Thursday, December 26, 2013

Christmas Eve Year A -- December 24, 201

The Two Voices of Christmas

Let us pray:  O God, the word you most wanted to speak to the world, you spoke in Jesus Christ, your word made flesh.  Startle us again, in the midst of the familiar, loving customs of Christmas with the freshness of your love made flesh.  Open our hearts and minds to hear that good word again.  In Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen. 

In the early 13th century, people celebrated Christmas primarily by going to Mass, where priests would tell the Christmas story in a language that most ordinary people didn’t speak – Latin.  Christmas in that time involved elaborate artistic renderings of the Holy Family, and the birth of Jesus was most often expressed with jewels and gold and silk in the courts of the nobility. 

After spending some time in the Holy Land, seeing the actual circumstances into which Jesus was born, St. Francis of Assisi was disturbed by the Christmas pomp that seemed disconnected from the reality of the biblical story.  So St. Francis set up the first nativity scene in a cave outside Greccio, Italy for midnight mass on Christmas Eve 1223.  St. Francis shocked everybody by staging the story of Jesus’ birth complete with live animals, poor people and a real baby.  During the Mass, Francis told the Christmas story from the Bible and then delivered a sermon about the first Christmas and urging the people to reject hatred and embrace love.  All of this he did in the language of the people gathered. 

 Francis’ idea caught on, obviously, and every year many churches do something similar with a Christmas pageant.  Some are very sophisticated with professional costumes and choruses and full orchestras and live animals.  Most, however, are pretty simple and very human in the spirit of St. Francis, and frequently they involved children.  At my former church, the high point of the Advent season was the children’s Christmas pageant, always held on the 3rd Sunday in Advent during worship.  The production was funny, chaotic but genuinely moving for me both as a parent, as well as a person of faith.  We spend a lot of time and words and money trying to figure out exactly what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.  But it only took a couple of squirrely toddlers in lamb costumes to remind me that the heart of Christmas means that God went all in and decided to cast God’s lot with a whole lot of lost sheep.  Which of course is all of humanity.  Thank God for that. 

 There are two voices present on this sacred night when we gather to hear the story again.  There is the soaring, lilting voice we hear in the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  You know that voice, that high, pure, transcendent, holy divine voice saying, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”  That’s the first voice of Christmas. The divine voice of Incarnation that sparkles like a Christmas light and rumbles like thunder. The voice that reminds us that all our preparation for Christmas is, in fact, very serious business.

 But there is a second voice speaking to us this night.  And that voice is a human voice that we sometimes have to strain to hear, because it can be very faint and hard to hear above the din of the first voice. 

 The Christmas carol “Away in the Manger” is a really great carol, but there is one line in it that has always bothered me.  “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.”  Of course Jesus cried.  He was a baby.  A totally human baby.  Crying is what ensures that babies survive despite being one of earth’s most helpless creatures. When a baby cries because he is hungry, he is fed.  When a baby cries because he is cold, his mother tucks a blanket around him.  When a baby cries because he is frightened, someone who loves him picks him up and holds him close until he feels safe again.

 The second voice of Christmas is that human voice, the earthy reality of God with us, Emmanuel.  Of course, Jesus cried.  He cried for us.  He died for us.  And he still cries and laughs and exists with us. 

 In a famous Christmas sermon, Martin Luther asked his congregation to meditate on the nativity, not in the abstract but by looking at human babies.  He said, “I would not have you contemplate the deity of Christ, but rather his flesh.  Look upon the baby Jesus.  Divinity may terrify us.  Irrepressible majesty will crush us.  That is why Christ took on our humanity.”  The theologian Paul Tillich said, “One of Luther’s most profound insights is that God made himself small for us in Christ…God showed us his heart so that our hearts could be won.”

 Why does this night matter so much to us?  It’s because this is the night in which we are reminded again that God knows us.  God knows what it is to be one of us, in these bodies we inhabit, in these families we create, in the sorrow and joy and boredom and surprise of just being a fleshy creature in this world. 

