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It's Advent - A Dangerous Time Of The Year!


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Waiting and Hope

Advent, incarnation, and the daily news.

by Julie Polter


Advent stretches over the four Sundays before Christmas, but in 1998 I began thinking Advent thoughts in late summer. Perhaps it was the presence of economists everywhere commenting on the financial collapses in Asia and Russia and giving their oracles of doom and deliverance for the rest of the world. Perhaps it was the day that the newspaper Metro section had no less than three reports of sexually abused children (including a case where a mother "rented" her daughter to a child molester to fund her drug habit).


Whatever the immediate cause, I began to long for tidings of great joy; I began to think about hope and dread and security and deliverance. I began to think about waiting, and what it is, really, that any of us wait for.


These are Advent thoughts, for Advent is marked by tension—tension between uncertainty and hope, fear and longing, the now and not-yet of God's promises. It is a time of penitential preparation for the birth of Christ. It is a dangerous time for the faithful, because it calls us to examine the end and the beginning of our faith.


Fittingly, the lectionary passages for this season are as much about judgment as about reassurance. Christmas may inevitably bring sentimental soft-focus scenes of mother and infant, but the scriptures for Advent make clear that such a scene is merely the eye of a hurricane. It is a mistake to think that just because God comes as a helpless child the effects of incarnation will be small and manageable, contained. During Advent, the words of the prophets—from Isaiah to John the Baptist—are foretelling change, potentially cataclysmic, at all levels: personal, political, cosmic. Why do we think that God being with us will make the ride less wild?


The prophets might be economists without the graphs and charts: Kingdoms will fall under the weight of their own corruption and lack of wisdom. Of course the prophets differ from many economists in that they do not place the burden of structural (and spiritual) readjustment on the debtor nations, but on the nations who flaunt their wealth and preen over their power and leave their children to the wolves.


WHAT ARE WE WAITING FOR? The answer depends a lot on where you are and where you look for it. "We should read the financial news like we read the police reports—international economic conditions will affect us," a commentator on a radio show recently intoned. Everything from a mere short-term market dip to ominous murmurings of recession or even depression have been predicted in the future for the affluent West. A vague, anxious expectancy skitters around the edges of our media consciousness: What will happen to us? many ask in America. To our retirement funds and our stock portfolios?


Of course those who are struggling to survive, here or elsewhere, don't have time or energy for vague anxiety; the mundane terrors of the everyday are clear and concrete. In several Asian countries, the child sex trade has already increased, as families sell their children to buy food. In Jakarta, Indonesia, families live in garbage dumps, picking through the retch-inducing piles for scraps of plastic to sell and scraps of food to eat. Those children wait (if hope lives in them still) for bodily, utterly incarnated deliverance from suffering.


This is a key part of the good news that Advent prepares us to receive: The sovereign God of the universe came down, if you will, from a throne of remove to walk as a human being among a people poor and oppressed. God shared—and shares—the worst of human pain and tastes the depth of human despair. Good news that couldn't withstand the choking fumes of a garbage heap or that turned away from the child in Thailand (or Maryland) who is defiled and exploited for someone else's pleasure and profit wouldn't be good news at all.


In Christ we are not connected to international economic conditions when our stocks fall. In Christ we are connected when in the power of the Spirit (it takes nothing less) we do not turn away from human suffering in helplessness or cynicism.


The power of the universe became a babe in arms, not to teach us about the sweetness of love (although that is real too), but to teach us about its vulnerability and tangible expression and practical demands; and to teach us that on such as this, kingdoms are built. In a child, any child, the wealth and righteousness of a society, a nation, a world can be read. This isn't fuzzy sentimentality; this is the law of the universe and the word of the prophets.


What are we waiting for? For the one who has come and comes again, the child who leads us. For the living paradox of incarnation: That in Christ, hearts opened up to suffering are also opened up to joy. That in Christ, we draw closer to God not by removing ourselves from the world, but through deeper immersion in it.


Julie Polter is an associate editor at Sojourners.


