So let me just unload some of my baggage as we dwell in the Christmas season. There’s this ad on TV that I really dislike. Like, really. It was on last year and they unfortunately brought it back for a second run at the end of 2020. It’s the GMC commercial where a woman shows her husband early Christmas gifts she’s bought for the two of them. They appear to be fit-bits or some sort of technology through which they can track their workouts as a super-trim and with-it young couple. He says he “loves it” but then quickly announces that he, too, has purchased matching gifts for the two of them.(I didn’t realize that I was to buy gifts for myself at Christmas!) You’ve seen it, I’m sure. They run out the doors of their grand home and she sees, SURPRISE, two brand new cars! She doesn’t seem stunned by this extravagance but quickly puts dibs on the truck her husband thought would be his. Poor guy. He has to…settle…for the small SUV. The details flash up on the screen about how you can have one of these cars in time for Christmas. The GMC Terrain sells for a base price of $26,095 and the Acadia SLE 1 starts at $37,995. Her fit-bits look paltry at this point compared with his outlay of at least $64,090.
Really? After the year we have had, GMC brings back this ad that was offensive last year? Who is their targeted audience? Who, in their wildest dreams, could ever make a Christmas reveal like that happen? And, if any of us had $64,000 to spend on gifts, would it be on two brand new cars whimsically purchased? Feeding America estimates that there are 54 million people who are food insecure this year, including 18 million who are children. Approximately one in three businesses closed their doors this year and, with the extended mandate against indoor eating, countless restaurants have acknowledged that they may be done for good as well. These are not meant to be Debbie-Downer stats. This has been a tough year and 2021 will be a struggle as well. And we’re supposed to smile at an ad that is an affront to everything that Christmas celebrates?
A couple of weeks ago the Cedar Springs firehouse got a call for emergency help. A woman was in labor and the volunteer force was asked to be of help to her as they awaited the paramedics. When they arrived at the home in Cedar Springs Mobile Estates they couldn’t get in. The young woman was in such labor pains that she couldn’t get up to open the door. So the volunteer fire fighters kicked her door in. When they saw this woman on her bed on the brink of delivery, they sent in the one female team member. It’s like when your brother pushes you into something, saying “You do it.” Within minutes Norma had helped deliver a little girl who came out crying! She announced to her mother and the world, “Ready or not, here I come!” While the mother and her husband had certainly made preparations for this baby, it turns out they weren’t quite ready at the crucial hour.
When the paramedics arrived, they had to ask the new mother some questions and get her settled into the ambulance in which she and the baby would travel to the hospital. She asked Norma if she would hold this 7-pound little girl while the paramedics performed their duties. Tiny Aubrey and Fire Fighter Norma got to know each other in the peace of that mobile home after a frightening arrival into our world. This call was so unlike most of the emergency requests to which she and her teammates have responded. 2020 dished up untold suffering in this mobile home park due to increased unemployment, hunger, overdoses and COVID diagnoses. Holding baby Aubrey was a Christmas gift for Norma near the end of a year from which she will long suffer PTSD.
Sometimes we think we are ready for God’s gifts. But then they surprise us with their beauty and we realize there was no way we could be ready for God’s glory! We go to church. We worship on-line. We do our devotions and read scripture. We pray and reach out to others in Christian hospitality. In these ways we make ourselves ready for God’s inbreaking movement into our world. But we are never ready to meet God! The scripture passages we have read in the past few weeks reveal feelings of shock, fear, awe and unworthiness. We are both ready…and not ready to meet the Messiah!
It’s amazing that we can look in on a birth story from 2000 years ago thanks to two writers named Matthew and Luke. Mary’s world is invaded when the angel, Gabriel, shows up and tells her the “good” news that God has chosen her to be the Theotokos—“God-Bearer”—of the long-awaited Messiah. Her feelings range from fear to humility to amazement to praise. But imagine what it felt like, after singing her song of joy, when she realized she had to break the news to her fiance. What man, in his right mind, would believe the kind of story she had to tell?? We know that Joseph didn’t believe her at first because Matthew reveals in his gospel that Joseph had decided to quietly divorce her. Both Mary and Joseph were heartbroken. Mary was disbelieved by her fiance and he was sure she had been unfaithful to him. That’s when God crash lands onto our earth again in the form of a dream for Joseph. When he awakens he believes what he was told in the confusion of interrupted sleep. He gets up and goes to her. Was it still dark? What did her parents think of this urgent visit? But imagine when he tells her about his experience and assures her that he believes her, apologizes to her, promises her that they will get married right away? It’s only now that Joseph notices the radiance of Mary that is matched only by his own glow. As they join hands and look at each other, having run out of words, their hearts make a commitment of marriage. They will face the mysteries of life together with joy. They will confront the rumors in their community together, knowing that God is at work even if others don’t believe them. They will ready themselves for the birth of this child for whom they will ultimately not be ready!
