The following is a sermon given last Sunday at All Souls Church (Wheaton, IL) in the wake of another Wheaton media controversy.
“The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!” James 3:5 may not be in the lectionary this morning, but as the media fire, originally lit by the boastings of a political candidate, blazed through our community this week, it’s the verse that came to mind. I, probably like you, am dissatisfied with our democratic process —or is it a plutocratic process (the rule of the wealthy)—and I fantasize about alternatives. Here’s one of them: Imagine a political leader who arises and says the whole system is broken. So let’s cancel the 2016 election, let’s just go to Colonial Beach in Westmoreland County Virginia. That is our only hope. It would be strange advice—but not random, as Colonial Beach is the site of George Washington’s childhood home. To go back there would be to suggest we rethink America from the ground up.
I doubt anything like that is going to happen—but I mention it because that’s the best analogy I can think of to understand the passage today from Micah. Bible scholars tell us the setting of the famous Bethlehem prophecy is not a happy pastoral scene with a pondering prophet, but the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BC. Wheaton may have felt besieged by reporters in the last week, but don’t tell that to the residents of besieged Jerusalem, because they’d just laugh. Imagine the scene—It’s been a couple of months, you’re approaching starvation. Soon your family will be killed (probably in front of you), and if you’re lucky you’ll get deported to Babylon —the capital of the army that is about to crush you. And as a despairing silence falls over the city, somebody speaks up named Micah. “This siege will be effective,” he says with great sadness—the mark of the true prophets. “But don’t be afraid,” Micah continues. “You shall go to Babylon. There you shall be rescued.” He’s right—which is the other mark of the true prophet.
God is permitting the destruction of this holy city. Including its temple. Zedekiah the king will be blinded, tied up, and taken captive to Babylon, where he will remain a prisoner until his death. But somebody objects to Micah’s words, citing Nathan’s promise to David in 2 Sam 7: “Your throne,” Nathan said to David, “shall be established forever.” How do you reconcile that, Micah, with what you just told us would happen?
Micah has an answer: And so he prophecies that doomed Israel’s hope is in their Colonial Beach, Virginia. And for them, that is Bethlehem. David’s father Jesse was from Bethlehem. David grew up there. So forget succession, says Micah. Succession has failed. Be radical—another mark of the true prophet—Go back to the root. The root of Jesse. There God will deliver on his promise. “You, O Bethlehem Ephratha (two words for the same region), who are too little to be among the clans of Judah (not even important enough to be a tribe), from you shall come forth one who is to be ruler of Israel.” Maybe you have noticed the ruins in countless nativity scenes. The famous crèche from Naples at the Art Institute which I hope you’ve had a chance to enjoy—notice the ruins. Botticelli’s famous nativity, notice the ruins. They have been interrupted as ruins of Israel —the ruins of the promise of succession. And God seems to like to bring things forth from ruins.
In the chapter just before this one, Micah had some interesting counsel to the siege resisting warriors of Jerusalem, “Writhe and groan, O daughter of Zion,” like a woman in labor.” It’s rather insulting advice. But then in this chapter, he prophesies a different kind of labor. “He shall give the Israelites up, until the time when she who is in labor has given birth . . . He shall stand and shepherd his flock . . . and he shall be their peace.” Not a Pax Romana or Pax Americana—but peace personified in the boy born in Bethlehem.
About 2,400 years late after the siege in Jerusalem, there was a scholar who must have meditated frequently on the fact that that boy from Bethlehem, not some political arrangement, is our peace. His name was René Girard. Because he died this year, let’s honor Girard for a moment. He was elected into the French academy which consists of forty scholars known as the immortals because of their academic standing. Names like Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Victor Hugo lends you a sense of Girard’s company. He was a French anthropologist who taught at American universities, and through anthropological work came to the conclusion that the Christian faith—and only that faith—is fundamentally true. He casually laughed at secular Biblical critics, saying “You think you can explain and understand the gospels—but it is the gospels that explain and understand you.” For Girard, it all goes back to Cain and Abel—we commit violence against one another, with our weapons, or our tongues or our unspoken attitudes. And that violence builds up so that we have to unleash it on someone, a scapegoat, a sacrifice to appease that anger. This offers us a false, temporary peace. For some this week that scapegoat, that target of anger was a Wheaton College professor, for others that scapegoat was Wheaton College itself.