 What difference does it make?  All the difference in the world actually.  If the Word became flesh, then flesh, our humanity, has been blessed and sanctified by God.  All of it.If divine Word became human flesh, the world – the material, beautiful, natural world is not an evil place to be escaped as religion sometimes concludes, but a holy place, a good place, to be lived in and enjoyed.

If the Word became flesh, our own bodies are not to be escaped and denied, but lived in and loved and affirmed and enjoyed.

 If Word became flesh, then we who believe this and trust it and stake our lives upon it have worldly work to do.  If God loves the world so much to come to it as a child and live in it, we must take the world seriously and live in it intentionally, and work to make all human life more kind, more safe, more just, starting with children – all children.

 If Word became flesh and light shone in darkness and darkness has not overcome it, then even the darkness that is part of human life is different now.  We are never alone.  The drug dealer from Homewood lying in a hospital bed with a bullet in his leg wondering if he'll ever walk again.  The 95 year old in the nursing home who has lost her friends and most of her family, facing the end of her days.  A single mom who hopes that the food in her refrigerator will be enough to keep her children fed until the end of the month.  The parents who don't recognize the smiling, joyful child who has come home for Christmas as a sullen young adult.  The young Marine in Afghanistan sitting in the barracks and wondering if his girlfriend has found someone else to share Christmas with.  You.  Me.  Facing whatever we are facing.  If Word became flesh, we are never alone.

Of course he cried.  He cried and he laughed and he loved his parents and his friends.  He ate good food and drank wine and celebrated holy days and weddings.  He danced at parties and felt his body ache at the end of a long day of walking.  He stubbed his toe and his skin got goosebumps when he was cold in the middle of the night.  He endured acne as a teenage and learned how to build stuff with his dad.  He knew what it is like to love deeply and passionately.  He understood what it means to make yourself vulnerable because you love so strongly.  Vulnerable enough to come into the world as the most fragile of creatures, and vulnerable enough to die as a fragile human creature.

Of course, he cried.

We need two voices tonight.  We need the voices of the saints who will join us at this table, singing, "Holy, holy, holy Lord.  God of power and might.  Heaven and earth are full of your glory."  We need the transcendence of angels singing, "Joy to the world!!"  We need the light-drenched prose of the Gospel of John announcing the incarnation of God.

But God knows we need another voice to reach out to us on this silent night.  The crying of a baby, breaking into our lives to meet us where we are, in all our hunger and all our human neediness.  To be fed.  To be warm.  To know and to be fully known.

It is Christmas.  Thanks be to God.

(Portions of this sermon are adapted from John Buchanan's "No Crying He Makes?")  

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Advent Photo A Day -- Merry Christmas!!

"And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.  And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness."
Genesis 1:3-4
"Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life."
John 8:12 (KJV)

Submitted by Clyde Williams

In the end, what I treasure most is the candlelight.  It reminds me that the light still shines in darkness.  Love entered the world and has not left us.

Submitted by Pastor Susan

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Advent Photo A Day -- Day 24 "Joy"

Christmas Eve.  Both kids home and healthy.  Nothing better.
Submitted by Pastor Susan

"A moment without joy is an eternity of sadness." 
Jonathan Lockwood Huie

Submitted by Clyde Williams

Advent Photo A Day -- Day 23 "Neighbor"

"It is your business when the wall next door catches fire."
"Your neighbor is the man who needs you."
Elbert Hubbard

Submitted by Clyde Williams

One of my favorite things about Pittsburgh is our neighborhoods.  

Submitted by Pastor Susan

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Advent Photo A Day -- Day 22 "Sign"

“Sometimes it's not enough to know what things mean, sometimes you have to know what things don't mean.” 
― Bob Dylan

Submitted by Clyde Williams

Signs slow you down and make you actually notice where you are going.

