Ready/Not Ready

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!


Blessed Anawim

This is the first year in decades that my heart won’t be prepared for Christmas through the blessed pageantry of our children. Each year the costumes are pulled out of brown grocery sacks, each character in the nativity drama bagged up separately. Parts are doled out based on gender, age and capability. If you want a speaking part, you probably want to be a shepherd. If you like to make animal noises, you have your pick between a few sanguine species who looked in on the newborn King with appropriate awe—and soft mooing! If you want an important part, you process in as one of the crowned kings with your treasure in hand. But the pinnacle of importance were the parts of Mary and Joseph. Mary usually wears a light blue tunic and white head covering. Joseph—well, like the father of the groom, all we know is he’s in a suit like all the other men and looks respectable. Mary and Joseph have no words. Their sole stage cues are to look reverently at the baby (doll) Jesus. It’s not always easy to find a six-year old who can look reverent for the length of a pageant!

In the Bible Joseph really doesn’t have any speaking parts. Not a word! But Mary is a different story. We do her an injustice by silencing her and limiting her movement to a kneeling position. In our scripture passages today we meet a remarkable young woman. She speaks, she questions, she ponders, she submits, she praises the God who is behind a whole new makeover of her life! Maybe for a few moments right after she gave birth, she sat serenely, looking down at her newborn son as do all new parents. But the casting for a Mary character needs to take a lot more attributes into consideration besides serenity!

Different words in this chapter of Luke’s Gospel introduce us more fully to the one God chose to bear the Messiah. One of those words is “anawim.” (You probably saw the blog title and assumed I had made an embarrassing typo!) Anawim is a Hebrew word for the poor, the marginalized, the vulnerable and powerless. They are the ones who have little and must, therefore, depend completely on God for their needs to be met. The Hebrew translates to those who are bowed down.

After being told that she will bear the Son of God through a mysterious movement of the Holy Spirit, Mary reveals her self-identity: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The Hebrew word is doulos which means servant or caregiver. In another translation she demures by saying that she is the “handmaid” of the Lord. She is the housekeeper of God and will offer her womb as home to a life that, by an unprecedented miracle, was growing inside her. Joseph was a handyman and Mary, a housekeeper. Anawim. One young couple in the vast Roman Empire who were bowed down under the weight of paying their taxes and staying off the radar of the latest dictator.

Keeping their heads down and their noses clean was the goal. Go about your business quietly in the Roman Empire because you don’t want to attract any attention. So it’s no surprise that Mary is surprised at God’s notice of her. The angel appears and greets her as “Favored one.” Who, me?! As she ponders, she shakes. Or the blood drains from her face. So the Angel offers the words to her that are heard 365 times in the Bible: Do not be afraid. When angels drop in on our mundane lives, it’s scary. There’s a word used in the birth narratives to describe the emotion of old Zechariah in the Temple and the Shepherds, abiding in the fields, watching their flocks by night: terrified.

Mary is able to pull away from her fear and ask questions. She asks about biology, parental responsibility, and faith. It’s encouraging to me to know that we are allowed to ask questions of God when we find ourselves at a crossroads. The angel doesn’t scold Mary for doubting his words. Young Mary models for us what it is to honestly probe the deep questions of our lives in the presence of someone who allows us to speak. There are countless times when we are given the privilege of encouraging someone to speak vulnerably of their struggles and to listen them into a place of understanding. Mary Lou Redding states, “Voicing our questions in the presence of someone who allows us to speak honestly can move us toward being able to say yes to God.” When has someone sat with you, like the Angel Gabriel did with Mary, and listened until you knew you could—had to—follow God’s leading? When we say “yes” to God, have you witnessed how that makes us much better spouses, parents, community members, employees, church members?

I am startled by Mary’s ability to move from logical questions to acquiescence to God’s will. I don’t watch SNL religiously but my family members have adopted the totally chill response of Chad, acted humorously by Pete Davidson. In one skit JLo asks to dance with him and he is agreeable but totally unimpressed. His character has found its way into Wikipedia where he is described as “an apathetic teenager with limited conversational skills.” Duh. So his usual response to preposterous requests is a simple shrug and a one word answer: ok. It’s said with total disinterest in the world around him sauf the video games calling to him from his parents’ basement. So I confess that this image comes to my mind when Mary, at the end of an intense conversation with Gabriel, shrugs and says, “ok.”