Waiting and Hope. by Julie Polter. Sojourners Magazine, November-December 1998 (Vol. 27, No. 6, pp. 14). Commentary


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Waiting for God


Waiting is not a very popular attitude. In fact, most people consider waiting a waste of time. Perhaps this is because the culture in which we live is basically saying, "Get going! Do something! Show you are able to make a difference! Don't just sit there and wait!" For many people, waiting is an awful desert between where they are and where they want to go. And people do not like such a place. They want to get out of it by doing something.


In our particular historical situation, waiting is even more difficult because we are so fearful. One of the most pervasive emotions in the atmosphere around us is fear. People are afraid - afraid of inner feelings, afraid of other people, and also afraid of the future. And fearful people have a hard time waiting.


- Henri Nouwen

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Now, to take things up a notch or two...


Advent economics: Mary's "Magnifcant/Manifesto"


"And Mary said,

'My soul magnifies the Lord,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God's servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

and holy is God's name.

God's mercy is for those who fear God

from generation to generation.

God has shown strength with God's arm;

and has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly;

God has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.'"


- Luke 1:46-53

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Another example of the political asepct of Christmas (i.e. re: poverty) is seen in the original St. Nicholaus (i.e. the bishop from Asia Minor - now Turkey - not Santa Claus).


For those who don't know his story, Nicholaus came to a strong faith in Christ at a young age and even wore the red robes of a bishop before he turned 18. He came to inherit great wealth but didn't feel called to be a rich man. His heart ached for the plight of the many poverty stricken families in his region and he felt terrible that so many young girls were resorting to prostitution in order to support their families.


So, once a year, he would go around and secretly give away gold coins to the poorest of the families. His practical generosity and love were rememberd by his people, a became known as the patron saint of children, special feast day was created in his honor.. and the rest is history.. until the modern-day capitalists twisted all of this for greedy ambitions.. : (

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“God entered into our world not with the crushing impact of unbearable glory, but in the way of weakness, vulnerability and need. On a wintry night in an obscure cave, the infant Jesus was a humble, naked, helpless God who allowed us to get close to him.


We all know how difficult it is to receive anything from someone who has all the answers, who is completely cool, utterly unafraid, needing nothing and in control of every situation. We feel unnecessary, unrelated to this paragon. So God comes as a newborn baby, giving us a chance to love him, making us feel that we have something to give him.”

- Brennan Manning


Jesus observed, “Without me you can do nothing.” Yet we act, for the most part, as though without us God can do nothing. We think we have to make Christmas come, which is to say we think we have to bring about the redemption of the universe on our own. When all God needs is a willing womb, a place of safety, nourishment, and love. “Oh, but nothing will get done,” you say. “If I don’t do it, Christmas won’t happen.”


But why not try it? Leave behind your briefcase and notes. Leave behind your skills and your knowledge. Leave the Christmas decorations up in the attic. Go and find someone in need. - Loretta Ross-Gotta

Both of these quotes appear in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Plough/Orbis, 2004).

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Thank you for those excellent resources. I'm reminded that one of the central messages of this season is 'humility'.


Here are some more thoughts on Advent/Birth of Christ


We must make our hearts like the manger.

Humble in stature

Filled with Love like Mary’s and Mercy like Joseph’s

We must be like the Wise men.

Following the star

Leaving our land of comfort

Bearing our precious gift

We must be like the Servant shepherds.

Listening to the angel song

Hearing the invitation


When Wisdom meets Service in a Humble Heart that is filled with Love and Mercy,

Christ is born. Offer your gift. Kneel before him. Receive Peace on Earth.

Edited by fatherman
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In the birth stories of Luke and Matthew, only one person seems to grasp the mysterious nature of what God has set in motion: the old man Simeon, who recognized the baby as the Messiah, instinctively understood that conflict would surely follow. “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against...” he said, and then made the prediction that a sword would pierce Mary’s own soul. Somehow Simeon sensed that though on the surface little had changed – the autocrat Herod still ruled, Roman troops were still stringing up patriots, Jerusalem still overflowed with beggars – underneath everything had changed. A new force had arrived to undermine the world’s powers.

