Do you ever have those years during which you have more sympathy for the Grinch than for Santa Claus?
Usually I am chomping at the bit to decorate for Christmas and only allow myself to be unleashed on the ornaments and greenery the day after Thanksgiving. So, that Friday is usually a frenzy of pine, tinsel and Christmas Carols. This year it just never happened, and then, as many of you know, on December 10th, one of Matt’s dearest friends died. A week later, nine Virginia Episcopal parishes decided to split from the Episcopal Church USA. Bah, Humbug.
For me, Advent and Christmas were officially over. No more waiting for God to show up. No celebrating the birth of the baby Jesus. Nope. I was done. All I wanted was for the New Year to roll around.
Well, a funny thing happened. Despite my protestations, Christmas was not canceled. The radio still played carols, Emmanuel was decorated in gorgeous greenery and candles. My sister came into town Christmas Eve and fully expected the ritual opening of stockings Christmas morning. And, there were one or two church services Christmas Eve, as well.
I might not have been ready for Christmas, but Christmas came anyway.
Advent is historically a time to prepare oneself for Christ’s coming, to become open to the possibility of Christ’s victorious return in the world, but what happens when you don’t prepare yourself? What happens when meditation is replaced by grief over the death of a friend, or when expectant prayer is replaced by the fear of your child being called back to Iraq or getting a devastating diagnosis? What happens when our denomination is in turmoil? What happens when we are just not ready to trust God? What happens when we are not ready to pray with Isaiah,
How good it is to sing praises to our God! *
how pleasant it is to honor him with praise!”
What if your prayer is more along the lines of, “I’m not really impressed with your performance this week, Creator of the Universe.”
The short answer is, “God shows up anyway.”
In our reading from the Gospel of John this morning, we are told the story of Christ’s coming in a cosmic, panoramic setting. Christ is described as the pre-existing Word, who has been with God since the beginning of everything-before time, before creation. This Word is intimately involved in the creation of all things and is, in fact, God.
John wants to make it perfectly clear that Jesus was not just a special man, Jesus was the very fullness of God, come to earth.
Two of the images John presents are important as we think about our readiness to welcome Christ into the world. These are the images of the Word living among us and the Word being light.
The word that is translated as “living” in the NRSV is also translated as “dwelling” in other translations, but in the Greek it has a very concrete meaning: to pitch one’s tent. So, in all this fantastically abstract and glorious language, we have the image of the Word coming and pitching his tent among humans.
This is not what we expect from John’s previous language. We expect the Word to come float around, mysterious and omnipotent, perhaps lighting things on fire at will or making people levitate.
Instead we get an image of a God both so humbled that he needs a tent, and so committed to the prospect of being with humans that he is willing to do the work of pitching a tent. He does not expect palaces and royal treatment. This God is in for an authentic experience of being human. This God expects to sweat, to get dirty, to love, and to grieve. This God wants to feel all the things we feel.
And yes, this Word had John the Baptist to prepare a way for him, to help people repent and prepare themselves, but not everyone was ready. Many people had never heard of John the Baptist, and no one was ready for the idea of God coming in human form. Still, Christ came, whether the world was ready for him or not.
He pitched his tent in the darkness with us, but while he fully experienced the darkness of our lives, he also redeemed our dark lives.
For the Word not only came to enter the darkness, he also came to shed light. John writes, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Christ came not only to suffer, but to redeem suffering. He came not only to be human, but to sanctify what it means to be a human.
Christ transformed the human experience by living as a human fully connected to God. He lived this way, not to be a role model, but to break the barriers between human and God so that we might be able to live so deeply connected. Christ also invites us to eternal life with God and gives us glimpses of what that will be like as he heals the sick, and disposes with demons as easily as we take out the garbage. This Word, this human God illumines our darkness and tells us we will not always have to live this way. There will be a time without sickness, without divisions, without war, without death.
And Christ does all of this without polling us about our readiness.
The point of Advent and Christmas is not to pass some mysterious test so we can experience God the rest of the year. We celebrate these seasons of repentance and re-discovery of the stories we know so well, so we can remember who Christ is, what God is like. We light Advent candles and watch children re-enact the Nativity because the good news of God’s coming to earth is too big for us to hold in our minds and these forms of worship remind us of the story.
But we do not have to fully comprehend that glorious reality in order to experience it. When we are grieving, or fearful, or feeling lost, Christ does not wait for us to be ready, Christ comes and pitches a tent alongside us, giving us comfort or courage or simply reminding us that the reality of this world is temporary and better things await us. Christ shines lights into our dark corners and brings us peace and hope. And Christ does all this, whether we’re ready or not.