But, once again, I’ve cast Mary wrong. God didn’t choose a doormat who would take anything that’s thrown her way. God chose a young woman mature beyond her years, a girl who had been raised in the faith so that she would recognize when God was at work in her life. We witness how deep her “yes” is by the song she sings after Gabriel leaves her to her own thoughts. Mary praises God.

When God shows up we praise, rejoice, magnify, worship God!

Have you ever magnified God? What were your feelings? What did God do that prompted your praise?

Mary models for us that we can live a profound life of faith when we are less than sure. When her rational capacity can’t make sense of God’s new mission, she asks her questions and ultimately agrees to live with mystery. What mysteries can you live with? Each time you pick up your cordless cell phone and immediately make contact with someone on the other side of the earth, are you obsessed with knowing how that works? Not me! I’m willing to live with that mystery! Were you the one who found where your parents hid the Christmas presents each year so that you could peek ahead of time? Or did you want to be surprised on Christmas morning? What mysteries can you live with? Does it help you to know that asking questions of God is allowed?

In her song, which we call “the Magnificat”, Mary rejoices because God has ushered in a new realm which has flipped the power structures upside down. God enables Mary to discern how a Divine initiative has been at work all along, knocking the high and mighty off their thrones and lifting up those who are bowed down. She sings about God’s obvious favor for the anawim. They are the ones who have been humbled by lifelong messages of unworthiness. They expect no favors because their life is marked by struggle or discrimination. They have learned to rely on God because they discovered repeatedly that they could not count on the people around them for help. So they notice when God shows up. Their joy doesn’t stem from riches or ease of circumstance. They praise God with tears running down their faces because they felt noticed—in a dream, a vision, a word, a visitation. And the wealthy man whose daily needs are more than met looks in on his grateful housekeeper who is singing hymns as she vacuums up his dirt. “She has no right to be this happy,” he snorts as he heads to the bank to deposit his sizable earnings. Could it be that she is the one who is more greatly blessed? Can he not feel the tsunami of change that God is effecting through the obedient and attentive anawim?

Great reversals happen in hidden ways among us. COVID has revealed the power structures clearly. People of color have contracted and died from the virus in disproportionate numbers to whites. Their income level is generally lower which means less opportunity for education which can lead to inferior jobs. So they have more limited access to healthcare. They may not be able to pay for all the meds that would keep them healthy so they hit up against the virus with more underlying conditions. The anawim of our society have many times been deemed essential workers. Maids and hospital cleaning staff report to duty to be able to buy food for their children. The anawim are the wait staff who put themselves at risk by bringing food out to us because we’re tired of cooking another meal at home. One Hispanic community leader argued that the essential workers should be at the top of the list of those receiving the new vaccine. She advocated for her Hispanic brothers and sisters who have suffered greatly in the past months from COVID while serving those of greater means. Do we hear her cry for protection for those who make our lives more comfortable? Those who pick our fruit so that our prices can be lower? Who work hard at the jobs we would never accept? Or will they be overlooked yet again? A true reversal of order in our human systems requires change. It calls us to make lifestyle decisions. It moves us to sacrifice from our well-being so that the least of these, the doulos, the anawim, are valued. In the marches, the protests, the impromptu celebrations of our healthcare workers, we see that God is at work and reversals are happening in hidden ways among us.

We will inevitably gather in different ways this year, holding onto memories of Christmas past. We will worship on Christmas Eve—from our homes. We can–and do–complain about the lost traditions. We grieve the temporary suspension of singing and hugging and sitting with each other in deep conversation. We can continue to fight the changes forced upon us this year by COVID. Or we can look for the ways that God is using us—even now—to throw our social order on its head in hidden ways. What we find in this disruption surprises us: hope, peace, joy and love.

Lynn Ungar gave voice to the possibilities of the pandemic as the quarantine began in March. She titles her poem, simply,


What if you thought of it

as the Jews consider the Sabbath –

the most sacred of times?

