I took the long way home last night.
So I could stop along the dirt road
And stand for a moment
And look out across the field.
There stood a solitary evergreen
Adorned for the season in white lights.
Surrounded by the night.
And, in these days when we do our best to live in and to turn our lives in the direction of Christmas, we ask this, O God…
May whatever hope we hold onto in the midst of the darkness and the uncertainty which surrounds us, may that hope be our prayer.
May whatever ache we feel and whatever tears we shed for those we miss or those for whom we mourn, may our heart ache be our prayer.
May the anguish we feel for those broken places in our world and those whose lives have been disrupted or displaced by violence or hatred or abuse or indifference, may our anguish and anger also be our prayer.
May the dream we hold onto and the promise in which we place our trust be our prayer.
And, added to all of that, O God…
May our lives, ordinary as they are, be our prayer.
A Light to those who live in the darkness.
Compassion to those who have been forgotten.
Your presence walking around in our shoes.
Not just today as we look towards Christmas
But, each day and every day.
And, each moment and every moment.
May it be so, O God. May it be so.
Fires surround Los Angeles. And, three months after Hurricane Maria much of Puerto Rico is still without power and water. And, while they are no longer in the news I am sure communities in Texas and in Florida continue the struggle to rebuild after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. And, families down the street from where I live are still hungry and wondering if they will have enough food for their family. And, it is still Advent.
In announcing his pending resignation from the Senate, Al Franken commented on the irony of his pressured resignation and the fact we still have a President who has been accused of and admitted to sexual abuse. And that a self-professed Christian in Alabama who has been accused of abusing teenage girls and yet who continues to have the backing of his party, and whose supporters dismiss the charges of abuse and a concern for personal morality by saying what they are engaged in is a war is still running for the Senate. And, it is still Advent.
DACA students begin to take their finals as they complete another semester of college holding onto dreams which, as they study, hang by a thread. For most they have known no other home than the one they will return to in another week. What will happen next? They wonder. What will happen to their families? And, it is still Advent.
China issues instructions to its citizens who live along their border with North Korea about how to survive a nuclear explosion. Kim Jong-un issues a statement saying war on the Korean Peninsula is inevitable. President Trump continues to taunt with tweets. And, it is still Advent.
Terrorist strike and terror still kills.
Just as it did so long ago in Bethlehem.
And, here I sit.
Slogging through, sometimes buried in, the headlines in the news.
And in the fear.
And in the need.
And in the anxiousness.
And in the hate.
One of the consistent refrains in the Biblical texts which we read this time of year is “Fear not.” Two words said over and over again.
To the shepherds.
To you and me.
That doesn’t mean the reason for the fear goes away.
Caesar still rules.
Brute force still is used.
People still flee for their lives and become refugees.
The neighbor down the street is still hungry.
And feeling the knot in my stomach.
I don’t know how not to be afraid.
But it is still Advent.
Believing what I do
I will do my best to hold onto those two words.
In her book Teaching a Stone to Talk Annie Dillard writes:
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies straw hats or velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmet. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God draw us out to where we can never return.
Much to her mother’s dismay, in early January 1952 my Mom got on a airplane for the first time in her life. She flew from Pittsburgh, PA to the Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, AK to marry my Dad who was stationed there during the Korean War. I was reminded of this because on the day after Thanksgiving I drove to Pittsburgh to see my Mom. After having dinner together, she ask if I would help decorate her apartment for Christmas. I pulled out her container of Christmas decorations and began putting them around her apartment. The wreath went on the door and the stuffed Santa on the floor outside her door. Her collection of snowmen found a place scattered among her pictures of her grandchildren. Finally, towards the bottom of the container and wrapped in a piece of tissue paper I found an old ornament of a child on a dog sled being pulled by a Huskie. When I asked her about it and ask if she wanted me to find a place for it, my Mom told me it was the first ornament she and my Dad bought together when they were in Alaska and the only ornament they had on first Christmas together. I cleared a space and placed it on the bookcase directly across the room from her favorite chair so she would see it each day. Christmas is like that, isn’t it?
Shodie and I did our own version of that this past week.
We lifted boxes down out of the attic.
We placed candles in our upstairs windows which we do each year.
