Christmas Eve: The God Who is Already Here

Scripture: Luke 2:1-20

When I was little, Christmas always meant a trip to Philadelphia, where my dad’s family lived. We’d wake up Christmas morning and open presents around my grandmother’s tree. Family members who lived nearby – and they all lived nearby – would stop in throughout the day, and at night we’d gather at my Aunt Kay’s house a few blocks over for dinner and a party. Sometime during that week we would gather with my mom’s family at my Aunt Cindy’s house an hour or so away, exchange gifts and play games with my cousins. We’d always be back at my grandmother’s in Philadelphia for New Year’s Eve, when the whole family would gather again and cook sauerkraut and watch Dick Clark on TV and go outside on the steps at midnight with noisemakers, along with the rest of the block.

As I got older, Christmas changed. We started spending Christmas Eve night at home in Virginia and opening gifts around our own tree in the morning before making the drive to Gram’s. When I was 14, Aunt Kay died, and we started having a smaller holiday meal with my grandmother and uncle. The gatherings with my mom’s side of the family persisted until my grandparents died, but the cousins grew up and had families and went our separate ways. Even then, our trips would only last a day or two; we hadn’t stayed for New Year’s in a while.

In my first few years as a pastor, I had Christmas morning services to attend to, and so I stopped going to Pennsylvania at all. I just couldn’t make it home in time. My parents and brother still went, though, so that left me on my own to make Christmas plans with a friend or boyfriend’s family. When I started seriously dating Jon, we started alternating holidays between our two families, so Christmas was different every year.

I’m sure your Christmases have looked different over the years, too. There are faces that have faded out of the picture and new ones added in; the scenery has changed; old traditions have been lost and new ones begun. I think it helps to remember that in a year when, for many of us, Christmas looks and feels different from ever before. The family get togethers have been abandoned or modified, we’re figuring out how to cook meals for ourselves, there have been no parties with the neighbors, no caroling, no trips to the mall to see Santa. And maybe for some of us there’s some relief in these changes: less family drama to manage, a less frenzied pace to the season, but for many of us, I think, Christmas feels a little deflated this year, too.

This Advent season we talked about waiting, as we always do during Advent, and how we’re not just waiting for the birth of a baby or a day on a calendar, but waiting for the second coming of Christ, and the culmination of God’s Kingdom here on earth. And Advent worked, Advent resonated, Advent made sense, this year, I think, because it’s been a year of waiting – for the curve to trend back down, for a vaccine to come, for this pandemic to be over. But now Christmas is here and we’re still waiting. And Christmas isn’t supposed to be about waiting: it’s supposed to be about promises fulfilled.

So what do we do with that this year?

Mary and Joseph, of course, didn’t have Christmases past to get nostalgic about. There were no traditions to maintain, no one on the radio crooning “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” to make them tear up, no childish sense of wonder to try to conjure. There was just real life: An inconveniently-timed journey forced by an oppressive ruler; no room to be found in a busy city; a birth that didn’t happen according to anyone’s birth plan; uninvited guests who smelled like sheep. We’ve successfully romanticized it over the years, but Christmas has never been about conforming to all our best-laid and cherished plans.

Maybe it helps to remember how much still hadn’t happened on that first Christmas night. Yes, a baby was born. Yes, angels appeared and sang to shepherds, who went to see for themselves. Yes, absolutely, something significant happened that night in Bethlehem.

But there was so much still to come. Bodies healed, meals shared, lives restored, hearts reconciled to God. Stories of God’s Kingdom told to crowds on a mountainside. Questions asked and new commandments given: love one another as I have loved you. Disciples who heard the call and dropped their fishing nets to follow. A palm parade, and a final meal, and a cross, and an empty tomb. As Mary held that baby in her arms, it was the future she saw and pondered in her heart. And as the shepherds returned to their fields rejoicing, it was this child’s future that gave them reason to rejoice.

Christmas was never the end of the story. It was always the beginning, always a promise of more to come, always an invitation to keep waiting.

But it IS a beginning, a reminder that God is at work in the brokenness and imperfection of our world, when all our best laid plans have amounted to nothing. It IS a beginning, proof that God’s story is still unfolding, and that no matter the circumstances we find ourselves in, God will find a way to be with us. That God is with us now, this Christmas when nothing is as it should be, just as God has been with us in all the Christmases of our lives.

