Christmas 2, Year B, 2015

Happy Second Sunday of Christmas!

We still have two days left in the Christmas season and today we turn our attention to the other nativity story. We have spent plenty of time with baby Jesus, angels and shepherds the last few weeks. That nativity story, the one with which we are so familiar, is from the Gospel of Luke.

Today’s story of the nativity is Matthew’s version of Jesus’ birth. And it is very different. While Luke’s story of the nativity is appropriate for, say, ABC Family channel, Matthew’s version is more of an HBO situation.

In Matthew’s version, angels don’t appear to any shepherds. Instead, three Zoroastrian priests, wise men who study the stars, have observed a strange star they have never seen before. They somehow figure out that this means that the child who will be King of the Jews has been born and so they travel to Jerusalem to find him.

When King Herod and the rest of Jerusalem hears of their inquiries, their reaction is not to throw open their arms to welcome this holy infant. Instead, they are thrown into fear.

And isn’t that a painfully honest human reaction?

King Herod likes being in charge. The people of Jerusalem like stability. They’ve had enough conflict. The last thing they need is a new king jockeying for power. A new king is not necessarily good news.

These wise men will not be dissuaded, though. Even though Herod tries to gain their trust so he can find and eliminate this threat to his power, the wise men outsmart him and go visit Jesus anyway. But when they visit him they bring three very strange gifts.

First, they give Jesus gold, which symbolizes his kingship. They recognize his authority, even if the world doesn’t.

Second, they give him frankincense, which symbolizes his divinity. These wise men, who aren’t even from the Jewish tradition, recognize that the Christ child is of God.

Finally, they give Jesus myrrh. Myrrh was traditionally used in the burial of the body. This third gift is almost a foreshadowing of how Christ will be received into the world. Instead of a joyful birth narrative, here we have three strangers both worshiping and grieving God born into the world.

And immediately following this passage, we get the horrible story of the slaughter of the innocents. Herod, hoping to eliminate the threat in his kingdom, orders all children younger than two years old murdered.

Jesus is born into a vile, vile world. A world in which thousands of children are sacrificed for no reason other than one man’s quest for power.

We recognize this world, because it is not that different from our own. We are too familiar with the way murder and killing destroys families and communities. We have experienced it in our own town and watched protests around the world. We have mourned Hannah Graham, Alexis Murphy and Robin and Mani Aldridge. We have mourned with black communities and with police officers. We have watched in horror as Boko Haram and ISIS have terrorized our brothers and sisters to the east.

We live in an adult world filled with violence and pain. We need a God that can handle complexity, handle our sin, and see the good in us despite all the evidence to the contrary. We need a God that can handle those in power, whose goodness can overpower the evil of the corrupt.

And so Matthew gives us his nativity story. A story that reminds us that God knew exactly what he was doing. He was sending his Son to be born in a world filled with corruption and violence. But God didn’t fight corruption and violence with political power or more violence. Instead, he chose an ordinary faithful girl from a faithful family. He chose an ordinary faithful fiancé, who would do the right thing even when his first instinct was to back away.

And together Mary and Joseph managed to birth the Son of God into the world. And protect and raise the child with all the strength and wisdom he would need to do his terribly difficult job.

Even in the midst of a vile and corrupt world, with God’s help ordinary people managed to birth light into the world.

No matter how overwhelming our world may seem, with God’s help we too can bring light into the darkness.

My sister, Marianne, spent part of a summer in Sierra Leone doing teacher training a few years ago. She made some good friends there and keeps in touch with them through Facebook and email. I have been so struck by friends of hers like Samuel Sesay, who sent his family to the US so they would be safe, but stayed behind to help serve his community. He tells stories of so many faithful Chrsitians facing the darkness of this terrifying disease, but remaining home so they can deliver supplies, help enforce quarantines, and lead worship services for communities in real crisis. Christians like Samuel are bringing light into darkness. Hope into what must feel like a hopeless situation.

What’s wonderful to me is how many of you are the faithful people of our generation, birthing light into the world every day. Bringing Jesus with you as you parent, grandparent and foster parent. Bringing light with you as you care for an aging spouse. Bringing light with you as you interact with patients, clients and students. Bringing light with you as you pray for peace and fight for justice.

