The Bad Old Days

Sunday sermon from December 9, 2013
Text: Luke 3:1-7
Given at Pilgrim Covenant Church, South Plainfield, NJ

One of the strange perks of being an underemployed supply preacher is that occasionally you can decide that your sermon research for the week demands that you take yourself to a movie. And so this week, I took an afternoon to go and see Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s latest historical melodrama. Which I enjoyed! It was good! Almost as good as the luxury of going to a theatre and spending the afternoon with a bag of movie popcorn.

The thing that struck me about Lincoln — and, from having read a bit about the responses to the movie when I got home, it’s something that has struck a number of the critics – is how relentlessly unsentimental it seeks to be about our own political and national story. I don’t think I spoil anything to say that a huge part of this is established in its very opening sequence, a Civil War battle depicted more like a crazed slugfest than like any of the choreographed and stylized films that have come before. It seems to me that our typical story about those battles drips with so much heroism and grandiosity, as though the war that cost so many hundreds of thousands of lives were some tragedy penned by the hand of some great dramatist and not instead, as the opening of Lincoln reminds us, the unceremonious and callous mutual slaughter of countrymen by their brethren, the sort of thing that no orchestral score can render into national myth. You’ll have to see the rest of it for yourself — but suffice to say that, despite the occasional muted trumpet solo, the film is a helpful reminder that the past is not a romantic and heroic place. It’s just the past.

Our Gospel text for today has something similar to say about cultural memory. This is the opening of the third chapter of Luke, really the opening of Jesus’s adult ministry. We’ve had the familiar nativity narrative in the second chapter, and some stories from Jesus’s childhood, and then one could imagine a black screen with the words “twenty years later” as preface to our text for today. And so, just as Luke does in the Christmas narrative when he puts his story in the time of the census decree from Caesar Augustus, here in chapter 3 he gives his audience an overabundance of historical context: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John…”

It’s a mouthful. It’s not exactly “once upon a time.” Frankly, it’s the sort of Biblical passage that we are most likely to skip over in our enthusiasm to get to the “real stuff” of the Gospel. But much like the unsentimental portrayal of the civil war battle that opens Lincoln, these verses announce something about Luke’s relationship to the Gospel history. For Luke’s audience, these aren’t just names in a Bible verse: the Emperor Tiberius was infamous both as a persecutor of early Christians and for his own declining mental health: Joel Green characterizes the end of his reign as being “a period of pure terror.” Herod and Pilate would both have been well-known figures already for their importance to the Gospel story, not to mention for the corruption and anti-Jewish sentiment that characterized both of their administrations. And last but certainly not least, the mentioning of the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas would have struck a powerful chord with Luke’s audience: Annas was Caiaphas’s father, and even though only one high priest was supposed to rule at any given time, Annas retained enormous political power even after his son rose to the office, much like perhaps American anxiety about Russian president Vladimir Putin always being in charge even when somebody else was supposed to be in charge. Which is all to say that a list of political leaders is hardly just a list of political leaders: it’s a reminder to Luke’s original audience of how corrupt and fractured were the political institutions at the time of Jesus’s ministry. It’s an unsentimental account of the context of the Gospel story — it could not be further away from “once upon a time.” And more than anything it’s an insistence by the Gospel writer that even in Jesus’s day, the past was not a romantic place. It’s just the past.

The word for all of this, of course, is nostalgia, a longing for a past that never quite existed. Lincoln isn’t a jarring movie because of some historical inaccuracy. Rather, it’s the movie’s accuracy that does us in: it reminds us that the story we’ve been telling ourselves about our own national identity — a story made of great leaders moved by moral character and ideological conviction, with swelling orchestral crescendos at all the right moments — that’s not history. It’s nostalgia, it’s our decision to mythologize our own past, to make it into something cleaner and easier than it is, to turn regular and conflicted people into heroes and villains. Nostalgia is something we impose upon the past; it comes not from dramatic arc of real history but from the longings and anxieties of our present character: our political system feels broken and stagnate, and so we invent stories about an ethos of public stewardship from a time gone by, and then we have something to long for. Our family structures grow and change, and so we invent stories about what families used to look like back when Father Knew Best, and then we have something to grieve the loss of. Nostalgia is what happens when our deepest fears and our deepest heartache take hold of us and transform the complicated reality of history into easy evidence for why Things Used to be Better and therefore Things Are Getting Worse and therefore Right Now is just about the Worst Time Ever.

But obviously nostalgia isn’t just something that affects how we think about big issues in politics or culture; nostalgia can be eminently personal, especially at Christmas.  Carols and commercials and television specials overflow with nostalgic dreams, with some longing that this Christmas will be just like the ones we used to know, that something will magically bear us back into memory. Perhaps it is that a tree full of presents renders us all childlike. Perhaps it is that gathering with our extended families renders us all infantile. Perhaps we have refined with such repetition our own Christmas traditions that to enter the season is to enter some feeling of permanence, like it must have always been this way, like each Advent is an invitation to some mythical Christmas past wherein everything was just… perfect.