We may still feel stuck in our Advent waiting. But we are not alone in our waiting. Because the Christ who will come one day in glory to make everything right is that baby in the manger, born to us and for us when nothing is right with the world.

We are not alone: maybe that’s the good news we need in a year of isolation. There is still so much to wait for, so many reasons to hope that next year will be better than this one. But there is also reason to rejoice: because the God on whom we wait is the God who is already here.

Advent Apocalypse: God Who Rends the Heavens

Scripture: Isaiah 64:1-4

This past Monday morning, at 9:20 am, an ICU nurse named Sandra Lindsay made history when she became the first person in the US to receive a Covid-19 vaccine after its FDA approval.[1] Since then, over the course of this week, more pictures and videos of healthcare workers receiving vaccines have been  popping up in my social media feed and in the news. I talked to a mentor on Wednesday whose husband is a physician’s assistant in a hospital outside of Harrisonburg, who had just gotten his first dose earlier that morning. “It’s real,” she said. “I keep telling people it’s real. If we have it here in Augusta County, VA, it’s real.”

Collectively, this week, it seems, the world – or at least our part of it – has breathed a sigh of relief. We’ve gotten that collective lump in our throat seeing these pictures and hearing this news. We still have a long way to go in our battle against Covid-19. Some less well-off countries undoubtedly have longer. And things will probably still get worse before they truly get better. But, for just a moment this week, it was as if there was a ray of hope breaking through a thoroughly apocalyptic year.

And it has been an apocalyptic year, in all senses of that word. Our lives have been turned upside down. There are things that will probably never be the same as they were Before, for better or for worse. And the crisis of epidemic has done a lot to reveal its truth about who we are as a society: from the social and political divisions highlighted through science we can’t agree on, to the racial disparity and economic fragility we ignore at our peril.

This week, though, we could dare to believe that maybe the world isn’t ending after all.

We have often, in the past nine months, called these “unprecedented times,” but people, of course, have lived through apocalyptic times before, some decidedly worse than these. (Worse, at least, for those of us who mostly have to stay inside and have Zoom meetings.) Once in a while I will still come across a picture of shelled-out buildings in a barren landscape in Syria or Yemen and try to imagine, or perhaps try not to imagine too hard, what it must be like to be someone in one of those places at this time.

Sometimes, likewise, I read the Bible and try to imagine, or perhaps try not to imagine too hard, what it must have been like to live in Jerusalem in 587 BCE when the city fell to the Babylonian Empire after being under siege for over a year.

It’s that history that the prophet Isaiah has in mind in today’s Scripture reading: O that you would tear open the heavens and come down! It’s part of a longer passage in which the prophet remembers God’s faithful acts in the past: how God brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and led them through the wilderness. Where is that God now? the prophet wants to know, as God’s people sit in exile and Jerusalem remains in ruins. O that you would tear open the heavens and come down. God, why don’t you show yourself? Because when it seems like the world is ending, that is literally the only hope we have left.

The prophet’s prayer contains a note of desperation that we don’t normally hear during Advent, because if all we are waiting for in Advent is the birth of the baby in a manger, we can expect with full confidence that it will come as scheduled. All we have to do is light the candles and count the days, open the little doors on our Advent calendars. But maybe at some point this year, or at another time in your life, you’ve felt it. That desperate plea has been yours. O that you would tear open the heavens; O that you would rend the heavens – I like that translation, rend. And maybe God did. Or maybe God hasn’t, yet. And so I think it’s appropriate to conclude an apocalyptic Advent with a prayer like this one, because when everything else has been exhausted, desperation is what we are left with. There’s nothing we can do ourselves that we haven’t tried, and we are forced to look outside ourselves and our own power to make anything better.

In her book Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, the preacher Fleming Rutledge writes about how the second coming of Christ is discontinuous with what has come before. “It means,” she writes, “that the hope of redemption and the advent of the age to come no longer seeks evidence of the promise from present circumstances, but only in terms of the promised future of God” (p. 20-21). God’s coming kingdom is not a matter of our own human progress, if we are in fact making any at all. We talk often in church about building God’s kingdom here on earth. I know you hear that language because I use it all the time. There is something powerful and, to me, inspiring about accepting our mission to be part of this ultimate task. This apocalyptic Advent has made me reconsider that, though. Nothing I can do is going to bring God’s Kingdom in all its glory; all I can do is live in a way that makes me ready when it comes. This Isaiah also recognizes in his urgent prayer over the fallen temple: “But now, Lord, you are our father. We are the clay, and you are the potter” (64:8). All he and his people can do is cry into the heavens, and wait for God’s response.

