Dec 8, 2010

Deck the Halls!

Rev. David Jones
By: Rev. David B. Jones
Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church
Atlanta, Georgia

Years ago, in a central European town, the older people could be seen making the sign of the cross as they passed by a certain ordinary-looking wall. When a visitor asked why they were doing this, no one knew.

The visitor was curious. He began chipping away at the layers of whitewash and dirt covering the wall until underneath he discovered a beautiful mural of Mary and the baby Jesus. Generations before, the townspeople had a reason for making the sign of the cross. But succeeding generations had only learned the ritual. They continued to go through the motions, without knowing the reason.

Every Christmas we face the danger of going through the motions without remembering why. So in church we always sing the most famous of all the Advent hymns around this time of year:
O come, o come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here.

We tend to think of exile in terms of geographical dislocation. But exile is as much a state of mind and a feeling of the heart as it is a place on the map. To be in exile is to be sent somewhere you don't want to be. To be in exile is to be cut off from the things you want to do or the people you want to be with. To be in exile is to feel wounded, defeated, marginalized, powerless, hopeless.

Chances are you’ve been in exile at one time or another. Maybe you’re there now. If so, do remember what happens in the refrain of that hymn? The feeling and the tone change. We almost shout, "Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O, Israel!" That's the great turning point in the hymn and in history.

Back in 1994 my wife and I were delegates to the World Methodist Conference in Rio de Janeiro. It was an experience of amazing contrasts. When we looked out our hotel window in one direction we could see the spectacular beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana covered with beautiful people. When we looked in the other direction we saw the largest favela, or shanty town, in Brazil. Two and a half million people in Rio live in favelas.

Looming over the entire landscape is Mount Corcovado. At the top of the mountain is the 100-foot-tall statue known as “Christ the Redeemer.” As Cathy and I looked at the statue, I remembered a story Andy Kane had told my father. Andy is a YMCA official who had been in Rio a few years ahead of us for a conference on the environment.
Christ The Redeemer

One afternoon he and some colleagues traveled to one of the favelas. Andy said, “We were on the back side of Corcovado, in a sea of slums, where we were introduced to a community worker who’d been there for years. “We looked out over those hovels that weren’t fit for human habitation. We asked the community worker, ‘What about these people?’

‘Oh,’ she said, ‘many of them have long since given up hope. They even look up at the top of the mountain and say, ‘See, even Jesus has turned his back on us.’ Then a smile broke across the woman’s face as she said, ‘But that’s not how it is. You see, Jesus is leading us out of this!’”

That's the message of Advent. Someone is coming who can lead us out of the mess we're in. Someone is coming who can ransom our exiled souls and redeem all of creation.

So deck the halls, and rejoice!

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The Rev. David Jones is senior pastor of Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church in Atlanta, GA.

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