Sunday, December 9, 2012

Miracle births, royal families and the Prince of Peace

Text: Luke 1 5-38, 57-80 (birth of John the Baptist)

In our Gospel reading today, the Angel Gabriel appears to two different people and amazes both of them by announcing that, against all odds, they will have a child. The first is Zechariah, whose wife Elizabeth, despite being too old to have children, gives birth to a boy who will become John the Baptist. The second is Mary, a young relative of Elizabeth's, who will give birth to Jesus.

Finding out that you are going to have a child is always an important moment, and usually a blessed one. But in the cases of Zechariah, Elizabeth and Mary, the blessings might not be immediately apparent.

Zechariah does not understand how his wife could have a baby. Perhaps he forgets the stories from the Hebrew Scriptures of Abraham and Sarah or Elkanah and Hannah who have children despite age and infertility. Because of Zechariah's lack of belief, Gabriel strikes him speechless until his son John, who will later baptize his cousin Jesus in the Jordan River, is born.

Mary is also incredulous at Gabriel's announcement. She is a virgin and not yet married. But she says to Gabriel that she is the Lord's servant and will do his will. 

All of us are hard-wired to be fascinated by pregnancy and to greet the arrival of newborn babies with joy and delight. But now that there are seven billion people on earth, the announcement of a new pregnancy is not that unusual. On any given day, about 500,000 women learn that they are pregnant and announce this blessed news to their friends and families.

As I am sure you all know, one of the 500,000 pregnancies announced this past Monday became a media sensation -- that of the Duchess of Cambridge, the wife of Prince William. The extensive coverage of her pregnancy reflects the fact that the first baby born to William and Kate will be third in line to the throne of England and will one day become the head of state of the United Kingdom, Canada and 14 other countries that still place themselves under the British Monarchy.

Royal families have been a big deal for as long as there have been kings and queens. Today I look into which families get to be called royal ones and which ones do not.

At Christmas, we remember that the Holy Family of Mary, Joseph and Jesus is also a royal family. Joseph, although poor and unknown, is a descendant of King David. Jesus is born in the royal city, Bethlehem. In later life, he will be hailed as the new King of Israel, the Messiah. According to the church, Jesus' royal family is the real one. Other so-called royal families, such as the one of King Herod in Jerusalem or of Caesar Augustus in Rome, are illegitimate.

Jesus' ministry, death and resurrection challenge the royal claims of Herod, Caesar and their sons. Their kingdoms are ones of oppression and violence. God's Kingdom, which Jesus inaugurates, is one of equality and non-violence.

Jesus could not be more different from Caesar and the czars, kaisers, and kings who succeeded the Roman emperors after the fall of Rome 1500 years ago. The throne of Jesus does not lie in a palace in Jerusalem, Rome, or London. It lies in the heart of all believers whom we collectively call the Body of Christ. In this way, Jesus is a King who not only reigns over us, but also within us. Jesus is a king who lives through the people who follow in his Way.

Why, then, more than 2,000 years after the births of John the Baptist and Jesus the Christ, are we still so focused on the lives of royal families like the British one?

Monarchy today is mostly for show. Affairs of state such a taxation and war are no longer in the hands of kings even in those few countries that still have a monarchy. Royals today are celebrities more than political figures. Kate and William stand alongside Brad and Angelina more than they do Barack Obama or Stephen Harper.

So why the extreme media focus on make-believe monarchies? This past Monday a lot of things happened around the world. Approximately 3,000 people died in car crashes. But that is not news because it happens every day. Approximately 10,000 children died of malnutrition or easily preventable diseases on Monday. But that is also not news because it happens every day. On Monday, 85 million barrels of oil and 22 million tons of coal were burned, which is equivalent to burning a dense forest the size of large country. But that is not news because it too happens every day. Finally, on Monday, 500,000 women announced to their families that they were pregnant. But only one of those announcements was newsworthy because that pregnancy is in the world's most famous surviving royal family.

I am sure that all of us wish Kate and William well with her pregnancy. I am sorry that they were forced to make their announcement earlier than they would have liked because of Kate's hospitalization. Like everyone, I am saddened and sickened by the apparent suicide of one of Kate's nurses in the aftermath of an adolescent prank by two Australian radio hosts.

But why on earth was this radio prank broadcast to billions of people on every "news" broadcast and "entertainment" program that exists? It's as if a Halloween prank on Main Street in Coronach had been recorded and had become the talk of everyone on the planet for a few days. To my mind, there is something insane about the intensity of the media focus on the British royal family.

On the other hand, I admit that I often succumb to the celebrity halo surrounding the royals. Many days I would rather celebrate the joy of an impending birth to a rich and handsome couple in England than hear about the latest death toll in the Syrian civil war.

I admit that during the past 21 months of civil war in Syria, I have fast forwarded through most TV news reports about it. The situation in Syria seems so complicated and hopeless to me that mostly I would rather not know about it. Still, the news this week was not that hundreds more were killed -- that happens every week so it also has ceased to be news. The news was that Syria might soon use its stockpiles of nerve gas to continue its killing.

Countries like the United States, Russia, and China have vast stockpiles of these weapons of mass destruction, which seems bad enough. That a country like Syria, which is descending into lawlessness, also has such weapons frightens me.

We might like to be distracted from this reality by the antics of Prince Harry or the picture-perfect marriage of Kate and William. But when this one family's domestic drama dominates our so-called news media in the face of all the other wonders and concerns in this world, it has become a distraction against which we should stand, I think.

During Advent and Christmas, the church directs us to focus on the coming of the Prince of Peace. However, Christmas today also seems to be a shell of its former self. In this status, it reminds me a bit of the monarchy. Our calendar is still shaped by the Christ story. December 25th and Good Friday remain statutory holidays. Christmas presents and Easter chocolates are still big business. We number the years on our calendar from best estimates of when Jesus was born, about 2012 years ago. But these features of the calendar do not shape many of us deeply now, I believe.

Two weeks ago at Church School, I asked the children how long ago they thought it was since Jesus was born. One boy in Coronach said he thought it was a long time ago -- perhaps in the 90s. One girl in Rockglen guessed 50 years, another 100, and a third 200 years ago. None of them connected the year 2012 to the Latin phrase, A.D., Anno Domini, or the Year of our Lord.

Church is marginal these days, which gives us freedom to choose. Should we go with  the sentimental flow of holiday movies and Santa Claus at Christmas, or should  we proclaim the stark message of a humble baby, born to overturn the kingdoms of this world?  Should we bow before worldly rulers, or should we proclaim God's kingdom in which humanity is finally united in a world of justice and peace?

The kingdoms of this world do not follow the Way of the Cross or the Path of Peace. As Christians, our call is to stand against them.

We also proclaim that no family by virtue of heredity is more royal than others. All newborns carry the image of God and are eligible to be baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. We are called to welcome each baby with as much joy as any other. For Christians, all families are holy; all families are royal ones.

Despite the media barrage that informs us of every detail of the personal lives of Elizabeth and Philip, Charles and Camilla, and William and Kate, the church's message at Advent is that the time of the kings of this earth is passing. Instead, we prepare to welcome the Christ. He will reign as a new type of king in all of our hearts and in all of our royal families forever.

This Advent we prepare again for the Prince of Peace. Against the hurricane of media coverage of the royals, our Advent message might not seem strong. But in our hearts, it continues to burn bright.

And so we say again, Come, Lord Jesus, Come.


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