Isaiah 61:1-2; Luke 1:46-55
There are seven more shopping days till Christmas. Remember when that created a panic. We had only a day or two to fight the crowds and hope beyond hope that our desired special treasure was still on the shelf. Today we go on a computer, or our phone, and punch a couple of buttons. Deb even has Amazon Prime so we don’t have to pay postage. A couple days later the door bell rings and the gift arrives. If I could just find someone to wrap my acquisitions my Christmas experience would be complete.
But even with all these modern conveniences, one problem remains. How do we if know we are getting the right gift? I know it is suppose to be the thought that counts, but there is nothing worse than have the recipient look up with an expression that shouts, “What were you thinking?”
I used to buy gifts for my niece and nephews. I have what you might call an eclectic taste in music. I felt each Christmas it was my duty to rescue my kin from their limited exposure to the world of song. I would spend endless hours thinking about each child and how I might be liberate them from boy bands, drum kits, musical loops, and any singer that had never listened to Etta James, Sam Cook, or Patsy Cline. Each year my nephews and niece would pick up my contribution to their Christmas celebration, roll their eyes, and pretend to be delighted. I once heard my oldest nephew mumble, “It’s not his fault. He’s just weird.”
What is actually weird is what Christmas has become. Remember when Christmas morning was a bit mysterious with no one really knowing what lay wrapped so beautifully under the tree. Today Christmas has become the parental fulfillment of a prearranged wish list. Remember when Christmas was a celebration of grace. It is easy to understand why we fled from years of yore. One of my favorite southern novelists, Flannery O’Conner, wrote, “All human nature vigorously resist grace because grace changes us and to change is painful.” Our need to know eliminates the possibility of the improbable. And what could be more improbable than the birth of Jesus.
Do we fully appreciate the Christmas story as told by Luke? Like any 14 year old, Mary had her Christmas wish list but it was like nothing that regularly ends up in Santa’s mailbox. Mary asked God to deliver joy to the broken hearted. She prayed, “Let my son bring down the powerful. Let my son lift up the lowly. Let my son fill the hungry with good things. Let my son be merciful.” This child’s uncle definitely had her listening to Odetta and Billie Holliday, or to be more precise the poems of Third Isaiah.
Last week we spent a little time listening to the voice of Second Isaiah. That poet’s job was to encourage a handful of slaves to travel back home. He promised God would level their road. They believed and they packed up to travel west. They were not prepared to find what was at the end of the rainbow. The Jerusalem they had heard of lay in ruins. For fifty years no one took the effort to restore what had been the gem of David and Solomon. The travelers were disheartened, disillusioned, broken. They had not imagined the task before them. But a second poet arrives. He has traveled with them. He knows their disappointment. He understood the seemingly impossible task before them. The poet sings, “God is bringing good news. Once you were captives and now you are released. Once you were prisoners and now you are emancipated. Now you are brokenhearted, but the God who freed you will also bring joy and comfort.”
Mary knew those words. They had been placed on her lips by that crazy uncle who loved the songs of the prophets. Then she received this crazy angelic message that she was to have a son. Instead of praying for herself and the welfare of her child, she prays that this babe might be a blessing to her neighbors. She prays for a cosmic event that will overturn everyone’s world. She prays for a miracle that will lift up the brokenhearted. She joyfully prays for grace.
Wednesday night in our Advent Meditations we shared one of the great Christmas stories of all time, The Grinch that Stole Christmas. For those of you that don’t know the Dr. Seuss classic, it is about a very mean and small hearted character who tries to ruin Christmas by stealing all the toys delivered on Christmas morning. The Grinch is successful in his thievery but not in stopping Christmas. Instead, the Christmas meal is prepared, the songs are sung and the holiday preserved. The Grinch is flabbergasted. He discovers the joy of Christmas is not about what is under the tree but what is in one’s heart. The Grinch is welcomed into Whoville and his heart grows three times its original size.
Isaiah, Mary and Dr. Seuss understand that Christmas is about binding up broken hearts and making the impossible probable. Trust me, it takes more than a visit from Santa to accomplish this. How often do we make our way through Advent, sing the songs, listen to the scriptures, and go through all our rituals, only to discover when Christmas is over, our Jerusalem is still in ruins? Where is the grace in that? How easily we forget Flannery O’Conner’s warning. How quickly we dismiss the vision of a 14 year old girl. Grace is hard because grace asks us to believe in something beyond our comfort zone.
Every Christmas I pick up a book of poems by Ann Weems called Kneeling in Bethlehem. She writes, “The Christmas spirit is that hope which tenaciously clings to the hearts of the faithful and announces in the face of any Herod the world can produce, and all the inn doors slammed in our faces, and all the dark nights of the soul, that with God anything is still possible.” When I read that poem I jump up and down and say, “Ann you are right. I’ll just sit right here and wait for God to change my world.” And then I make the mistake of turning the page. Weems continues, “We are freed to free others, we are affirmed to affirm others, we are loved to love others. We are family, we are community, we are the church triumphant. We are renewed, redirected, empowered to change lives together. We are the church of justice and mercy. We are the people sent to open the prisons, heal the sick, clothe the naked, to sing alleluias when there is no music. This mantle has been placed upon us. Joy is made apparent by how we choose to live.”
There are seven shopping days left till Christmas. We could spend a day of frenzied exhaustion at the shopping area just west of Richmond which I choose to call Babylon. We could hop on the internet and buy something that no one ever needed and pretend we care. Or we could perform an act of grace. Who do you know that needs a moment of joy? You might gather some friends and go sing Christmas carols on the porch of someone who lost a spouse this year. You could bring a cup of coffee to the guy ringing the bell at the Salvation Army display. Maybe he will even let you sit in for a set. Maybe you could invite a neighbor over for Christmas dinner. Even better, invite yourself over and sit in their darkness. If you really want to be brave, introduce one of your grandchildren to Dizzy playing Night in Tunisia. It can be cool to be the weird one in the family. The point is, find a way to bring joy into someone’s life. It is not all that difficult. The hard part is going back the second time. But that is when they learn that you really love them.
To God be the glory. Amen.