- Philip Yancey (not the most "progressive" Xtian, but this is nice)




GOD WITH US: A modern Christmas tale,

by Kevin D. Hendricks


Christmas has never made much sense to me. It centers on the little baby Jesus, born into a world of nothing, so we celebrate with overabundance, presents and goodies and decorations festooning every nook and cranny starting the day after Halloween. We’re overcompensating for the whole manger thing, hoping Jesus won’t hold it against us.


In reality, that first Christmas so long ago wasn’t the saccharine scene we see depicted on Christmas cards, where a dank and drafty hut looks positively homey. That first Christmas wasn’t clean and polished, and if it happened today no one would notice.


Imagine Mary and Joseph, youth group alums getting married in college. Maybe Mary is 19 and Joseph is 21, incredibly young, but not irresponsible. They’re the excessively cute, engaged couple, wearing matching sweaters and registering at Target. They’re excited and eager and scared all at once.


But then the bride is pregnant, the husband-to-be floored. There’s talk of visions and dreams that the family tries to keep quiet, but everyone knows. It’s an episode of Jerry Springer, and the unrepentant Mary - holding her head high and spouting about the Messiah - is shipped off to stay with her cousin - the older, wiser, pregnant-after-she’s-married cousin, leaving Joseph behind. The big day is forgotten in a cloud of shame.


Despite what everyone says, Joseph knows they didn’t shack-up. His fiance is either a ###### or crazy. He’s not sure which one’s worse, until an eerie nighttime visitor gives him a third option - he’s the crazy one.


In the midst of all the gossip and leering eyes, Joseph comes to Mary’s defense, not exactly touting her Savior story, but not denying it either. Mom and Dad wish they’d just fess up, and all could be forgiven, but Mary clinging to her true-love-waits card in the third trimester is a bit much.


When a Draconian government edict requires them to be home for the holidays, pregnant and all, they huddle into Joseph’s sputtering college car and shuttle across the country. They roll into town too late, the hospitals crowded, the doctors out of town, the inns overbooked.


It doesn’t matter anyway, since this severely pregnant woman gets scorn, not sympathy. It’s obvious she’s not the chaste virgin she claims to be, and with Joseph by her side he’s either too forgiving or guilty as well. This is their mess, let them clean it up.


With no one to take them in, not even insurance to secure a hospital bed, they wander through the streets. The homeless shelter must have been full, and the church locked for the night. In the end Mary and Joseph curled up in an alley, next to a dumpster and a garbage can, to bring the Savior into the world.


The young mother is scared, she screams and cries out into the darkness. There’s no epidural in an alley. A rat looks on. Joseph does all he can to midwife the child. He’s seeing a part of his wife he was not yet supposed to see, and is clinging to the hope that she’s not crazy, that he’s not crazy, that this baby is actually more than everyone says.


The baby is finally born and Mary crumbles in a heap. Joseph cuts the umbilical cord with his pocketknife and wraps the child in old newspapers. This is our Messiah. A back-alley baby, just as well aborted or left in the dumpster.


But this isn’t the end of our sordid tale. Late in the night transients come and look on, the kind of riffraff who ask for change in parking lots with elaborate stories about needing bus fare to North Dakota. Mary can smell the alcohol on their breath, but they don’t ask for a handout. They ask to hold the baby. They pat Joseph on the back and head out into the night, singing together in their semi-drunken stupor.


Next comes a crowd of foreigners, immigrants who barely speak English. They look like 9/11 hijackers, and rather than useful gifts like blankets, diapers, or even a onesie, they bring odd knickknacks from their homeland, the kind of present you’d bring to a state dinner, not a baby shower. In broken English one of them says grand things about the baby, something about a majestic king and a new era. The new mom and dad look at the USA Today covering their child and the delivery room alley, and they can’t help but wonder who’s crazy now.


Morning comes and the bewildered trailer park family moves on, to raise their child under the watchful eye of people who call him a bastard, a child of sin, and look down with derision.


That is the birth we celebrate with fat Santas and gifts and cookies, frosted electric red and green. That is why we string tacky lights, hang greens, and wish one another a Merry Christmas. All because of an illegitimate child born in the streets.


