Hope comes to us when we have grown used to and even prefer our quiet resignation or comfortable disbelief to the rigors of feeding again on some word of promise.* We begin this season with the fundamental question: what do we do with hope which by its fundamental character is offered to us when we have no expectation . . . when we have no confidence . . . when we have no hope. And so, in the six centuries from the time that Jeremiah offered these words until the days that Jesus stepped forth on to the stage, the Jews did what we often do to hope – they reduced it to something more manageable. Even now, if we asked each other what hope lies in our hearts, would any of us answer with something bold and exciting?
If hope is so poor and weak and beside the point, why do we flee from it so instinctively? Perhaps because we suspect, rightly, that hope is another name for God’s intrusive presence in our world, and we fear, again rightly, that that presence will disturb us, reveal the inadequacy of all our efforts to feed ourselves and create in us a hunger we cannot satisfy. Worse, it may well take us to places we have had no intention of going. Scripture is full of such instances . . . Indeed, disciples shaped by a hope that takes them where they did not intend to go seem to be the only kind of disciples there are.* And as Thomas Currie notes, hope is not something we “have” so much as it is something that intrudes upon us, even claims and directs us.
Hope is the way God bothers us, even seduces us, into becoming disciples and seeing the impossible extent of the kingdom that is coming into our midst.*
So, what shall we do – people who have set before ourselves a single candle of hope to begin this Advent season? What are we to do with ourselves – we who live in a world that can bring us to despair when we are responsible to proclaim this hope that is thrust upon us.
Perhaps we may draw some guidance from Dietrich Bonhoeffer who lived in a time and place where hope might have seemed impossible. Talking about the responsibilities people of faith carry, he once said: There are people who think it frivolous and Christians who think it impious to hope for a better future on earth and to prepare for it. They believe in chaos, disorder, and catastrophe, perceiving it to what is happening now. They withdraw in resignation or pious flight from the world, from the responsibility for ongoing life, for building anew, for the coming generations. It may be that the day of judgment will dawn tomorrow; only then and no earlier will we readily lay down our work for a better future.*
Monday, December 2
That Star Matthew 2:1-2 A star arose in the East . . . I know, I know. First days of this season and I am already ahead of myself. By the time that Matthew’s star gets the magi to Bethlehem, the hunt for the baby has morphed into a search for a toddler who could have been nearly two years old. Luke is the one who lays out the story quick and clean: Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem for the census, and while they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son. . . Here I am starting with the star.
In defense of my opening, I could say that the trip from Persia or wherever the magi were when they first saw the star took a while. There were plans to make, provisions to muster, and lists to compile and check-off at home. They had to turn off lights and drop the thermostat before saddling up. But that is not why I am inclined to start with the star which, for all intents and purposes, could mark a conclusion to the nativity story.
No, I guess I am just thinking about what it was like to see that star for the first time . . . to look up into the vastness of the midnight sky and to wonder about where it all began and where it is all headed. And though you have looked at that infinite sky every night pretty much your whole life, tonight something catches your eye. Something different. Something that insists on your attention. Something that pulls at something deep in your soul.
It is something that has been there since the day you became aware of your own existence. It is some yearning. Some longing. Some hunger to draw closer to whatever it is that is at the center of your life. Indeed, something that is nothing less than the source of all life.
A star arose in the East . . . and they could not let it be. Maybe they tried. Maybe they ignored it for a few days and tried to concentrate on their regular business, but every night they found some excuse to go outside – to take the dog for a walk or to walk the trash bin to the curb – and they found themselves looking up and trying to see if there had been any change. Before long, there they were, on their way with their camels pointed west. Following that star.
Another Advent has begun, and if you are like me, you cannot let it go. You cannot just go about your business as usual, because the star is there whether we look up at the heavens or stare at the grass. It is up there, and something in us is stirring and calling us. To follow. To see. To pay homage. To discover. This yearning to know who and whose we are, after all, has been pulling at us since we first knew we existed.
Tuesday, December 3
Tuesday, December 3 When God Interrupts Us Luke 1:11,26; 2:9 I tell you, I just ran across the expression sometime over the past week or two. I was working on something else – another sermon or piece of writing – when the phrasing caught my eye. Doing research in a whole other direction when the words jumped off the page. God interrupts. I think the phrase struck me as a little brazen, even accusing. Any of us who have ever been a parent knows that there are years given over to telling our children, Don’t interrupt me – I will be with you when I finish talking to Mrs. Smith. Children take a long time to learn to park their impulses . . . to understand that they don’t get to seize anyone’s attention at any moment they want it. And some children never learn that and grow into adults who interrupt others at will. How annoying. So, the phrasing hit me rather as a criticism of God. God interrupts – well, God ought not do that.
When you think about it, of course, that is exactly what God does. Interrupt us. We are just trucking along, doing what we do, when suddenly God is jumping right in the middle of our business. Don’t believe me, peruse through scripture.
Stop what you are doing and build an ark.
Whoa, look at this burning bush.
Go to Nineveh and preach.
Wham – struck blind on the road to Damascus.
Jesus did the same kind of stuff – interrupting fishermen at work . . . calling Zacchaeus out of a tree . . . jumping all over the people doing business in the Temple.
It is a well-established pattern when you look at it. We are living our lives and doing what we do, and God interrupts us. This whole Christmas story is a story of God interrupting.
Zechariah was taking care of his business, serving in the Temple, when an emissary from God got in his way – you and Elizabeth are going to have a son – name him John. Do it. Then the angel detoured over to jump in front of Mary – you and Joseph are going to have a son – name him Jesus. A quiet night for shepherds in the hills became a concert. The magi got diverted from their studies. God whispered in Simeon’s ear. And Anna’s. The script was always the same – one interruption after another. The story of this birth is nothing but a laboratory about how God interrupts the very people he loves. The difference in all these characters and any of the others who did not make it into the story seems to be nothing more than whether they allowed God’s interruption to capture their attention.
So, what about us? Here we are. Leading busy lives with so much to do, and yet we have come to this place. And why? Well, I suppose we are here because God interrupted us. God got into our business and said, Hey, want to see something incredible? Want to hear something amazing?
Yes! We do want to see and hear something incredible and amazing and beautiful and holy. We do want to see and hear something that is forever turning our lives upside down and filling our hearts and bringing us home . . . something that is reminding us who we have been created to be. We do want to see all this and hear it and be in the middle of it. If I’m right, try to not shush God. Try not to say, Stop it. I’m busy. Don’t interrupt me! Don’t interrupt me!
