Christ Still Comes

Christ still comes – ready or not.

Grace to you and peace on this Christmas morning.  Advent has come and gone;  the candlelight of Christmas Eve is over – and here we are in the broad daylight of Christmas day. 

To tell you the truth it all snuck up on me.  We just moved into a different house and even though it was several weeks ago we still haven’t uncovered the Christmas ornaments or lights.  You wouldn’t know it is Christmas if you came to our house unless you saw the spectacular lights on our next-door neighbor’s house.  It is surprising to me that even though we’ve had our advent journey and lit the candles on the advent wreath one by one, I wasn’t quite ready for Christmas Eve to arrive yesterday.   Frankly, even now I’m not all that filled with what anyone would recognize as stereotypical Christmas spirit.  I’ve had a cold all week, I’m sure I’ve gained at least three or four pounds since Thanksgiving, and for the 34th year straight I haven’t sent out any Christmas cards.  Yesterday as I scuffled my way from the parking lot into the church I was in a sour mood.  I couldn’t find the right outfit to wear, my hair had turned out wrong, the cat had thrown up on the kitchen floor, and my head was full of congestion.  And worse than that, I felt guilty that I was in such a bad mood on the morning of Christmas Eve.  No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t shift my gaze from myself to that manger.  No matter how much I wanted to be full of Christmas cheer, my demeanor better suited Good Friday.

I wonder if you have ever felt that way during the Christmas season? Have you ever felt like if you could just pause for a moment and catch your breath you might be able to enjoy this time of year a little more –but there is too much to do:  too many people to see, gatherings to attend, gifts to buy and cookies to bake?  Have you ever felt like it’s too hard to dig through the wrapping paper and tinsel and colored lights to even begin to find the real meaning of this holiday?  Wouldn’t it be kind of nice if we could put off Christmas until we were really ready for it?  Until a time when everything was in place and we all felt like celebrating?

Well, that is how I felt.  But Christmas came anyway.  It came in spite of me.

A friend of mine in Minneapolis told me a story about her young daughter who is fascinated with the little green plastic army figures that belong to her brother.  Her daughter picks up these army figures and moves them around the house and so my friend said she wasn’t surprised when one day a few weeks ago she noticed in her family nativity scene, there wasn’t just Mary and Joseph, but six little green army men pointing guns in all directions.  She said that she immediately took out the little green figures, but then she realized that maybe it was more symbolic of the true story of Jesus’ coming than she had initially thought.  Jesus was not born into a world free of violence or hate.  He was not born into a perfect world – but rather he was born into our world, right how it was, and he still comes into our lives, right now, just how we are.

It’s interesting, isn’t it?  We dress up our houses and dress up ourselves and pour all sorts of time and effort into creating just the right holiday and to exude some sort of Christmas spirit to those around us – but the truth is that Jesus came for Scrooge just as much as Tiny Tim.  He came just as much for the antagonist as the protagonist, as much for the villain as the hero, as much for the person you like the least, as for the person you love the most.   We gather to celebrate Christmas and the good news of Jesus’ birth – but the best news is that he came even for those who cannot or maybe even will not celebrate his birth.  That is amazing love.  A love that though we may search for it, actually finds us all along.

One December when I was around 20 years old.  I was full of righteous indignation at the commercial excess of the holidays and convinced that no one understood the depths of my feelings about this – including my family –  and so on my Christmas break from college instead of going home or going to a friend’s house or staying at school and working, I went out to stay at my old Bible camp by myself. 

I had high hopes for spiritual enlightenment as I went to live in the wilds of northern Minnesota for those weeks.  I didn’t tell anyone where I was going.  It was my secret pilgrimage.  I sat and wrote in my journal by firelight and thought deep thoughts about the true meaning of Christmas far away from any of the commercial trappings, far away from my family’s traditions. 

On Christmas day in the midst of the silence, the phone rang – it was my mom.  To this day I don’t know how she tracked me down – but she called just to say “merry Christmas” and “I love you.”  Although I was annoyed that my pilgrimage was not so secret after all, it provided me with the greatest revelation I had that week.  There was nothing I was going to find by putting myself apart from everyone for that week.  No great words of wisdom were written down in that journal.  Although I had listened for God in the sound of the trees and the quiet of the snow dancing across the ice-covered lake, it wasn’t my searching that brought me closer to any great understanding.  Rather, the things I needed to find were looking for me all along.  The things I needed to find had been knit into my life from the very start.  The things I needed to find were things I just had to learn to recognize rather than hunt down and conquer. 