Years and years after that hapless family pulled together, miles away from the bloodstained alley where it all began and the leers of gossipy neighbors, that bastard child flipped tables at the church potluck, and had dinner with homosexuals and HIV-victims. He gathered a gang of truck drivers and gas station clerks, even an IRS agent and a prostitute, touting them around while he insulted the bishop and walked across the Mississippi.


That back-alley baby stepped on one too many toes. They falsified some evidence, found a loophole, and ramrodded him through the courts. A jury of his peers approved of his guilt, and in the end they send 1,000 volts coursing through his body. It was finished.


So raise your hands, and let’s sing a song of the dumpster baby, adored by hookers and terrorists. Let’s frost a rat-shaped cookie and hang some trash on the front door, to commemorate that back-alley birth. This is your Savior, the Christ-child, and the story of an implausible Christmas that gives new meaning to the phrase God with us.


(Kevin D. Hendricks is a freelance writer who lives in St. Paul, Minn. with his wife, Abby, and their dog, Speak. His freelancing pursuits, which include a first novel, can be found online at www.MonkeyOuttaNowhere.com.)

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Do You Accept Santa Claus As Your Personal Savior?


by Michael Arvey www.OpEdNews.com


Ho, ho, ho, and I'm not invoking Uncle Ho, but that old socialistic, long-haired hippy who, decked out in red, flies without a license and doesn't have a national ID card. Who knows what's in those free boxes, anyway. At the very least, he's a dangerous liberal--who else would dress and look like that?--who gives to the poor as well as to the rich, and to the infirm as well as to the healthy.


Santa Claus, arbiter of gifts and justice, is coming to town. Better be nice, better not cry. He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake. He's knows if you've been good or bad, so be good for goodness sake! Sound a bit like a Homeland Security agent who can always find you wherever you are?


One can't help but notice how Christian fundamentalists often treat God or Jesus as if they're both Santa Claus: "Please Lord, I've been good, bring me this list of things and the help I deserve. And remember God, when I go to war with relatives, friends or other nations, you're on my side." But, notice what Jesus taught, "Your father knoweth what things ye have need of." He doesn't talk about what you want, perhaps because he recognized there is no end to wants. In fact, Psalm 23:1 instructs, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want."


However, to act kindly or good to get something for yourself is a projection of conditional, egoic consciousness, which bears no resemblance to a spiritual being and to the unconditional selflessness of the Higher Self. Apparently when fundamentalists find their worldly desires have been fulfilled, they believe God must have beneficently smiled down and blessed them through Jesus, the mediator. Strangely, however, once these Christians have accepted Jesus as their savior, they no longer seem to think for themselves, nor do they read and study the Scriptures in a deep way, preferring to listen to someone else's reflective distillation of Biblical writings--easier to bow down to the altar of television, America's favorite false prophet. The faith they speak of and espouse is considered, in some eastern spiritual traditions, simply a by-product of enlightenment, or an immersion in God awareness, rather than being a postmortem stepping-stone to God. And from that state of consciousness, one prays from God, not to God, and those prayers are infused directly with sparkling, divine energy.


George W. Bush, for example, is a born-again case in point. Although he claims he's doing everything he can to keep Americans safe, his entire political sub-text is a short-term philosophy: Grab while the grabbing's good. Does the Bible not proclaim that is it better to give than to receive? Bush's faith is entrusted to economic Darwinism, the survival of the richest, and still his flock remain impervious to clear-headedness. Is Bush a bona fide Christian? Regardless how well he plays his facade with his fundamentalist constituency, he's more of a Deuteuronomic (one of the five books of the Pentateuch) Old Testament guy who is, as linguist George Lakoff would describe such men, a strict father figure. Within Bush's and the fundamentalists' point of view live the stock platitudes with which everyone is familiar: Vengeance is mine, just and right is he, father knows best, mothers stay at home, America is the greatest, communism is bad. There are countless other comforting, black and white, absolutist platitudes that earmark this mindset. One can't help suspect that this simplistic black and white framework is the paranoiac source of the Bush administration's watchword "You're either with us or against us"--a rigid distinction that leaves no middle ground. Interestingly, this same friend or foe dichotomy can be located in the dictatorships of Hitler and Stalin. If Bush knew his Bible, he'd know that his sin, sooner or later, will find him out.