The Santa painted on a ski went to its designated spot by the front door.
Our collection of creches found their way to the mantle and the hallway table.
And, later today ornaments our children made years ago as Christmas gifts for us will be carefully lifted out of their box and lovingly hung on the tree.
Christmas is like that, isn’t it?
For all those reasons and more, I love Christmas.
So much of this season is like that. Wrapped up in memories. And in a hope so deep and so real and so profound we can hardly find words to put around it. That is why it is so wonderful. And sometimes so hard. Christmas is like that, isn’t it?
Next Sunday in the Confirmation, the program Kathy DiBiasi and I lead for our 9th grade students as a part of their preparation for their decision about whether or not to join Bedford Presbyterian Church, we will give them our Christmas Quiz. It consists of 24 questions about Christmas and about what the Bible tells us about the birth of Jesus. Here are a couple of the questions.
- How did Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem?
Camel. Donkey. Walked. Volkswagen.
Joseph walked and Mary rode a donkey. Who knows.
- How many wisemen came to see Jesus?
Write the correct number.
- Which animals does the Bible say were present at Jesus’ birth?
Cows, sheep and goats. Cows, donkeys and sheep. Sheep and goats only. Miscellaneous barnyard animals. Lions, tigers and elephants. None of the above.
The last question on the quiz asks how many of the multiple choice responses you think you got right. Most of the youth guess 15 or 18 out of 24. Pretty good, right? But, as we score the quiz, most only get 2 or 3 or maybe 4 or 5 correct. Once everyone gets over the shock and the shouts of disbelief die down, we then look more closely at the narratives about the birth of Jesus to see what is really there. Then talk about the way tradition and story and candlelight and starlight have become wrapped around our understanding of Christmas. But, Christmas is like that, isn’t it?
All of that is to say, that alongside all of our careful and thoughtful preparations for Christmas and the meaning we both give to it and find in it, stands the simple and often surprising, maybe even startling, witness of the Bible. So, with Annie Dillard’s observation about Christians lingering in the background, these two passages – one from Isaiah and one from Mark – designated by the Lectionary to be read on this first Sunday in Advent 2017 as we, as a Christian community, begin our preparation for and our journey towards Christmas.
Isaiah 64: 1-3
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
Mark 13: 24-26
But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.
O come, O come Emmanuel.
Come, thou long expected Jesus.
Be careful what you ask for.
Be careful as you say those words and sing those carols and as we, as a community of faith, do our best to be ready for God when God comes.
Or, was Annie Dillard correct.
Maybe we are like children playing on the floor with our chemistry sets mixing up a batch of TNT.
Here is what I find myself thinking about as we begin our preparations for Christmas. Besides all the wonder and the excitement and the tinsel and the holiday cheer, the Bible reminds us there is something disruptive about Christmas. Something about the coming of God which make mountains quake and the heavens shake. Something about Advent and Incarnation which turns our world…the world…this world…inside out or right side up. Something about the birth of Jesus which stands counter the traditional world view of who is in and who is out. And about what power looks like. And about who or what asks for and deserves our allegiance.
So, here is my challenge to you. In the midst of everything else you do to get ready for Christmas, pay attention to the story. Pay attention to those moments which are waiting to be transformed turning the moment you have right then right side up. Pay attention to where the disruptive story of Bible wants to break into the routine of your life or the headlines in the news or into the way you use your time or spend your money. Pay attention to that moment which invites you and opens you up to Incarnation or to being Incarnation.
As I said, I love Christmas.
The decorations. The carols. The cards.
I even love shopping for gifts.
And, I also love the Bible.
And I take its witness seriously.
So I am often stopped in my tracks and challenged and convicted by its witness.
Come, thou long expected Jesus.
May the mountains and the heavens and my life and our world be shaken by your coming.
On New Year’s Eve, while two million people converged on Times Square, Shodie and I resisted the urge to join them and went to see a movie instead. We saw Rogue One, the new Star Wars movie. Maybe you have heard of it? The Empire, which wants to rule the universe, is building the Death Star which has the capability of destroying an entire planet with a push of a button. On the other side stands the somewhat ragtag Rebellion trying to figure out how to stop them and to preserve freedom. It was a typical Star Wars/good vs. evil/right vs. wrong plot, but enjoyable nevertheless. As I walked out of the theater on New Year’s Eve, I remember going to see the first Star Wars movie in 1977 in Rockford, IL in which the Death Star was fully operational.
