Last week Sandra asked us in her sermon, “do we hold our Christmas so lightly that it can be pick-pocketed from us?”
This question and the image stayed with me all week of a Merry Christmas dangling, forgotten in our back pocket as we wander the malls for gifts. The scripture scribbled on a scrap of paper that falls from our wallet, unnoticed, as we fill up the gas tank before a trip to visit family. Our creeds wadded up and stuffed into deep recesses of women’s hand bags, under receipts, to do lists.
In this season of Advent, do we hold the promise of hope, faith, joy and love so lightly that they can be pickpocketed? By a stranger with a “Seasons Greetings” instead of a Merry Christmas. By another crazed Christian pulling into “our” parking spot at Target? By our family, searching for love and affirmation but running off with our generous spirit instead?
Do we hold our faith so lightly that it can be pickpocketed? Snatched by a deft hand without us even knowing? Or do we willingly hand over our Christmas in favor of our own concerns, worries and priorities?
It’s the same question that Ahaz was asked by Isaiah. What sign do you want from God? Your nation is in trouble, your confidence failing. Ask God for a sign. But Ahaz refuses. It seems his faith was been pickpocketed long ago.
But the prophet Isaiah represents a God who will not be so easily forgotten. “God will give you a sign. This young girl is with child and he will save you. This is the sign to remind you that God is with you.” Don’t let go of your faith just yet. This young girl possesses a faith that will not be held so lightly. No, a faith as vulnerable as a child. And a faith as strong as a parent’s love to protect at all costs.
The gospel writers knew this story. Matthew new this story. And when he sat down to write his gospel, when he began to write the story of Jesus’ birth he remembered Ahaz and the prophet Isaiah. Matthew tells us how Joseph nearly lost his faith. How Joseph needed a sign to hold on.
Joseph found out his betrothed was with child yet he had not known her. The only option was divorce (at that time betrothal was a legal binding contract the same as marriage) and to do it quietly. An unwed mother was not a disappointing circumstance or an unfortunate reversal of the traditional order of family life. An unwed mother was tragedy. She was the object of judgment, condemned by law, even to death.
But God stepped in to offer a new way – a never before considered option – reconciliation. Like Isaiah echoing down through the generations, the messenger of God says, “Do not be afraid. This child will save my people.”
And this time Joseph believes, “God is with us.”
Father Gerry Pierse goes so far to say that Joseph assumes responsibility for the work the Holy Spirit has begun. And that the Holy Spirit calls Christians today to do the same – to take responsibility for what the Holy Spirit starts in our world. We start with the present moment. Not what we would like the world to look like, the lives we wish we had. God – Christmas – would have us look at the circumstances of life and see God is with us – now! And we hold onto that belief so tightly that no on can take it from us.
Another commentary I read this week suggested that during the Advent season we are too quick “to put tinsel on the cross”. We want angels and a sweet faced virgin Mary – all these embellishments on a story that is really one of shepherds left out and on the margins of life, women sexually suspect, a young pregnant woman, law versus compassion, temptation to abandon rather than persevere. Can we really go on shopping sprees and jingle bells to honor this story?
We want to desperately to see Mary in a pale blue cloak, fresh-faced and adoring of a new healthy and perfect baby boy nestled and warm among clean animals somehow also imbued with the holy spirit.
We peer back into history to see Joseph confident and calm, standing watch over his new family certain of their future.
We fondly recall angels singing the heavens and regal wise men striding directly to their destination with their gifts.
These are the images on our Christmas cards, right? Not just of the Holy Family, but of each of our families desiring to be holy. Think of the stack of Christmas cards gathering on your kitchen counter, taped to the doorways or placed in your home. Pictures of pink-cheeked children, adoring spouses and partners, and a beloved family pet thrown in for the “aahhhh” factor. Some of the Christmas cards are not photos but letters painting a similar picture.
But don’t we all receive some of these cards knowing of the struggles behind the smiles, the pain of the past year that’s not mentioned in the letter, the lost jobs and family members who have passed away and marriage counseling and depression that aren’t conveyed within the border of evergreens?
The true snapshot of that first Christmas morning would surely have been of Mary, disheveled, sweaty. Joseph pacing from stable to inn asking for clean water or a bit of bread. The stinky animals prodding and looking for their food in the trough where a baby now lay.
Just as the truth of our families is so much more than coordinated sweaters and winter wonderland backdrops and happily squeezing together in a 4×6 frame without yelling or pushing or tears.