The fundies probably fall far short of the example Christ made of his whole life through service and sacrifice for others based on a foundation of love that manifested through his healing, teaching and dying, and through his parables that brimmed with such profundity none of us can ever really grasp their entire breadth and depth, floating down as they do from higher dimensional experience. "But he that is the greatest among you shall be your servant." Matt 23:9. Jesus served and walked with the poor, with sinners, with prostitutes and with the sick, and as a result, Christians were always a minority. Even Jesus could described as a socialist freely giving from the whole of creation that belongs to, and is, God, as some eastern spiritual traditions teach, to those in need or who have little or nothing in the material realm. In addition, Jesus, unlike Bush and his followers, fits Lakoff's model of a nurturer rather than that of a strict father.


Jesus the moral Christ would never in all eternity countenance the napalming and nuking with depleted uranium the thousands of innocents in that distant slaughterhouse, Iraq. And the with the love of money being the root of all evil, he would never engineer tax cuts and social security privatization schemes for Pharisaic, rich money-changers.


Certainly, the devil would.


Michael Arvey (marvey@email.com) is a free lance writer in Colorado

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Putting Herod back into Christmas

by Joy Carroll Wallis


How people love Christmas carols! When I was a priest back in London, carol singing around the parish really seemed to get everyone in the mood for Christmas. We always had a real accordion and an old-fashioned lantern on a pole; we were always wrapped up warmly, and we would stop and sing carols under selected streetlights. It was a scene fit for a Christmas card.... People came out in droves, mostly non-churchgoers, to listen and put money in our collecting box for the homeless. When we were finally all sung out, we would trudge back to someone's house for mulled wine and minced pies...all very English! Great memories.


But we need to beware! Our culture loves a sentimental Christmas, and the Christmas carols that we sing are a big part of that. The words often paint an idyllic picture of sanitary bliss that has very little to do with the reality of what Jesus came into this world to do. This week Jim was reading the Christmas story to our son Luke. He read of how Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem on the donkey, that there was no room in the inn. But there was a stable, and, as Jim read, "the stable was warm and clean!"


But this sanitization of the Christmas story is a relatively recent development. It's interesting that before the Victorian era, Christmas songs were much more likely to reflect the reality of Jesus' entry into our world. Carols would not hesitate to refer to the blood and sacrifice of Jesus or the story about Herod slaughtering the innocent children. As an example of the contrast, read through the words of "Away in a Manger." Jesus is the perfect baby, and "No crying he makes...." My guess is that Jesus cried a lot. We know from the gospels that the more Jesus saw of the world in which he lived, the more he mourned and wept regularly. A Jesus who doesn't weep with those who weep, a Jesus who's just a sentimental myth, may be the one that our culture prefers, but that Jesus can do nothing for us.


In Britain there's a very popular musician called Cliff Richard. About 10 years ago he released a Christmas song that reached the top 10 in the charts. The lyrics of "Saviour's Day" reflected his Christian faith and included lines such as, "Life can be yours on Saviour's Day, don't look back or turn away...." I picked up a teenage pop magazine where there was an article reviewing the season's Christmas songs. When it came to "Saviour's Day," the writer said, "This song is OK, but there's no holly, no mistletoe and wine, no presents around the tree, no snow, no Santa, in fact this song hasn't got anything to do with Christmas at all!" A radio DJ in this country once said, "What Christmas is all about is the celebration of living in a great nation like this." It's not a celebration of this "great" nation; it's about Jesus Christ. It's so easy to let the world reduce our spirituality to nostalgia and sentiment. As Evangelical Covenant Reverend Dr. Michael Van Horn said, "We must be careful not to lose the connection to the truth of the story because it is that story that shapes our identity as the people of God."


