4th Sunday in Advent
December 23, 2012
Luke 2:1-5, Isaiah 35:1-10
Several of us have spent the last week or so collecting, wrapping and distributing gifts and food boxes for hundreds of households that needed extra help to make Christmas a celebration for their families. What a madhouse. Literally thousands of toys and clothes and other requested items went from piles of stuff in big clear bags to wrapped presents for various members of the family, to big yellow bags that identified each family and all the people in it. Winter coats and gloves and hats, Barbies and Transformers, Beanie Babies and diapers and bedding were all wrapped in due course and organized into family groups. Each day brought it’s crises: there are no gloves left, some of the children in a family didn’t get a sponsor, we’re out of wrapping paper, we’re out of boxes…..
It reminded me of my Post-Katrina days when we’d run out of blankets when the weather got cold, or there wouldn’t be any Docs for the clinic. One of the things you learn is that God is working right beside you as you are caring for God’s people. Is something in short supply, missing, used up? Get ready, because suddenly someone will show up with a big bag of gloves, or an armload of wrapping paper, or a bed for the youngest child who has been sleeping with her sister since she got out of her crib. We saw it happen over and over again in Biloxi, and every time I arrived at the Holiday Partnership, I heard the same kind of stories.
My African-American friends say that God can make a way when there is no way. I guess the history of slavery and poverty in their tradition threw people on God’s mighty arm over and over again. When they had no resources of their own, they learned that God will send a way through. We have been so deeply formed to be self-reliant, independent, and ashamed to count on anyone else to help us through difficult times. But when I heard the stories of the poorest of the poor in the slums of Mexico City and Cuernavaca, what I heard was that there is no shame in needing something that you can’t supply for yourself, we are all under the same pressures. That is when you turn to your community to lend a hand, and then when you have resources, you are able to share with those who are suddenly caught short or in need.
In Biloxi, we learned to count on other people being God’s hands. People would come from all over the country to rebuild homes for people who had no way of returning the favor or giving anything back but their deepest gratitude. And in their teary thanks, you saw that you had been the hands of God for them. And through your own tears, you saw Jesus thanking you for doing something great for him in the person before you.
Our Bible stories this morning talk about those road-blocks. The unexpected journey, the bitterness of exile, the isolation of believing something different than those around you. Isaiah speaks to a nation that has been carried away from the land and the Temple where God dwells. That place is who they are, and they are ashamed and afraid. Their status as God’s people has been ripped from them and they are strangers. The prophet promises them that they will return, that they will be restored. “Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!’ “ Your God will come and save you.
Paul writes to the Christians in Ephesus, who have been persecuted and made miserable by the merchants who made a fortune from the tourists and pilgrims who came to worship Artemis at the famous temple. By speaking out against pagan religion, they taking away good jobs and damaging a healthy economy.
Joseph not only had to make his peace with the fact that his wife-to-be is pregnant before their marriage, now he has to take her on a journey that will take days. What misery for this young woman, and how dangerous a trip it is.
But….But. In the time of the exile, much of the Scripture that we know as the Hebrew Bible, was written down, turned from a collection of oral materials that had been handed down for centuries into books that could be used to teach whole generations about the God that waited for them to come home to the Promised Land.
In Ephesus, the church thrived, and the letter that was written to them is filled with the most exquisite language of spiritual encouragement and hope.
And that journey to Bethlehem….we know that it was just the beginning of a life of misunderstanding, of betrayal and narrow escapes, and even death at the hands of his own religious leaders. But that even death couldn’t keep Jesus from fulfilling God’s will for all people. God will not be stopped. At the most terrifying of times, God comes. At the darkest time of year, God comes. When we are at our wit’s end, not knowing how we will figure out what happens next, God comes. Jesus’ birth and Jesus’ resurrection make a way in the world, even when it seems as if the world has been abandoned. And it is our hands and our hearts and our hope that make that way. Our quiet care for each other and the world is the light God uses to light the darkness. Our simple statement, “I don’t worry about that because I believe God loves us.” is the highway that becomes the Holy Way.
As we prepare to celebrate this Baby’s birth, let us remember that it is not just a one-time event that we remember and hang a wreath on every year. That baby became the Christ, the promised, anointed presence of God with us. The God who cannot be stopped continues to walk with us, lifting us, giving us hope, using our transformed, believing hearts to keep changing our world into the world God dreams of. “Stengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those of a fearful heart, Be Strong do not fear!” says the Prophet. May you see this Christmas as the beginning of walking God’s Holy Way, and expect to be part of miracles.
Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.