The story covers details like a census being taken. Just as census workers wearing masks walked door to door during the peak of a COVID spread, Mary and Joseph had to be accounted for in this vast Roman Empire. Well advanced in her unlikely pregnancy, Mary trekked about 90 miles to arrive in Bethlehem. When they arrived they could find no place to stay. Others must have traveled in for the census as well and there were very few inns available in those days. People stayed with folks they knew and that kind of hospitality is what enabled the rare journeys in the first century. Jesus was born in a barn or cave with animals present. It was humbling. It was inconvenient and unconventional. But God’s timing prevails.
I remember arriving by train in Florence, Italy one evening. I had purchased a Eurail Pass which allowed me to jump on any train for a three month period. I took full advantage of it! My travel companion and I were excited to see what Florence had to offer us. It was a rainy night and we just started walking. We stumbled upon the stunning Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower that was begun in 1296 and took nearly 160 years to complete. The rain made it appear as a Monet painting with a definite impressionistic flair. This was the high point of that evening. We had been looking for places to stay along our tourism circuit but they were booked up. This was long before there was any easy means of communication to make reservations ahead of time. We counted on something being available—but it wasn’t. Finally we headed back to the train station at about 11PM, found an empty train, and settled in for the night. That worked until a station employee found us and kicked us out. It was now about 1AM and we were tired. After wandering wearily around the station we saw what appeared to be a janitor’s closet. There were mechanical devices in it along with a gangly mop and bucket of rank water. But there was just enough room for two of us to lie down behind the relative security of a closed door. We slept—sort of. When the station began to awaken in the morning, we skedaddled out of there before we could be ejected, arrested or whatever. We made sure to find lodging ASAP for the next night so that we could recover from our sleepover in the janitor’s closet. We thought we were ready for our trip but we were not!
In some ways we are all the Theotokos—the God bearer for the world. We are all pregnant with the possibility of what God can do in and through us in the most inhospitable of settings. There were shepherds who are described as living in the fields alongside their flock. They had settled down for the night with the sounds of animals around them and God busted into their slumber. The Jews of that time had a strong expectation of the arrival of a Messiah. These shepherds were Jews who had grown up preparing their hearts for the Messiah, yearning for His salvation. The angel tells these terrified, bleary-eyed men, “…to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” They spent their lives readying themselves for the Messiah but they were not ready!
We practice the disciplines of the faith because they keep us focused on meeting Jesus. We worship even when we feel like our prayers go unanswered. We read scripture regularly even when it doesn’t speak to us. These disciplines—like the ones we engage in for the strengthening of our bodies—ready us for those rare moments when God shows up in glory. When that happens something new is birthed within us. We carry memories of those divine encounters with us for a lifetime. They offer us peace.
John tells the story so differently. He says that “the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” Jesus, the light of the world was entrusted to a young couple who had to work through hard moments before being able to stand together, hand-in-hand, ready to walk into the mysteries of God’s love. The Message translation of verse 14 states: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”
God moves into our neighborhoods where there is poverty, despair, emptiness, grief, illness, and shame. Perhaps we think we are not worthy of receiving Christ and that we can never be ready. Years ago we did a Lenten study that included making pots that could hold votive candles. After everyone fashioned their pot, we asked them to make holes in it. This was very difficult for many. Why would we intentionally deform our pots with holes? As we moved toward Good Friday we were asked to remember that we are broken. We are not so much holy as full of holes. We are imperfect. We are unworthy before God. We drive cars that are 20 years old and hold babies for whom we are not ready. Yet God moves into our neighborhoods, working in and through us. What we discovered with our pottery creations is that God’s love shines all the more brightly through us when there are openings, flaws, or wounds. I’ve always loved this little basket that someone made during that study. I keep prayer cards in it. But on Christmas Eve I used it to be reminded that Jesus, the Light of the World, came into the neighborhoods of our world to mend the broken places that need healing. Ready or not, He comes. He heals. He loves. Thanks be to God!