Submitted by Pastor Susan

Advent 4A -- December 22, 2013

Crazy, Stupid, Love. Actually

For audio version of this sermon, click here:

Matthew  1:1-25

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, 4and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, 6and Jesse the father of King David.
And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, 7and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah t he father of Asaph, 8and Asaph* the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, 9and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, 10and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, 11and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.
12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, 13and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, 14and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, 15and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 16and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
   and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.           

I decided to begin our reading from Matthew this morning not with Joseph’s story which begins at verse 18 in chapter one.  I thought it might be useful to begin at the beginning with the genealogy of Jesus.  It’s a text that is very often skipped by more rational pastors on the 4th Sunday of Advent.  And you may be wondering why your maybe not so rational pastor decided to include that long list of names in our scripture reading. 

First, I thought it was important to note that Matthew provides the genealogy to position the birth of Jesus as a continuation of a long biblical story.  Jesus doesn’t come out of nowhere; he is, in fact, connected to Israel’s sacred history – a connection to Judaism that we will see over the coming year matters quite a lot to Matthew.   Matthew also gives us this genealogy to confirm that Jesus is the Davidic Messiah that is prophesized in the Hebrew Scriptures by prophets like Isaiah.  And if you happen to be a Gentile, Matthew connects the New Testament church to the ancient promises made to Abraham and David.  All of this makes the tongue-twisting genealogy important to the Christmas story.  We know that this moment in history into which Jesus is born connects to God’s history with God’s people.
One of the more curious features of this genealogy is who appears on it…and who does not appear on it.  We see more than a couple men and women of questionable character are part of Jesus’ family tree.  We might also note that Jesus has some pretty terrible kings as relatives, as well as a whole lot of other obscure people that nobody had ever heard of before or since.  As you gather with your family this week and get to that inevitable moment in which you wonder how in the world you could possibly be related to some of those people, remember that even Jesus had some dubious relatives in his ancient ancestry.  A commentator makes this observation: “…For reasons unknown to us, God may select the Judah’s who sell their brother into slavery, the Jacob’s who cheat their way to first place, the David’s who steal wives and murder rivals, but also compose profound and beautiful psalms of praise.”  You may have a couple of Judah’s and Jacob’s and David’s in your own family history.  The good news is that all of these rascals were good enough for God. 
I am also kind of fascinated by the women Matthew drags out of the Hebrew Scriptures into the New Testament spotlight.  We might expect to see respectable, pious matriarchs like Sarah or Rebekah or Rachel.  But look who’s here instead: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and the wife of Uriah otherwise known as Bathsheeba.  Women with marital histories tainted by scandal or scorn or just plain old hanky panky, yet Matthew includes these women in the sacred line leading to Jesus.
And then there are the names Matthew lists after the Babylonian exile.  Other than the first two, Shealtiel and Zerrubbabel, and the last two, Joseph and Mary, none of these guys are mentioned anywhere else in scripture.  Apparently, none of them every did anything important other than be the great, great, great, great, great something or other of Joseph.  Yet, God can work through the obscure and forgettable.
After taking only a cursory glance at the Jesus’ genealogy, it shouldn’t surprise us that nothing has really changed in the 40-something generations of this family since Abraham.  God is still at work in the lives of extremely unlikely prospects, in this case Mary and Joseph.  The Son of God is about to be born right into the middle of genuine human scandal that is unique but also somewhat familiar.   Jesus is about to become a part of a messy family situation in which his parents have no idea what they are getting into, yet seem determined to stick together to make it all work for the sake of their love of God and what I think is a deep affection for one another.
Okay, men of the congregation, listen up.  I have a question for you.  Yes you!  Listen up, guys -- here it is: If you were a righteous Jewish man in 1st century Palestine, what would you have done about Mary? 