Another danger of sentimentality is that we tend to lose interest in the parts of the story that are not so comfortable. We smile at the warm cozy nativity scene, but have you ever spent a night in a barn? Or given birth in a barn? The reality is very different. Most scholars suggest that in Luke's account it's not just that the inns were full but that Mary and Joseph were forced to take the barn because their family had rejected them. Joseph has relatives or friends of relatives in Bethlehem. So rather than being received hospitably by family or friends, Joseph and Mary have been shunned. Family and neighbors are declaring their moral outrage at the fact that Joseph would show up on their doorsteps with his pregnant girlfriend.


No sooner have the wise men left the stable then King Herod plots to kill Jesus. He is so determined that he is willing to sacrifice many innocent lives in order to get to this one baby. Herod recognizes something about Jesus that in our sentiment we fail to see: that the birth of this child is a threat to his kingdom, a threat to that kind of domination and rule. Jesus challenges the very power structures of this evil age. Herod has all the male infants in Bethlehem murdered. Not so cozy. This is the Jesus who entered the bloody history of Israel, and the human race.


But we don't want to think about Herod. Van Horn calls him the "Ebenezer Scrooge without the conversion, the Grinch without a change of heart." We Christians like to talk about putting Christ back into Christmas, but let's not forget to put Herod back into Christmas.


Herod represents the dark side of the gospel. He reminds us that Jesus didn't enter a world of sparkly Christmas cards or a world of warm spiritual sentiment. Jesus enters a world of real pain, of serious dysfunction, a world of brokenness and political oppression. Jesus was born an outcast, a homeless person, a refugee, and finally he becomes a victim to the powers that be. Jesus is the perfect savior for outcasts, refugees, and nobodies. That's how the church is described in scripture time and time again - not as the best and the brightest - but those who in their weakness become a sign for the world of the wisdom and power of God.


My boys and I enjoy watching the animated movie Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Do you remember the island of misfit toys where all the strange and unusual toys lived? The island is an interesting picture of our church communities. The church is not a gathering of people who have it all together, who look and act alike, who have no problems to speak of. The church is a community of people who are broken and needy, who in their weakness trust in the grace of God. This is the kind of church that Jesus the outcast, the misfit has created. The gospel that acknowledges brokenness, pain, and the tragedy of life is good news for us all. There is hope for all who find this season tinged with despair or pain. Perhaps we mourn the loss of a loved one and their absence on Christmas day is more painful each year. Perhaps our lives are full of struggle. Perhaps we despair over the state of our world.


The news of ever-increasing poverty in this country and the news of the war in Iraq - whose mission was supposed to be accomplished by now but is clearly not - is a mess and getting worse by the day with more and more casualties. A war, like most wars, that has not lived up to its promises seems so much out of sync with the message that we sing in our Christmas carols. The Jesus of the Bible came to give life to those who are living with real grief and pain. This is not often the stuff of our Christmas carols.


The greatest Christmas song is that of Mary's, found in the second chapter of Luke:

He has shown strength with his arm;

He has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

And lifted up the lowly;

He has filled the hungry with good things,

And sent the rich away empty.


Mary's "Magnificat" tells us that this new king is likely to turn the world upside-down. Mary's declaration about the high and mighty being brought low and the lowly exalted is at the heart of the Christmas story. The son of God is born in an animal stall. Mary herself is a poor young woman, part of an oppressed race, and living in an occupied country. Her prayer is the hope of the downtrodden everywhere, a prophecy that those who rule by wealth and domination, rather than serving the common good, will be overturned because of what has just happened in the little town of Bethlehem. Her proclamation can be appropriately applied to any rulers or regimes that prevail through sheer power, instead of by doing justice.


This story that begins in a smelly barn finally ends on a cross. By human standards it is a message of weakness. Christmas reminds us that our God has come into our broken world, and that human judgments are not the last judgment, human justice is not the last justice. The power that humans exercise over us is not the last power. As we enjoy our caroling, let's remember to put Herod back into Christmas. Amen.


Joy Carroll Wallis is an Anglican priest and the author of The Woman Behind the Collar (Crossroads) which tells the story of her journey to ordination and role as a consultant to the British television comedy series, The Vicar of Dibly. Joy lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband (Sojourners editor-in-chief Jim Wallis) and their two children. This message is adapted from a sermon delivered at Cedar Ridge Community Church on December 5.



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