“Give us days to be filled with Small Rebellions, senseless brutal acts of kindness from us all, as we stand between the fear and firm foundations, push against the current and the fall” – Jars of Clay
Jonathan David Faulkner
This week I have giving great attention to the words of Micah 5:2-5 and 6:6-8 as I prepare a Sermon on them for Christmas Sunday. These passages are ones we hear quoted often but we rarely are encouraged to meditate over, so here they are:
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace.
“With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Again, two passages we all hear and maybe even have memorized but rarely do we really meditate on and even rarer do we see them placed side by side or consider their placement in Micah’s prophesy.
Consider the state of Judah and Israel at the time of Micah’s writing. They have broken their covenant with God, they are in danger of being carried off by Assyria. Micah, the wilderness prophet writes at the same time as Isaiah the Court Prophet, both have startlingly similar messages. Judah has disobeyed, they have broken covenant with God and have killed the Prophets who have warned them, but they have continued to offer their sacrifices to Him in a vain attempt to appease him, they desperately want peace with him, but they done injustice, they have been ungrateful for all that God has given them. Isaiah has warned them that God really hates their burned offering, the blood of their bulls is even an “Abomination” to him (Isaiah 1:10-20). God does not want their worship, He does not want their sacrifice, especially devoid of the very thing He desires above all, a relationship marked by obedience to His Word. The Sin of God’s people was so egregious that even the righteous prophet Isaiah was not unstained (Isaiah 6:1-7).
Here we find the prophet Micah echoing much of what Isaiah himself prophesied. You can almost put the two passages (Micah 5 and Isaiah 7) together.
Israel and Judah will be abandoned by God until God himself gives them a sign, the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and His name will be called Emmanuel, God with us, and he will rule Israel as a shepherd who shows the majesty of God and the Government will be on his shoulders and He who is eternally begotten of the Father, the one who existed from before antiquity, will be born to a women in Bethlehem Ephrathah which is the lowliest of the cities of Judah, so small it may not even be counted among her thousands of cities in Judah. From this town is where the one who would bring us “Shalom” peace, wholeness, completeness, this is where He would come from. If you Add in Micah 6:6-8 you can say: “You will not achieve peace with God through burnt offerings, through calves, or tithes or dedicating your children to the Lord, only by relationship with God, through this baby that is prophesied about in the previous chapter, through doing Justice, loving mercy and kindness, walking humbly with Him, then you can have peace with God, through having a contrite heart, a repentant spirit, through doing what His Word has told us to do. You want peace with God, stop worshiping Him apart from Obeying Him.
Bethlehem was so insignificant and so lowly and yet that was where the Savior was going to come from. He was going to come from a place which Matthew Henry writes had been: “having down how low the house of David should be brought and how viley the shield of that mighty family should be cast away as through it had not been anointed with Oil. To encourage the faith of God’s people who might be tempted now to think that His covenant with David and his house had been abrogated he add an illustrious description of the Messiah and His Kingdom, in whom the remnant should be established and the honors of that house should be revived, advanced and perpetuated.” The very one who by being in relationship with Him we have peace with God and peace with one another. His coming lifts up the lowest of the low, the house of David, brought into obscure poverty so that the one found from the lineage of David was a Virgin girl and a Carpenter living in Galilee. A man and his betrothed, they were not even married yet. Yet it was through them God was going to work His amazing power of opening the womb of the Virgin. God is going to do what science and common-sense say is impossible.
Yet, God in His wisdom made a way, not for us to worship him, that should be our default, but for us to have a relationship with Him. We do that by walking humbly with Him, by doing Justice and loving mercy. We live in relationship with Him through doing what Jars of Clay called “Small Rebellions” those: “Senseless brutal acts of kindness from us all.” We follow the example of St. Nicholas of Nyrsa who when he heard about a father who could not provide dowries for his three daughters. So in the middle of the night he snuck up to the window and dropped a bag of gold in for the first daughter. He did this two more times, providing dowries for the other two daughters before the father finally caught him. This is a small rebellion, it goes against what is considered normative, it goes against what we consider safe, especially in our individualism driven culture. It is a rebellion against the attitude of both Nicholas’s day and our own, that we get our own, get what the god of self informs us we deserve. At Christmas time these rebellions should be foremost on our minds, these are the natural rebellions of a Christian in relationship with the Christ Child. These rebellions do justice but correcting injustice, correct the merciless acts of others by doing mercy to those who have been abused. This is the rebellion St. Nicholas and the legend that rose up around him gave us, that like God giving His son, it is more important for us to give to others and to give of ourselves for the sake of others than to receive what would be most self-gratifying.