Cease from travel.

Cease from buying and selling.

Give up, just for now,

on trying to make the world

different than it is.

Sing. Pray. Touch only those

to whom you commit your life.

Center down.

And when your body has become still,

reach out with your heart.

Know that we are connected

in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.

(You could hardly deny it now.)

Know that our lives

are in one another’s hands.

Reach out your heart.

Reach out your words.

Reach out all the tendrils

of compassion that move, invisibly,

where we cannot touch.

Promise this world your love –

for better or for worse,

in sickness and in health,

so long as we all shall live.

(Lynn Ungar  3/11/2020)




When our first child was about two and a half years old we thought it would be fun to take her to a Disney movie in the theater. We jumped on the idea quickly and had just enough time for her to finish her lunch of nutritious SpaghettiOs, grab a sippy-cup of milk and head out. We excitedly purchased our tickets, bought an obligatory bucket of popcorn with so-called butter on it, and headed to seats in the back row. It was fun. She was mildly interested in what was on the screen. She dug into the bucket of popcorn happily with greasy little fingers until….it wasn’t so fun. She fussed a little bit. (We quickly became those parents!) Garrett headed out to settle her down while I continued to watch the movie. They were gone for longer than I expected. Suddenly he showed up in our row, holding a limp little girl. Even in the dark theater I could see that his white button-down oxford was no longer white. He motioned with his head for us to leave, the kind of message that leaves no doubt about the needed course of action. When we got out into the lobby I could see that he was covered with a pale orange substance all over his work shirt. The rushed lunch of SpaghettiOs (which is questionable as a food group anyway!), milk and popcorn had been too much for a toddler’s tummy. In the safety of her daddy’s arms she had let loose her wretched stomach. We drove home after a failed but memorable first movie outing as mommy and daddy.

There are moments that mark us as parents and we realize that we’re in deep with this tiny little bundle that has turned our lives—and hearts—upside down!

I remember visiting a parishioner years ago in my first church. He and his wife were moving from a large home to a condo. They would be leaving the area so I stopped by to wish them well. Just the husband was home. They had a daughter in her early 20’s who had the mental capacity of a three-year-old. She was mobile and able to follow simple instructions but required continual guidance. This relocation was significant because the daughter would be moving into a group home for the first time as her 60-year old parents moved into their new life. They had known for quite some time that they needed to set her up in a long-term living situation because they wouldn’t always be there to care for her. So this became the topic of conversation between us.

I asked him how he was doing with the move. He immediately spoke of his heartache over putting their daughter in a new home. He said he would miss the rhythm she gave to each morning. He got up at 5:30 to shower and enjoy a cup of coffee. Then he awakened her at 6:30, turned on the water for her and she was able to shower on her own. He helped her get dressed and used the blow dryer and hairbrush to ready her hair for the day. She sat down to a breakfast he had prepared and they chattered happily together before the bus arrived to take her to her adult daycare program. In the evenings she played contentedly in the home and her parents tucked her into bed each night with prayers. More than two decades of loving investment poured into this girl who would now become the responsibility of others. I was deeply moved by the love of this daddy who knew he was doing what was best for his child but was heartbroken as he let her go. Her diagnosis at birth of severe cerebral palsy had been very challenging. But now, when it was time for her to leave the nest, the tears flowed readily.

We have a beautiful story in Matthew’s first chapter that gives us an insight into the man entrusted with the care of Jesus, the Messiah, the Savior, the Son of God. Joseph, we are told, learned that his fiancée, Mary, was pregnant though they weren’t yet married. This was scandalous and an obvious affront to their relationship. So God connected with Joseph in a dream. The angel named the Holy Spirit as the other parent of this unborn child. Joseph was urged to proceed with the wedding plans since Mary’s pregnancy was God’s work, not anyone else’s. In the genealogy of the Messiah that precedes this passage there is one man after another who is named as “the father of” somebody, who becomes the father of the next generation. When it comes to Joseph something is amiss. Awkwardly it states, “and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah.” The unusual wording around Joseph reeks of scandal that we can be sure lingered over their family always.