Wednesday December 4
Speechless Luke 1:5-25 I get the part about not being able to speak. Sure – you are thinking, Gary, when have you gone an hour with nothing to say, much less nine months. Well, the truth lies in a story I have not told often about the difficulty we had in bringing a baby into this world. We ended up under the care of a specialist who told us before we began to be patient because it could take a while. I tell people to give it a year, the doctor said, and if after then if we aren’t pregnant, then . . .
So, we began with some initial tests on each of us, and then we proceeded to what became a monthly ritual: diagnostics, medication, blood work . . . and disappointment. Month by month, we pushed through the regimen, and as the months passed, we began to move through some emotional stages: frustration, resignation, and ultimately where we began to reassure one another. Our lives are going to be just fine . . . we certainly will have more money . . . maybe we will travel more. It will be okay.
Month twelve came and went, and I said, Isn’t this it – you said a year. Yes, the doctor replied, but that was a ballpark figure . . . it took us a couple of months to get things set where they needed to be.
So, when the final appointment of month fourteen came, I was in the office – the loyal if unbelieving husband. The nurse took a blood sample and disappeared. We sat in the waiting area, and after a longer-than-normal time, the receptionist told us the doctor would be with us shortly. I noticed she had a silly grin on her face. The nurse came and got us. Another silly grin.
The doctor came in, sat down, and studied a piece of paper, before looking up and saying, the blood test came back positive.
Linda began to cry. I just sat there, mute as a statue. Linda handled the pleasantries, the thank-yous and the setting of a future appointment. We decided not to go back to our respective workplaces – we would go to lunch together.
Again, nothing seemed to come out of my mouth. I suppose I managed to order a plate of food. What are you thinking?, Linda kept asking. I couldn’t put words together . . . at least not words that had any coherence. Why? Well, I had given up. Somewhere around months nine or ten, I think. Oh, I kept up a brave face for Linda’s sake, biding my time until that moment when we would speak the sadness out loud, and begin to live it out.
The story of Zechariah is told so quickly that maybe we don’t get the years in which he and Elizabeth insulated themselves against the great disappointment. Then a stranger shows up and tells him he is going to be a father. Zechariah responds, Impossible. It was an absolutely honest response, tested over not months but decades. And it was the last thing he said for nine months. I don’t know if Luke got everything Gabriel said down on parchment, but I am guessing that the angel said at least this much more to Zechariah – the same thing he would soon say to Mary: nothing will be impossible with God. And indeed, it may well be that God’s possibilities are the only things that can shut up priests and preachers.
Thursday, December 5
It’s Not Easy Being a Messenger Luke 2.25-35 Being a messenger can be a terrible job. Who wants to be one of the two soldiers in full dress uniforms who must make their way up the sidewalk and knock on the door of the house of the wife or parents whose loved one is in a foreign land serving? Someone has to make the phone call: there has been an accident. A messenger is the one who dials the phone from the nursing home in the middle of the night. Sure, sometimes the messenger gets to convey good news, but not always. Sometimes, the job is painful.
Hence the old adage, Don’t Kill the Messenger. But seriously, poor old Gabriel must have drawn the short straw. Go tell Mary that she is going to have a baby before she marries Joseph. And while you are in that neighborhood, swing by his house also and give him the heads-up. But Gabriel puts a happy face on it, and in short order, Mary and Joseph, along with Zechariah and Elizabeth, are on-board. The thing is, it is not just the celestial being. Gabriel, we know as angel which is just another translation for the Greek which is also rendered messenger. Same word. But if we flip to the end of the infancy story, we come across old Simeon for whom death has stalled until he sees God’s Messiah for himself. He finds his way into the Temple where he takes the baby in his arm and praises God. And as he turns to hand the child back to his mother, his mood changes and his words take on a sad, heart-broken tone. He looks Mary in the eyes and he cannot hold back the end of his prophecy. And a sword, he says as his eyes fill with tears, will pierce your own soul too. Only then does he go down the steps of the Temple where in time a whole other drama will play out for the man this child will become.
Awake! Awake, and greet the new morn, for angels herald its dawning, Sing our your joy, for soon he is born, behold! the Child of our longing. Come as a baby weak and poor, to bring all hearts together, He opens wide the heavenly door and lives not inside us forever.
Friday, December 6
Scandal Matthew 1:18
What we all know is that a birth is just the beginning of a life-long celebration. The easiest thing in the world for me to get a look at is a photo of your grandchild. Rod, you have any new photos of that little girl? Libby, got any new pictures of that grandbaby? Twenty-five minutes later, we are done. Actually, all I have to do is ask if the kid is good-looking – out comes the photos, proof that the child is beautiful. That is the fundamental purpose for Facebook, is it not? And we are not just talking pictures. The life of a child can hardly be captured in words though we may try mightily: he fell asleep in his birthday cake . . . she played her first soccer game and scored two goals . . . he had a solo in the school concert . . . she went to prom . . . he got scholarships from every college he applied to . . . I’m not complaining. You ask me about my children, pull up a chair. If and when grandchildren arrive, you might need something cushioned.
It would, of course, be heart-breaking not to be overwhelmed by joy upon the impending birth of a baby; it would be tragic not to celebrate the life of a child. But such is the reality of some births: The parents aren’t even married . . . they are too young . . . they are too old. They are too poor. Don’t they have enough kids without another. . . how are they going to pay for this one?
Given his options, it is instructive that Matthew does not open his version of the story with any bragging. Rather, his words almost betray an explanation – an apology of sorts: before they lived together, she was found to be with child . . . . The Gospel writer immediately adds from the Holy Spirit, but even that sounds sort of like he is correcting the record. The phrasing does not say that the couple announced that Mary was pregnant but rather she was found to be with child. It sounds like a dark secret uncovered. Loose morals. Uncertain paternity. Ah, but someone figured it out and soon the whole town was whispering. My experience is that all of us good Christian people don’t do well with scandals. Not that we don’t have plenty of rough edges in our own lives, but we have a propensity to hide them. The aptitude we have developed is the art of judging, and that is why this child will grow up to give us such fits. The whole Gospel he will unveil will be scandalous – what St. Paul would say was a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. This child who will be judged by many from the moment he is conceived will speak some of the most important words in all the Bible: I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. That is not a bad starting point for any of us who would follow.