The World is looking at the church and wondering why we are doing the opposite of this rebellion, they look at us and say: “Your scriptures say you believe in this, why do you not practice it? Your God tells you to “Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God” it even tells you that you can do that because of and through Christ, so why do you not do it?” This is the great indictment against us, a sad reality that makes reaching this world so much harder. When we turn to politics or power or man’s philosophies to determine the life of the church we are actually killing it, doing harm to Christ, rebelling against the wrong kingdom. Christ’s coming is for you, so you can have relationship with God and from that relationship with God you can live in relationship with others, Just relationships, where mercy is enacted and we walk together humbly with God. God doesn’t want our worship, he wants our relationship and for us to be in relationship with others. Justice and Mercy come from God, they are meant to be lived out for others. What God has done is merciful and Just and you are meant to show that to one another.
Small Christmas Rebellions happen when you invite your neighbor over for dinner, even if that neighbor is less fortunate than you, doesn’t fit your view of normal, does not look like you, does not have the same socio-economic status as you. Small Christmas Rebellions start at your table, caring for the poor, the needy among us. Not letting the organizations do all the heavy lifting because: “that’s what they’re for” but doing it yourself. Just like God raising up Bethlehem to honor, we should raise up the lowly among us, for as Luke 1:52 says: “God lifts up the lowly” so should we. They are, after-all, made in the image of GOD and worthy of the dignity that this sinful world denies them and which through Christ, His body should work to restore to them.
Peace with God means you are free and clear to rebel against the world, to choose the things of God over and against the things of this world. That we do not have to fear the consequence that the world may enact against us for living out what we believe. They can kill us, but we will not die. So, commit the small Christmas rebellions, go and do what God has commanded, love your neighbor, have them at table, who cares what the world thinks, the secular world will pass away, but Christ and His Kingdom, which includes you, will not.
So, this Christmas, volunteer at the shelter, have your neighbor over for dinner, even if that neighbor looks differently from you, go visit the nursing home. Love your neighbor as yourself because God has first loved you. Do all that Christ has put before you to do in Scripture with the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit. These are small rebellions against the world, for the sake of showing Christ to the world, and they are carried out through us, God’s chosen people. All because Christ came as a baby, the one who was foretold by the Prophet Isaiah and Micah and so many others.
Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife Rachel and daughter Erin in Buffalo Center Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center.
Those of you who know me or if you have heard me preach around Christmas time, you may be aware that one of my favorite Christmas Stories (sans Jesus Birth) is Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol. Not only do I read the book, but over the next 24 days I will watch two or three different versions including the Muppets. I think it is because I am one who has a hard time believing someone is so completely gone they should be written off as hopeless or irredeemable.
If you know the story, especially if you have read the book, you know that this is precisely how Dickens describes Mr. Scrooge. He seems to be well beyond hope, whether it is the way he treats his nephew and Bob Cratchit in the opening scenes or his incredibly evil line in reference to the poor: “Let them, and decrease the surplus population.” Or even just in Dickens description of Scrooge and the whispers of those who he encounters during his encounter with the third Ghost. We are meant to believe that Mr. Scrooge is well beyond hope, totally damned, chains that were even thicker than Jacob Marley’s. His children, as the second Ghost reveals, are greed and ignorance, he is beyond hope.
But if you know the story, you know that this is not how it ends, indeed, it would be a very short story if Scrooge remained in his mournful state. It would also be like Dickens as he is not known to cheer his readers. Each of the three Ghosts show him parts of himself, things he left behind, things he was missing in the present and things that would be if he did not change his course. The change that comes over him is so complete that Dickens closes the book with the line: “It was said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well and keep it all year round.”
So far this Christmas season I have to admit that I am struggling with people. Not with everyone, but with a good amount. I recently went through my Facebook newsfeed and unfollowed a number of people and unliked a number of pages. So many people sharing negativity and hatred and spewing vitriol at their perceived “enemy” and then turn around and share a meme about being kind to retail workers or loving their neighbor. People from across the political spectrum, centrists included. Now, I know that Social Media is not real life, but I have seen it in real life or I have seen people speak disdainfully towards their neighbor and then write a status about remember those who are less fortunate and vice versa. I know the church has never had a broad conversation about how we should interact on Social Media, but I have come over the last year to believe that our real-life persona and our social media persona should operate under the same ethics and morals. We should be the same person online and offline.
The other thing on my mind is that we tend to be like the whisperers and the traders, all who had written off Scrooge. We have placed people in convenient boxes, declared them to be without hope, and then written them off. Writing people off gives us an excuse to no longer engage them and when we have done that we can deny them, even if only in our minds, the ability to change at all. We act surprised when a former white-supremacists repents and embraces ethnic diversity when that should be the norm. As we shout people down, we force them further and further into their echo chambers and then they about miss the Catalytic Event that is meant to bring change.