We’ve learned something about waiting and praying in the past nine months.  Scientists across the world, of course, have been hard at work to make a vaccine happen. For most of us, though, who aren’t part of that work, we’ve had to reckon with our own powerlessness. Yes, we have worn our masks, and yes, we’ve stayed home more, and yes, perhaps we’ve donated money or food or time to lighten the load of others, but in the end, most of us have had to wait for news that something new was coming. And it seems to me that this has been a very Advent-y season, this whole time, because one of the things we’ve had to grapple with is our inability to change this reality on our own.

Isaiah’s prayer is the prayer of someone who recognizes their own powerlessness. But it is not a hopeless powerlessness. In these past nine months, I think, we have been largely powerless, but we have not been hopeless. And that’s why we’ve worn our masks and made our donations and done our best to help flatten the curves – because we have hope that this will not be forever; because we have hope that something new is on the horizon. These things are our witness to our belief in better days to come.

Try to envision this divine entrance into the world the way the prophet does. Come down, Isaiah says, and the mountains will quake, and the nations will tremble, and it will be like fire sweeping through brushwood. It will be like water coming to a boil.

It’s quite a way to picture God coming into our world, right? This kind of divine arrival that is pictured and longed and called for is not exactly Santa Claus coming to town. It’s not even Jesus, the baby in the manger, who couldn’t manage to get a reservation elsewhere. Here, apocalypse calls for apocalypse: when it seems like the world is ending, the only thing left is for God to tear open the heavens and toss the mountains aside and make it right.

And Isaiah may not know it then, but the divine response will come. Jerusalem will not remain in ruins forever. Because the God who hears our desperate cries is a God who is desperate to come to us, knocking mountains out of their way and leaving fire in their wake.

For a moment this week, it was as if a ray of hope broke through this truly apocalyptic year, and we dared to believe that maybe the world wasn’t ending, after all.

But still we wait: for justice to be done. For right to vindicated. For the mighty to fall and the lowly to be exalted, the hungry to be fed and the full to be sent away. Still we wait: for the power of death to be vanquished; for every tear to be wiped away, for needless suffering to cease. Still we wait: for our own hearts to be remade in the image of God’s.

We wait, and are powerless in our waiting, but the one we wait on is the one with power and authority over all creation. And as our desperate cries reach heaven, somewhere in the distance, the mountains begin to quake.


Advent Apocalypse: Keep Awake

Scripture: Mark 13:28-37

If you were a kid in the early 90’s, or if you had kids in the early 90’s, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with my favorite Christmas movie of all time, Home Alone (followed by Home Alone 2 as a close second). In case it’s been a while, the movie is the story of 8-year old Kevin McCallister, who gets accidentally left behind when his large family goes on Christmas vacation. It turns out some local thieves who call themselves the Wet Bandits, because they always leave the water on, have been planning to rob Kevin’s house while the family is out of town. Kevin discovers their plan and lays an elaborate set of booby traps made out of children’s toys and Christmas ornaments and other household implements to catch them in the act. The bad guys arrive and hilarity ensues, set to a now-classic soundtrack.

I’ve realized, more recently, that while Home Alone may be one of the great Christmas movies of our time, it’s actually also a really good Advent movie, because a key theme of Advent is being ready. And not just ready like we’ve checked the necessary boxes and are ready to move on to the next thing on our holiday to-do list, not just ready for a certain date on the calendar, but ready for something big to happen at any time.

“Keep awake,” Jesus tells his disciples.

We heard part of this passage from Mark 13 last week as we began our focus on the apocalyptic side of Advent for this year. While we tend to focus on these four weeks leading up to Christmas as a time of hope, love, joy, and peace as we wait for the birth of Jesus, that’s only part of the meaning of Advent. Advent is also about waiting for the second coming of Christ, and the end of this age, when everything will be turned upside down and all that is wrong will be made right. In other words, we here in this cozy season of lights and cookies are waiting on the apocalypse. It kind of makes us sound like we should be off in a bunker somewhere, but instead, here we are, going about our lives, hoping to be caught awake when the time comes.