I wonder if it is possible for you to put yourself in the shoes of Joseph, that often sullen character, usually played by a adolescent boy who stands next to Mary and the baby in the Christmas pageants, always looking as if he wishes he could be just about anywhere else than in that crowded manager scene.  When you imagine yourself as Joseph, please keep in mind that you are not just casually engaged, but legally responsible for Mary.  At this point of the story in Matthew, the deal has been done and everyone in the family has signed all the necessary paperwork including you, Joseph.  While it’s true that you haven’t begun living with Mary yet, for all intents and purposes you are married.  And although Mary still lives with her family you are her legal husband. 

And then out of the blue, your new wife tells you that she is pregnant.  Imagine yourself having that incredible and painful conversation when Mary gives you a simply crazy explanation about how she got pregnant, and you know and she knows that there is absolutely no way that you can be the father of the baby she is carrying.  What happens next is up to you, Joseph.  While you are trying to regain your composure, take a moment to look at Mary – she looks so small, so young, so vulnerable sitting there, crying, blubbering on and on about angels and God and the Holy Spirit.  What are you gonna do, Joseph?

Here are your options:  you could demand that Mary be stoned to death for committing adultery.  Yes, you could do that, Joseph.  That would be within your rights according to the law.  And goodness knows, when Mary first tells you this cockamamie story about why she is pregnant, you are so outraged that for a moment you think you could kill her for hurting you like this.  On the other hand, maybe death is too good for her.  You could divorce her in a very public way and make sure everyone knows exactly why you are dumping your unfaithful bride.  Nobody would blame you for doing just that.  In fact, the law would say you should do just that.

After a day or two, though, you calm down.  It occurs to you that there is another, kinder option available to you -- you could simply divorce Mary quietly and try to forget the whole thing had ever happened.  It seems the least vengeful alternative, but remember that even a quiet divorce would force Mary to rely on her father who would very likely throw her out of the house and into a life of poverty for her and her child.  

I ask you these questions, men of the congregation – husbands, sons, fathers and brothers – because Joseph faced an awful, painful, human question in deciding what to do about Mary.  What would you do?   

Only the gospel of Matthew tells us about this really awful dilemma facing Joseph, how he struggles in his mind about what to do about the highly unwelcome news of Mary’s pregnancy.  Matthew tells us that an angel creeps into Joseph’s dreams and tells him not to be afraid to do what I imagine Joseph really wanted to do all along.  Which is to ignore every rational option, and to simply be what he’s always wanted to be-- a husband to Mary, to protect her, take care of her and take care of the baby she carries.

I haven’t heard too many commentators or theologians say or write it out loud, but I think Joseph loves Mary.  That’s the only reasonable explanation, I think, for why he did what he did.  I am convinced that Joseph loved Mary with all his heart.  Enough to believe her story, even if it sounded unbelievable.  Enough to believe the dream, even if he couldn’t be sure if it was an angel who spoke to him, or his own longing to marry this young woman.  I think Joseph loved Mary, loved her enough to trust the call God has placed upon him to not only proceed in marrying her, but to enter into this extremely strange job as the earthly father of God’s earthly son.  I think Joseph loves Mary enough to do what needed to be done including naming the baby, which under the law will bind Joseph to Jesus forever.  And I think God worked within that loving human connection between Mary and Joseph to create a loving family for God’s son.  If Mary is the faithful servant to God in this story, Joseph is the righteous husband to the mother of God whom he loves.

Joseph’s burden will continue throughout his life, until he quietly fades from view when Jesus becomes an adult.  This burden will include, a commentators notes, will two thousand years of sniggering schoolboy jokes all taken on by Joseph because he wants Mary, and God knows, Mary needs Joseph.[1]  Later, Matthew will tell us about Joseph taking Mary and the baby to Egypt for two years to escape Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, then again escaping Herod’s son, Archelaus by taking a different path and going to Galilee instead of Judea.  Joseph took on that burden and that anxiety, the kind so familiar to every human parent in which you do pretty much anything to protect your child.  Joseph did it all for the family he loved and Joseph never looked back.  Is that what you would do, men of the congregation? 