Bringing light into the world is hard work. But it lightens our load when we remember that it is not our job to generate the light. We are not mice on a wheel trying hard to create enough energy for God to show up.

God is already here, waiting to bring love and light into our lives.

No matter how dark it might appear to you, God is here, ready to share his light with you.

Thanks be to God.

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Christmas Eve, Year A, 2013

No matter my level of Christmas cheer, there is a moment in every Christmas pageant when I am instantly filled with joy.  Whatever the reason, every year, when small children dressed in angel wings run up to the stage and shout to the frightened shepherds:  “Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth!”  a huge smile lights up my face.

The children of course, aren’t actually angels.  They are ordinary children who fight with their brothers and sisters.  Their haloes are crooked.  Their wings get into the eyes of the angels behind them in line.  Some years they push and shove and jockey for position.  They are holy and ordinary in an entirely charming way.

According to the Gospel of Luke, God used angels prominently in the incarnation.  An Angel of the Lord appears to Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father.  The angel Gabriel appears to Mary, to invite her to bear God’s son.  And, of course, The Angel of the Lord and a band of angels appear to shepherds in the fields, announcing the arrival of the Messiah.

Biblical angels don’t belong on earth.  They are not sweet and cute like our pageant angels.  They are huge and winged and shiny.  They belong to another kingdom, where glowing with the Lord’s presence is less terrifying.  Nevertheless, angels broke through whatever space/time barrier separates us from heaven.  They burst into our reality, terrifying the humans that witnessed their majesty.

The host of angels came to us in an unusual way. They did not swoop in to a group of priests, or at the temple, or even to the King. The host of heaven revealed itself to ordinary shepherds. The transcendent broke into the ordinary.

This juxtaposition of divine and ordinary is the heart of the incarnation.

God could have remained in heaven, relating to his creatures via a distance.  Instead he chose to become a creature.  He chose to be limited by gravity and time and flesh.  He traded the infinite for the finite.  He became ordinary.

This collision of the divine and the ordinary can’t help but change what it means to be an ordinary human.

In this Gospel, when Mary first is confronted by the Angel Gabriel she exclaims the Magnificat, a hymn that marvels at how God turns everything upside down. Mary has a deep understanding that in choosing her, an ordinary girl, to bear God into the world, God is changing the rules completely.  He lifts up the lowly, feeds the hungry.  The ordinary becomes sacred.  The insignificant become significant.

The angels are not announcing a Jesus who is visiting as a tourist, taking in the curiosities of having skin and feet and limited points of view.  The angels announce that everything has changed, our categories are irrelevant.  The holy is here, born to an ordinary girl.

My husband picked up a nativity scene at Ten Thousand Villages this week that depicts the Holy Family as a Peruvian family riding a bus.  I love it because it captures the heart of Christ’s birth in a modern context.  If the incarnation happened now, Mary would probably be the kind of girl who rode a bus.  She probably wouldn’t be American. She certainly wouldn’t be rich.  Mary would be an ordinary girl.

News Anchor Megyn Kelly grabbed media attention this month when she insisted both Santa and Jesus were white.  This is easy to laugh about, but it shows how people who have power—white Europeans and Americans—through art and media have remade Jesus in our image.  He becomes more Swedish than Middle Eastern.  We subtly imply that holiness has to look like us.  We are fine with Jesus being ordinary, so long as he is our kind of ordinary.

Theologian James Cone has written that “God is whatever color God needs to be in order to let people know that they’re not nobodies, they’re somebodies.”

God came to earth and made nobodies, somebodies.  God came to earth to make the ordinary holy.  God came to earth so that children of every color and nation could be in relationship with him.  God’s incarnation in Jesus makes holy our ordinary experiences, whatever our skin color or our income.