Joseph was not a man of few words. In the gospels he was a man of NO words! He is described as being righteous. If your fiancée showed up pregnant in 1st century Israel, the righteous thing to do would be to divorce her. The more vindictive option was to have her stoned. So Joseph’s decision was the more compassionate. He did it quietly because he didn’t want to subject her to public disgrace. This was a man whose heart had broken by the apparent infidelity of his future bride. These are remarkable actions given that he lived in a patriarchal society that would punish to the fullest extent this affront to his manhood. Quietly, privately Joseph made plans to terminate their engagement.

So God got involved. Joseph wasn’t given a vision or a burning bush to assure him that he was really in a holy conversation. He was given a dream. I wonder what it would take for us to believe impossible news? Would we awaken from sleep and act on a message we received in a dream? Or would we write it off as nonsense that typifies our dream narratives? Joe got up and quietly did the unconventional thing: he married her. He made a commitment to become her husband—and a daddy. When the baby was born Joseph was given the power to name the child. Naming privileges go to a parent, right? As he held that tiny boy in his arms in the subdued light of a stable, he pronounced the name he could still hear from the dream nine months earlier: Jesus. God arrived in human form in the quiet of the night to a young couple who had the courage to believe in a dream.

When did God get your attention in such a way that you stepped outside of your usual boundaries to do what you were told? Grand Rapids Griffins announcer, Eric Zane, walked down the stairs in his home one day and said out loud the name of a classmate from high school. He hadn’t been in contact with the man or even thought of him for ages. But something nagged at him and led him to look the man up. He had a successful career in film and was living in Los Angeles. Eric went on Facebook and discovered, much to his surprise, that this former classmate had already sent him a friend request, which he accepted. After a volley of several messages, Eric learned that this man was in an advanced stage of kidney failure. The two connected by phone and, as he learned about his classmate’s condition, Eric distinctly heard a voice in his mind say, “do my will.” In that very moment he decided to donate a kidney to this long-lost companion. He told the incredulous friend of his intentions and they both started the testing procedure to see if he was a match. He was. And so last Wednesday, in the thick of the pandemic, this Hudsonville announcer boarded a plane, wearing as much personal protection equipment he could find, to be taken to an LA hospital to donate part of his body. Reacquainted after 30 years, these two men are now bonded as brothers because God planted a message in the heart of someone who listened and obeyed.

When did you or someone you know just get up and go because God got hold of you?

In his dream Joseph was given just enough information for the present moment. He didn’t ask for nor did he receive a contract that spelled out the complete range of responsibilities he would have with this boy. He obeyed God even though there’s stigma attached. They travelled to his hometown of Bethlehem to be registered for a census. Yet there was no family to welcome them or offer them lodging. That would have been common hospitality in that time. On this very first Christmas there was no joyous homecoming of Joe with his relatives. Had word of his sudden and suspicious marriage reached them? We don’t know if this marriage cost him his family ties. What we do know is that his “yes” to God meant that this unwed mother was now his wife and this baby boy made him a daddy, a daddy who got to choose his name.

Like so many other Biblical stories we learn from this that God is at work in our very imperfect lives. Aaron Klink writes, “That is the message part of this text brings—that unexpected things, things outside of convention can often be wonderful signs that God is at work.” When have you failed to live up to your image of a perfect Christmas? When did your plans fail—and God blessed you beyond your wildest dreams? In this Christmas of 2020, when so many cherished traditions must be put on hold, where are you seeing God at work in your life? Where is God using you for the good of others?

In Matthew’s Gospel the word “birth” in speaking of Jesus’ arrival, translates as Genesis. Perhaps that’s why Matthew’s Gospel is the one that separates the Old from the New Testament. In Jesus’ birth there is a Genesis, a new creation, that offers promise to a world that is covered in their own sin. Do we need a savior and, if so, from what? From aimlessness, narcissism, loneliness, sickness, prejudicial behavior and despair? Jesus arrives just in time for those finding refuge at Mel Trotter Mission, for those separated from their parents at border camps, for single parents who are hanging on by a prayer and folks who get in line for a couple of boxes of food the night before distribution. What are our moments of exile from which we need saving? Will we hear the words given us in the night? Will we follow the nudging? Or will we write it off as a bad night’s sleep?