This is what we see with Scrooge’s nephew: He comes into the money lending house merry and cheerful, wishing Scrooge “A Merry Christmas” and giving him a hard time for thinking Christmas a “humbug.” By the end of the visit he is even more incensed against Christmas and his mood is made even worse by Cratchit wanting the following day off. When the Ghost of Jacob Marley shows up later, he tries to dismiss him twice as “A bit of undigested food.” When the clocks strikes one and the first Ghost doe not appear right away he mocks Marley’s warning again before the room fills with light. Even after the spectacular events witnessed with the first ghost, in anger he grabs the cone and forces it back on the Ghosts head, trying to snuff out the light. In the novel, it is not until the catalytic event of seeing Tiny Tim and learning of his fate: “An empty chair with a lonely cane” that the change begins to come upon him.
Today, we seem to have catalytic event after catalytic event, these are events that should shake us awake, make us think about the people around us, people who are often hurting and who are wondering if anyone cares. Do not believe me? Turn on the news, how do you not describe all the events, not the way they are spun, but the events themselves, school shootings, Standing Rock, Hate Crimes, The Migrant Caravan, Earthquakes, Tsunamis. How do we not describe these disaster’s as anything other than events meant to wake us up, turn us to God and treat our neighbors, even those we disagree with, as God would lead us, in His Word, to treat them.
Yet, like those who whispered about Scrooge, we tend to have written the “other side” off as without hope, irredeemable and worthy of contempt.
I had an interesting cross-ethnic encounter on a plane ride to Iowa last month. Rachel and I boarded in the B Group, something we do not usually do, so the chances of finding seats together were slim. However, right near the front of the plane we found two seats next to an older African American woman. We sat down and I asked her name and she asked mine. Upon hearing the name “Faulkner” she stopped and said: “Faulkner, there’s a lot going on with that name, isn’t there?” This wasn’t a statement made in anger, it seemed more in surprise at the last name than out of fear.
She was not talking about the author William Faulkner. She had grown up in the south during the Civil Rights Era and so the name was probably familiar to her. The story goes, as far as my father and I can piece it together, that there were two migrations of the Faulkner family to the Americas. The first went from Ireland to the south where they became plantation owners in Mississippi, the norther migration (which happened sometime later) sailed down the St. Lawrence River and eventually settled in modern day Port Huron Michigan. The southern part of the family became prominent plantation owners and slave holders eventually producing a secessionist senator and fighting for the Confederacy. During the Jim Crow era Faulkner’s stood in the doors of Mississippi Churches and churches across the south to block freedom writers and keep churches from integrating.
This woman knew the name and knew its history in the south. I learned all this last year as I read the book “Mississippi Praying” in which Faulkner’s kept popping up in favor of Jim Crow which prompted me to ask my father the rest of the story. This moment became a moment of reconciliation, I had the chance to acknowledge what people I am related to had participated in and though I can not repent for those who are unrepentant, I can do my best to make sure the that, even though I am descended from the Northern line unstained by the sin of slavery, that those who do know the name and family history, like this woman, see that God can redeem people and families and that we can be reconciled. I may never see that woman again, but God gave us a chance for reconciliation.
The point is this, the like Scrooge, no one is irredeemable, God has the ability to transform anyone and we, as Christians, need to be open to that reality. Instead of writing everyone off, we can see people in light of the Imago Dei, even those who are net yet believers. To see them in the light of that which was put within all of us from creation and which Christ can and will restore. That requires us to stop “otherizing” to quote a mentor and friend of mind, to stop viewing everyone who disagrees with us as an “Enemy.” To not say of the poor: “Let them then, and decrease the surplus population.”
See, the impression Dickens leaves us with in regard to Scrooge is that his encounter with the ghosts, his catalytic event, was so transformative, the change so complete, it was evidenced not just at Christmas time, not just in the immediate, but year around, in the infinite; “The rest of his days.” The spirits lessons of loving oneself and loving others in light of the love of God moved Scrooge to charity and love. The Grinch’s heart grew three sizes, the man in line behind the boy with the shoes learns the meaning of Christmas.
There is not just a season of love, there is not just a season of hope, there is not just a season of light and there is not just a season of Joy. Dickens point is that these qualities should become part of our disposition year-round. That Christmas is not just a time to love your neighbor, but we should be loving our neighbor every day, no matter who they are.
As we enter this Advent Season, a time when we remember the birth of Christ and look forward to His return let us remember that we are not just living in liminal space. That we are meant to live everyday as if the ideas we talk about at Christmas, given by the Holy Spirit, are part of our lives year-round. That we should work for reconciliation, for the building up of one another, to the ending of oppression, to seeking restorative and biblical justice stemming from the Righteousness of God. Since we are reconciled to God, we should be reconciled to one another, not just at Christmas, but at all times throughout the year.
That is how we keep Christmas well and keep it all year long.
Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary working on Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife Rachel in the North Shore of Boston and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church.