In the Name...
A Sunday School teacher told her class the Christmas story and at the end she asked them, "So, who was the first person to find out about the birth of Jesus?" Several children answered - the shepherds, the innkeeper, the Wise Men, etc. Then, one little girl put up her hand and said, "Mary."
Oh, of course, nine months before Christmas. Obvious, right? But, often we miss the obvious because we expect things to be more complicated than they are. We have this tendency to associate God with the special effects, such as the host of angels or the guiding star, so much so that we fail to notice God in the not so special things of life. The little girl's answer reminds us to take a second look at the things that we take so much for granted and see God's hand in them.
Our Gospel today begins with a seemingly casual and obvious statement: "Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” Nothing very exciting there. But, for the average Jew of Jesus' time this statement would have been a shocker. Why? Because popular belief in those days did not really expect the Messiah to be human. That's true. That's why, when the Wise Men came to Jerusalem looking for Jesus, not one of the scribes and scholars went with them to Bethlehem. Have you ever wondered about that? Why they stayed behind? Well, it's because they thought the Wise Men were stupid men, off on a wild goose chase.
Sure, they knew the prophecy that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem, but, they didn't take it literally. They took it to mean that he would be a great king, like David who had come from Bethlehem. The view of the man in the Jerusalem street was that the Messiah was going to be some sort of avenging angel who would drop from the skies and his landing pad, if you will, was to be none other than the Temple courtyard. That's why Satan tempted Jesus by proposing that he jump down from the pinnacle of the temple. That's how people expected the Messiah to arrive.
So, it's no wonder that the Jews found it hard to reconcile their non-Biblical pop-culture ideas with the reality of this man Jesus, whom they knew to be born and raised in their midst. "We know where this man is from", they once said, "But, when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from." - John 7:27 and that's what that verse means. People were confused. And, as we saw, last week, even John the Baptist was surprised because Jesus wasn't meeting his expectations.
But, the coming of the long awaited Messiah, the light of the world, the king of the Jews, and the desire of the nations through the nine-months pregnancy of a young woman and thirty years of infancy, adolescence and adulthood, reminds us that God shows up in the normal, daily circumstances of life.
Like the Jews of old we also wait for the coming of the Lord among us. Oh, maybe not the great event of the Second Coming and Apocalypse, but, just God in our joys and sorrows, in our triumphs and tragedies, when we need his support, or encouragement, or healing touch. Maybe we should take a moment and ask ourselves, what are we expecting?
How is God going to show up when we think we need him? We need to ask this because sometimes the problem isn't that God is not with us, the problem rather is that we don't recognize Him when He is. We're often like Jacob who woke from his dreams in Bethel and exclaimed, "So the Lord is in this place - and I did not know it!"
God is all-powerful, but also so subtle we can miss Him if we're not looking. The prophets all spoke of His arrival on earth in terms of thunder and destruction. The mountains would melt like wax; the hills would skip like rams. But, when He did arrive, it was in the still of a silent night, and the only sound was a child's cry.
We talk and sing about Christmas, the Incarnation, as being a bridge-event between heaven and earth, between the divine and the human worlds, the sacred and the profane. And what that means is that we should always try to realize that can He work His greatest miracles with the simplest tools - and those can include us.
There was once a small church of about a dozen members in a drought-stricken area of the country. One day, the pastor organized the members into a prayer vigil for rain. Soon, dark clouds began to gather, a storm blew up, and after four days of constant downpour, the area was so deluged that the National Guard was called in and people had to be evacuated from the floods. "Not bad", the pastor said, "for a church our size."
But, seriously, a ministry colleague once told me that he followed three precepts to remind himself of how God can drop in when we least expect. First, he said, he believes that God uses everything in creation to mould and shape us. And that's quite a concept. That everything - not just the people we know, but, the things we own, or choose not to own, the things we see, the places we go - everything is a tool in the hands of God. Second, that whatever we experience can bring us closer to God. Whatever we experience, be it wonderful or horrible, a great achievement or a great disaster, can, if we treat it with the right attitude, bring us closer to God. And third, that openness to the moment is what unites us to God in Christ. Openness - being ready to respond when He has something to say.
God uses everything in creation to mould and shape us. Whatever we experience can bring us closer to God. And openness to the moment is what unites us to God in Christ.
Joseph and Mary were very simple ordinary people who had been shaped and moulded by everything around them and had been brought closer to God by the ways they had responded to the experiences of their lives. We don't know any of the details, but we know the results. We know that when each received visitations by angels, both were open enough to respond to the moment with a definite "Yes", and by that "Yes" unite not only themselves, but all of us, with God in Christ.
May each of us also try to be so sensitive, so aware, that we may be open to the moment when God sends someone to us, or sends us to someone, with the message, "Immanuel" - God is with you. That, after all, is what it's all about.
In the Name...