Andrea Elliot of The New York Times has written a series of articles exposing New York City’s homelessness problem, by following one child—a middle school girl named Dasani.  The story is incredibly bleak. Dasani’s parents are terrible money managers, their room in a homeless shelter is shared by mold and rats, no one in the family feels safe.  But the story is also incredibly powerful because by shining the light on Dasani, we get the rare opportunity to get to know a young, poor girl.  The Marys of our world don’t get screen time.  You just don’t write thirty page stories about a girl like that.  But Elliot captures this girl—her drive, her desire to do well in school, her hunger, her exhaustion, the love she has for her family.  Elliot focuses our attention on a single girl, and reminds us that children like Dasani should matter to us.  Children like Dasani matter to God.

Our outreach team works their tails off to provide for families around Christmastime not because it is a sweet thing to do, but because they know that we are the hands and feet of Jesus.  By buying Christmas gifts and packaging up Christmas hams and vegetables we are shaking our fists at the powers in the world that tell us that there are some people who don’t matter.  By walking alongside our neighbors in need we are proclaiming that their lives are holy. When we celebrate Eucharist in a nursing home or a prison, we are proclaiming the power of God’s love for ordinary, even marginalized people. When we travel halfway across the world to make relationships in Nzali, Tanzania, we are celebrating that all humanity is united by one miraculous birth two thousand years ago.

Whoever you are, whatever your circumstances, your life is holy.  You may think you don’t matter.  You may think you are too young or too old, too rich or too poor, too jaded or too tired, but God has chosen to make your life holy.  And your life isn’t just holy that hour a week you spend in church.  Whether you’re washing the dishes, or walking the dog; typing up a report at work or in the middle of a boring meeting; on the phone with a friend or going for a run—your ordinary life is sacred.  Because before those angels burst onto the scene, the God of the Universe quietly became an ordinary human being.  A human being who presumably had chores and a job..  A human being who had sore feet and stomach aches and who cried and laughed.  Jesus was one of a kind and he was just like us.  Jesus was completely divine and completely human.

Jesus was born and he lived his life and he died and he was resurrected for you. And for the woman who cleans your office, the man who delivers your mail, and the women who made the shirt you’re wearing today.  Jesus was also born for people you will never meet, whose lives are so different from yours you cannot comprehend their experiences, as they could not comprehend yours.

It seems unlikely that any of us in this room will have the gift of a visit from an angel to wake us up to the miracle of our humanity.  So really all we have is moments like these—prayers and candlelight and hymns we’ve sung a hundred times.  We gather together to remember who we are, and whose we are.

And this is who we are. We are people who remember a poor girl who was brave enough to let God in.  We gather with her at the manger and marvel that the very God who created the universe now has tiny baby toes.  We tremble as we consider the risk he’s taking.  He takes this risk for no good reason other than his love for us.

And so we become his, completely ordinary, completely holy, completely humbled.

Amen.

 

Christmas I, Year A, 2010

Listen to the sermon here.

Merry Christmas!

The last week or so we have been immersed in Matthew and Luke’s Christmas stories. We have heard the Angel Gabriel’s soothing words to Joseph.  We have journeyed with Mary and Joseph as they made the long journey to Bethlehem. We have seen children act out the famous scenes of shepherds and kings visiting the baby Jesus.

All week we’ve been soaking in the details of the birth of Jesus. We’ve experienced the exhaustion of Joseph and Mary as they attempted to find a place to sleep.  We’ve smelled the hay and the animals.  We’ve felt the chill of the night air as the shepherds were confronted with angels.  We’ve celebrated as the little baby was born.

Today, John’s Gospel widens the angle of our gaze.  We move from the details of Jesus’ birth to a cosmic understanding of who Jesus is and what he means for us.

John reminds us Jesus was not just a baby, but was the Word, co-eternal with God.  As long as God has existed—which is forever—the Word has existed.  John begins his Gospel with the words “In the beginning.”  These words evoke the very beginning of the Genesis, where we get the amazing imagery of a Creator God calling creation into being through the words he speaks.  The words were not simply language, but had the power to enact all of creation:  the ground under our feet, the pine trees we hang with garland, the moon, the stars, the solar systems beyond our imagination.