Saturday, December 7
Remembering Luke 1:68-79 On our trip through Cleveland a few weeks back, we stopped to see Shirley Hummel. Shirley has been in a memory care unit for several years, even before Paul passed away a year and one-half ago. Paul and Shirley have been treasured friends, such that I cannot adequately express how much they have meant to us. Their granddaughter lived hundreds of miles to the northwest and our parents were a thousand miles to the south, so they became surrogate grandparents for our kids. We had plenty of holiday meals together, and they even became good friends with our parents over the course of their visits.
Anyway, we stopped by to see Shirley one afternoon and had the kind of visit that will break your heart. She was sleeping in a reclining wheelchair in the day room, and while she was instantly recognizable, her disheveled appearance betrayed the woman we have known for three decades. An aid helped wake and position her so we could talk. Who knows about this awful Alzheimer’s disease, but I doubt she recognized us. Her eyes were vacant and though she would nod or shake her head, those responses seemed more reflexive than meaningful. Linda led the conversation: How are you? . . . Have you had lunch yet? . . . Is Beverly (daughter) still living in Shaker Heights? . . . Has Evelyn (granddaughter) been here lately? Nothing much. She ran through a litany of questions about things we had done together: Do you remember the holiday meals we shared? . . . Do you remember taking my parents out to lunch when they visited? . . . You and Paul traveled to Germany with them once, remember? Just a kind of empty, scared look.
The only thing she ever said was, I’m sorry, which she repeated three or four times. Again, I don’t know what she meant. Maybe she was trying to say that she was sorry she could not remember. Perhaps she was saying she was sorry she didn’t know who we were. Maybe it was just some reflexive phrase. I’m sorry. Linda told her she had nothing to be sorry for. And then Linda said, We will remember for you.
Ever since she said those words – We will remember for you – I have been thinking about them. It seems such a holy task. We can support and care for one another in every imaginable way, but the time comes when perhaps all we can do for one another is to remember. The Bible, of course, is full of promises that God remembers – God remembered the covenant and the holy word . . . and God remembered Noah and Rachel and Hannah. God remembered, and Advent seems to be a time of waiting with the conviction of faith that God has not forgotten us . . . that God could never forget us. And so, the waiting continues. But it continues in the shelter of a promise of Emmanuel, God with us. It is the promise that even if we cannot, God remembers. God remembers for us.
Sunday, December 8
Peace is How God Defines Us John 14.27 The season is filled with words and promises of peace. Among the names that the prophet Isaiah lifts up for the child is Prince of Peace. When Zechariah regained his voice, he declared that his son would be the prophet who would guide our feet into the way of peace. And when the angel voices sang out that night, the chorus that echoed off the Bethlehem hills praised God as they declared peace on earth.
Peace is an easy word to speak, of course, but a much more difficult state to bring to reality. Jeremiah once condemned the greed that extended from prophet to priest. They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, he observed, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.
Do we commit the same violation as we prepare to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace again this year when there is so much violence and war in a world we call to welcome him? Syria and Afghanistan catch most of the headlines, but they are not the only armed conflicts in our world today. And the sword rattling in North Korea and the Middle East do not bode well for the years to come. As I edit these words, I am following reports about stabbing incidents in London and the Hague. Too little time passes between murders and mass killings on our own shores. The division and strife. Will we be guilty in this season of proclaiming, Peace, Peace, when nothing is further from reality?
But therein lies the point – the distinction between the peace that is a product of our doing and the peace which is a gift from God. Which is to say that the peace which is a gift of this season is really not something we do; this peace is who, in Christ, we become. Oh, we can crave peace – pray for it and work for it and sacrifice for it. And I am not belittling any of that, but as Jesus observed, peace is his and not the world’s gift to us. So, this matter of peace probably turns less on the state of the world in which we live and more on the condition of our spirits. There is nothing to keep us from living and breathing and sharing the peace which is his gift to us and his claim upon us. _________________________________________ It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old, From angels bending hear the earth to touch their harps of gold; “Peace on the earth, good will to all, from heaven’s all gracious King.” The world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing.
Monday, December 9
When Children Lead Isaiah 11:1-10 A wolf, a leopard, a lion, a bear, and a snake. Yes, there is a lamb in there, and a calf and a baby goat, but still, this is hardly your regular petting zoo. And a little child shall lead them. I ran across one rant from a would-be commentator who took all of us to task for ever quoting the last seven words of verse six out of its strict context. His point was that the prophet is declaring that the child will lead these animals around, not adults. The passage, he assures us, never says that God wants children directing the actions of adults. And while I am willing to concede that the point of these words is not that children are wiser than adults, any more than the logical conclusion is that all creatures will become vegan. I think that what Isaiah is really trying to do is to paint an image and let it draw us into the picture. When an age breaks out that embodies God’s righteousness, then fear will not be a prevailing theme . . . God’s creatures will not be intent on harming one another. But since this season is about the birth of a child-Savior, and since Jesus himself would extend the image in which the kingdom is expressed in the welcoming of children, let’s not toss the prophet’s image so fast. It has been a while since I let a child lead me regularly, but I can recall some occasions when a little one would grab my hand – my index finger actually, because our grips did not match up well – and he or she would lead me around. What I remember is that different objects and activities would catch the eye of the child as compared to what I might have found worth checking out. Surely, that is because, vertically speaking, the child’s eye level was about half as high as mine. So, when the child led me, we would end up looking at a few ants scurrying across the flagstone or at a dandelion in the yard. Anyway, I am not sure that the point is that when the child was leading, the wiser being was directing, but it certainly was the one who had a fresher pair of eyes. I had seen plenty of ants and dandelions over the years, so I would never have noticed if not for the guidance. Well, sadly, this child-leading thing did not happen all that often, because being the adult, I was almost always in charge, and I had a mental, if not written, list of things to accomplish and places to get to. But that is very much my point. I had to let go of all the control and the supposed knowledge to let the child take the lead in the first place. So sure, I am not saying that little children should be in charge of the adults. I am just wondering, however, whether the prophet’s vision of justice and righteousness will ever come to pass if adults are doing the leading.
Tuesday, December 10
23 and Jesus Matthew 1:1-16 or Luke 3:23-37
I would not say that I am an impulsive shopper – the consumer that gets pulled in by some slick advertisement so that I wind up owning not one but two utensils that will both peel avocados and serve as a kitchen light to read recipes during a power outage (and only had to pay separate shipping for the second utensil). Nonetheless, several years ago for Mother’s Day, I presented Linda one of those kits that has a test tube to spit in, seal, and mail back so that five weeks later you get a complete assessment of your DNA. I got a deal on a second kit – I don’t remember if I had to pay separate shipping – so it was not long before we both had a read-out of where our haplogroups, i.e. ancestral clans, came from along with giving us contacts who have a high probability of being related to us. Every couple of months since, we have gotten emails telling us about any new potential kin who have submitted test results since we did. To date, we have not found anyone who is projected to be closer than a fourth cousin, but I hardly think that is the point. (I have complained to Linda that my brother and sisters won’t take the test so we can discover that we are siblings. She says, I thought we already knew that. I may have to give kits to the kids this Christmas so I can be delighted. Never mind what Linda says.)
