In preparing for Christmas, we sometimes get wrapped up in making everything perfect. We become focused on preparations, plans and agendas. I too have fallen trap to this. In the days leading up to Christmas Eve, I have worried about cleaning my house, making sure all the Christmas cards have been sent out, purchasing last minute gifts and making sure that everything I’m responsible for is taken care. And there’s hope that somehow everything will be perfect go off without a hitch.
But the reality is that in striving for perfection, we lose sight of the very perfectly imperfect story of Jesus’ birth, and how it’s extraordinarily good news for us.
In the reading from Luke for tonight, we have a truly ordinary experience. Mary and Joseph are expectant parents travelling to take care of business-- reporting for the census. They don't have reservations at a hotel. They aren't driving a luxury vehicle. There isn't a warm fire waiting for them when they arrive. Instead, they are two regular people, travelling by donkey to a somewhat unfamiliar place. As we know from the gospel and countless Christmas pageants and movies, there is no room at the inn, and so when it's time to settle in for the night--and for Mary to give birth--it is in a stable or barn. Generations of women before Mary had given birth, and generations of women after her would too. But this birth was special. It was the in-breaking of God. After months of waiting, wondering, and hoping, this birth, foretold by an angel, was happening. The extraordinary life of the Divine came into the ordinary world of humans...in the imperfect place of a barn.
And who are the first to hear about it? Not family members, friends, or kings, but shepherds...very ordinary people. There they were out on the hillside with their sheep, and angels appeared to them proclaiming this extraordinary good news! As Paul Gordon-Chandler describes in his book Songs of Waiting, in this moment “The darkness was shattered, as if the light were a hundred suns; the night sky came alive with the radiance of angels...what had been a silent night for those shepherds was suddenly resounding with the beating of thousands and thousands of the bright wings of angels, and also the sounds of their voices, like trumpets, singing a hymn of praise…[the angels] give us a...glimpse of who God is and what God intends to do.” Suddenly everything that was ordinary about that evening had become extraordinary. And so being led by stars and singing angels, the shepherds are the first on the scene, and they are privy to a miracle.
In that moment, everything changed. In the birth of Jesus, the bridge between the Divine and human was made manifest. In that most ordinary of events, all of creation woke up to a new beginning.
It's not everyday that we witness these kinds of massive in-breakings of God. Instead, it's found in the little miracles that surround us daily. A sandwich for someone who's hungry. A card in the mail for someone who's lonely. A hug for someone in pain. These are all ordinary events in the ordinary lives of ordinary people. And yet, when we participate in these ordinary events with a heart of gratitude...we are privy to a miracle.
You see, God needs all of us--even those of us who think we're 'ordinary'--to bring about the Kingdom of God. If you don't think it's true, just look around. Look into the face of the person next to you. How have they proclaimed the good news to you? In their words? In their actions ? In their love? See...the gospel truth of God's steadfast love for us is found in the lives of ordinary, imperfect people in ordinary places. Sometimes we are called to go to places unknown or unfamiliar. They aren't necessarily places we'd consider 'home'. But when God is guiding us into these places, anywhere Christ is found, can become our home.
And so tonight I invite you to consider where God is calling you and how you might proclaim the good news and reveal the divine love of God.
Every so often, I make a confession to you all, and today is going to be one of those days.
About a year ago, other members of the warming shelter steering committee, in anticipation of Pastor Linda from HRVCC leaving the community, asked me to step up into the role of chair. And my initial thought...and the thought that I had for many months after that...was “no thank you...that’s a headache I don’t need”. I couldn’t see that beyond the administrative tasks of chair, beyond the grant writing and fundraising, beyond the recruitment and training of volunteers, beyond the securing of host churches to serve as shelter sites...beyond all that was people. I couldn’t see the people that would be our guests during the coldest months of the year. I couldn’t see them. But what I could see was paperwork, meetings, forms, and headaches. Stuff I didn’t want more of. So I said no. And for several months, I continued to say no. Then it was August. And the steering committee was still without a chair. We were hanging in there, but the work wasn’t getting done, and winter was coming. And so I said yes...begrudgingly. And all I could see was the paperwork, meetings, forms, headaches and a schedule that was quickly filling up.
So in September I had a bit of a melt-down. You see, I’m a task oriented person. I don’t really like to beat around the bush. I want answers and solutions. And I want them now. But a good friend of mine who is on the committee, told me to relax that God would provide. Yeah, yeah. I’ve heard that before...and part of my confession is that I wasn’t sure I believed that God would indeed provide. In my mind, God would provide not only enough money, enough site locations, and enough volunteers, but God would provide 4 people willing to serve as “hosts” who would rotate serving the first 2 hours of every shift, every night that the shelter is open. In my mind, that’s what God would provide.
