Remember the miraculous technology of Polaroid camera? You aimed, shot and a film panel emerged from the underside of the camera. The intrigue was that it was amorphous at first. Then a very grainy image began to appear. We watched with fascination to see the image we captured. It was instant gratification instead of having to finish with a roll of film, remove it from the camera, drop it off to a film processor and then wait two weeks for it to be ready for pick up. A polaroid allowed us to watch the development of an image before our very eyes.
At Christmas we begin to recognize Jesus in the grainy Advent image as the answer to our prayer, “Lord Jesus, come!” or, in the original Greek, “Maranatha!” In the past four weeks we have heard in the Advent scriptures that we were to be alert, awake and attentive to God’s inbreaking movement. We have sought to empty ourselves of our surface wishes, trusting that God is ready to give us the deepest desires of our hearts. This Advent hope calls for us to open a wide-angle lens on our surroundings so that we don’t miss the subtle messages of God’s presence that are easily eclipsed by our own chaos. Just as we peered at a polaroid picture, newly emerged from the darkness of the camera, hope allows us to live without a full understanding of how God’s purposes are being fulfilled.
Walter Brueggemann writes, “…hope is the conviction, against a great deal of data, that God is tenacious and persistent in overcoming the deathliness of the world, that God intends joy and peace. Christians find compelling evidence, in the story of Jesus, that Jesus, with great persistence and great vulnerability, everywhere he went, turned the enmity of society toward a new possibility, turned the sadness of the world toward joy, introduced a new regime where the dead are raised, the lost are found, and the displaced are brought home again.”
We just completed a study of Craig Barnes book, Searching for Home: Spirituality for Restless Souls. He observes that our North American culture has become increasingly nomadic. No longer staying for generations on the family farm, we move between cities, houses, jobs and relationships. We focus on material goods to satisfy our spiritual yearning. No matter what we acquire, we are continually disappointed.
I spoke with a 30-something year old man recently who was depressed because he worked at a well-paying but meaningless job. It didn’t use his talents or education. His job carried the benefits so there was pressure to keep working there indefinitely to ensure good medical coverage for him and his wife. She wanted him to seek help for his depression but was anxious at the thought of him going in search of a new position that would be fulfilling for him. I sat with him as a spiritual counselor and he asked if I knew of any good employment opportunities. I was not there to serve as a human job fair. I was there to assure him that God is near and trustworthy. Through his tears and his request for prayer at the end of our conversation, he recognized that his deepest desire was to be known and loved by God. Searching for anything else left him feeling adrift and empty.
Barnes writes, “From the perspective of contemporary nomads, every night is just another night of exhaustion from serving Caesar, Quirinius, and Herod. It’s just another ordinary year under the tyrants of boring jobs, broken hearts, and the inability to find a place where they can finally get a little peace on earth. But from the perspective of heaven there was high drama going on that silent night long ago that had the capacity to change all our nights and days. That’s what happens today: the Son of God is born again and again into the hearts of the homeless, which means divinity has made its home with those who are just quietly wandering through the dark.”
Our human tendency is to look for contentment from the superficial aspects to our life. We try to put down roots in that place, with those things, in that relationship, as if it will take care of our needs forever. But Jesus’ birth story reminds us that, to be a Christian means to be on the move. Mary and Joseph were not at home when she gave birth. The shepherds were out in their fields, away from their beds. The magi traveled for over a year to find the newborn King. Those who were entrenched in their palaces and positions of power—Caesar, Quirinius, and the innkeeper—missed the birth. Mary and Joseph had to flee for their lives when Herod issued an edict to kill all the baby boys to snuff out any threat of a king. Jesus’ ministry was one of itinerant evangelism. He healed people in the towns to which He traveled. He took on the religious authorities who set up shop in the Temple as if it were their home and not a sanctuary to worship God. He traveled from Galilee to Samaria to Jerusalem, with no place to lay His head because serving God means being on the move—not for a bigger house or better job, but in order to more fully serve the One who broke into our world in the form of a newborn child.
There is movement in Christ’s arrival. Those entrusted with the Good News of Jesus were not at home. Very little was still in spite of the lyrics to our carols. As the picture of the delivery of the young messiah comes more fully into focus, the polaroid becomes a still shot for a moment—as Mary and Joseph, in a crude place of refuge, hold this baby boy who holds their future. There is so much that is unsettling in this story but, for one night, there is peace as Jesus first opens His eyes to gaze at those entrusted with His care.
A photograph, no matter how perfectly it captures a moment, is quickly dated. We look back on our wedding pictures and smile at the style of our tuxedo, the hairstyle that bears the mark of that era. We see loved ones posing with us in those images who are no longer with us. We recognize an innocence in our relationship that matures, of necessity, through the deep joys and inevitable trials of life. No matter how hard we try to settle in a permanent place, we are always in flux. We discover that meaning is not found in a particular place, no matter how magnificent. We discover that, where two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus, our lives are rich.
My dad was an Air Force chaplain who was assigned to a new base about every four years. People assume that it was difficult for our family to be on the move, continually forging new relationships. But my parents made sure that our primary need for community was met in the context of a family of six children and two loving parents. Wherever we moved, we immediately became part of a faith community. We learned about Jesus in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School through the tender leadership of teachers and preachers. My parents developed deep and lasting relationships in each of the place to which they were sent because, in those human relationships, they looked for something greater than themselves. They worshiped together and found ways to be the Body of Christ, whether they were stationed at the Air Force Academy in all its grandeur or in a converted parachute hanger that served as the base chapel in Misawa, Japan! Wherever we lived, we connected deeply to other Christians who also knew that their residence was temporary but the Christian friendships had the power to travel a lifetime.
Even if we worship in the same sanctuary for our whole lives, as some of you here have done, we know that we can never settle down as a congregation. As followers of Jesus, whose movement was initially called “the Way”, we are continually alert to new claims on our time, talent and treasure. We know that we can’t keep doing things the same way because time and the culture outside these walls doesn’t stand still. The past two years have certainly underscored to Christ’s Church that we need to be creative about how we live safely and responsibly as disciples of Jesus. COVID has forced us to be on the move, flexible in our planning and generous in our attitudes toward each other. Some churches that were too settled in their earthly placement have closed. Some believers, who weren’t willing to adapt to new forms of worship, have drifted from the faith. The temptation to look for answers in the concrete world around us is ever-present. We are so easily distracted by all that glitters and is gold. At Christmas, we look in on a miracle that assures us that God has heard our cry: “Maranatha! Lord Jesus, come!” As the carol affirms, “…the hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.” Maranatha is not a desperate cry but a powerful affirmation of hope in our troubled world. Jesus meets us where we are and leads us to the people and places where we can best serve.
Maybe it helps to remember that the Israelites, for forty long years, carried a mobile sanctuary through their wilderness roaming. It was called a tabernacle. They didn’t know where they would lay their heads from one night to the next but they knew that they were called to claim holiness at every stop along the way. Paul and other early church evangelists were called “apostles”, those who are “sent out.” They were not allowed in the Greek temples nor in Jewish synagogues. They were religious rejects so Paul taught the earliest disciples that they were “in Christ.” The household of God is in constant flux but we understand that there is a holiness to our journey. We create a hospitable home wherever we are so that people will meet Christ in us. Though the picture has not come into full focus, we radiate the light of the Christ Child to those who have spent years wandering in the dark. The good news at Christmas is that we are assured that Christ can be found in all the places and circumstances of our journey. Our joy, that we share with others, is found in the glimpses we have of Him along the way. That is the light that will always lead us home until the picture is fully developed and, one day, we meet Him face to face! In the meantime we pray, “Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!”