Joseph may be one of the more minor characters in this story, but it seems to me that we can easily imagine ourselves in his position.  As individuals, as members of families, as a church, we can see ourselves in his story.  We receive news we don’t want to receive that messes up everything we had imagined for our future and blows all our old plans to bits.  Like Joseph, we find ourselves backed into a corner, needing to make a decision among a whole lot of bad options.  In the end, the only option that makes any sense to Joseph is the one given to him by God.  Which is to stand on the side of Joseph’s beloved Mary.  To take all the sneering and sniveling by people who take one look at Mary’s swelling belly, do the math in their heads and instantly know that Joseph is either a scoundrel or a fool.

We often, I think, over-romanticize the birth story of Jesus.  We clean up the story of an illegitimate birth happening in a smelly old barn in the middle of nowhere during a vicious and nasty Roman occupation.  Our Christmas hymns have been sanitized to the point of ridiculousness. The little Lord Jesus no crying he makes?  I don’t think so.  All of our nativity displays show a placid, peaceful Mary wearing lipstick and clean blue robes just hours after giving birth.  Yeah, right.  And Joseph…well…he’s in that scene somewhere, hardly distinguishable from the shepherds and the wise guys in the background. I’ll confess that in our family’s nativity set, we lost or broke the statue of Joseph years ago and have had a shepherd filling in for Joseph, standing next to Mary and the baby.  We have made the nativity scene pretty and neat, but Joseph’s dilemma begs us to reconsider how we think about Christmas. We forget that what lurks beneath all the beautiful hymns and the perfect manger scene is both a genuine miracle and an outright scandal.   God came into the world and was raised by an imperfect family, that looks an awful lot like the families we come from.  And what always seems to save us in the end is love.

Jesus was not born into a beautiful stained glass world, but into the real world.  Jesus was not born into a picture perfect scene, but into the genuine mess of a genuine human family.  Jesus was not entrusted to the care of princes in palaces, but to two poor fragile human creatures named Joseph and Mary who did the best they could.  Either one of them could have said no to God’s idea of becoming one of us with them.  Mary could have laughed off the idea of becoming a mother before she became a bride.  Joseph could have done the legal thing, the acceptable thing, the righteous thing and put Mary in her proper place as a divorced, single mother or even had her killed for being illegally with child.  The extraordinarily tough decisions these two people made were scandalous yet entirely formed by love for God and love for each other.  A love that you can bet played a major role in creating the human person Jesus grew up to be.  This is the kind of family chosen by God to raise God’s son.  Real people with real frailities. 
And the good news for us on this Sunday before Christmas is that God continues to call real people with real frailties to bear the light of Christ into the world.  People like us.  People who may have no idea what God is up to, but are willing to take the risk of loving.  Love is something we know deep inside our crazy, stupid, stubborn human hearts.  We know something about love, and can do something beautiful with that love, because God first loved us.
Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Nancy Rockwell.  “The Bite in the Apple.”

Advent Photo A Day -- Day 21 "Prophet"

"Prophets are those who take life as it is and expand it. They refuse to shrink a vision of tomorrow to the boundaries of yesterday.” 
― Joan Chittister OSB

Submitted by Clyde Williams

Prophets can look at ordinary people and ordinary situations, and express the beauty hidden just below the surface.  Bruce Springsteen does just that in his music and he does it really well.

Submitted by Pastor Susan

Friday, December 20, 2013

Advent Photo A Day -- Day 20 "Good News"

What the preacher goes searching for every week.

Submitted by Pastor Susan

And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and ythe glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.  And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.

Submitted by Clyde Williams

Advent Photo A Day -- Day 19 "Patient/Patience"

There is something good in all seeming failures. You are not to see that now. Time will reveal it. Be patient.”
-- Sivananda Saraswati
Submitted by Clyde Williams 

Some days, I wish I'd never learned to drive.