And so on November 1, God had indeed provided enough money--thanks to our very capable grant writer and fundraiser, which I am not. And God had indeed provided enough site locations. And God had indeed provided enough volunteers...we now have 136 trained volunteers...more than we’ve ever had before. But God did not provide 4 “hosts”...God provided 2. And that’s the final part of my confession...that as I was approaching an early opening on November 13 and staring at the calendar watching the Advent/Christmas/Epiphany season growing ever closer...I was frustrated. I felt abandoned by God. Hadn’t I done my part? Hadn’t I said “yes” when I wanted to say “no”? Hadn’t I managed everything just so? So why’d I only get 2 hosts instead of 4? Was God even paying attention??
And as usual, God was. God was paying attention and knew that my heart needed a little work. I don’t share this story with you because I want some kind of self-congratulatory “look at me, I’ve experienced God’s presence in the midst of craziness”, but because I’m starting to understand how God’s salvific plan operates on a very small scale.
In Isaiah 61, the prophet is sharing with his listeners what God’s salvation will look like. If we think of the Book of Isaiah as being in two parts, the first half is a lament about the people forgetting about their covenant with God and their feeling abandoned by God, and the second half about the renewal and restoration of God’s people because God has forgiven them and brought them out of exile. Our reading this morning is from the second part of the book, and are being told about the hope of salvation. So what is the salvation that Isaiah preaches? It’s the good news of God’s love and righteousness, it’s healing of the brokenhearted, liberty and release from oppression, and comfort to those who mourn. Salvation is the oil of gladness.
But it’s not just enough to “know” what salvation is...according to theologian Scott Bader-Saye, salvation is “a quality of life here and now that reflects God’s desires for human community…[and it] can be seen by others…” Bader-Saye goes on to say that salvation transforms the world and we are invited to participate in God’s “salvific intention” through our mission and ministry. Well, the task-oriented, begrudging chair of the warming shelter in me jumped for joy when I read that. Hooray! I’m participating in God’s “salvific intention”! I’m doing everything that the prophet Isaiah says we’re supposed to do in the coming Kingdom of God. All this work with the shelter--arranging transportation of supplies from one location to another, coordinating the delivery of meals each night, buying shower passes for the guests, serving as one of the “hosts”--I’m like their very own salvation bearer. And I felt very proud and satisfied with myself. No more grumbling.
Then I read this morning’s gospel of John and again, I realized that God was paying attention. “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light...He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light”. The reason I think God was paying attention was to remind me that I am not the Messiah to the warming shelter steering committee or the guests. Instead, we work together as a team as witnesses to the light of Christ. While on the one hand I may be able to provide some temporary relief for our guests by coordinating meals, securing warm places for sleeping, responding to basic human needs, and serving as a host, on the other hand, the other members of the committee and the guests themselves, have been sharing their stories, their hopes and fears, and expressing deep compassion for themselves and one another. They have been the ones giving testimony to me and to this community about the what the kingdom of God will be like--a place of equanimity, a place where respect and dignity are available to all, a place where the oil of gladness flows freely. For me, the guests have been prophetic--they care about each other’s well-being, they speak up if something seems unjust, they rejoice, give thanks and hold fast to what is good. And while none of us is perfect...we all have our flaws, our vices and our shortcomings, at the end of the first shift, when it’s time for “lights out”, there is a sense of relief. We’ve all done our part to make this particular day meaningful and hopeful.
My story of the warming shelter, is one of many. I’m sure all of you have a story of how you’ve participated in God’s “salvific intention”. In our congregation I can think of many teachers, healers, mentors, sponsors, and volunteers who all in their own way serve as a prophetic voice in the community and the lives of others. And I’m sure that all of you have stories of when you have been the recipients of God’s salvation through the care and compassion of others. Like John the Baptist, we are both witnesses to and participants in the coming of the Kingdom of God; sometimes its a matter of getting out of our own way and saying “yes” instead of saying “no”.
Let us pray:
Give us, O God, the vision which can see Your love in the world in spite of human failure.
Give us the faith to trust Your goodness in spite of our ignorance and weakness.
Give us the knowledge that we may continue to pray with understanding hearts.
And show us what each one of us can do to set forward the coming of the day of universal peace.