John makes the argument that Jesus is that Word and creation was called into being through him.  Jesus was there from the very beginning. Not as a human being, not as an infant, but as the Word, as God.   When we see Jesus, we see God.

In the incarnation, the worlds of the eternal and the temporal slam together.  The creator becomes the created, bringing all the light of the Holy with him.

Christmas lights pierce the darkness of winter with their tiny dots of light, turning a time of year that can be cold and dark and forbidding into something magical. These little lights remind us of the great light that pierced our darkness millennia ago.

Life can sometimes feel as dark as a late December day.  There is so much suffering, injustice and death in Creation and the way we have abused the Creation and each other.  When we are going through such suffering, we can feel utterly, hopelessly alone.

But, we’re not alone.  The Word entered that darkness.  He entered our dark world and immediately began shedding his light. He spent his life pursuing and loving people—especially those going through dark times.  He brought healing and new life with him wherever he went.

The Word that called Creation into being, also entered that same Creation in order to redeem it and make it holy.  Suddenly, everyday human experiences: birth, death, friendship, dinner become touched by God.  Bread and wine are no longer just food and drink, but at the Communion table hold the very presence of the divine.

Christ coming into our world transformed the world.  Now, our ordinary lives are infused with holiness and meaning.  In our dark days, we experience the light of Christ through our prayers, through the love of fellow Christians.  When we experience that light, we too become light bearers, Christ bearers into the darkness.

And so, this Christmas season, we celebrate.  We lift our voices in song, we dress up our children in costumes and watch them re-enact the ordinary, extraordinary birth of Christ.  We listen to brass and tympani clang out the good news that Christ has come.  The whole of God has entered our world as a tiny baby and transformed our lives for ever.

Thanks be to God.

Christmas I, Year B, 2008

In honor of the incarnation that we celebrated this week, today’s readings are all about the law and grace.

Now, when I hear the words “the Law”, the first images I think of are American ones.  I think of dusty sheriffs patrolling the western frontier.  I think of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.  I think of lawbreakers like Johnny Cash, singing the “Folsom Prison Blues”. I think of Billy the Kid and Jesse James.  America has always held the law and law-breaking in an exciting tension.  After all, we began as a nation by breaking the law and rebelling against England.  Outlaws have been our heroes as much as the lawmen that chased them down.

When we think about grace, we think about big sweeping outlaw stories, too.  American Christianity, particularly of the conservative sort, loves a huge conversion story.  There is nothing better than when a hopeless outlaw has an experience with Jesus that transforms his life. The first of these that comes to my mind is Charles Colson, who found Jesus while in prison after the Watergate scandal and has spent his life since working in prison ministry.  I think of Anne Lamott’s story, too.  She was addicted to drugs until a series of experiences in which she had a very clear supernatural sense of Jesus’ presence that motivated her to seek healing and a church community.

These dramatic conversion stories are exciting and a give a clear picture of the power of Christ in the life of believers. A new understanding of Christ’s love can motivate people to completely change their lives, making for a remarkable witness to the power of God.  But, what about the rest of us?  What does grace look like for those of us who aren’t outlaws?

As you can imagine, I have at MOST about 2% outlaw in me.  I have been a rule-follower since I was a little kid.  I like order and most laws make sense to me, so I see no need to break them.  I pay my taxes, stop at red lights, and have never done drugs.  I am, as a four year old I know likes to say, “Boooooooowing.”  Matt likes to mess with me in grocery stores by putting an item out of place. He knows I just can’t stand it if a can of beans ends up with the pasta.  He knows I will be unable to resist picking up those beans and putting the can back where it belongs.  I am a rule bound woman.

And yet, the grace of God that comes through Jesus incarnation is still profound to me.

Why is that?  What does the incarnation of Christ and the grace of God offer for us boring rule-bound types?

Well for one thing, in terms of obedience, the law of the Hebrew Scriptures is a lot more complicated than American civil law.  It’s easy to stop at red lights.  It’s not always easy to follow the hundreds of specific household and dietary laws of Leviticus.  It’s really not easy to avoid breaking the laws-such as coveting-which are as much about an emotional response than a behavioral one.  Being obedient to all the laws of the Hebrew Scriptures is nearly impossible.  They are so detailed, following them might be like having an entire lifetime of just putting cans back into the right slots.  While putting cans back in their proper places brings me a moment of satisfaction, it certainly does not offer me a lifetime of joy!

