Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Catch the Back Story

Scripture for the 4th Sunday in Advent includes Isaiah 7:10-16; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

How are you doing with Christmas? Everything falling into place nicely? Everything falling apart? These final days of Advent, the home stretch, are they feeling more like that highway of redemption we heard the prophet Isaiah promise, last Sunday—the one with all the rough places made smooth, and no dangerous beasts allowed anywhere near it—or are these final throes more like a washboard stretch of back road that could rattle your teeth out?

Joseph and Mary are having a rough time of it. Their times are out of joint. Pregnancy is not expected during a couple’s engagement, at least not in conventional village life in the first century. Or, put that differently, when things get out of order like that, tongues wag in village life, unforgivingly. Mary is brave, and Joseph is generous, but there are embarrassed mothers in both households, outraged fathers, and critical aunties weighing in with judgment, advice, and demands. Can’t you imagine the kinds of things that got said? And all that is part of the back story of the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. Think of it.

Mary is “found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” But wait, isn’t there a monumental chasm between “found to be with child” and the explanation “from the Holy Spirit”? Isn’t it holy hindsight that allows those two statements to be presented as one? Matthew tells his story in a way that admits how hard it must have been to cross this chasm of effect and cause, the actual causeway the holy family must walk, because it takes an angel being sent from headquarters to convince Joseph to tear up the divorce papers: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit…”

And all of that is part of the backstory of the birth of Jesus the Messiah: “in this way,” he says, this happened. Matthew makes no effort to shield the holy family from the public disgrace they would encounter, no effort to shield us, his perennial audience, from the requirement that our theology be gritty enough to welcome this Christ who rises from these origins. In time, theologians, bishops, emperors and queens would argue (and kill one another) over the burning question whether Jesus Christ has one nature or two, and would split hairs of language and reason to justify raising higher the walls of division that fallen human nature keeps falling prey to building. But whatever we say or think or believe about Jesus, his humble, complex, and bumpy origin must shape our understanding of him, of ourselves, of his mission, and of ours. At its most frivolous, Christian theology gets distracted asking how many angels may dance on the head of a pin. At its most foundational, theology hears and echoes the angel’s message: Do not be afraid, and here is why—Emmanuel, God is with us.

Matthew will continue telling the Christmas story, and will not shield the holy family or us from the ruthless tyranny of King Herod. The angel urges Joseph and Mary to not fear, but urges them also to listen, and to leave their homeland to save their lives. Even before his birth, Jesus is identified with children who don’t fit the cookie-cutter model. Immediately upon his birth, he joins the millions of displaced persons who must migrate to escape ethnic cleansing. He is no stranger to the experience today of a million-and-a-half Syrians escaping civil war, the many millions of immigrants from Latin America, driven by economic need, and the displaced people of South Sudan in the refugee camps of Kenya and Ethiopia.

And in the context of this nativity story, we fret over Christmas menues and that box of ornaments we can’t find? Let’s not. Let’s make choices that will free us to pay attention to where and how Emmanuel, God-with-us, is on the move.

Most of us will remember Bishop Abraham Nhial, Bishop of Aweil in South Sudan, who visited us in May. Originally one of the Lost Boys who escaped the terrorists set loose by their own Khartoum government, Abraham made his way to America, completed college and seminary, and was swiftly ordained a bishop, one of the youngest in Anglican history.

You may know that a coup was attempted in South Sudan last week. Outshadowed by the violence in neighboring Central African Republic, the disturbance in South Sudan hasn’t gotten much coverage as yet. The situation is confusing. What’ s known is that President Salva Kiir (of the majority Dinka tribe) fired Vice-President Riek Machar (of the Nuer tribe) in July. Since then, tensions have been mounting. Fighting began last Sunday. Five hundred have been killed, most of them soldiers, and seven hundred injured, many of them civilians. Fourteenn thousand have sought refuge in the U.N. mission in the capital, Juba. Bishop Abraham sent his international friends this message on Tuesday:

Dear all,

I would like to inform you all that there was fighting in Juba, South Sudan for the last two days. And yesterday President Salva Kiir announces in South Sudan TV that a group around his former Vice President Dr. Riek Machar were the ones attempting to make the coup but they failed. Also, many of our politicians have now been arrested in Juba.

I am not sure how true the President announces because politicians are politicians but what I know is the President and former Vice President have political differences.

As I am sending you this email to pray for us, we already lost 12 people, more than 130 people are wounded, many people are still missing and many people are displaced. No one believes what has happened in South Sudan because South Sudan is a nation just come out from the longest sufferings but our politicians have already forgotten what we went through, very sad.

Please keep us in your thoughts and prayers, so that we can celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ peacefully. God bless you all!

Bishop Abraham Nhial

And then on Thursday, a second message came from him:

Dear all,

I want to thank you all for your prayers. Your prayers did change things in Juba. Praise the Lord! But, I want to ask you all to continue praying for the people of Bor town who were attacked last night and they are now scattered. I believe that even though our beloved nation is in conflicts God is in control and this conflict will soon come to an end. Pray for our leaders to be guided by our God so that they make wise decision.

Also, you all have been concerned where I am now, I celebrated early Christmas with my family in Kenya and I was to go back to South Sudan on December 18 but this conflict broke out in Juba. I was to go back today to South Sudan but I was told that there are no flights operating from Juba to Aweil. Also, my beloved pastors advised me not to come now. I thank them for their love and concern they have for me. So I am here in Kenya with my wife and children. We are safe but my heart is with people in South Sudan.

Moreover, we, four Bishops of the Anglican Church and a pastor from the Presbyterian Church (Dinka and Nuer) went today to meet with South Sudanese Ambassador Majok Guandong in Kenya to discuss how we can talk with South Sudanese who are living here in Kenya especially Dinka and Nuer not to fight themselves because this recent fight in South Sudan is not about Dinka and Nuer. It is about politicians.

Therefore, the out come of the meeting is that I am going to Kakuma Refugee Camp to talk and pray with our people there. I will go tomorrow if possible. One Bishop will go to Nakuru to talk and pray with South Sudanese there, another Bishop will go to Eldoret and two Bishops and a pastor will remain in Nairobi area for talk and prayers and they will be joined by Ambassadors on Sunday.

Please may you, your family, and your Church join us on this coming Sunday on December 22 to pray for peace, wisdom to our leaders, those who lost their lives, and families affected to be comforted by God. Please keep me your prayers and all the Bishops so that we can deliver God's message to His people at this time. Thank you all for your prayers. God bless you all and Merry Christmas.

Yours in Christ,

Bishop Abraham Nhial

Yes, Bishop Abraham, we do pray—and we will keep praying— for you and your family, your Church and your nation, including all who are dispersed in the refugee camps of Kenya and Ethiopia. We pray for your government leaders and for our own, that all who are elected to leadership will honor and serve that trust. As a guiding star pointed shepherds and kings to the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, may his light shine through you and your Church, and through us and ours, that the promise of redemption will be realized in reconciling love stronger than all ancient divisions, and that we be freed to know and tell the Christmas story for the healing of our unsettled world. All this we pray in the name and the love of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.