As Pastor Sarah from Central UMC told us last week, Jesus gives this speech to his disciples at the beginning of Holy Week, as he prepares himself and them for his suffering and death. He tells them to watch out that no one deceives them while he is gone, for false messiahs are sure to come. He tells them there will be wars, and earthquakes, and famines, and that all these things will be just the beginning of the end. He tells his disciples that they themselves will suffer, but the Holy Spirit will be with them. After all this, he says, the sun will become dark and the stars will fall and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds, to gather up his people. This is a verse that did not quite make it into most of our favorite Christmas carols, and frankly one we may rather not read as we sip our eggnog and put the finishing touches on our tree. But as Sarah and I said last week, what better year to set our hopes on something other than what is now than this one.

This week, Jesus continues his apocalyptic speech. “Nobody knows the day or the hour” when all this will happen, he says. Keep awake! “It is as if someone took a trip,” he says, left the household behind, and put the servants in charge. Keep awake! You do not know when the head of the household will come, whether in the evening or at midnight, or when the rooster crows in the early morning. Don’t be caught sleeping when he comes. Keep awake.”

It’s as if a family went on vacation and left their eight-year-old son behind in charge of the house. Keep awake! You do not know when the Wet Bandits will come. (Midnight. They come at midnight.) The Apostle Paul, in fact, says in his first letter to the Thessalonians that “The Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” An interesting image, there, because surely when Christ comes we’d like to greet him with something other than ice on the front step and booby traps concocted from Legos. Surely we’d like to prepare a room instead, and, you, know, vacuum. Still, the point is, be ready. If Jesus is a guest, he’s not calling ahead. Keep awake, Paul echoes, for you are children of the day, and not of the night.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m already tired. It’s been a long year. It’s a busy season. Honestly, the last thing I want to be told right now is to stay awake. Mostly, I’d like to take a long nap. Of course I don’t think Jesus means it literally: it has been 2000 years, after all. So what does it mean to keep awake as we wait for Jesus to return?

Paul talks some about this in that passage of 1 Thessalonians 5 as well. This letter is the oldest New Testament writing we have, probably from around 50 CE, and even then, it seems, people were getting tired. They expected Jesus to come back soon – he does, after all, say in Mark that this generation will not pass away before he does. They didn’t understand why he seemed to be taking his time. So when Paul tells these early Christians to keep awake, he stays, “stay sober, wearing faithfulness and love as a piece of armor that protects our body and the hope of salvation as a helmet….continuing encouraging one another and building each other up, just like you are doing already.”

What does it mean to be ready for the coming of Christ? Only not to tire of all the things Christ calls us to every waking day of our lives: care for the poor, welcome for the stranger, love for our enemies, forgiveness for those with whom we live in community. Don’t lose your hope, Paul tells this tired church, that these things still matter. Don’t lose faith that this way of life will be vindicated. Keep awake.

It’s easy to grow tired, I know, when the world always seems to demand something else of us: get ahead, stock up for the future, divide into camps, let the others fend for themselves. And most days it seems like I have a long time to get it right, if I’m not right now – but I wonder sometimes what it would really look like to live like Jesus could come back anytime. What kind of urgency would that give to my faith? What choices might I make differently? How would I want to be prepared if that thief were coming tonight?

Jesus does tell his disciples that there will be signs. “Think of the fig tree,” he says. When it begins to sprout new leaves, you know that summer is near. Likewise, when things in this world seem like they can’t get any worse, “you’ll know that he is near – at the very gates.”

Fleming Rutledge, the author of Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, writes that a key image of Advent is the watchtower: “Those who serve God stand still in a dark place, but we strain forward with expectation and an unconquerable hope toward the horizon where the Sun of Righteousness will appear someday.”[1] I like that image, our eyes on the horizon. But I like this image from Mark, too: the image of Jesus already at the front gate, getting ready to knock – or to break in, as the case may be. We wait, keeping the faith, knowing all the time that he is near.

Maybe Advent is a time to watch for those signs, that Christ is near, if not yet arrived in all his glory. Signs that when the whole world seems to have gone to hell, love yet wins. Signs that suffering and division will not have the last word. Signs that oppression will cease and tyrants will not occupy their thrones forever. Signs that our hearts can still be molded after the heart of Christ. Signs that our hope is not in vain.

Maybe Advent is a time to watch for those small things, even as we wait for everything to be turned upside down.

So keep awake. Put on your armor of faithfulness and love and your helmet of salvation. Scatter your Legos in the hallways and ice down the front steps. Or, get out the vacuum and make the bed in the guestroom. Whatever metaphor you choose, Jesus is coming. When? I don’t know. But he is near, at the very gates.

[1] Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, p. 86.