The definition of righteous is one who is morally right, virtuous, or justified. Joseph may not have had any speaking parts but we are blessed to meet a man who was righteous before God. We are inspired by a single man who quietly did what was right even though it flew in the face of all that was acceptable. We are in awe of a guy who accepted the responsibility—the gift—of raising the Messiah, a boy that was not his own flesh and blood. And, because of a whisper in the night, he became his daddy. Abba. Papa. But really just daddy.


Adult Onset Gospel

The times were hard. Taxes were so high that little was left for necessities. Political oppression was so great that no one dared voice disagreement with the prevailing powers. Fear was the most common backdrop to daily life such that neighbors couldn’t trust neighbors. Lines were drawn between different races, nationalities, religions and ethnicities. Families fractured over the pressures of conforming to the standards of being a good citizen. Hope was in short supply. Life was good for the few at the top but a grind for everyone else.

This was the audience to whom Mark addressed his Gospel. It sounds familiar in so many ways, doesn’t it? The politicians in the first century Middle Eastern world, like most generations before and since, seldom acknowledged the gifts of their predecessors. They arrived on the scene with great fanfare and a proclamation that they, and they alone, would make the sun shine on their empire once again. They viewed humility as a weakness and the past as over and done with. The future of their shaping is all that mattered. So Mark, the writer of the earliest Gospel, published the story of One who would bring needed changes to their miserable world. His is an Adult Onset Gospel! There are no baby books for John the Baptist or Jesus, no images of cows mooing as a young woman gives birth. No shepherds stand awestruck before a newborn king. There are no stories from a meaningful Bar Mitzvah ceremony when a boy is welcomed to manhood. No senior pictures hang with pride. What we get in this Gospel is an adult message: Repent! Confess! Get rid of the victim mentality you have wrap around yourself tightly like a warm coat on a cold winter day. Stop saying, “Poor me!” and do some hard introspection! If you think babies are demanding, you have no idea what the demands of adult John and Jesus will ask of you!

Gospel translates to mean “good news.” Mark’s Gospel begins with a proclamation, as if ringing a gong that captured the attention of his weary people: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. These folks never heard good news, not unlike our own media experience, especially of late. So they would have perked up at this promise. But “good news” begins to sound like bad news pretty quickly with Mark’s message. He says that there’s deliverance ahead but first, folks need to take an honest look within. You may think you’re worthy of God’s rescuing, but are you? When you look back at your words to that family member just a few days ago, can you face God? When you reflect on that business deal you struck with someone who was trusting you for mercy, do you really want to come into God’s presence? Before we can go forward, we have to look back.

Mark announces that he has good news to share but starts off his speech with a quote from Isaiah more than 500 years earlier! John’s clothing and living habits were outdated. Folks didn’t wear sackcloth, eat bugs and grow their hair long. His image as a prophet would have harkened back to an earlier time when prophets shouted words of harsh judgment to their people. But John the Baptist’s audience simply wanted hope for their future. He didn’t fit into his own world as a messenger! Remember in the Back to the Future movies when Marty McFly and Doc traveled between time zones? Their most immediate concern was to dress appropriately for the era in which they found themselves. Otherwise they were immediately targeted as outsiders and treated as freaks. Imagine Rob Bell doing a podcast sermon wearing a powdered wig and knickers with buckled shoes. It would distract from his message! Everything about John’s appearance was off-putting and challenged his credibility. And yet, he drew people out to the wilderness where he set up his headquarters.

What we have in these two men, who jump onto the scene in Mark’s Gospel as grown-ups, is the most unlikely political campaign the world has ever known! John shows up first and identifies himself as the predecessor to an even greater man. A political strategist would warn him against such modesty! What leader has ever stated that they are simply a transitional figure for someone even greater? At his launch party he’s already pointing ahead to his own demise—which doesn’t do much for building momentum! And then when the guy for whom he has prepared the way shows up, He’s equally modest! He’s the long-awaited Savior but He tells people that the last shall be first and the first shall be last! This is not the way to start a movement. The disciples’ frequent angst and confusion over Jesus’ decisions gives us insight into how unconventional John and Jesus’ understanding of power was.