Submitted by Pastor Susan

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Advent Photo A Day -- Day 18 "Mercy"

Submitted by Clyde Williams

There is a certain vocabulary you learn only through attrition and heartache, and Greg Brown speaks it. His music is suffused with what singer Dar Williams calls “the mercy of the fallen.”

Submitted by Pastor Susan

Advent Photo A Day -- Day 17 "Free"

Free yourself from the prisons of your past or you're going to serve the rest of your life in that miserable place.

Submitted by Clyde Williams

 The most fun you can have for free on an August day 
is the public fountain in Charleston, S.C.

Submitted by Pastor Susan

Monday, December 16, 2013

Advent Photo A Day -- Day 16 "Strong"

Submitted by Pastor Susan

"Nothing is so strong as gentleness. Nothing is so gentle as real strength."
 Frances de Sales

Submitted by Clyde Williams

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Advent Photo A Day -- Day 15 "Rejoice"

"You can complain because roses have thorns, or you can rejoice because thorns have roses."  Zig Zigler

Submitted by Clyde Williams

We waited a long time for a winning season and postseason play, and that in itself was pretty awesome.  But two MVP's, who also happen to be pretty terrific human beings, was another good reason to rejoice in a great 2013 baseball season in Pittsburgh.

Submitted by Pastor Susan

Advent 3A -- December 15, 2013

Heaven and Earth in Little Space

Matthew 11:2-11
2When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
7As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

My brother and I had a brief phone conversation this week about Christmas and, like me, he’s hit the wall in terms of how much gift shopping he’s up for doing this year. We agreed that the adults among us would forgo buying presents for one another and instead make donations to charities with the money we would have spent.  But we agreed to give modest presents to each other’s children.  I wondered out loud about what sort of gift cards or lip gloss my nieces might like and my brother, in typical BOB fashion interrupted say, “You know what, Suz?  Don’t over think it.  Just give them cash.” 

I know that doesn’t sound very ho-ho-holly-jolly, but he’s right.  So the girls are getting cash from Auntie Susan, but meanwhile I have been thinking about how I might create one of those “Big fancy wrapped box with a check cleverly hidden inside” so my nieces will still have the fun of unwrapping a big gift – which, let’s face it, is always fun no matter how old we are.

I think all of us enter into the Christmas season with big dreams, always imagining that this will be the year in which we get everything just right.  We will manage to pull off something like a perfect holiday.  This will be the year that everyone in the family gets along.  This will be the Christmas in which nobody gets the flu and everybody gives and receives the perfect gift. 

Ira Glass, the host of “This American Life” put it this way, “You know that saying, you can really tell who somebody is in a crisis?  You can really tell at Christmas too.  That’s because Christmas, more than any other day in the American year, is a day when we’re all handed the same stage props.  The same tree, the presents, the meal, the relatives, and the same expectations.  And then we all try to create, more or less, the same kind of day.  It’s like hundreds of millions of people all set to work doing exactly the same art project.  And not just any art project, but a very high stakes art project, an art project everyone cares about getting right.  And in that setting, the choices people make never seem clearer.”[1]

Last week, we met up with John the Baptist, this larger than life figure bursting onto the pages of Scriptures.  John proclaims the kingdom of God, preaching brilliantly with fire and passion about the one who is to come after him.  Talk about high expectations!  John’s narrative is not about the arrival of a baby in a manger, but of a powerful Messiah with a holy ax in one hand to chop down the rotting tree of Roman domination, and a winnowing fork in the other hand to chase out the brood of vipers running the synagogue.   Unquenchable fire and brimstone -- that’s how John imagines God’s entrance into the world.   