Christ’s incarnation and life changes our relationship to the law.  He follows the law perfectly on our behalf.

But more importantly than changing our relationship to the law, Christ’s incarnation fundamentally transforms the way we relate to God-whether we are outlaws or chronically obedient.

In our reading from Galatians today, Paul writes,

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

When we were under the law, we related to God as his servants.  We were the vassals to his Lord, the peasant to his King.  Our relationship was based on obedience and loyalty.  We were rewarded when we worshiped him properly and punished when we slipped and worshiped Ba’al instead.

When Jesus is born into Mary and Joseph’s human family, we are invited to join God’s family.  Suddenly, our status has changed.  We are no longer slaves, but children of God.  God sees us as his children and we are invited to call him Father.

Now just think for a minute, if you were here last Sunday, about how you felt about our children as they performed and watched the Christmas pageant.  I saw the tears in your eyes and heard the sighs and laughter.  Our children are beloved here-as they should be.  Now imagine that God feels the same way about you!

This is a big transition to make.  If you’re off being an outlaw, you’re used to railing against authority figures.  If you’re a rule follower, you’re used to trying to please authority figures through your perfect obedience.  Neither of these ways of being really prepares you for the challenge of simply being loved.

We don’t have to prove anything.  We don’t have to earn anything.  We are loved simply because God has chosen to love us.  He has decided to adopt us into his family without any manipulation or trickery on our part.  He loves us.  He wants to be around us.  He wants a deep relationship with us. The relational dynamic has changed.  Now pleasing God means developing an intimate relationship with him, rather than simply obeying his laws.

And this is the true meaning of Christmas.  We welcome the baby Jesus into the human family as a reminder that Jesus has invited us to be a member of his family.  We put up lights and exchange presents and generally rejoice because whether we are outlaws, goody-two-shoes or someone in-between, we are loved and wanted by God, and have become part of his family.

Merry Christmas, indeed!

Christmas Eve, Year A, 2007

Are you lost?

We all get lost sometimes.  I get lost around these parts fairly regularly.  I wept like a little girl more than once my first year as a priest in Greenwood, when I was lost in the country because someone had stolen a street sign or because I missed an obvious landmark.  We get lost in other ways, too, of course.  We forget who we are and start acting in a way that is false and hurtful.  We get lost in the deep seas of grief or depression.  We get lost in our relationships.  We get lost in our social circles, in school, or at work.

Getting lost is a human problem.  Even Mary and Joseph were lost for a little while.  They were travelers against their will, filling a civic obligation.  They were not wealthy and had not planned ahead.  They were going through an experience that must have been completely isolating and strange.  They were in an unfamiliar land and in a completely unfamiliar situation. 

Being lost is scary.  Being lost makes us feel vulnerable and unprotected.  We are not people who are designed to be lost.  We are designed to be safe at home, blanketed in love and security.  Yet, like sheep, we get lost.  All the time.  Over and over.

Wouldn’t it be nice if when we got lost, someone would come after us?  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were say.. .a shepherd who would guide us through our difficult and lost times?

It is no mistake that the first visitors Jesus had after his birth were shepherds.  After all, God could have sent the angels to any group of people.  Why not milkmaids, shopkeepers, or doctors?  Why were shepherds the lucky ones who got to hear the good news first?  The author of the Gospel of Luke is an extremely careful storyteller.  He is not loose with words and carefully considers every detail in his account of the Gospel.  The fact that shepherds were the first to visit Jesus should grab us by our collars and shake us to attention.

Where else in Scripture is the image of the Shepherd used?  Why would shepherds be the first to visit Jesus?

Shepherd imagery is used throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.  Imagery of Israel as lost sheep begins as early as Numbers:

Numbers 27:17 who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the LORD may not be like sheep without a shepherd.”

Verses almost identical to this can be found in 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles.

