For many people it remains a story of what has happened in the past. We remember. Kind of like at a memorial service where we celebrate and remember a loved one who has died, Advent and Christmas, for many, are celebrations of what has gone on before, what happened, the memory of that loved one we call Jesus.
But the story we read today, just like the passage from Isaiah, is not a story of the past. It is a story of the present and a story of the future. In this story we are given a vision of what is to come…. A vision of God coming to be with us in the most scandalous and unusual circumstances. A vision of God’s love being so great and so full that God would come in person to share in life with us, to speak to us in a language we understand, to touch us with a physical touch, to challenge and to comfort us with words and healings and presence and an example of who and how we should be. It is also a vision of what we are called to do and be in this world. Yes, God came to us in Jesus. But God’s love doesn’t and didn’t END there. That was the beginning, and each time we retell the story, we should not simply be remembering that this has happened, but celebrating that we still have this God who loves us enough to come in person to be with us, teach us, guide us, heal us, SAVE us in this way.
I’ve read a lot of wonderful sayings this week talking about exactly who and what Jesus was…about Jesus’ coming to be among us. Some of these we might not recognize as being about Jesus, but I want to throw a few out there anyway because they speak to the very nature of God, and in doing so, call us into that vision – not only of what has passed but of what God continues to do now and what we can look for in the future as well.
“To be like God, we do not need to place ourselves above others, but come down, come down and serve them, become small among the small and poor among the poor.” (Pope Francis) Yes, that’s what Jesus did.
“Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check. But that is not what I have found. I have found that it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.” (Gandalf) Jesus was born, as we are told today amongst the real people, the “small” people, not the royal people, not those of whom power and greatness is expected. And that is not just something for us to celebrate, but a call to us and reminder to us as well. We, too, are called to bring about the light. And none of us can use the excuse of being without power as we respond to that call.
“Hold on to what is good even if it is a handful of earth. Hold on to what you believe even if it is a tree which stands by itself. Hold on to what you must do even if it is a long way from here. Hold on to life even when it is easier to let go and hold on to my hand even when I have gone away from you.” Pueblo Verse. God calls us into that close relationship with God-self that will bring gratitude and inspire gratitude in others. We are called to follow the good, as Jesus did, and as we look for God’s coming to be with us again.
As always, it is hard to hold on to the message of what we are called to be in the face of Jesus’ coming to be with us. We struggle with what it means for us to be Christian, to be followers of this Christ who is so unlike any other king and unlike any expectation for what it is to be a king. I read an article the other day that was talking about the new pope. And it said, “I hear accolades of wonder and amazement every time we see the pope reaching out to the poor, washing feet of addicts, maintaining his vow of poverty, or telling us that the church should be more welcoming and forgiving….it bothers me…Pope Francis bothers me, but not because of what we see him doing in his acts of compassion with others. What he is doing is not great at all. Each Christian is expected to do just as much. The fact that we see these acts as a great achievement is troubling. It is a signal that something is very wrong in the world. Pope Francis is showing us not only what love looks like, but he is showing us just how unloving the world has become.”
Gandhi put it in an even more condemning way when he said, "I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."
We lament the diminishing of our churches. And yet, the condemnation of words such as Gandhi’s can leave us in little doubt as to why, on a national level, our churches are in decline. If all Christians were to show the face of Christ to those around them, all the time, our churches would look very differently today. If we were to live as if Jesus’ birth were here now…or just about to come…in this amazing and unexpected way, what impact would our lives have on the faith and commitment of others? Living in that way calls us into a vision that is different from any we’ve had before. Looking for Jesus’ birth, for “God with us” as a present event, calls us to look with different eyes.
I shared this little test in a newsletter article a few years back and thought it might be helpful to share again this morning. There was a question on a job application that read as the following:
You are driving down the road in your car on a wild, stormy night, when you pass by a bus stop and you see three people waiting for the bus:
1. An old lady who looks as if she is about to die.
2. An old friend who once saved your life.
3. The perfect partner you have been dreaming about.
Which one would you choose to offer a ride to, knowing that there could only be one passenger in your car?
You could pick up the old lady, because she is going to die, and thus you should save her first. Or you could take the old friend because he once saved your life, and this would be the perfect chance to pay him back. However, you may never be able to find your perfect mate again.
The candidate who was hired (out of 200 applicants) had no trouble coming up with his answer. He simply answered: 'I would give the car keys to my old friend and let him take the lady to the hospital. I would stay behind and wait for the bus with the partner of my dreams.'
Again, finding an answer like that requires a different vision, a vision that goes beyond our normal ways of looking at life. It requires a vision outside the box, which is what God has given us through the story of Jesus’ birth. How unexpected was it to have God born as a baby in poor circumstances to an unwed mother? Extremely! And only those who could see beyond the expectations, who could open their eyes to the unexpected and unusual would be able to see it, WERE able to see it.
Mister Rogers put it this way…"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of 'disaster,' I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers - so many caring people in this world." His mother had the vision beyond what we normally see.
I think about Gandhi’s saying that he didn’t like Christians. And I think that this, too, was short-sighted. Where did he look for those Christians? Did he, too, look for them among the powerful and rich? Did he look for them among the preachers? Those who earn money off of "serving" God and God's people? Did he, too, look for them where we might “expect” to see, and fail to open his eyes more fully to where God and God’s people surprise us? I wonder, if he were to have had the vision that we are called to have in looking for Christ, if he might not have seen with more depth and vision as well. Because just as Christ’s coming was unexpectedly among the poor and those considered without power, there are many Christians out there – people really following the law of love in the least expected places as well. Just as Jesus came in an unexpected place and way, Christians come often in small, unpowerful, unexpected places. And they can be just as amazing and just as wondrous. Pope Francis is a surprise because he is acting in a Christian way even though he has the choice to choose power and wealth. But there are others…many who quietly go about the work of Christ, feeding the hungry, caring for displaced children, watching over the widows, visiting the sick…and some of them are right here in this place.
What are we called to be and do, especially as we vision the Christ coming again? We are called to see Christ’s coming as a present thing…to look for God in the now…and then to follow. We are given this gift every year. Not of remembering, but of anticipating…watching, waiting, seeing.
“While life can be understood by looking backwards, it must be lived by looking forwards.” So look back at the coming of Jesus as a way to help us understand God, God then, God today and God always. But don’t stop with the memories. Don’t stop with the “memorial” of celebrating what did happen and what has come to pass. Don’t stop with the focus on what God has done. Instead, keep looking for what God is DOING, and where God is coming now and in the future. Allow the vision to be for the present, as we wait again, for Jesus’ birth among us. Amen.