Mike Kinman on Christmas Eve, Saturday, December 24, 2016:
“God’s greatest gift to us — the gift that came wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger — is the poet’s gift of wonder and hope.”
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.
The tyrant fears the poet … and God is the greatest poet of all.
Tyrants have always been with us. They try to silence dissenters with their power and bind us with anxiety and despair. Tyrants will try to convince us that following them is patriotic and glorious, that people different from us are our greatest enemy, that might makes right, resistance is futile and hope little more than a foolish dream.
Tyrants have always been with us, talking about law and order, the greatness of the nation and sowing seeds of hate and fear. And as we gather in the stillness of this night, perhaps that truth is seeming more real than it has in quite some time. Perhaps even we in this room are even being tempted to silence and anxiety and despair.
Tyrants have always been with us, and they have had many names. History’s timeline is marked by their names. We hear it in the Gospel this night as Luke says…
In the age of Augustus. In the time of Quirinius.
In the age of Augustus. In the time of Quirinius. The word went out that all the world should be registered.
This was not a benign act. This was not so the emperor and the governor could create the first Pax Romana telephone directory. The census in the age of Augustus, in the time of Quirinius was a calculated act of tyrannical domination. It was about finding out exactly who lived in each province of the empire so they could be taxed – so the wealth of their labor could be taken from them to serve an empire whose sword was at their neck and in which they had no rights of citizenship. The census was literally a structure by which the people would be forced to participate in and fund their own oppression.
In the age of Augustus. In the time of Quirinius. A time of tyrants. A time long ago and yet hauntingly near. A time when young pregnant women are threatened, and people are forced to sign a registry because of their ethnic identity. A time when children of God are forced to live under threat of harm from a militarized state because of the color of their skin. It is a time when the streets are dark, doors are closed and beautiful images of God are told “there is no room here for you.”
In the age of Augustus. In the the time of Quirinius. We remember tyrants and mark their reign by their names. Stalin. Hitler. Augustus. Quirinius. The list continues even unto today. And for their time, often they seem invincible, with armies and political coalitions too great to challenge. Such was the plight of those living in Palestine in the age of Augustus. In the time of Quirinius. Sure, there were protests and even armed uprisings … uprisings such as the one this very census would lead to … but they were invariably and brutally put down. And so there was hopelessness. And resignation. And despair.
There was a deep, dark night For the people, there was a dark night that seemed it might never end. And yet the tyrant fears the poet, and God is the greatest poet of all. And so in that dark night, a light shined. A light shined in the darkness and the darkness could not overcome it. And the light was the love of God. The light was the breath of God. The light was the poetry of God.
The light of love did not fear the dark of night but fearlessly dove deep into the night. The light of God went straight to the wound, straight to the pain, the hopelessness, the anxiety, the despair. The light of God knew the strong arm of the tyrant would not be overthrown by an army because armies rise and fall. God knew that the tyrants of the world can only be overthrown by the poetry of the divine, by the light of relentless, militant love. By the conviction of hope in the midst of despair. By the defiant presence of wonder in a world of resignation.
God knew that the only person the tyrant fears is the poet. Plato wrote that “poets are the eulogists of tyranny” and that “at the touch of a lover, everyone becomes a poet.” And so God, surely the greatest poet and lover of them all, knew that the greatest act of tyrant-toppling revolutionary love would be for God, with her lover’s touch, to awaken the poet in all humanity. To kiss a song of love onto our lips that would drive away the despair of the darkest night.
And so the light of God, the light that shined in the darkest of nights, the light the darkness could never overcome bent down and kissed humanity ever so gently, ever so powerfully. And that kiss became a newborn child, a child that was God herself – creator and creation, artist and art become one. And like every newborn child, this Jesus was hope in the midst of despair, this Jesus was awe and wonder in a night of grim resignation.
And out of the still, dark night of fear, the angel’s song rang out like a breaking dawn, “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
And the song that God had kissed on humanity’s lips took flight and suddenly the whole of heaven and earth burst into glorious music that shattered the silence and broke the spell of fear. The whole of heaven and earth burst into wild dance that shook the foundations of the emperor’s throne. In one kiss. In one birth. In one flash of light, a new future was written, tyrants were overthrown and an empire was doomed.