But today, Matthew directs our attention to an entirely different scene.  Out of the wilderness, away from the crowds of followers, sitting alone in a cramped, dark prison cell, John the Baptist is beginning to have his doubts concerning Jesus. In a dark night of the soul moment, John wonders – now what?  How could John have been so mistaken?  The Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah that had seemed so clear to John on the banks of the Jordon now is clouded with questions.  And John finds himself doubting everything he had believed about Jesus.  If Jesus is the One they had been waiting for, what does it mean that his most ardent follower is sitting in jail?   It as if John has gotten to the bottom of the glittering, gigantic gift box and is sifting through tissue paper, searching for the hidden treasure of the Messiah, and has come up empty-handed. And in the darkness of a prison cell, John asks the question, “Are you it, Jesus?  Are you the One we’ve been looking for, or should we begin looking for someone else?”  Because from where John is sitting, things are looking pretty doubtful.

It is so easy to get caught up in the big expectations of preparing for Christmas that I think it’s easy to forget that the incarnation is a small, quiet event.  We imagine that we are preparing our hearts for a King, but what we are preparing for during Advent turns the image of kingship on its head.  We are preparing for God who takes on the flimsy, vulnerable human flesh of a newborn baby.  God could have gone big.  Maybe even God imagines at this point in history that God should have gone big.  But instead, the Holy One of Israel creeps into human existence in a form small enough to dwell within the darkness of a human womb that belonged not to the queen of an emperor, but poor, unmarried teenager. 
Like that lovely line from the ancient Christmas carol that says Mary carried within her body, “Heaven and earth in little space.”

A curious truth about the story of Jesus’ life is how so few people recognized and accepted Jesus for who he is.  Think about it.  According to Matthew’s gospel, the wise men knew.  The woman with a hemorrhage knew.  A Roman centurion knew.  The crowd when Jesus enters into Jerusalem knew, or at least appeared to know for a day or two.  Did the disciples really know?  Well sort of.  But Matthew makes sure we know at least some of the disciples doubted (Mt. 28:17).

The problem with God's anointed ones is that they so seldom turn out to be what people have been looking for. They do not say the things people have been waiting to hear or do the things people have been expecting them to do. God-called leaders like Moses are hard to follow. God-chosen prophets like Jeremiah are next to impossible to live with. It often turns out that what God's idea of a God-anointed leader and what humans' idea of a God-anointed leader should be are two vastly different things. God's own Messiah could be so, well, so offensive. That is, he could say and do some very un-messianic things. Such as forgive sins. Heal on the Sabbath. Ride roughshod over time-honored traditions and prejudices. Treat women with respect. Commend hardship and suffering. Although John is the only person we know of who actually blurts out the question, the odds are good that the question was asked many times by many people: Can this Jesus possibly be the promised Messiah?

In typical fashion, Jesus doesn’t answer John’s question directly but invites John to answer his own question.  Jesus sums up the mission of God’s anointed – to heal, restore and to preach.  It is a mission that does not sound nearly as glamorous or as dramatic as John described.  It is as if John invited us all to come to a Christmas party with champagne and caviar and when we get there, all there is to eat is bread and cheap wine.  Because what John can see from his prison cell is a world that hasn’t changed much since his prophecy on the shore.  Certainly there have been no earth-shaking changes to daily life.  The Romans are still in charge.  God’s people are still held captive and no great king has emerged from the root of Jesse.  Jesus just has not met John’s expectations and, to be honest, many days Jesus does not meet ours. 

But Jesus says, “…blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”  Blessed are those who look at Jesus’ ministry on earth – his concern for the poor, his healing of the outcasts, his ability to call out life where there seems only to be death – and see the movement of God in small moments of grace.  Blessed are those who do not confuse the power of God with any earthly power.  Blessed are those who can handle their expectations of God being overturned completely.

Blessed also are those who realize that small, selfless acts of love deeply matter in the kingdom of God.  Even as we whine and moan about the secular trappings of the Christmas season – and I’ve been guilty of that as anyone – if you take the time to look a little more carefully at the commercials and the mall decorations, it becomes pretty apparent that marketers are all trying to tap into to has always been true about human beings since the beginning of time.  What human beings long for more than carefully wrapped gifts are genuine relationships filled with love and peace.  What the commercials don’t dare to tell us is that being called to participate in Jesus’ mission of love is the only gift we really need and the only preparation that really matters.