---Frank Borman, 1968
This week has been really interesting to observe on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Most of my “friends” on social media are clergy, and I always like to read their posts in response to world events, what’s happening in their church communities, great theological wrestlings they’re encountering, book suggestions, that sort of thing.
So many of my colleagues are responding to the lack of indictments in both the Michael Brown case and the Eric Garner case. They are crying out about injustice, inequality, and the continued problems around race that our country faces. Many are participating in protest marches, opening their churches for places of quiet solitude, writing letters to the editor.
For many of my other colleagues, the start of Advent has been a great theological and liturgical debate. They are wrestling with issues around which is the preferred color of the season--blue or purple. They are discussing the perpetual virginity of Mary. They are examining their thoughts and feelings about the incarnation, and the second coming of Christ as described in last week’s gospel and this week’s 2nd letter to Peter.
As I stand between these two sets of colleagues, I see the complexity of the prophet Isaiah’s statement to “prepare the way for the Lord”. What does it mean to “prepare the way”?
For the prophet Isaiah, his original audience was the Jewish community that had lived in exile for about 150 years. To be in exile means to be put out, away from your homeland and the people were literally and figuratively “in the wilderness”. For the early Jewish people, their spiritual identity was connected to the land, and they had been forced out by the Babylonians. They were also struggling with the wrath and punishment of God for their sins. Like sheep, they were scattered and couldn’t find their way back home. So when we read Isaiah 40 this morning, we’re reading the beginning of the second half of the story...the people are returning home and they are experiencing God’s forgiveness and mercy. This moment in Isaiah is the beginning of what the Jewish people would think of as the coming Kingdom of God.
And what would this Kingdom of God look like? The valleys would be lifted up and the mountains made low...in other words, there would be equanimity. In the Kingdom of God, the word of God will stand forever, and God will come like a shepherd to lead the people home. In this Kingdom of God, there is redemption, so lift up your voice and herald the good news.
When we get to the gospel lesson, the words of Isaiah are again needed...prepare the way for the coming Kingdom of God. In Mark, the original audience was living under Roman occupation. While these Jewish people have not been exiled from their home, they have been subject to the laws of Emperors, civil wars, and oppression. And this strange looking man clothed in camel’s hair, eating honey and locusts, is in the wilderness, baptising folks in the river, and calling out to prepare the way for the Kingdom of God, to prepare the way for the Messiah.
And while Mark doesn’t quote John repeating all of Isaiah’s message, John does say that salvation and redemption is coming.
Since we know how the story of Jesus plays out--his ministry, his work with the apostles, his death, resurrection and ascension, we know that Jesus did indeed usher in a new Kingdom of God. He lifted up the lowly, he healed the sick, he offered care and consolation to the widows and orphans, AND he didn’t do anything that a “Messiah” in the traditional sense was supposed to do--he wasn’t a military leader, he didn’t overthrow an emperor, and he didn’t incite a riot. Instead he offered peace and reconciliation. He was a shepherd for his people. And this is how God chose to be incarnate--in the form of a man who lived in the midst of the human struggle.
So what is it exactly that we are preparing for? How do we envision the coming Kingdom of God?
I like to think of things in concentric circles. In the smallest, most immediate circle, we may be preparing our homes for Christmas--we made our advent wreaths last Sunday, we’re starting to put up the tree and the lights, and perhaps we’re preparing for family gatherings. In the next circle, the circle of our community, we may be looking at ways that we participate in the Kingdom of God through our outreach and service ministry--preparing and distributing food at FISH, volunteering at the warming shelter, shopping for gifts for needy children. Then in the next circle, the circle of our larger community--our nation, we may be speaking up, lifting our voices, about the need for equality instead of continued division, or ways in which to protect the most vulnerable and marginalized. And in the biggest circle, the global or international circle, we may be praying for peace, we may be praying for healing and reconciliation, we may be praying for an end to injustice and oppression, for clean water and an end to illness in villages and towns.
Going back to my Facebook account...I don’t know that either of my colleague groups are more right or wrong than the other in their Advent experiences. Some are focused on that most immediate circle of decorations for the church and some are focused on the larger circles of the community. One is not better than the other. As a matter of fact, all preparations for the coming of the Kingdom of God are important--how we welcome the friend and the stranger, how we help to bind up the wounded and broken hearted, and how we open our hearts and prepare for the in-breaking of God in our lives.
Let us pray:
O Holy One, thank you for coming to us anew this day. Prepare our hearts and reawaken our love for you as we discern your call within us. May we join with you in making level the path for all people. Amen.
(Daily Prayer for all Seasons)
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.