How can this be? How can a kiss? How can a child’s cry bring down an empire where great armies have failed? How can a single light cut through such deep darkness? How can hope and awe and wonder trump anxiety and despair? On this silent night, as 2016 inches closer to 2017 and the tyrants of our own land seem more and more a spectre of our coming future than a ghostly figure from a Christmas past, we need to know … can that kiss, can that child’s cry, can that love, can that light, can that divine poetry possibly save us again?
In the stillness of this night, when the darkness seems to be gathering ever more thickly around us, could God be trying to touch us, kiss us, be born in us again? Could God be planting the seeds of hope, the seeds of love, the seeds of resistance in our hearts the same way God planted the seeds of tyrant-toppling revolution in that manger bed?
And tonight, if we listen closely, we hear God whisper her answer
For there are tyrants in the land today. We know this to be true. And there is nothing the tyrant fears more than the poet. And surely God is both the greatest poet and lover of them all. And surely it is true this night as it was that night more than two thousand years ago that the greatest act of tyrant-toppling revolutionary love is for God, with her lover’s touch, to awaken the poet in each and all of us.
To remind us that being created in the image of God means we are all dancers and singers and poets and dreamers – and that we will not let despair silence our song.
That to sing of beauty in the midst of despair is the seeds of revolution. That to love those we are told to hate is an act of beautiful defiance.
That to give birth to any new life in a time of death and fear is an act of hope and wonder. That every beat of our heart and every breath in our body is a testament of hope, a work of wonder, is a song of the poet.
That in the words of the great Ferguson freedom fighter Alexis Templeton, “When you live in a world that wants to silence and kill you, every time you get up in the morning it is an act of sacred resistance.”
This night, as we celebrate the deliciously subversive poetry of God joining heaven to earth and earth to heaven in Jesus the Christ, we celebrate and remember that God longs to awaken the poet in all of us. That God’s greatest gift to us, the gift that came wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger is the poet’s gift of wonder and hope. The imagination of what light still might be no matter how dark the night. The imagination that is the heart of resistance to tyranny, the heart of God’s revolution of love.
Wonder. Hope. It is the childless, elderly Abram looking up and numbering the stars and in an act of faith God reckons to him as righteousness imagining the multitude of his descendants. It is that icy morning 18 years ago when my newborn first child reached out and grabbed my finger in his hand and that moment four years later when my second child did the same and I imagined … I imagined whose hands they would hold, whose minds they would challenge, whose hearts they would fill to overflowing in the years God was to give them ahead.
Wonder. Hope. It is the promise that no matter how alone we feel, with every beat of our heart and breath in our body God is saying to each of us “Emmanuel – I am with you.” That whether we are incarcerated in solitary confinement at CRDF or feeling the crushing weight of loneliness in the most joyful and crowded of rooms, God is saying to each of us “You are not alone. You are never alone. Emmanuel – I am with you.” Be not afraid.
Wonder. Hope. These are acts of poetic resistance in times where the powers of darkness want us to be resigned to the lie that the darkness is all there is. In times where the powers that want to dominate and coerce try to convince us that we must turn against one another in fear of scarcity rather than turn toward one another in hope and love.
Wonder. Hope. These are the tools of the poet. The tools that turn swords into plowshares, spare bedrooms into sanctuaries, and Muslim registries into an endless interfaith scroll of solidarity and love.
Wonder. Hope. These are the tools of God’s poetic justice. And how will God plant her subversive poetry in our hearts this night? In this Christmas story of God kissing a new song of love onto the lips of a fearful humanity, how will God dare you, how will God dare me, how will God dare all of us together to imagine restoration instead of retribution, resistance instead of resignation, love instead of hate, joy instead of shame?
In the age of Augustus. In the time of Quirinius. A decree went out to record names on a list. It was a time long ago and yet suddenly hauntingly near.
Tyrants have always been with us. They try to silence those who would stand against them with their power and bind us with anxiety and despair. Tyrants will try to convince us that following them is patriotic and glorious, that people different from us are our greatest enemy, that might makes right, resistance is ridiculous and hope little more than a foolish dream.
Tyrants will seem invincible, and yet they can be taken down with a verse, with a caress, with a kiss, with the invincible power of wonder and hope. For the tyrant fears the poet. And in the birth of Jesus, God is forever re-awakening the poet in us. Amen.