In this introduction to Mark’s story about Jesus, we are invited to confess our sins and look toward a mightier one yet to come. In essence, we are being urged to enter into personal therapy with a willingness to look honestly at ourselves rather than blame others for our problems. Who wants to sign up for that church program?! Can you remember a public campaign when someone urged folks to begin by admitting the error of their ways? Apart from religious leaders whose faith teaches humility? (And even they fail to model humility far too often!) Kennedy comes close in his celebrated challenge: Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country. The world doesn’t revolve around us and a nation will thrive only when its citizens shift the focus from personal gain to humble service.

This year, 2020, we’ve all been in therapy, one way or another. If, before COVID infiltrated our towns, we had the luxury of greeting each day without having to really worry about finances or good health, that privileged position is gone. COVID has cut across all distinguishing lines, indiscriminately threatening every age, class, nation, and race of people. Our ongoing therapy question has been, “What matters?” We have discovered what values failed us in this year-unlike-any-other? What virtues surfaced as critical lifelines for us as a virus threatened our every move? During this pandemic we have, in some ways, harkened back to an earlier time. Families are sitting around a table together for dinner. Instead of inhaling chicken tenders and fries we grabbed from a drive-through window, while zipping from soccer practice to piano lessons, we are talking together over good food! Remarkable! We planted gardens and ate what we grew. We adopted pets who have been some of the greatest beneficiaries of COVID 19! Shelters have literally emptied out! Folks have tuned into on-line worship services to be assured that God has control of things since we realize, all of a sudden, that we don’t. The confessional booth of the Catholic Church, which modern people deem to be antiquated, is exactly what John promoted. And crowds flocked to him! They left the comfort of home and walked long distances into the hot desert so that they could admit how they were responsible for their own problems. Whatever preoccupied their thoughts at the outset of their journey, John offered them a chance at a new life. But they had take out their personal garbage first.

When has your priority become confession and repentance? Maybe when you were trying to right the trajectory that your broken marriage was on. Perhaps a rift between you and an adult child took you to a place of self-examination and a confession of your own sin. Maybe it’s when your addiction took you to such a dark place that you finally committed to the challenging course of healing. When your excessive spending got you into financial trouble, you looked back at your parents’ frugality and realized the wisdom of their lessons. When have you sought out help so that you could dig through your past in order to have more joy in the present moment?

The Church calendar begins with Advent, a season of longing. The Magi search for the Christ child by believing in the reality of something—Someone—who was just out of reach. Folks in John’s time traveled long distances so that they could get their priorities straight. Have you ever gone on a pilgrimage because you ran out of hope for your future? How did your values change when you went on that mission trip? What habit or obsession did you abandon without so much as a glance backwards because God finally caught your attention? Our culture has turned the weeks before Christmas into a time of sanguine nostalgia. Mark had no tolerance for that. He confronted his readers with reality, not myth. He exposed their misplaced priorities for the idolatry that they were. He told the story of a man named John who stood in a long line of believers who knew that the world didn’t revolve around him. With modest conviction, he pointed to a God who rides the wave of chaos in each generation, loving us in spite of our sin.

I wonder who the heralds of this good news are today? Are you among those who are excited to share the news of Jesus in an era of political correctness and Church demise? Do you feel a sense of joyful urgency to point beyond the fears of COVID 19 and the attraction of commercial glitz to a Savior who is at the heart of Christmas? It’s humbling to wait for the arrival of an important person when we feel like simpletons. We are reminded that it’s not about us. That realization can be both a relief and a painful recognition! But that’s what the journey of Advent is all about—preparation! We learn, over time, that Christmas comes whether we’re ready or not. The bikes may not be assembled and the house may not be cleaned to our satisfaction. But Christmas morning dawns. Jesus arrives, a gift for all who will receive Him. The baby Jesus has grown up and saved a world for the glory of God. Our yearning is answered. The gift is here! Thanks be to God!