Sermon – Christmas Eve – 12/24/15

Categories: Church,Sermons

Rev. Joe ConnollySource of Peace

by Rev. Joe Connolly

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“In those days the Emperor Augustus published a decree ordering a census of the Roman world.” — Luke 2:1.

Rabbi Baruch had been sleeping for some time. Suddenly he was wide awake. Loud banging noises cluttered the air.

He would have jumped up if his old bones had allowed for that. But he was advanced in years, no longer possessing the agility of youth.

Slowly he placed his feet on the floor and with some pain stood. The noise kept repeating. He heard shouts also.

“It’s those shepherd boys,” he said out loud. That too was another sign of age. Instead of simply thinking things, he said them out loud, even though he was the only audience. “Those shepherd boys are trying to annoy me, trying to make me come out and curse them.”

He knew and they knew he would not curse them. Not only was he a Rabbi. His very name, Baruch, meant blessing. So he blessed. He would not curse.

They were shepherds— the lowest of the low, a cut above common criminals— but these were his shepherds, boys he had hired to tend his flock. He knew they had good hearts.

And he knew exactly how they were making this racket. They were banging the metal gate that led to the stable open and shut, open and shut— bang, bang, bang, bang.

Baruch stood, paced carefully toward the door, pushed on it and put his head outside the frame. The noise of the gate stopped immediately. Together the boys shouted his name: “Rabbi Baruch! Rabbi Baruch!” and laughed. One of them asked, “Have you come to curse us Rabbi?”

The Rabbi waved at them. “No, I will not curse you. You know that.” The Rabbi then offered a blessing.

“May you be blessed,” he said. “May you be blessed far, far away from here. Please, go to the hills and be a blessing to the herd I hired you to watch.”

“Ah, Rabbi,” one of the boys said, “you are no fun.” The others laughed and then as one they turned and headed down the road toward the hills out of town.

Baruch went back inside, wide awake now. He sat and stared at a wall, contemplating about how he got to this small town, Bethlehem. It was not that far from Jerusalem. Even at his age he could walk from Jerusalem, where he had once lived, to Bethlehem in half a day.

But he knew he was getting old. And he was tired of what he had to put up with to live in Jerusalem. So he found this small place in Bethlehem where he could live out his years in some comfort, some peace. He kept sheep for income.

Because of his age he found boys in the village willing to help him, work for him. This keep the flock going.

And if he knew anything, he knew he needed to be in a place like Bethlehem, where it was at least more tranquil than the big city. He also knew he needed to get away from Jerusalem, get away the noise, the congestion, the politics.

Politics— a dirty business— politics, these days something which started and ended with Rome. The Rabbis and the Priests of the Temple seemed to be deeply involved in the politics of the Empire. They even were cooperating with this silly Roman census thing.

Everyone needed to go back to their towns it was said. But there was no room for all those people, certainly not in a tiny place like Bethlehem. Just this day he told a young man and his pregnant wife who had no place to stay they could at least find some shelter in the stable behind the house, if they liked.

He was sure the Rabbis and Priests in Jerusalem thought they were doing what they could for the people by cooperating with Rome. But were they?

After all, the Romans continued to crucify people every day. Yes, some were common criminals. But many were not. It seemed to him Romans simply liked to kill people.

This is what Roman theology said: peace through victory; peace is attained through victory. This much he knew: victory did not produce peace. Victory produced only a lull in the fighting, a brief break in war making.

And what about the ancient faith of Israel? How did that fit in with the Romans?

Caesar was not simply a ruler, not a king to them. Caesar was a God. And the Rabbis and Priests had to offer at least tacit acknowledgment of that to stay the good side of the Romans. Calling Caesar a god certainly sounded like blasphemy to Baruch.

Out loud, as he was given to do, Baruch spoke these words: “And where does the God of Israel, fit in if Caesar’s a god? Because of their belief in peace through victory the Romans even call Augustus a name attributed to my God, the God of Israel: ‘source of peace.’ Augustus— ‘source of peace’ Ha!”

Even though there was a tone of loathing in his voice, Baruch immediately realized what he, by implication, had done. He had taken the name of God in vain. He had cursed— a real curse, not a mere vulgarity. Out loud he had used the words ‘source of peace’— a title for God, and applied it not to the God of Israel but to Caesar Augustus.

What happened then was simply a physical reaction— he lifted his hand, spit between his forefinger and middle finger {the Pastor does this and that sound is heard}, fell to his knees and wept. He… had… cursed. Between his tears he said, “May God forgive me.” (Slight pause.)

Overcome with emotion, he must have either passed out or fallen asleep on the floor because the next thing he knew was he was looking at the ceiling and once again there was shouting and banging. Familiar voices called his name.

“Rabbi! Rabbi Baruch!” It was the boys. This time they burst through the door. They were all speaking at once about a light, singing, a baby.

The only words which made sense as they grabbed him by the arm were, “Come, come with us quickly. Come to the stable.”

They pushed him out the door, through the gate to the back of the house. There he saw a man and a woman and a baby. She had given birth. (Slight pause.)

The woman smiled. It was a kind smile, a gentle smile. She beckoned him forward and held up the child. He smiled. She reached out her arms with the baby.

Again, what happened was simply a physical reaction. He took the child in his arms.

He looked into the eyes of the baby. The longer he looked into the eyes of the infant, the deeper he looked, the more he saw. What was it? What was there? It took a while for words to form.

Finally, a phrase kept on repeating over and over in his head. He had no idea from where the thought would have come but as was his wont, he said the words out loud: “source… of… peace.” Amen.

12/24/2015 — Christmas Eve
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Response and Benediction. This is a précis of what was said: “A couple of weeks ago at the end of the Sunday Service I pointed out that ‘source or prince of peace,’ ‘son of god,’ ‘the one to be worshiped,’ ‘savior of the world’ were all titles of Caesar. The secular world of Rome claimed connection with divinity. We live in a secular world. Hence, I never wish people a ‘Merry Christmas.’ That’s a secular term and as an alternative I’ve often, therefore, suggested that as Christians we wish one another a ‘Happy Christmas.’ But instead, I want to make a suggestion. If somebody says to you either ‘Happy Christmas’ ‘Merry Christmas,’ say to them ‘Christ is with us.’ That is the Christian sentiment the Feast of the Incarnation— Christ is with us.”

BENEDICTION: Hear now this blessing from the words of the Prophet Isaiah in the 60th chapter (Isaiah 60:19-20a). “The sun shall no longer be / your light by day, / nor for / brightness shall the moon / give you light by night; / for Yahweh, God, / will be your everlasting light, / and your glory. / Amen.”

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