Later, King David describes feeling shepherded by God in the Psalms, when he says in the 23rd psalm:  The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.

But God does not speak of himself as a shepherd explicitly quite yet.  First, in Isaiah, the prophet records God telling him that a king will,

feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

But of course king after king after king failed these ideals, so God begins to identify himself as the shepherd of these lost sheep.

Years later, in the 31st chapter of Jeremiah, the prophet says, “Hear the word of the LORD, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd of a flock.”

And then the prophet Ezekiel fleshes out this imagery further, saying that God as shepherd will rescue his people:

Ezekiel 34:12 As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.

Ezekiel goes further and says God will act as Shepherd through King David:

 Ezekiel 34:23 I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd.

Remember that before David was King of all Israel, he was a shepherd boy.  The author of Luke is setting up Jesus as the great Shepherd who will gather God’s people together. Jesus comes from David’s line-so Jesus already has David’s credibility both as shepherd and as king.

When Jesus grows up he acknowledges his role as shepherd, too.  In the gospel of John, one of the primary images of Jesus is as the Good Shepherd.  In the tenth chapter of John, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.”  Jesus fulfills years of prophecy and steps into the role of God as shepherd, as our caretaker.

The shepherds who come to honor the infant Jesus foreshadow the infant’s future role.  Just as these shepherds gather and watch over their flocks, Jesus will gather the people of his time together.  Jesus will watch over them, and Jesus now watches over us.  A shepherd’s job is to tend to sheep:  to make sure they stick together, to make sure they have enough nourishment, to find any sheep that might go astray.  Jesus does that for us.

Jesus gathers us stray sheep here, now, in community.  Jesus invites us in from wherever we might have been a few hours ago: whether we were having a wonderful celebration or fighting with our partner, rolling our eyes at our parents, celebrating Christmas without a cherished loved one-wherever we were-Jesus gathers us together.

We gather, here, now, to remember that we are not stray sheep. We are not wandering in the wilderness alone.  We are sheep who belong to a shepherd.  A shepherd who loves us with great passion-such passion that he was willing to be born as a human, in a stable, to parents who were just as lost as we are.  A shepherd who would grow up and love us so deeply he would offer his very self on our behalf. 

Today we honor this Shepherd’s humble birth, and we give deep thanks that he has found each of us, and gathers us to himself.  We give thanks that with the birth of Jesus, we are no longer lost.

And we gather every week, here, in this space together, not just to remember this Shepherd, but to encounter him.  When we worship together, when we gather at the altar, when we offer each other the Peace, we meet this Shepherd and occasionally we get a glimpse of the deep, patient, all-encompassing love this Shepherd feels for each of us. 

We may be sheep.  We may be lost sheep.  We may even be spectacularly lost sheep, baaing away in the wilderness, but we are beloved, sought after lost sheep.  And that makes all the difference in the world.  Amen.

First Sunday after Christmas, Year C, 2006

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,

Hallelujah!
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.

Christmas Eve, Year B, 2005

And Mary pondered these things in her heart. 

Mary had a lot to ponder that night long ago.  The child that had grown within her so miraculously and then been carried so precariously through the long journey to Bethlehem had finally been born.  Instead of a quiet moment with her new baby in a safe and warm bed, she is surrounded by livestock and strangers. 

The word translated as “pondered” literally means, “thrown together”.  This pondering is not a quiet, meditative one, but a frantic scrambling to understand what is happening, to absorb all the new information and feelings Mary is experiencing. 

Mary experienced affirmation that her baby was from God throughout her pregnancy.  An angel spoke to her and then, thankfully, to her cousins Zechariah and Elizabeth. Her husband Joseph believed her, but the news of this incredible incarnation was still quiet and contained to a few family members.

This holy secret ends when a flock of shepherds bursts into Mary’s makeshift birthing room, still illuminated from the vision they have seen, talking over each other to tell the story of the angels and how they had visited what felt like every barn in Bethlehem until finally they found this one, with the baby wrapped in strips of cloth.