This is nothing new for Girard. All cultures manifests this scapegoating. He believes all the great ancient myths are created to conceal this process of violence. Until, that is, the boy from Bethlehem, who is our peace. For Girard, the Bible does not create another myth to perpetuate the violence, it peels back the myth, and shows us what’s going on—shows us the violence in our hearts. Did violence arise in your hearts this week? I know it arose in mine. No one has the power to escape this cycle of violence—help has to come from beyond the system. And that’s why, for Girard, it is manifestly clear that Jesus is God. He comes from outside, and we pounce on him as the scapegoat. We kill him to appease the violence in our hearts, and only when he is vindicated in the resurrection, do we realize who he was all along. And if any of you have been concerned in making Christianity relevant to our own time, hear the words of an immortal, issuing from the pinnacle of academic French respectability: “The claims of Christianity to make Christ the author of a universal revelation are far more securely founded than even its defenders would imagine.” “He is the only Mediator, the one bridge between the Kingdom of violence and the Kingdom of God.”
But even better than Girard is the epistle to the Hebrews this morning which is where Girard got the idea. The author of Hebrews cites the Psalm 40, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me.” And the author of Hebrews says that body is Jesus, the last scapegoat. And “by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” When we celebrate the Eucharist, are we piling up sacrifice upon sacrifice? No, the Reformers rightly insisted. We are proclaiming how Jesus fulfills and ends all violent sacrifice. It is finished. And so we do not need to offer anyone up for sacrificial hatred—not certain professors, not opportunistic journalists (even if they have no idea what is going on in our community), not refugees, not even the candidate that started it all—stopped though he must be. For the author of Hebrews, sacrificial hatred ends with Jesus once and for all.
And the Gospel today, which we just don’t read, but which reads us, is about the construction of that body which will be offered once and for all. Christians (and only Christians) confess that Mary is the “Mother of God,” which is less about her than about him—the one in her womb is divine. And some have suggested that our passage shows that that term, Mother of God, is no mere invention of the later centuries. It is in this text: In addition to saying those words that became part of the Hail Mary, “Blessed art thou among women . . .” Elizabeth addresses Mary as “mother of my Lord,” If we interpret that word Lord as the unpronounceable name of God, which was translated in Greek as kyrios (Lord), then the Bible, not just the tradition, teaches that Mary is the Mother of God. Can infants worship God? Well according to this passage, they can do so before they are born. With a little leap, the uterine John the Baptist is getting a head start on fulfilling his and our human vocation—worshipping Jesus the human God.
It is interesting isn’t it that only it is only in the context of community that Mary’s great Christian song emerges. It’s a reminder that we will be at our best, and our gifts will most come to the fore, only in the context of community. And what Mary offers us in this song is that the key to Christian community, genuine humility. Humility is not undue self-hatred. Instead, as one author in our congregation wrote, it is “transcendent self confidence,” that is, a confidence not grounded in comparison to others but in our status before the God who loves us and knows our names. And so you can be humble and bold at the same time. “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my saviour, for he hath looked upon the lowliness of his handmaiden.” When Mary says, “He will bring down the mighty form their thrones, and exalt those of humble estate,” is she thinking perhaps that her son will grow up to be a mighty warrior, succeeding where the Maccabees failed? Pilate will ask him, “What is truth?,” and her son will thrust a concealed dagger into Pilate’s stomach, bitterly whispering the words, “This is truth,” and just then his expertly-trained disciples throw off their Roman guard costumes, and proceed to take over the palace complex, enthroning Jesus as king. That's how we would cast it as a movie, and maybe Mary had such fantasies. The other disciples certainly did.
Or maybe she knew the truth about the “strength of his arm” that her song speaks of. An arm that right now couldn’t lift a penny—it lacks the coordination to even hold a penny. That divine arm is barely an inch long, in her womb. Power made perfect in prenatal weakness. Maybe when Simeon cooled her down, explaining to Mary that a sword will pierce her heart too, maybe she said, “I know.” Maybe she knew he was going to be a suffering Messiah, and that she would suffer too. As Anglicans, we need not decide between these two options, the Maccabean Mary or the sinless one. We can wonder about that. Have you ever imagined her around the house, singing her over and over, “he hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.” It’s not surprising then, is it, that in about thirty years time her son, who would have heard that song growing up, would begin his transcendently self-confident ministry with “Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”
There have been lawn signs popping up in our community this week that read, “We are not afraid.” And to the extent that we interiorize Jesus’ termination of sacrificial violence, we need not be. We are not afraid of refugees (in fact we’ve been serving them for a while). We are not afraid of the Muslims in our community (our relationships with them pre-dates the current controversy, and will outlast it). And we are not afraid of each other (as evidenced by our commitment to meet together more frequently). But such lack of fear is only possible because we are also not afraid of the angel who, in just a few days time, will say, “Be not afraid, today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you, who is Christ, the Lord.”
Matthew J. Milliner is assistant professor of art history at Wheaton College.