The point I am working my way toward is that DNA testing was not nearly as advanced the first century, so they had to track their relatives in a manner that required less spitting and more parchment work. Which is to say that the genealogies that Matthew and Luke provide are less scientific than what I have experienced. You would notice that right off the bat when you start moving back just a couple of generations. Of course, one writer seems to be tracing Jesus’ ancestry through his father and the other through his mother though we could ask why that is, given the miraculous conception. Anyway, both genealogies run the family tree back through David and Abraham, and Luke even takes it back to Adam. Matthew includes several women in his presentation which is a whole other kettle of relatives.
I think we can get a feel for what our Gospel writers are up to here. Likely the same thing we are doing when we start telling people that our people came over on the Mayflower or that we are related to Geronimo. Or sometimes we go in the other direction – we come from simple folk who carried lunch pails to the factory for 47 years, earning an honest living every single day. In some measure, we fancy that we are defined by our ancestors. Same with the writers presenting Jesus’ story. The point being made, of course, is less scientific than theological. Is Jesus a king? Well, his grandfathers (insert some 20+ “grand” in here) were. God’s purposes on that night in Bethlehem date back all the way to the first human to walk on this earth. You know who Jesus is in part because you know who his people were. And speaking of who his people were – and are – I suppose that it is really in professing who he is that we really discover who we are.
Wednesday, December 11
A Messy Incarnation John 1:1-18 Matthew has his Herod while Luke has his Augustus. The author of the First Gospel tells of a tyrant close at hand while the writer of the Third Gospel is wrestling with an emperor who lives on the far end of a sea. But whether the power is near or far, there is power – earthly power that contrast sharply with a lowly couple having a child. I rather suspect that both of the men telling the story of Jesus’ birth intend for us to understand that for all of its unearthly elements, this is a account about this world.
That is the thing about this story – it is no escape from reality. Matthew and Luke write with eyes wide open. Their stories are not fairy tales or romantic tales in which everyone lives happily ever after. They don’t write to deny power and evil – they write to counter it. There would be ideas and notions and full-blown theologies that would arise in the centuries that followed Jesus’ life – all manner of dualisms that claimed to be what Christianity was really about. Heaven over against Earth . . . Spirit above Flesh. The notion that all that really mattered was beyond this world. Docetism, Gnosticism. And more. One by one, the early church declared them all heresies.
And this fundamental truth – God’s embrace of this crazy world in which we live – is part and parcel of these nativity stories. Each in his own way, Matthew and Luke set the story of the birth right square in the muck of life as they knew it which is hardly different than life as we have known it. Nothing that happens in this story should lead us to believe that any empire or kingdom will give up its claims on people. Before this child’s life will end, he will stand before a Roman governor and a Jewish king. Neither will succumb to the carpenter. But the stories Matthew and Luke offer are not promises to bring earthly powers to heel. The stories they tell offer us an example of a very different kind of power . . . the power to live in a compromised world without being overcome by it. The promise is that it is possible not to reject but to embrace the world . . . that we can live with integrity in this world, loving God and serving others. _________________________________________ So, bring him incense, gold, and myrrh, come, rich and poor, to own him, The King of kings salvation brings, let loving hearts enthrone him. This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing: Haste, haste to bring him laud, the Babe, the Son of Mary.
Thursday, December 12
Filled With Expectation Luke 3:10-15 By any standard, John was a curious sort. Matthew tells us that he wore some kind of course garment woven from camel hair, and he mentions a diet of locusts cut with wild honey. Even in Luke’s softer and gentler version, he couldn’t smooth all of the sharp corners. So, when we get to the Baptizer’s part of the story, we have a fellow living out in the wilderness which seems to be a good thing since he doesn’t really seem to be housebroken.
He is preparing the way by offering up one of Isaiah’s best sermons in which he told anyone who would listen how valleys were going to be lifted up and mountains shaved down
. . . how curves would be straightened and rough paths cleared and mowed to a perfect 1½ inch lawn. Then he goes off script to talk about cutting down trees that aren’t producing. During the Q & A session, the people are asking what they need to do. Share with others, says John – coats, food, whatever. If you have more than you need, share. Then the seedier ones standing at the back of the crowd suck up the courage to ask what they should do. To the tax collectors, he says, stop cheating and over-charging; to the soldiers, he says, stop bullying and abusing your power. And Luke says that the people were roused . . . that they thought he might be the Messiah . . . that they were filled with expectation.
And why we ask. Why were they filled with expectation? Because while judgment can be scary, justice – especially when it is mixed with mercy and love – is liberating. The people who went out to hear John surely knew their lives were far from perfect. But listening to John, they were coming to understand why. They had bought into a system that was unjust. In the midst of such a system, the conventional wisdom says to take care of number one. You have two coats, keep one for later. You have food on the shelf, hold it for tomorrow. If others are suffering, well, that is life. But John says, no, that is not life. Share. Help. Give. But the people also hear that he is not just calling for them to make themselves vulnerable. He is going after the system. John is not just preparing the way for some new expression of personal piety. The Messiah who is coming in his wake will confront the whole system. No power, no authority will be exempted. The first shall be last. The mighty will bow down. When the feast is held, all will be invited but there will not be special seating for the powerful. Again, John’s words are liberating – to the poor but also to the privileged who are tired of forever wielding their power against those they know are really brothers and sisters. When we read these words, we are free to ignore them, or to shrink from them in fear . . . or to let our hearts leap in expectation.
Friday, December 13
Pax Romana Matthew 10:34
The Pax Romana is a name that has been given to a period of time lasting just over two hundred years in which the Roman Empire experienced a relatively peaceful existence. Prior to this period, the Republic had been at war with one enemy or another for two centuries. By the third century BCE, three conflicts known as the Punic Wars followed in which the Romans gained control of Sicily, the western Mediterranean, Spain and finally Carthage in North Africa. The constant warfare also was directed to the east as Rome exerted its influence and might in Macedon, Asia Minor and Egypt. During this unending state of war, the Republic’s political stability crumbled as military leaders gained more and more power. A few years after Julius Caesar’s murder in 44 BCE, his great-nephew and appointed heir Octavian – introduced to us in Luke’s birth narratives as Caesar Augustus – became the emperor of the Empire. The Pax Romana is generally dated from the beginning of his 56-year reign in 27 BCE until the death of Emperor Marcus Aurelius in 180 AD (fictionally portrayed in the movie, The Gladiator).