At this moment, as she holds the baby a little closer to her chest, Mary realizes, this is not “her” baby, not entirely.  In this moment of joy at his birth, there is also a little grief, as Mary realizes her child is a child she will have to share.  Not just with these eager shepherds, but with all people.

Usually in painted icons of Mary and the baby Jesus, Mary holds Jesus on her lap, close to her body.  However, there is one icon in which Mary faces the onlooker and holds Jesus away from her body, towards whoever is looking at the icon. 

This is the Mary who realizes her sacrifice will be to lose her son, not only to death, but also in life.  This baby will grow up to create a new family of misfits and criminals.  This baby will grow up to live a life of a wanderer, traveling from town to town.  He will never settle down or provide her with grandchildren. In this icon, Mary not only accepts this reality, but offers Jesus to us.

This baby who was born, was born of Mary, but was born for the world.  After all, we must remember that this tiny baby contains all of God.  All the powers that created the universe, pushed the stars into their rotations, created green grass and human flesh out of dust. 

One of our acolytes was helping to green the church last Sunday and observed that the baby Jesus in our nativity scene is about half the size of Mary.  He looks at least six years old.  I wonder if that was an intentional decision on the part of the artist.  Perhaps the artist got carried away as she meditated on the huge implications of the incarnation, of God choosing to limit himself in human flesh.  Maybe she thought no small baby could handle the enormity of God, so she made the baby a little bigger, to give God more room to wiggle around.

I wonder what it was like for God to suddenly also be completely human, to have his infiniteness constrained by skin, to suddenly have to turn his head to look behind him, to suffer the indignity of having to learn to walk?  Was there a part of being a baby Jesus really loved?  Did he love his own tiny fingers and toes the way we love the toes of our favorite babies? 

From the very start, just by being born, God began to redeem what it is to be human.  If Jesus can learn to walk, and read, and eat, then walking and reading and eating have the potential to be holy activities, not just human ones. 

If God chooses to be born in a dingy stable in the midst of chaos, then God redeems all those who suffer the indignities of poverty and chaotic lives.  God choose to came, not to a family that had it all together, but to an exhausted traveling couple who were just trying to find a dry place to lay their heads.  Mary and Joseph did not have the time or resources to prepare for a “proper” arrival for their son, so he came in the most awkward and uncomfortable of situations.

Yes, Mary’s sweet baby was no ordinary child. 

God came to earth as the Christ so we could know him in a deeper and more intimate way. He came embodied, in actual human flesh, not some divine ephemeral cloud.  He could taste and touch and feel.  He could get headaches and feel hunger pangs.  He came to face all our temptations and sorrows.  He came to know what it is to love and lose. He came not only to save us from our sins, but to redeem the very lives we live.

Know that whether you sorrow or feel deep joy at this moment, that Christ has compassion for you, knows what those emotions feel like, and loves you.  He offers you hope for redemption and continued joy. . .not just in the next life, but in this life.  There is no experience you can have that is outside the scope of Christ’s forgiveness, nothing you can do that, if repented, will prevent Christ’s embrace.

I’ll close with a poem by Madeleine L’Engle about Christ’ birth from Mary’s perspective.

O ORIENS, by Madeleine L’Engle

O come, O come Emmanuel

Within this fragile vessel here to dwell.
O Child conceived by heaven’s power
Give me thy strength: it is the hour.

O come, thou Wisdom from on high;

Like any babe at life you cry;

For me, like any mother, birth

Was hard, O light of earth.

O come, O come, thou Lord of might,

Whose birth came hastily at night,

Born in a stable, in blood and pain
Is this the king who comes to reign?

O come, thou Rod of Jesse’s stem,

The stars will be thy diadem.
How can the infinite finite be?

Why choose, child, to be born of me?

O come, thou key of David, come,

Open the door to my heart-home.
I cannot love thee as a king-

So fragile and so small a thing.

O come, thou Day-spring from on high:
I saw the signs that marked the sky.
I heard the beat of angels’ wings

I saw the shepherds and the kings.

O come, Desire of nations, be

Simply a human child to me.
Let me not weep that you are born.

The night is gone. Now gleams the morn.

Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel,

God’s Son, God’s Self, with us to dwell.