Imagine Mary and Joseph looking at the art and pictures and Christmas cards of their intimate family moment. Would they sign and say, “if you only knew what happened that night”? And the stories we could swap if we could sit with Mary and Joseph and talk about the moments leading up to our perfectly posed Christmas photos. We share these pictures and tell our stories to the world and they are no less true. They are our deepest hearts’ desires.
I wonder if the melancholy and stress and bah humbug attitude that so often creeps in during this season is the small voice calling out to us, the truth of Jesus’ birth flickering in our consciousness – that Jesus was born into – and we live in the midst of despair, doubt, depression and fear. The candles of hope, faith, joy and love that we light during Advent are small flickering flames amidst an overwhelming darkness of commitments, confusion, questions and grief.
And those small flames are our starting point to remember the faith that we believe. The faith that we profess in this season of waiting. God is with us. Jesus was born in the midst of government oppression, gender bias, economic hardship, exclusion and violence. That’s what Jesus was born. And that is where the Holy Spirit continues to blow and move and inspire. Will we assume the responsibility for what the Holy Spirit has started, as Jesus was willing to do?
Will we hold our Christmas so tightly that family dysfunction, political wrangling, shopping crowds will not be able to take it from us? Or will we fan the flames and participate with the Holy Spirit precisely because we hold so tightly to the belief that God is with us.
A member at Glendale Baptist Church wrote this poem, imagining if Jesus were born into the world today and how he might be received.
These days, Jesus would probably be Rosanna’s baby
We would never know Joseph
a trick Rosanna was too high to remember turning
another man who never knew her name
until Jesus arrived
Rosanna would be dressed in all white
a felonious seraph
far from virginal but ironically innocent
as the cocaine fog of the streets
fades into the haldol haze of incarceration
Beaming at us from the stall where they keep her
like an animal as she waits for Jesus because
there is never room for Rosanna
Jesus would be born unto the county hospital
where there is no sweet straw
or swaddling clothes
or loyal Josephs
just a guard at the door
and the lowing of human cattle
Rosanna would tell everyone her baby was going to change the world
that the HIV positive blood in his veins was divine
We might be decent enough to hold in our laughter
before we quietly give Rosanna another shot
Rosanna would love Jesus fiercely
never understanding why he wasn’t hers to keep
or why we took her precious Jesus from her
or why she is punished for being sick
We’ll pretend to care about young Jesus but
instead of bringing him myrrh, we’ll let him have the coat our own child outgrew
Instead of a feast for thousands or an audience with scholars,
he’ll get a free lunch at his low-preforming school
Instead of bathing his feet in tears,
we’ll wait for Jesus to pull himself up by the bootstraps he doesn’t have.
And when he doesn’t…
When he is a man…
When he is dangerous…
When there is no more room…
We’ll give him his own stall, just like Rosanna’s.
Susan Morley wrote in blog yesterday that during Advent “we point to a world about to be upended, where the values will be shaken up and the mainstream way of life overturned by the birth of the child”, by the inbreaking of God with Us. She says, “We need stories of people who are grounded and joyous in the midst of the despair of our age.” Of unwed mothers loved, poor children with enough to eat, no more food deserts, a prison system free of racism, a world upended.
She calls us to start telling those stories. And we can start telling them hear at Glendale, to tell the world of our worship, of the ways we support one another, welcome one another. “We can begin telling the world of grounding practices, celebrations of joy that flow through everyday lives.”
Let us hold fast to our faith and be the people who celebrate the hope of the Messiah.
Be the people who join in joyful songs with the angels.
Be the people who have more faith than cynicism.
Be the people who remind the world of love come down.
While we cannot forget that Advent is the story of a young girl, pregnant before she was ready; a woman faced with stoning.
A story of her betrothed forced to choose between his reputation and his integrity.
A story of weary travelers and not enough space for pilgrims on a journey.
The story of Advent is also of God with us.
Some of us live with outrage. Some of us live to seek harmony. Some of us live with such great indifference. And the world keeps spinning.
Great deeds are done. Deep wounds are inflicted. And the world keeps spinning.
God will not pause the globe nor hold the sun in the sky or allow us a longer night of clear skies and twinkling stars. The world keeps spinning as we laugh and weep.
But God longs to be invited in – to give vision to our outrage, give courage to those fighting worthy battles and trouble the waters of complacency.
We must lift our eyes from the minutia to see the whole picture.
Listen for the tune under the chaos.
Feel the warm flesh of an outstretched hand.
We must be more wiling to be outraged. More courageous to act. More willing to step into the troubled waters.
Lord, we ask for your prompting, your nudge, your shove into action and justice and compassion and reconciliation. Amen.