Just two-plus decades into this grand Pax Romana, the baby – whose life we reflect upon deeply during this season – was born. This child would grow up to say many things which were preserved in Gospels and which have been repeated unendingly for two thousand years. One of which goes something like this: Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
I am thinking that no one would have to look too hard to find the irony in the contrast between Jesus and Augustus and the long string of emperors who followed him. Jesus, hailed to this day by the name the prophet lifted up, the Prince of Peace, refused to allow his followers to take up swords to protect him, resulting in his execution by the state. In contrast, the Roman Empire, while not pursuing territorial expansion by warfare during these two centuries of “peace,” life in the Empire was hardly free of brutality. Christian martyrdom became the norm in Rome in the 60s AD under Nero. In 70 AD, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in response to a local revolt by the Jews. All of this took place more than one hundred years before the Pax Romana ended.
One is left to wonder in our time whether any Pax that is maintained by force can really be called Peace at all. Maybe some other name is required. Not that the sword of which Jesus spoke was and is not real. I think he just meant that what he was about was something that was either going to capture one’s entire heart, or nothing at all.
Saturday, December 14
Outcast Isaiah 53:1-3 By the time you read this, our church family may have celebrated a couple of births. Not within the congregation per se, though we are on that project also. But a couple of grandchildren should have arrived by Christmas. Jeannette Etheridge was reminding the Elders for months that she was going to be out-of-town come December . . . in Florida . . . maybe for a long time. She was working her schedule, swapping communion table assignments and trading off responsibilities for visiting our homebound members. Then she scooted out of town three weeks early. Tish Scott has been walking around with a big smile on her face since Laura and Alex announced. And all of that is exciting and delightful; it is a celebration waiting to happen. Especially, but not exclusively, for Jeannette and Glenn and Tish and David. Let the “Baby’s First Christmas” ornaments be purchased. Let the college education savings accounts be opened. [Editor’s Note: Between the writing and the editing, Jeannette has been to Florida and returned. Welcome Lilly Rose!]
But we live in a world where not every child is welcomed and loved. Beyond the simple neglect, some children grow into beings who are deemed unattractive or odd – ridiculed on the playground, ignored by teachers who would rather engage with the brighter students, left home on prom night. And it does not change when those children become adults – most of us can tell a story or two of when and where we were welcomed and when and where we were shunned. Even then, our stories are surely rated mildly. Some children, some adults, have been declared unwanted and unwelcome.
And as lovely as Luke tells the nativity story, I think there is something in Matthew’s version that is more foreboding, more ominous. A king raises a hand against the child in the beginning of an act that will follow him throughout his life. The authorities will hound him until his dying day. The clues are ancient . . . as ancient as the prophet Isaiah:
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? . . . He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. Maybe especially in this season – and at a time when we rejoice in births – we would do well to remember that the world did not greet this child with joy. Not in Bethlehem . . . not in Jerusalem. And we are kidding ourselves if we suppose that the world is clamoring for who he is today.
Sunday, December 15
Joy is How God Frees Us Philippians 4:4 The world didn’t give it, and the world can’t take it away. Joy is what we are talking about. Too much, we think joy is dependent upon the circumstances of our lives. We think that it is the good trappings of our lives that bring us happiness. But nothing could be further from the truth. Joy is a state of mind. We choose it. We reach for it. And we are, in turn blessed by it. I have seen it in the darkest of times – when death visits. Long ago I learned the wisdom of holding funerals three or more days after our loved one passes. The first two, three, four days are filled with a numbness, a disbelief, an unanswerable pain. The truth is that if one could hand the grieving folks some cure, some antidote, they would decline it. The pain is all that seems real, and there is a need to cling to it. But after a couple of days, the mood shifts and there is an openness to healing, a readiness. Some story is told, and there is a little laughter. Then another story. And in time, the memories facilitate the healing. After my dad died, I remember sitting up until three in the morning with my family as we told stories about him and the marvelous things he did as a husband and a father. All of this is to say that joy is not born out of some chance connection with our world – some happy circumstances. Joy is God-given. And the logical extension of that truth is that joy can exist in any place and in all situations: maternity wards and cemeteries, athletic fields and nursing homes, commencement ceremonies and prison cells, in heaven or hell. I do not say any of this to promote some Pollyanna view of the world in which we live, but because we of all people need to know where the true delight in life comes from. Joy is a gift of God, and no matter where we find ourselves, if we are open to it, God is prepared to bless us with this remarkable gift with which we can hardly help but bless the lives of those around us. _________________________________________ Jesus, the gift from heaven above, Fills all our hearts with joy and love. How great our joy! Great our joy! Joy, joy, joy! Joy, joy, joy! Glory to God who reigns on high! Glory to God who reigns on high!
Monday, December 16
The Ox and Lamb Kept Time Luke 2:7
He was born in a Stable. Translation: A Barn. He was laid in a Manger. Translation: A Feed Trough.
I say all this to knock any sentimental notions you have attached to this scene. You people love to tell the Preacher how much tobacco you harvested when you were growing up . . . the universal truth behind getting to the short rows.
Well, I grew up in cotton country and picking cotton is like pulling tobacco except your hands are always bleeding. But that is not my point. I also grew up in horse and heifer country. I have been in a barn, and there is not enough fresh straw in an entire state to make a barn smell even passable. And because there are remnants of animal feed – corn and grain – spilled here and there, barns also tend to be homes for rats and snakes and other unpleasant creatures. A barn is the last place a baby ought to be, so quit pretending. It was the last choice. It was the barn or out in some alleyway or something.
What we don’t know is whether it was a working barn in the hour of Jesus’ birth. Bethlehem has a pretty temperate climate even in December, so it is entirely possible that the animals had been left outside. However, the main purpose of a barn is to provide protection for animals – to keep them safe not just from inclement weather but also from predators such as wolves and lions, bears and coyotes. (No, I’m not absolutely certain that coyotes exist in and around Bethlehem, but I think you are getting off-point.) So, it could be that the stable was shared space. If so, hopefully it was a good-sized barn.