What does all this mean?  It means that especially today, don’t worry so much about the searching – you have already been found.  It means Christ comes to us again and again.  Emmanuel – God with us – God with us in so many ways!  Christ comes to us in parents, in each other, in strangers, in words that startle and amaze us, in the sacraments we share, and in a manger.   Christ comes to us though we may not feel ready or happy or sane.  Comes to us just as we are.  When all is said and done, Christmas Spirit is something we are given, not something we create.  And for that I am grateful.  Merry Christmas. 

(December 2004)

A Christmas Day homily

One of my best friends and his wife are expecting a new baby any day now.  So I’ve been having fun doing a little baby-clothes shopping.  Holding the soft sleepers and tiny blankets brings back memories of days that weren’t that long ago when my own boys were that small. 

Most of the lessons of parenthood are things they truly have to learn on the job.  No matter how much reading or preparing the nursery or talking to other parents one does to try to get ready for a baby, one is never really ready.  A parent can only gain the wisdom they need by experiencing parenthood – being in the trenches, experiencing the sleep-deprivation, the complete disorder of once orderly lives, the complete surrender of schedules and priorities and resources to their teeny-tiny, demanding, unreasonable, yet entirely beloved baby.

Elizabeth Stone said, “Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”

Charles Osgood states, “Babies are always more trouble than you thought — and more wonderful.”

Leo Burke writes, “People who say they sleep like a baby usually don’t have one.”

And Theresa Bloomingdale once said, “If your baby is “beautiful and perfect, never cries or fusses, sleeps on schedule and burps on demand, an angel all the time,” you’re the grandparent.”

Whoever would have thought something as small as a baby could change everything.  Yet it has always been this way.

In fact, that is a good way to think about today – because of course it is one baby’s birth in particular that we gather to celebrate this morning. 

One of the stories about Jesus’ birth that I’ve thought a lot about in recent years is the story of the three wise men placing gifts before the baby Jesus and throwing their own little royal baby shower. Yet if you stop to think about it, the gifts are  strange to bring for a newborn baby.  There’s no soft blue blankets no baby toys, no diaper genie or onesies or an ancient version of any of these things. 

Remember the gifts they brought? They placed at His feet gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Bible doesn’t tell us what Mary and Joseph did with Jesus’ gifts, but since having babies of my own every time I hear the story, I personally have to wonder what Mary really thought of those presents.  Perhaps she understood their symbolic meaning – but I have a feeling that it could just as easily be that in her mind she is thinking, “Come on!  Couldn’t these guys have consulted with their wives or even a sister and maybe come up with something a little more useful?”

However, the story seems to assume that the reader won’t think these gifts are strange at all – and when one pauses to look at what each gift represents, it makes all the difference in this story.  I was recently reminded of what their meanings were – and I thought I’d share a little bit about these meanings with you this morning.

 Gold – it is perhaps easy to guess why this was one of the gifts – because gold has always been a symbol of royalty. This gift signaled the wise men’s understanding of who this child was, and how we should receive Him. Because of this child, we are transformed from lowly paupers to royalty seated with Christ. He had to leave the perfection and grandeur of heaven in order to walk among us, trading His royalty for a time, but never losing His deity.

Frankincense.  Incense was a symbol of His purity. Because He was born sinless and lived a perfect life, Jesus was that perfect lamb, without blemish, offered up for our sins. Incense was used as a fragrant offering to God. But the beauty of the scent couldn’t be released without being touched by fire. Jesus’ life became a fragrant offering through the flames of affliction. And in His death, we receive His purity.

Myrrh is the third gift – and this is the gift that no parent would ever want to receive – because it symbolized death.  Myrrh was used for embalming in those times. As these men laid this odd collection of gifts at the feet of this child, a little shiver had to have run down His mother’s spine when that last one was placed before Him. Of course she had known that Jesus was no normal baby.  The angel Gabriel had told her that Jesus would be great, and he would be called the “Son of the Most High, and the Lord God would give him the throne of his ancestor David and he would reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there would be no end.” 

But when she said “Here I am, Lord, let it be with me according to your word” – could she ever have understood the kind of sacrifice this child would make?   This gift of myrrh may have been her first clue about the inestimable amount of ways this baby was not only going to change her life, but change the world – through his life and ultimately through his death.

They were three gifts that together foretold the story of this new, sacred life.

They were three gifts that together foretold his royalty, his priesthood, his death.

They were three gifts that together foretold how every life from then on would be different.  Every life.

 Let us pray:

Living God, how do we sum up in a few words all that this day means to us?  All we can do is gather together here in this quiet place and give you thanks for all that you are to us, all you have done for us, and all you are encouraging us yet to be.  As we think about the wise men who brought their prophetic gifts to set before you, we humbly bring our gifts to you as well.  Help us to use everything we have and everything we are to serve you. 