I don’t think there are any spoiler alerts here if you haven’t seen and plan to see the movie. The plot of the movie centers around a female heroine. Jyn Erso. When she was a child her father, who was a famous scientist and who had been in hiding with his family, was abducted by the Empire to complete the work on the Death Star. Under pressure, he does so, but incorporates into the Death Star a fatal flaw. Learning what her father had done, Jyn Erso’s mission becomes to steal the plans of the Death Star, get them to the Rebellion so they can be analyzed and the fatal flaw found and an attack strategy put in place. The rest of the movie is the struggle between courage and cautiousness, loyalty and indifference and spacecraft jumping in and out of hyperspace.
So, you wonder…
What does all this have to do with wise men and Herod and following a star and this final Sunday of Christmas as we celebrate Epiphany? I am glad you asked. The turning point in the movie comes when Jyn Erso confronts the reluctant leaders of the Rebellion who see no possible way to resist the Empire and are about to to give up and to turn away. Facing them down, she says to them, “The Rebellion is built on hope.”
And, that I think is the meaning of Christmas.
Maybe not so much the rebellion part.
At least with the images Star Wars and what that word usually brings to mind for us.
But, once you step beyond the candlelight and carols we usually associate with Christmas and back towards the witness of the Bible, the underlying and fundamental message of Christmas is about a rebellion.
About a different set of priorities.
About a different vision of and for the human family.
And, about a world turned right side up in the direction of God’s promised Kingdom.
The Biblical narratives about the birth of Jesus asks the question:
Which of these will command your allegiance?
Caesar as the Son of God or Jesus as the Son of God?
The calculating politics of Herod or the witness and wisdom of the Magi?
Pax Romana. The peace promised and enforced by the Empire.
Or, the peace promised by God and proclaimed by the angels which will be on that day when all of God’s children see and live with each other as sisters and brothers?
And, since the Bible is never just about then, but also about now.
And, never just about them, but also about you and me.
The tension and question we find in the Christmas narrative remain.
Waiting now for how you and I might respond.
Christmas is built on hope.
Built on a way of seeing and understanding your own life and envisioning the world entrusted now to our care and keeping. A hope which holds onto the promise of God with us in all the moments we have to live. Not just in the joys and sorrows, successes and struggles which are a part of our lives, but God with us in the everyday moments and the everyday encounters which make up 90% of our lives.
Ordinary lives tinged with the holy.
My ordinary life.
Your ordinary life.
Their ordinary life.
The question is do we chose to live holding onto this hope?
Believing it enough to claim it for ourselves and to see it in each other?
And, Christmas is built on that dream and possibility and promise of peace on earth.
Beyond Caesar and Herod.
Beyond Jew and Gentile.
Beyond authoritarian power and the huddled masses.
Peace beyond the wrangling in Congress and the divisiveness and subtle racism in our country and the heartbreak of Syria. Peace that is the intent of God and the Dream of God and therefore to be the intent and dream of the People of God. The hope built into Christmas provides both the vision and the courage for us to work towards making that dream a reality.
There is a verse in Hebrew scripture, in the book of Proverbs, (Proverbs 29:18 if you want to look it up.) which, in more recent translations of the Bible, scholars have adjusted or corrected to read: “Where there is no prophecy, the people cast of restraint.”
But I like the previous translation better which read:
Where there is no vision the people perish.
Christmas asks the question…
What type of future do you imagine?
And, what type of future are you willing to work towards?
The renowned pastor and preacher, William Sloan Coffin said,
“It is one thing to say with the prophet Amos, ‘Let justice roll down like mighty waters.’ and quite another to work out the irrigation system.”
I get that.
I know there are different views and opinions on almost any topic we could name.
Security and peace. Healthcare. Economic empowerment.
And, that figuring out the irrigation system is hard and messy work.
But, I hope…
That our being here together in the waning days of Christmas, we can hold onto that hope and remember and claim the dream of God wrapped up in the birth of Jesus.