Well, let me share this with you. Advent is my favorite time of the church year, I think, because it is a season that draws out our imagination. So, do what you will, but I am going to picture a crowded stable that was not emptied of its first citizens. Partly that is because that is how our nativity scenes portray the stable, but mostly I just like thinking about these creatures who shared their home when human beings would not, and thereby became the first witnesses to the advent of our Lord. Amen. _________________________________________ Infant holy, infant lowly, for his bed a cattle stall; Oxen lowing, little knowing, Christ the babe is Lord of all. Swiftly winging angels singing, bells are ringing, tidings bringing; Christ the babe is Lord of all, Christ the babe is Lord of all.
Tuesday, December 17
Down By Sears 1 John 2:15-17
I don’t like being a name-dropper, but you may be interested to know that I am pretty tight with Santa. Yeah, yeah, yeah – you have known Santa your whole life. Except I am not talking about just sitting on his lap and telling him you want Legos or a 65 inch, 4k Smart Television. I mean I actually have a relationship with the big elf where we tell each other our problems and ask for advice.
It started about 25 years ago. It was around the beginning of December and I had an errand to run, so I took Kristen with me to Randall Mall. This got both of us out of Linda’s hair for a while, and all it cost me was a promise that she could ride the miniature train. Which she did. About twenty times. I took up my supervisory position one floor above the track, and sometime about Kristen’s fourth ride, a man walked up beside me and leaned over the rail. He was probably 5’4”, wore a flannel shirt with suspenders, and had a full white beard. Oh yes – his belly shook like a bowl full of jelly. I thought I recognized him, but I waited to see if he recognized me, which he did. And he asked, What is that doing there? I told him I didn’t know. He seemed to be in a foul mood, explaining that he was used to setting up in that exact spot. He fretted awhile before we said our good-byes. He said that he was headed to find the Mall Manager whom I surmised would get a lump of coal that year. Passing out of earshot, he said, I hope they are not planning on putting us down by Sears – the children won’t find us there!
I wanted to tell my friend that I understood. After all, my ministry got put down by Sears a long, long time ago. This season which by all rights ought to belong to the church has been owned by Madison Avenue since commercials were invented. These days leading up to Christmas are about Honey-Baked Hams, sugarplum lattes, and Christmas wish lists that are as long as my arm. What I really wanted to do was to tell my pal that we ought to divvy up the season. We won’t take his spot at the center of the mall, and he will stop posing in all those pieces of art showing him bowing down before the manger. But I didn’t.
The truth is we all wrestle with the sacred and the secular at this time of year. People regularly tell me that they had to make choices between decorating the sanctuary, the music programs, the pageant rehearsals over against all the other activities filling schedules. I get it. But I worry about what we miss when the world intrudes on this season that belongs to us. What do we miss? Here is the thing. People are forever telling me that they are busy – busy, busy, busy. I’ve said it myself. But we know that it is entirely possible to be busy with the wrong things . . . to have our hearts set on what cannot nourish our souls. When that happens, our hearts will never be on all the right things. I hope it is not too late for the preacher to tell you to slow down . . . to “unbusy” yourself . . . to help decorate the sanctuary . . . to take a train ride (or twenty train rides). I tell you this out of love, because the only thing worse than getting a lump of coal in your stocking is spending your season down by Sears.
Wednesday, December 18
Broken Ornaments Luke 4:14-22
Not to be laying all out all the family secrets, but we did not put up all of our Christmas decorations last year. We are in the habit of leaving our Christmas decorations out until our annual church open house which we schedule around Epiphany – the day after the 12th day of Christmas. If the calendar is kind to us, we get the party in before too much of January comes and before too much of the live greenery turns brown. Then, Linda will pack away all the ornaments and ceramic churches and nativity sets, and I will carry them up to the attic for another ten months and change.
This year, those boxes never saw the attic. They have been sitting in the back bedroom behind a closed door. It is less because we have been busy or lazy, though these explanations cannot be completely ruled out. Yes, one of us has been overseeing the emergence of a family shelter, and the other one may be more vulnerable to charges of sloth (though truthfully, he is not someone you want packing and marking our treasured Christmas heirlooms). No, the ornaments have not been put away because we have a number of items which have come to need repair in recent years. The early months of 2019 would be the time to break out the glue gun and begin patching, mending and restoring. But, the best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry . . . As of this writing, the boxes sit and the glue gun is cold.
Now I am not in the habit of trying to find something noble and redemptive out of every little glitch in our lives, but I have been wondering if there is not some metaphor in this box of broken ornaments . . . something salvific and suitable for the season we have entered. What I mean to say is that part of the deep yearning that is part and parcel of this season is that somehow, some way, it is our lives that will be fixed. Most of us have lived long enough to know plenty about how lives can get twisted and broken. We suffer, and if we somehow manage in this block of time to be free of aches and agony, we probably get a close-up view in the lives of those we love: parents, children, friends. Grief and loss and anxiety and a loss of innocence – all of that is what makes something burn within. All of that is what makes us look to some stable with a hope that there is one who is forever coming who can forever fix what needs fixing in us, in the ones we love and in our world.
The language of Advent begins with scary words and images – the sun darkened, the ax lying at the root of the tree, and the threshing-floor cleared. But maybe, as much as anything, that is simply the language of repair – sandpaper, twisted wire and hot glue. So, we wait – for the day that is coming and for the repairs that are long overdue.
Thursday, December 19
Shepherds Luke 2:8-20 They were likely hired hands. If they were part of the family that owned the enterprise, they were probably old men whose lack of strength meant they were more useful moving sheep from pasture to pasture than working the fields. Sometimes, they were young kids, given the job for the same reason. (Remember that before David was named to be king, he was the youngest boy, relegated to keep his family’s sheep safe, mastering that slingshot against predators). But often, they were hired help – maybe single men without children who had not received an inheritance.
So there they were that night, sort of living on the fringes of society . . . the ones who could be spared from other tasks . . . the ones who likely would not profit when the sheep were sheered or slaughtered . . . the ones who had little to which to look forward. Then their invitation came: tonight, a child has been born. A Savior. Go to Bethlehem and see for yourselves. Which is to say that some of them, maybe for the first time in their lives, were part of a story.
The God’s truth is that the world is filled with people who do not feel like they are part of the story. We are surrounded by folks who feel too old or too young . . . who are relegated to keep a watch over what is deemed less important . . . who feel rather expendable. And God forbid that those of us leading such rich and blessed lives would twist it all so that we make it about us at the expense of the lost and lonely. But even with that warning, I will say that there is something, somewhere deep inside us that has fought that battle. It is whatever causes us to wonder whether we matter. There is a universal longing, I think, to leave the wilderness and to find our way home. So, the shepherds went. Into Bethlehem. To see for themselves.
