SERMON ~ 01/02/2022 ~ “Cultural Noise”

READINGS: 01/02/2022 ~ Second Sunday after Christmas Day, i.e.: the Second Sunday after the Celebration of the Nativity, the Incarnation of Jesus, the Christ ~ Jeremiah 31:7-14 or Sirach 24:1-12; Psalm 147:12-20 or Wisdom of Solomon 10:15-21; Ephesians 1:3-14; John 1:(1-9), 10-18 ~ Note: 01/06/2022 ~ Epiphany of the Lord ~ Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12.

Cultural Noise

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea during the reign of Herod, astronomers from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born ruler of the Jews? We observed the star of this child at its rising, and have come to pay homage.” — Matthew 2:1-2.

I just finished a biography of the song writer Irving Berlin and it was written 30 years ago. I picked up the book at Twice Told Tales, the used book outlet of Curtis Library in Brunswick. My bet is even if you don’t know who Berlin is you all know his song White Christmas. Many associate that song with the 1954 film of the same name. But it first was heard in the 1942 film Holiday Inn.

Most people don’t know there is an introductory verse to the song in that movie and in the original sheet music. Berlin actually eliminated the verse out of the sheet music after its initial publication.

These are the words of the rarely heard introductory verse: “The sun is shining, the grass is green, / The orange and palm trees sway. / There’s never been such a day / in Beverly Hills, L.A. / But it’s December the twenty-fourth,— / And I am longing to be up North—” And then you get: “I’m dreaming of a White….”

Berlin, a New York City guy, was often bored when he was in Beverly Hills writing songs for movies. That was reason enough to dream about Christmas back home. But seriously, how many people over the age of about, let’s call it 50, really want a white Christmas?

We had white Christmas this year but my experience is people may dream of it, but don’t want to shovel snow or travel on hazardous roads. A white Christmas seems to be simply a cozy cultural fantasy, something which makes us feel warm and fuzzy.

Needless to say, most people don’t realize the song is altered from the original. But our culture and the noise our culture makes can readily obliterate factual data.

Cultural noise is fascinating to observe. While a cultural fantasy like a white Christmas is a relatively benign, cultural noise, fantasies in the worst sense of that word— things which are not true— are too often not benign. Why? Cultural noise can invite us not to think about what we hear, not to think about what see, not to think about what read.

We hear a lot of cultural noise at Christmas time, especially around the Nativity stories. I’m going to list some cultural myths most people accept as Biblical fact, but they are not; none of these so-called facts I am about to recite are found in Scripture.

Jesus was born in the midst of winter. A star lit up the sky when the angels appeared. When appearing to the shepherds, angels sing.

A star illuminated the path of the shepherds to the stable. Shepherds were acceptable folks in polite society.

The animals gathered to see the baby. The role the innkeeper played was very pivotal. (So I say this up front an innkeeper is never mentioned.)

Some cultural assumptions we buy into are gender based and gender biased. The shepherds, the Magi, that nonexistent innkeeper were all… men. Says who?

Turning to the Matthew story, there is more cultural noise. The Magi and the shepherds gathered at the same time and same place to see Jesus. The Magi arrived right when Jesus was born, when Jesus was still an infant.

The Magi traveled on camels. The names of the Magi were Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. There were three Magi, no more no less, just three. (Slight pause.)

None of that long list I recited is in Scripture. It’s just not there. All of it is just cultural noise, things made up which the culture teaches as truth. Each is unsupportable given what can actually be read in Scripture.

When the cultural noise is taken into account the record in Scripture becomes clear. Matthew and Luke are two very different stories, written at different times, addressed to different audiences. We kind of mush them together. (Slight pause.)

This is from the Gospel known as Matthew: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea during the reign of Herod, astronomers from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born ruler of the Jews? We observed the star of this child at its rising, and have come to pay homage.” (Slight pause.)

Question: Is the birth of the Messiah meant as a message for all people, everywhere? (Slight pause.) One of my favorite Christmas carols is Carol Our Christmas. Not often heard in the Northern hemisphere, it speaks to how Christmas is experienced in New Zealand, where December is in the middle of Summer.

These are some of the lyrics: “Carol our Christmas, an upside down Christmas: / snow is not falling and trees are not bare. / Carol the summer and welcome the Christ Child, / warm in our sunshine and sweetness of air. // Rightside-up Christmas belongs to the universe, / made in the moment a woman gives birth; / Hope is the Jesus gift, love is the offering, / everywhere, anywhere, here on the earth.” (Slight pause.)

I am not immune. I get overwhelmed by cultural noise also. This hymn helps me cleanse some of that since it makes it clear Jesus was born for all of us, not just Northern Hemisphere types. It helps me concentrate on the reality of the Messiah instead of the cultural noise which clutters the landscape at Christmastide.

The most important theological issue raised by the Feast of Christmas is obvious. Who is Jesus?

Indeed, perhaps what we need to consider is that the celebration is important not because of the birth, itself, but because of Who Jesus is. The stories in Matthew and Luke, not the made up cultural myths, answer that question ‘Who is Jesus.”. Jesus is the Messiah.

Specifically, the messianic claim made in Luke is the Messiah will be announced to the poor and to the outcast since as a group shepherds would have been among the poor and the outcast. The messianic claim made in Matthew, because the Magi are not Jewish, is that the Messiah is not only for the Hebrew people but for all humanity.

To be clear, the stories in Luke or in Matthew do have angels and shepherds and Magi. I don’t want to take anything away from that or discount it. These details help the stories come alive.

But are the details the point of the stories? Indeed, the point is not even that a baby is born. The point of these stories is that the Messiah is among us, present to us.

I want to suggest once we try to filter out the culture noise we add on to the Nativity stories we can readily see the very presence of Jesus illuminates the real meaning of the stories— Christ lives. Christ is with us. Because Christ is with us the continuing work of God lives. (Slight pause.)

All that leaves us with an interesting choice. We can choose to simply and only feel warm and fuzzy about the cultural overlays we place on the Nativity Story. Or we can choose to feel warm and fuzzy because Christ is present to us, walks with us, and the work of God is placed in our hands.

Jesus, you see, is a sign given to us that the covenant is real, that the invitation to love God and love neighbor is our calling. Personally, I feel warm and fuzzy about the reality of the Christ and the reality that we are invited to participate in the work to which God calls us. Amen.

South Freeport Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Freeport, Maine

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Benediction. This, then, is an précis of what the pastor said before the blessing: “I have nothing against warm and fuzzy. But I also think it’s important to deal in reality. Since only Matthew and Luke have nativity stories, not Mark and John, it seems unlikely the early church was culturally invested in those stories. That Jesus was, that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, Who lives, is the place to which these writings point. That is the place where the early church is invested. And so because Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, walks with us, for me it is clear our call is to pursue the work of the Dominion.”

BENEDICTION: Let us go in joy and in hope in peace and in love and in light, for the one who has made covenant with us is present to us. God reigns. Let us go proclaiming God’s love and God’s light. Amen.

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