And so we have spoken and sung of how we warmly welcome your birth.  Now, we invite you to come home to live with us.  Not just today, but every day.  Not just this Christmas season, but every season.  Make us different than we have been.  In Jesus name we pray.  Amen

Christmas Light

Christmas is a lot more cheerful for me these days than it used to be.  In addition to the joy that sharing Christmas with our children brings, I really am happy to be at a church that has one Christmas Eve service instead of five.  I feel like I really get to worship on Christmas again instead of participating in what felt mostly like a frantic Christmas assembly line.  Back in those days, by this time I would be pretty Christmas-ed out.  It would be fantasizing about throwing snowballs at the cheery giant Santa at my neighbor’s house that plays tinny Christmas carols all night.  I used to say my tolerance for all the usual trappings of Christmas has about the shelf life of a dairy product.  It’s pretty curdled by the end of advent.  I’d be longing for the peanut brittle, holiday movies and Christmas music to go away because I was done.

 I’m thankful that I’ve found my Christmas Spirit again – because as you know – the thing is that we’re not done!  We’re SO not done – especially in the church.  In fact, we’re just at the beginning of the Christmas season now.  Advent has ended and Christmas is here – but oftentimes these days of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day come to feel like a culmination of sorts.  A time to arrive at and then collapse.  Now do we just rest a few days and get ready for New Year’s Eve?  Isn’t there more to Christmas than this?  Isn’t there anything left to astonish us?  After the carols have been sung, after the traditions have been played out, is it just time to go home and start the cleanup?

 Back in college, my two closest friends were from Montana.  During spring break of our freshman year, one of those friends, Kaia, invited me to go home with her to Billings.  I thought that sounded much more fun than going back to my little hometown for the week, and I had never seen the mountains, so I agreed to go.

 We caught a ride with a senior from our college named Darren.  We chipped in some money for gas and piled into his tiny yellow Toyota pick-up truck for the 12 hour drive from Moorhead to Billings.  I remember his little truck didn’t have a lot of pep and it would slow down to about 40 mph on every hill and he loved John Denver and the Carpenters – so we listened to them the whole way.  Still, whenever I hear “Rocky Mountain High” or “We’ve Only Just Begun” I can only think about that long drive.

 We arrived in Billings on a cloudy evening.  The next day, Kaia’s father had arranged for a little trip for the whole family and me to go up into the mountains for a skiing adventure.  The weather was still cloudy as we drove up into the mountains and it was dark as we pulled into the lodge where we were going to stay for the night.  As we unloaded the car, Kaia’s dad said to me, “Well, Ruth, you are in the mountains now!” – but with the overcast sky and the darkness and the snow, it looked just about the same as anywhere else.

 The next morning when I woke up, however, I could see the sun was shining – and blue sky peeking through the curtains.  Like a little kid I ran to the window to look outside – and there they were – giant peaks erupting from the ground in every direction I could see.  Even though I knew they had been there when I fell asleep, the darkness had kept me from seeing them.  But now, in the light, my surroundings were no longer a mystery.  It’s amazing how the light changes things.

 The gospel of John talks about the Word coming into the world – Jesus.  He was in the beginning with God. In him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  That light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

 What difference does that particular light, that light of Christ, make to us?  I wonder if we might be amazed at all his light could change if it were to truly shine in the dark places in our lives? 

 If we stop to think about it, it spurs a lot of questions:  How might the choices we make be different when we see them in that radiance?  How might our interactions with loved ones, with strangers, look if we gaze at them in Christ’s luminescence?  How does last year look if we reflect on it in that particular light?  How might next year be different if we choose to air out some of those darker corners, allow Christ’s brightness into every area of our lives?

 Isn’t it possible that following that light, like a star, it might guide us, too, to places beyond our dreaming?

 You see, there is something left to astonish us.  Because we not only have a Savior who chose to come to us just as we are:  to the saints and sinners, the crabby and the joyful, the honest and the cheaters, the nice and the cruel;  but already we see that while he came to us just as we are, his presence isn’t going to leave us that way.   We come to see that in fact, he’s more than a light, he is a fire, refining us, perfecting us in fits and starts and in spite of ourselves. 

 This Christmas stuff – it may seem tame and comforting, the same carols, the same nice story about a baby king and a manger year after year – but now, if you are feeling brave, stick around and see the revolution he has come to lead in your life.   

 C.S. Lewis said, “The Christian way is different:  harder, and easier.  Christ says, “Give me your all.  I don’t want so much of your money and so much of your work:  I want you…no half measures are any good.  I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want the whole tree….  I will give  you a new self instead.  I will give you Myself.”

 Maybe we’re ready for the peanut brittle, the reindeer, the twinkling lights, the Christmas tree and the ornaments to be gone.  That’s okay, because those things have their time and place.  They come and go with the season – and they can only take us so far.  But if we have come here this today seeking Christ, then we’ve only just begun.