Advent 4C Sermon (2012)

4th Sunday of Advent
Texts: Luke 1:39-55;
Heb. 10:5-10; Micah 5:2-5a


 I was relieved last Sunday that the telling of the Christmas story by our Sunday School children was the central focus in worship. Emotions were too raw to even attempt to say anything meaningful about the tragic slaughter of innocents in Newtown. I don’t think I was the only one counting heads and imagining half of our children missing from that altar. It was helpful that the Good News of God’s Love coming into the world through the baby Jesus was juxtaposed with the horror we are still trying to comprehend.

This week’s lessons also bring a pairing of bad news and Good News, and with a week of healing we will venture looking to find something meaningful. How could the news be any worse than twenty school children being senselessly slaughtered? By recognizing that the twisted logic in Adam Lanza’s head is the same twisted logic of blood sacrifice woven into humanity since its very beginnings. It was Adam Lanza’s own idiosyncratic version of it, to be sure, but it was a logic of sacrifice — a voice in his head that somehow gave him the authority and perhaps even duty to carry out such horror.

In our Second Reading from Hebrews the writer has Christ speak explicitly about the logic of sacrifice: it is to end forever with him and his followers. No voice of authority — not even God’s — should ever make it OK to kill another person — or even let another die, if we can help it. The writers of Hebrews make it clear that Jesus Christ came to free us once and for all from any version of logic that leads to blood sacrifice.

That same Good News about the end of sacrifice appears in our Gospel as well. But to get there, we must first revisit a disturbing place. Mary’s Song carries us all the way back to the mercy Abraham received — the mercy of saving his son Isaac from death. We have to re-experience that horrific time when Abraham heard a voice telling him that he had the authority and even the duty to carry out the horror of sacrificing his only son on an altar. Was Isaac around six years old, like the victims of Sandy Hook? We don’t know. But I know I would be in utter despair if I thought I had to choose obeying my god over sparing one of my sons! Yet this is the choice Abraham believes he must make. So where is the Good News?

It comes to us in the realization that the voice Abraham first heard instructing him to sacrifice his only child Isaac was not from our God of love. He was hearing an ancient voice of sacrifice from the false gods created by humans. And the voice that intervenes telling Abraham: STOP! is the voice of our God of creation saving us from the agonizing burden of sacrifice. That is the great mercy Mary sings about — the great mercy that causes baby John to leap in Elizabeth’s womb.

Mary’s baby comes not only with a human voice to clearly speak of God saving us from sacrifice, but also to let himself be sacrificed on the cross to seal our salvation. Jesus’ resurrection on Easter is the promise that God’s Spirit has begun working in the world so that the ancient logic of sacrifice, even today, is being overturned by self-sacrificial love and forgiveness. It is a promise that someday, sacrifice will be no more. Someday we will no longer have to mourn such things as twenty children being murdered in their school, with a principal, psychologist and four teachers dying as they tried desperately to stop it. Someday.

But we are not there yet. Even 2000 years after Jesus came to deliver us we are not yet there. We must listen to Jesus in the same way that Abraham listened to the voice of God telling him to stop. Unfortunately, this is much more difficult than it sounds. Sure, I’m not going to kill my son on an altar! But today’s logic of sacrifice continues in much more insidious ways — ways that Mary points to when she sings about a leveling, a lifting up of the lowly and a bringing down of the high and mighty. This theme has been strong during Advent, as we heard this same message two weeks ago when the adult John the Baptist tells of Isaiah’s prophecy when the mountains are brought down and the valleys lifted up.

Let’s use a different image to help us understand the culture of sacrifice, and let’s call it the “rivalry management” system. (1) Picture it as a structure that helps contain rivalries so we don’t just kill each other, like Cain killed Abel. The ancient rivalry management system sets up layer upon layer of hierarchy so the people at the top get the most privilege and people at the bottom get sacrificed, often left out or even killed. When rivalries threaten to bring conflict, the people lower on the ladder must defer to those above. A good example of what I’m talking about is the PBS show Downton Abbey. How many of you are fans? Ellen and I certainly are!