As Jesus speaks in this particular moment in time, the crazy, wonderful prophet is sitting in a dank prison cell doubting his faith in Jesus. Yet Jesus considers John the greatest among human beings.  John doubts Jesus, but Jesus still believes in John with all his heart.  If nothing else, this passage confirms that the power of our faith in Jesus is not nearly as important as is the incredible power of Jesus’ faith in us, the wonder of his love for us and his persistent claim on our lives. 

Blessed are those who trust that our small steps toward seeking the Christ child have the power to topple the most powerful forces on earth.  Armed only with love and peace and sometimes even our doubts, we can trust the mission that Jesus has set out for us – healing the broken, preaching the good news to the poor, reconciling enemies, loving our neighbor, feeding the hungry.  Small steps that matter.  Every single day of our lives. 

Pope Francis was named Time Magazine's Person of the Year for 2013.  That news received a lot of attention this week.  Some of the attention paid to this surprising Pope has been pretty cynical.  Many point out that what Pope Francis has been doing is pretty much symbolic and won’t do much to change the Catholic church. 

And yet, this humble, simple man has captured the attention and imagination of the whole world, even non-Catholics, even non- Christians.  When Pope Francis kisses the face of a disfigured man or washes the feet of a Muslim woman, he challenges all us of far beyond the boundaries of the Catholic Church.  And so far, people around the world are responding with curiosity and even joy to this man who says, “Don’t just preach; listen…don’t scold; heal.”

I am going to read a big chunk of what Time Magazine wrote this week about the Pope because it summarizes nicely, I think, about the blessedness of thinking small:

“(Pope Francis) has done something remarkable: he has not changed the words, but he’s changed the music. Tone and temperament matter in a church built on the substance of symbols—bread and wine, body and blood—so it is a mistake to dismiss any Pope’s symbolic choices­ as gestures empty of the force of law. He released his first exhortation, an attack on “the idolatry of money,” just as Americans were contemplating the day set aside for gratitude and whether to spend it at the mall. This is a man with a sense of timing. He lives not in the papal palace surrounded by courtiers but in a spare hostel surrounded by priests. He prays all the time, even while waiting for the dentist. He has retired the papal Mercedes in favor of a scuffed-up Ford Focus. No red shoes, no gilded cross, just an iron one around his neck. When he rejects the pomp and the privilege, releases information on Vatican finances for the first time, reprimands a profligate German Archbishop, cold-calls strangers in distress, offers to baptize the baby of a divorced woman whose married lover wanted her to abort it, he is doing more than modeling mercy and transparency. He is embracing complexity and acknowledging the risk that a church obsessed with its own rights and righteousness could inflict more wounds than it heals. Asked why he seems uninterested in waging a culture war, he refers to the battlefield. The church is a field hospital, he says. Our first duty is to tend to the wounded. You don’t ask a bleeding man about his cholesterol level.”[2]

The people in Scripture who recognized Jesus as the incarnation of God in the form of human flesh needed no warning, no preparation, no glorious signs, no cajoling or arm-twisting.  They simply accepted what Jesus gave to them. They did not insist that Jesus fit into their ideal of what a Messiah should be.  Instead, they allowed Jesus to change their ideas about who God is and God’s deepest desire for God’s people.   To prepare for Christmas as Jesus would have us prepare is as simple as this and as difficult as this – to receive God’s gift of love to us in Jesus and then to go do the hard work of loving the world as much as he does. 

The Messenger (Mary Oliver)
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird — equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect?

Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.
The phoebe, the delphinium. The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes, a mouth with which to give shouts of joy to the moth
and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam, telling them all,
over and over, how it is that we live forever. 

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Ira Glass.  “This American Life – Christmas and Commerce Transcript.”  Originally aired December 20, 1996.