I really can’t tell you what it is that they found when they made their way to the stable and gazed upon the baby. But I think they discovered one of their own. Another shepherd. One who would say some years later that he had nowhere to lay his head . . . who would say that his family was whoever heard and did the will of God. I think they found a shared soul – one who had been born with the heart of a shepherd. What we are told is that, whatever they saw and heard, when they left that stable, they went away praising and thanking God.
Friday, December 20
Homage Matthew 2:11 My family has a collection of stories which are loosely filed under the heading, “Dad is a Dweeb.” One winter Saturday morning, Linda locked me out of the house while I was scraping snow off the car and I had to walk two miles in a bathrobe to catch her at Kristen’s gymnastics lesson before they took off for several hours. What kind of person walks two miles in the snow in a bathrobe? The kind who gets locked out of the house by his wife. Yet the story is not filed under the topic “Mom is Clueless.” I blame Linda for leading the children in the direction. She mocks me. She is a mocker.
I share this because another story that is part of this extensive file rears its head each year during public Advent/Christmas worship experiences, and it has to do with the pronunciation of the word Homage. Being from Texas, I have been blessed with a tongue that pronounces a soft, yea silent “H.” As in the Uston Astros. As you will note, at the high and holy moment on Christmas Eve I proclaim that the Magi bowed down and paid omage to the baby Jesus. You’ve been wondering who is laughing aloud at that somber point in the reading of the birth story? Now you know.
Part of the issue falls on my long preference for using the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible for public reading. Most other versions including the original RSV, the King James – Old and New – and Eugene Peterson’s Message use some variant of worshipped. I could opt for the new and excellent New Common Bible translation except it says the magi honored the baby. Another “H.” Do I say they honored or onored Jesus? The mockers have me so twisted up, I don’t know the English or the Texican language anymore.
This much I know. The magi traversed well over a thousand miles presumably from Persia to see the child. It is possible though not likely that part of the journey was over snow. Yes, bathrobes may have been involved (depending upon whether any of the magi were married). All of that is to say that they undertook a journey to see Jesus that I suspect would stand up well against journey we have taken to see him. And when they arrived and when they could see the one for whom they had searched so long and so hard, they gave themselves up to him. Call it what you will. Pronounce it any way you wish. I hope you find you way to the child in these days, or more precisely that you allow the child to make his way to you. When we see him, may we give ourselves to him.
Saturday, December 21
Solstice John 1:1-5 Today is the shortest day of the year. With a few qualifications. As in the northern hemisphere. As shortest day meaning the briefest span of daylight. Here in Wilson, sunrise was at 7:17:53 am and sunset will be at 5:02:43 pm. That will make for a day with 9 hours, 44 minutes and 19 seconds of sunlight, a second less than yesterday and two seconds less than tomorrow. (Break out the stopwatch it if you doubt me.) If we were to look at the numbers in Bethlehem, we would find that the winter solstice is not today but tomorrow (a whole latitude/earth tilting issue) when the sun will rise at 6:08am and set at 4:39pm with the result that the sun will be able to be seen for 10 hours, 31 minutes.
Interesting, you say – or maybe you do not say. Perhaps you are asking what this has to offer my Advent devotional life. I think the point we are chasing is that if today marks the low in the time that the sun will shine this year on Wilson, North Carolina, then that means that every day from now on will have more light than the day before. Again, with a few qualifications – until the Summer Solstice which will fall in June when the span of sunlight will max out and begin to shrink. But from this day on for a serious amount of time, every day will bring more light than the day before. As I said, two more seconds of light tomorrow, then six the day after that, and nine seconds more the next day. A week from now, we will have one and one-half more minutes of light. A month from now, we will have 25 more minutes of light during the day. It will take us until March 16th to get us as much light as darkness – actually ten seconds more light than dark. Now people, what do I have to do to get you thinking of this theologically? Sure, it is nothing more than a happy coincidence that the Winter Solstice and Christmas fall only four days apart, but what is the difference. This is a time when we proclaim that the light has come into the world . . . that the darkness has not overcome it. And every day, we get to see that theological truth on exhibition scientifically. Day by day by day, the sun will come up earlier and will go down later.
Sunday, December 22
John 3:16 Love is How God Claims Us Today we light the last of the Advent Candles – the Candle of Love. It has been said by those who study the birth narratives that there is nothing in the rest of the Gospels that is not included in the stories of Jesus’ conception and birth. Of course, we tend to gloss over the unpleasantries in the stories. Oh, the Baptizer rails about the grain on the threshing floor but we quickly get past all that; Herod is there, but we rarely let him play a leading part. So, sometimes I think we see the birth in a limited kind of way. Our traditions of decorating our homes, eating holiday treats, and singing carols keeps us from delving too deeply into the pain of God’s incarnation.
Let me try to get at it by telling a story I have rarely told . . . rarely told, I suppose, because it is personal and painful and even now it seems a little disloyal to tell it. I was 16 and on a summer trip with my grandparents. We were gassing the car in a service station in Memphis, Tennessee when a car passed down the street with its radio blaring. My grandfather let fly with a nasty racial slur. I could not have been more stunned if he had hit me with a two-by-four. This kind, gentle man whom I loved and who loved me revealed a side of himself that I never could have guessed existed. For years I kept it to myself – it was, after all, not the kind of story you tell your mother, his daughter. So, I suppose you could say that I pondered it in my heart as is says elsewhere in the nativity story.
A half-century later, I remain horrified by what I saw and heard, but not because of what you might suppose. Without making any attempt to excuse this man I loved, I have long sense come to understand him as a product of a time and place. But what really horrifies me is the awakening that came out of the experience. That moment at a Memphis gas pump was the moment in my life that I could never again believe that the darkness wasn’t in me . . . that I was not capable of the that which is wretched and sinful.
God so loved the world that he gave his only son. Since I was sixteen years old, I have known that could not mean that God loved all of us because we are wonderful and even when we aren’t, we mean well. No, sometimes when we are really truthful with ourselves, we are horrified at the things of which we and our people are capable. The Gospel writer got that part right too: the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light.
I get it. I loved that man; he’s been gone forty years and I love him still. But I do not love him because he was good or saintly. Oh, I could tell you so many stories about him as a wonderful grandfather. But there was the darkness in him that is in me as well . . . and you also, I suspect. No, I loved him because . . . well, because he was mine.
God so loved the world that he gave his only son. Because we deserved him. Hardly. No, because we were his.
