Where We Stand
Sometimes, a song, or a prophecy, or a story, can mean more than one thing. And what it means depends on where you stand.
The weather has turned cooler. Halloween was weeks ago. Thanksgiving is right around the corner. Next Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent, when we start preparing for Christ to come into the world.
And that means that a significant portion of society is already in the throes of… Christmas.
A long time ago, I accepted the idea that there are two Christmases. They’ve been pulled apart and recombined and shaken together and wrapped around each other. But, if you look closely, you can see the seams.
On the one hand, there is the Christmas when God comes into the world as one of us, among a dispossessed people in an occupied land, as a baby to new parents who couldn’t find a place to stay for the night… and changes everything; the Christmas when—God willing, fingers crossed, knock on wood—we will gather in this sanctuary, and hear the story, and sing by candlelight.
On the other hand, there is the Christmas when a man from the North Pole travels around the world in a reindeer-powered sleigh to deliver presents, manufactured by elves, to good children. This is the Christmas when—God willing, fingers crossed, knock on wood—we will gather with family and friends for a feast, and enjoy each other’s company, and sing along to the radio.
And I know it might sound like I prefer one over the other. And I do think that one is more important than the other. But I like both of them.
But the reason that I’m telling you this is because there’s this song…
It’s about a woman who’s at her boyfriend’s house. And she know that she needs to get home. Her parents are going to worry, and the neighbors are going to be judgmental. But maybe she could stay for half a drink because, y’know, it’s cold outside.
And that song is… complicated.
On the one hand, when we listen to it today, it can sound a little creepy. While the woman talks about how she really must go, her boyfriend keeps going on about how it’s storming out there; there’s never been a blizzard like this before; and imagine how bad he would feel if she left right now, and caught pneumonia, and died.
On the other hand, when the song was written in 1944, sexual mores were different. While the woman talks about how she’s having a wonderful time and how she really wants to stay, she’s worried about what people will think, so she says that she has to go in order to protect her reputation, and then decides to stay.
And how you interpret this song depends a lot on where you’re standing… and what you think about premarital sex… and what you think other people might think about premarital sex… when you hear it.
What the song means depends on the listener.
Today is Christ the King Sunday. And our scripture reading is… complicated.
In the days of King Uzziah of Judah, Isaiah had a vision. He saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; the hem of his robe filling the temple; seraphs flying above him, calling out to each other, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
And Isaiah became a prophet; he delivered the word of the Lord to the people.
When Uzziah died, Jotham became the king of Judah, and Isaiah prophesied. And when Jotham died, Ahaz became the king of the Judah, and Isaiah prophesied. And when Ahaz dies, Hezekiah will become the king of Judah, and Isaiah will prophesy.
But in our reading today, Ahaz is king, and Isaiah delivers the word of the Lord to him:
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…
…for a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.
On the one hand, you’ve heard this prophecy before. On Christmas Eve, when we gather in this sanctuary, and hear the story, and sing by candlelight, we often read this scripture. Because Isaiah is telling Ahaz about the day when God will come into the world as one of us, among a dispossessed people in an occupied land, as a baby to new parents who couldn’t find a place to stay for the night… and change everything.
On the other hand…
Ahaz is not a good king. He worships strange gods and he does not trust the Lord. He all but gave Judah to the Assyrians in exchange for protection and he adopted their ways. He replaced the altar and changed the temple. He did not do what was right in the sight of the Lord his God.
And Isaiah has been warning him; and now it has come to this. A child has been born for us, a son given to us: Hezekiah. And when he is king, he will tear down the strange gods, and restore the temple, and do what is right in the sight of the Lord his God. He will bring peace, he will establish justice, he will plant righteousness.
And how you interpret this passage depends a lot on where you’re standing… and whether it is long before or long after Christmas… and what you think about Jesus… when you hear it.
What the prophecy means depends on the listener.
Sometimes, a song, or a prophecy, or a story, can mean more than one thing.
Baby, It’s Cold Outside is a little bit about creepiness and a little bit about a woman’s sexual agency. And that’s because it’s about a woman’s sexual agency in a time when that sexual agency was policed in a creepy way.
And this prophecy from Isaiah is absolutely about Hezekiah, and Jewish readers are absolutely right when they say that it is absolutely about Hezekiah. But…
When some Jewish people… some dispossessed people in an occupied land… started listening to this Jesus person… and watched the powers-that-were crucify him… and experienced the resurrected Jesus… and decided that he was the Messiah… the King of Kings and Lord of Lords who would reign forever and ever…
…they thought of this prophecy. And they reinterpreted it, and reimagined it, and said that it was absolutely about Jesus. And they passed it on.
And so it means more than one thing. And what it means depends on where you stand.
A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that this has been a stressful eighteen or nineteen or twenty months. And one of the things that I mentioned—one of the things that has been stressful—is that we have seen fights over mask mandates and whether Black lives matter and how we teach health and how we teach history. Sometimes, we have even been in those fights.
And I know that there is a temptation…
We are a church, after all. And a lot of us were taught that when you’re in church, you take the stuff that’s stressful—the stuff that’s divisive, the stuff that people fight over—and put it on the side. You can pick it up again later, when you leave, and that’s perfectly fine. But in here, we gather in this sanctuary, and hear the stories, and sing the songs. And that’s all.
The stress and the division and the fights can stay out there. For an hour or so a week, we get to leave it all behind, and be safely in here.
And I get it. Believe me, I get it. I feel that temptation tugging at my heart.
But… and you knew there was a but… the thing is…
When Jesus started his public ministry in Galilee, he stood up in front of a synagogue and told us exactly where he stood. He told us exactly where those of us who believe that he is the wonderful counselor and mighty God and everlasting father and prince of peace… that he is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords who reigns forever and ever…
…he told us exactly where we stand.
He read a little bit of that prophet, Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
And that means that we are not exempt from talking about and thinking about and praying about big issues of justice and righteousness. We are not free to give into that temptation.
Instead, we need to remember…
…that we were once vulnerable, and God came into the world as one of us, among a dispossessed people in an occupied land, to redeem us and restore us and revive us…
…that that what the songs sound like, and what the stories sound like, and what the news sounds like, and what the world looks like, depends on where you stand…
…and that because Christ stood with us, we stand with Christ… and because Christ stood with us when we were vulnerable, we stand with the vulnerable… who are Christ.
In here and out there. Everywhere and all the time. That is what following Christ means.
That is where we stand.