political power for change. They and others come with the power of love that stands with the powerless. They form a human chain of companionship and communication with our global community so that we know that we are not alone. This is an embodiment of God's truthful words: God has sealed God's love for us with this sign that can never be taken away: Immanuel, "God is with us," Allah ma' na in Arabic.
Such hope is what may stem the tide of Palestinian Christians who are emigrating from their land out of fear of the unstable political situation under the powers of this world. Now we Palestinian Christians can ask ourselves whether there is not a mystery in our being here, the mystery of the manger. With the power of God's Holy Spirit and the supportive love of God's family around the world, we explore how God is using us as witnesses here in this place, precisely because we are weak and powerless. We can demonstrate the kind of power that is divine without having to attach ourselves to the kind of power that the world fears and to which it bows down. I want to express gratitude to the churches of the world who have accompanied us in our powerlessness, but I also appeal to you as my sisters and brothers in Christ not to allow the power of the Holy Spirit to be stifled either in yourselves or in us, but to ensure that the mystery of Palestinian Christians continues so that the Christian witness in this place does not vanish.
We in the ELCJHL dwell in the type of humble but deep signs of hope that show us there is a power of God beyond us working with us and through us for the good of humanity, regardless of gender, race, creed or religion. Again we celebrate this amazing sign born unto us in the Christ child, Immanuel, God with us, born for you, born for me. In the very midst of our struggles, we are reminded of what we were made to be, ministers of reconciliation and instruments of God's great love, renewed every Christmas, every day in our hearts.
Soon we will hear again the angels singing Glory to God in the highest! Yet we hear them while we are locked behind concrete walls or held captive in shackles. For us here in the Holy Land, it is as if we have traveled so far and so long and still find no place at the inn.
But then we remember. We are people of the manger, whose Savior has warmed and welcomed us, the Savior who was born to break down the walls of hate and fear by transforming the love of power into the power of love, a power that enables us to continue to work with courage and sacrifice for the sake humanity. Immanuel means for us to live in forgiveness, dignity, justice, peace, and reconciliation.
We know that when our Glorias seem weak and the light seems to fade, you will come again, Immanuel, into our hearts and into our homes, into our streets and cities and refugee camps and villages, into Palestine and Israel and all the dark corners of the world that need your transforming light..
O holy child of Bethlehem,Descend to us we pray,
Bishop Dr. Munib Younan