Monday, December 23
Christ Hymn Philippians 2.4-11
Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was[a] in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of Death --even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
We think these verses constitute what some of the oldest words in the New Testament. We think St. Paul is quoting a hymn in his letter to the Philippians, and if this is correct – and not original with the Apostle – then these are indeed ancient words. And I say “hymn” rather than “carol” in keeping with the season, because the song culminates in describing the passion and resurrection story: “he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name . . .
But just so we are clear, we could call this a “carol” because the first part of the song is about incarnation: “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”
Now, sometimes in doing our theology, we speak out of both sides of our Bible in the same sentence. What I mean is that in the Genesis creation story we note that we have been created in the image of God, and we remember the Psalm that says we are but little less than the angels. But here, we are following a text that says a divine Christ took on human form, like a slave. Hey, that is us, the early church was talking about.
Anyway, I am not looking to dig down too deep into the varied views of Christology here, but there is a strong image being put out here of “emptying.” I have said and written often that the birth stories are not fundamentally different than the rest of the Gospels – everything we will run across in Jesus’ ministry and passion are in the birth stories. Whether it is John’s magnificent hymn on preexistence, Matthew’s tale of Herod’s persecution, or Luke’s description of a rough stable and lowly shepherds, we get in reflecting on his birth what will be proclaimed to us about his adult life. He emptied himself, and the emptying was his gift. His life-giving act was a deed of choice and a proof of love. It is just this need I have to remind us at this time of the year when it can get away from us amid all the lights and cookies and gift-giving and music, and . . . well, you know. Amid all the syrup and sentimentality. The baby is with us because he emptied himself. God did not have to do this. God just did it. Emptied. And whatever else is swirling around us, that is what these days are all about.
Tuesday, December 24 | Christmas Eve
Pageants Galatians 4:4-7
The hard thing about writing something like this modest little devotional is that the reader may have information which is not available to the author. For example, you may know that Canada invaded the United States on December 11th, but as I write this mid-November afternoon, I haven’t a clue about turmoil on our northern border. Or, you may be aware that some shepherd with two dozen sheep has been squatting on the front lawn of the church since Dec 21st, but this is several weeks before he arrived, so I don’t know that.
All of that is to say that while I have no idea whether it will come to pass, our plan, as of the moment of this writing, is to reinstitute our children’s pageant for the early Christmas Eve service. For several years, we have moved in other directions, but there is some urging to get the children back into costumes and let them tell us the story of the birth. Takes me back. Picture it, if you can: a stage has been erected in the chancel of the sanctuary of Alamo Heights Christian Church in San Antonio on which a tall, gangly, nearsighted angel named Gabriel inches forward. Yes, I know that Gabe should stride forward powerfully and majestically, but as I told you, he is nearsighted, and the director of the pageant does not think angels should be sporting spectacles. This being a time before Lasik, the angel was moving gingerly in the glare of the spotlights so as to not fall off the stage. Another year, I played the part of Joseph and reprised that role far too many times. All through my childhood, I got the best parts because, apparently, important biblical persons were all tall (with Zacchaeus the only exception.)
These Christmas thespian experiences came to shape the way I have come to see that first Christmas. Most pageant directors, bless their hearts, get it all wrong. They want Mary and Joseph to have all of their lines down pat, and they want all of the angels and shepherds to know where to stand and to be still so parents can get pictures that aren’t blurry. But I say, let the children be. Let them squirm. Let them wander closer to the creche. Let them improvise the script. And for God’s sake, let them wear their glasses.
Because, no matter how tightly Matthew and Luke tell the story, I cannot believe that the first run came off all that smoothly. It is, after all, a story about a very young woman and a man who has to be confused and some shepherds who are hardly housebroken. The story smacks of what is tentative and confusing and uncertain. The truth is, few of us are asked to live our faith out of sure and certain situations. We struggle to hear and respond to God’s call in the midst of lives that are frightening and confusing. Much of our lives, I think, we feel like we are blinded by the lights and one step from falling off the stage. So, as you read these words, you may know what I do not – whether our pageant has actually come to fruition, and if so, who is directing. I just hope it is someone who believes in method acting.
Wednesday, December 25
And the Waiting Ends Luke 2:25-32
I have apologized to my children . . . not at the moment, but later, in their adulthood . . . for having parents who were ministers.
What you may not understand is how horribly PKs (Preacher’s Kids) are ignored during Advent and Holy Week. But Advent lasts most of a month. Other families have wrapped gifts under the tree, and the kitchen is overflowing with the aroma of Christmas cookies, and much cocoa is being consumed. But my children were not only PKs, they were double PKs – cursed with not one but two clergy-parents. Again, I have apologized to my children for having parents who were ministers.
You see, we never started wrapping gifts until after the 11pm Christmas Eve service, and by that time of the season, we were in a stupor. Zombies, to tell the truth. And in our exhaustion, we quickly turned on one another. Why did you buy her that?, I would protest. Do you know how long that is going to take to put together? She would answer steely: You were with me when WE bought it – it is all she asked for! And so it went until around 4am when we crawled in bed.
Come 6am and the pitter-patter of little feet. Mom! Dad! It’s Christmas! Ryan, if my pants aren’t on fire, you better not be in my room!
From there, Linda and I crawled out of bed, told the kids to wait on the stairs for just a minute while we checked on things. Of course, we were putting out any gifts that could not be exposed the night before (the house dog liked edible treats) but mostly the delay was so Linda could put the sausage strata in the oven and I could get coffee. Anyway, the kids would tell you that the minute became an hour and a half, but truthfully, it was however long it took for a drip coffee maker to produce emergency medication. So, every Christmas morning, the poor PKs in our family were left waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting.
Which brings us to old Simeon who has been waiting forever. Actually, the text does not say he was old, nor does it explicitly say that his wait had been long, but I rather think both statements are implied. So, in my imagination, he is old and has been waiting an interminable amount of time. Every morning, he gets up and goes to the Temple to look at every single person who is passing by. Could it be him? Could that be the one? And every night, he would go back home, eat a peanut butter sandwich and go to bed, only to do it all over again the next day. What is God doing all this time? I don’t know. Maybe drinking coffee?
We have been waiting . . . waiting for three and one-half weeks . . . waiting and waiting . . . but really, we have been waiting our whole lives. Waiting for salvation. Waiting for holiness. Waiting. This day, I say to you: Wait no more! Today, we may live in peace, according to God’s word. For today, our eyes have seen salvation, prepared in the presence of all people. Today, a light shines upon us . . . a glorious light. Thanks be to God. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. And Amen.
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