If you aren’t familiar with it, the drama shows what life was like a century ago on a large English estate. It is a great example of how much the rivalry management system has changed in the past 100 years. It shows the life of lords and ladies with servants in a massive household, and serfs working the land. Marriage was primarily a matter of maintaining privilege, and if you were lucky enough to fall in love then so much the better. Everyone had his or her station in life set on a rigid ladder of hierarchy. The unspoken authority behind it all was religion. People remained in their places because they were taught that God had predetermined their station in life. By today’s American standards, life at Downton Abbey seems almost surreal — especially considering the many movements for rights over the past 100 years, such as civil rights and women’s rights.

So what happens when the rivalry management systems no longer exist? It seems like today we face conflict and division seemingly at every turn. And we’re encouraged — almost expected — to look out just for ourselves. It’s a big, depressing picture that we can’t begin to solve this morning. So let’s focus our gaze once more to the narrower events of Newtown, Connecticut, to see if we can’t glimpse the possibility of the Good News Mary’s Song celebrates.

Mary’s Song celebrates that her son’s coming into the world means God’s way of Love has begun to slowly transform our ways of sacrifice. One example where we can see this leveling is the changes in how differently-abled children are treated both at home and in school. Only one hundred years ago children born with certain so-called disabilities were the first to be sacrificed, often shunted into institutions to warehouse them until their deaths. How different that picture is today! As Mary sings to us, the lowly have been raised up. We now spend substantial resources giving these children the best chance we can to lead more full lives, with a more equal place in our society. That’s Good News — its one of the signs that God’s culture is transforming ours.

The good news is that today, a child with a clearly diagnosed neurological disorder such as Cerebral Palsy receives ample resources to aid their success. But the bad news, the challenge of ending sacrifice still ahead of us, is that we as a society are, for the most part, still at a loss when it comes to children experiencing idiopathic neurological disorders — those things for which there is no clear cause. Mental illness falls into this category — and we obviously have not yet found adequate ways to help children suffering from this.

Last Friday’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School provides us with a challenge. Adam Lanza apparently suffered from mental illness. It wasn’t that his family was unaware of it, but it does appear that he was not receiving adequate treatment so the he could have a chance to lead a more full life. He was a child with another type of differing ability, one that unfortunately we as a society do not yet treat as holistically as others. And children like Adam who are living with undiagnosed or untreated or undertreated mental illness grow into adults with mental illness. Many of them are living on the streets. Many more are in jail. And a very small percentage of them, tragically, end up like Adam Lanza.

One of the most moving responses to the shooting in Newtown I’ve seen is a blog written by the mother of a mentally ill thirteen year-old boy titled, “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” In it she tells the story of her son Michael’s dangerous behaviors, which may someday threaten the safety of others. She concludes her essay with these words:

When I asked my son’s social worker about my options, he said that the only thing I could do was to get Michael charged with a crime. “If he’s back in the system, they’ll create a paper trail,” he said. “That’s the only way you’re ever going to get anything done. No one will pay attention to you unless you’ve got charges.”

I don’t believe my son belongs in jail. … But it seems like the United States is using prison as the solution of choice for mentally ill people. … [Statistics bear this out.]

I agree that something must be done. It’s time for a meaningful, nation-wide conversation about mental health. That’s the only way our nation can ever truly heal. God help me. God help Michael. God help us all.

I am Adam Lanza’s Mother. Or father. Or sister. Or cousin. Or neighbor.

100 years ago, if Michael or Adam had suffered from cerebral palsy, they would have been sacrificed and locked away. The Good News — the news that makes babes in the womb leap for joy — is that God is continuing to show us the way to raise up the lowly instead of sacrificing them. Are there ways you and I can help raise the plight of the mentally ill? If anything meaningful can come of the death of twenty school children, perhaps that’s the question we need to answer — that’s the next step we need to take.

In just thirty hours we begin our Christmas celebration, hearing the angels proclaim to the lowly shepherds, “Do not be afraid!” The lowly are being lifted up. Join in the Good News of God’s saving work in this world. Have courage, join in, and make a difference. Amen.

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, December 23, 2012

1. Brian McLaren, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, where he has a helpful summary of the Girardian anthropology and uses the phrase “rivalry management mechanism,” p. 110.

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