But that’s nostalgia, and not real life. In real life, Christmas is so much more complicated. In real life, Christmas can still be these ephemeral magical moments, but just as often it can crash all too easily back to earth: a tree full of presents, and a stack full bills; a gathering with family that can just as easily open up old wounds. In fact laid against the expectations of the season Christmas so often arrives as something slightly under-baked, like it can’t possibly compete against its own mythology, like it can’t possibly compete against the memory we have of a Christmas that never happened. When Christmas lives in this artificial past, when we fuel it with nostalgia and some faraway longing, at its best all it can do is to not measure up.

Which is why this Luke text is such a critical testimony for us as we enter again into the season of Christmas waiting. Luke has no interest in starting his story with sentiment. Even though Luke’s original audience is likely being persecuted for their faith, and even though they’ve witnessed the destruction of the temple itself at the hands of the Roman authorities, Luke has no interest in indulging their nostalgia for the days when Jesus himself walked the earth and did his ministry. Instead, he grounds the Gospel story not in cultural nostalgia but rather in the harsh reality of the concrete past: Tiberius, the mad emperor; Pilate and Herod, the brutal autocrats; Annas and Caiaphas, religious zealots. This litany is so much more complicated than “Once Upon a Time,” because Luke has no time for nostalgia; because the Jesus Christ of Luke’s Gospel enters in to the real history of real people; but what’s more, Luke barely has time for history itself; notice what happens: as soon as all of the historical context is established, and just as we are getting ready to wallow around in the past, Luke quotes Isaiah to set his eyes quickly on the future:

 Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.

Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,

And the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;

Hardly the language of a story fixed upon the past. Hardly the language of a Gospel that fixes its eyes upon the road already taken: “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low,” – Luke begins the history of Jesus’s ministry with promise, promise ripped from the story of God’s salvation in the wilderness, promise that echoed the definitive moment of God entering into the real, messy, broken history of God’s people, promise that would have spoken as loudly to Luke’s original audience as it does to us, promise that reminds us that God calls us not to long for the past but rather to hope for the future, to set our hearts not on nostalgia for some bygone fiction but rather to ground them in the expectation of what God will yet do in days to come. If nothing else surely this is the foundational meaning of Advent: that we live in the slow unfolding of God’s promises, that waiting in that expectant hope is the most faithful thing we can do. The line between Advent and Christmas is nowhere more grotesquely crossed than when Christmas nostalgia invites us into a fictional past when instead God calls us into an expectant future, when instead a voice cries out even in this wilderness: Prepare the way! The Lord Jesus comes, and quickly!

Not every Civil War casualty happened on the battlefield. Of course it is well known that many died from disease often caused by the unsanitary conditions of the army camp. But one of the more infrequent causes of fatality in the Civil War was a condition of extreme homesickness. Young boys who had never previously left the immediate orbit of their families were taken halfway across the country with little ability to communicate home; the dislocation was unlike anything that we as a modern and mobile society could possibly understand. Civil War doctors connected it to a variety of physical symptoms, including heart palpitations, lesions, and internal organ damage. Letters from family could alleviate the symptoms, or they could make them worse; some songs were expressly forbidden on the grounds that they could arouse a sense of wistfulness and homesickness that would “unnerve our suffering men.” Here’s the thing: they called this extreme homesickness “nostalgia,” and in five years of wartime, more than 5,000 Union soldiers were diagnosed. Extreme nostalgia. 74 died.

Now of course what they call nostalgia we would probably nowadays diagnose as depression, or, in the aftermath of battle, post-traumatic stress. And we who so value mobility might have a hard time understanding the real traumatic effect of leaving home in the way that so many thousand soldiers did. But I wonder if we understand more than we know. I wonder if we are not so similarly dislocated; I wonder if we are not so similarly homesick; not that the routines of modern life bear any similarity to the horrors of those battlefields, but that perhaps the call of home upon us is not just as strong as ever it has been, that our fragility and our frailty has sent us careening into the past, looking for a home where everything feels safe and warm. You may too, this Christmas, find yourself thrust into the past, searching for a memory, searching for that childhood moment, searching for something lost to the wanderings of time; you will not be alone; apparently cases of nostalgia were most pronounced around the Holidays. But as the spectacle of Christmas calls you into an imaginary past, remember this: Jesus came into the very real, the very muddy, the very broken fragile and frail world that we now wander. It is a story not of sentiment but of promise; it is a story not of memory but of anticipation; it is our story, we who are dying of homesickness for a home we have not yet seen. In our waiting, Advent calls us into something only God has yet imagined. In our waiting, there is great expectation of what that home will be. In our waiting, there is great remembrance of a joy we have not yet entirely known. Christ has come. Christ will come again! Thanks be to God!

 

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