What’s it all about, anyway?

The Birth of Jesus - Luke 2:1-20

JESUS MAFA. The birth of Jesus with shepherds, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

A number of years ago, there was a popular song that said “What’s it all about, Alfie?” That question seems appropriate at this time of year. What’s it all about, anyway?

I struggle sometimes with what to post…especially now. It’s a time of year when everyone wants to feel good…to enjoy the season.

But not everyone gets to do that.

And I’m not really sure the season is all about making us feel good.

After all, the child whose birth we celebrate came to shake the world up…to turn the existing expectations on their heads.

We’ve tended to sanitize that…to romanticize it. And so when someone posts a picture that makes us uncomfortable, we tend to want to immediately ignore it…or cry “foul!”

But what if we could all step back a minute…perhaps step into our time machines…and think about what was going on then? What would we see?

We would see a young pregnant woman, making a difficult journey with her fiancé to meet the demands of an occupying government. We would find them in the middle of a chaotic situation, desperately trying to find a place to stay…a quiet and at least somewhat secluded place where she could give birth.

We would see shepherds…unclean, unkempt. While the Bible positively acknowledges the shepherding background of some of the more famous individuals, shepherds didn’t have a good reputation generally. They were often considered to be thieves…and at the least were on the low end of society. And yet they were the ones the angels appeared to.

Later we would see magi–students of the heavens–coming and asking about this child, not knowing that their questions would trigger the deaths of innocent children by a frightened king.

We would see a family fleeing across borders, desperately trying to find a safe place to raise their child.

It’s not necessarily a feel-good story.

And so I think that some of the contemporary nativity scenes that we see–the ones that make us really uncomfortable…and maybe even angry…are appropriate for this time of year. They are what the story is all about…questions of dealing with “the other”…desperate families seeking safety for their children…genocide…

It’s not just something that happened approximately 2000 years ago. It happens today.

And the story…ultimately a story of hope for a new world…is all about what it means to live in this world…in this time…and a challenge to us. Who are we in the story? And how will we let it impact us?

What’s it all about anyway?

Holy Family in cages

Being Bethlehem…

Last night I sat in sacred space in Independence, Missouri (USA) and through the miracle of technology shared in an Advent worship with friends in

  • Oregon, USA
  • Australia
  • Zambia
  • Honduras
  • Germany
  • Philippines
  • French Polynesia
  • Canada
  • Dominican Republic

I heard prayers, music, and scripture read and sung in

  • English
  • Bembe
  • French
  • Spanish
  • German

And I was challenged with the questions of “How far is it to Bethlehem for me this Advent season?” and “How will I–and the place(s) I worship–be Bethlehem, the birthplace of Messiah, this Advent season?”

“Bethlehem” translates as “place of bread” or “place of meat”…a place where one is fed and nourished. If I choose to be Bethlehem this Advent season, that calls me to be a place where individuals can be fed and nourished–not just physically (although that is important), but also to feed their souls and spirits.

To be Bethlehem calls me to recognize the worth of those who look different from me…who worship in ways that are not necessarily my way…to see them as brothers and sisters.

It is not always easy. In fact, most of the time it is difficult. But if–as in last night–I can share in worship with others in different cultures through the miracle of technology, then I can also use that miracle to learn more about them…to find the ways in which we are alike…and to work with them to create a world that can be Bethlehem–a place of bread or meat–for all people.

Peace on earth…?

As Christians celebrate Advent–the time of preparation for Christmas–I am reminded of the song that the angels sang to the shepherds…”Peace on earth…”

Whose peace?

What do I mean by that?

Peace has a number of different definitions: (1) the absence of war, (2) calmness, (3) tranquility, (4) a state of security provided by law, (5) a treaty to end hostilities… It’s often a passive word–it happens to us; we don’t do much to cause it.

But I don’t think that’s the kind of peace the angels meant.

I think they were talking about shalom, which is much more than the definitions above. It’s broader…and active. It encompasses wholeness…soundness…right relationships…an overflowing sense of tranquility and health that causes one to pass it on or to repay.

It’s God’s peace–and that is so very different from our limited understanding!

We cannot bring about that kind of peace on our own. Yes, we can do our part to help bring about the cessation of conflict, but for the world to experience the kind of peace the angels sang about, we have to be willing to surrender. Surrender our own demands for “right,”…our thirst for “more and more”…our conviction that we know exactly what the Divine wants for everyone…

We have to be willing to listen…to look with new eyes…to travel new roads where we may not see more than a step or two ahead…to walk with new companions we might not be completely comfortable with.

Only then will the song be complete…”Peace on earth…shalom…”

angelappearingtoshepherds

Joy

Advent 4

On this last Sunday of Advent, we light the candle of joy.

What is joy?

Perhaps we should start out by saying what it is not. Joy is not necessarily happiness. Happiness can be fleeting, dependent on events happening in our lives–or the lives of our loved ones. If circumstances change, happiness may disappear.

But joy…joy is an emotion that comes from deep in our heart. We can find joy even in the most difficult of life circumstances…even when common sense says we should be completely down in the dumps.

So what makes the difference?

Joy may include happiness, but it goes deeper. We have joy when we know we have a firm foundation we can build our lives on–someone we can trust to always be with us through both good and bad times…someone who loves us, no matter what.

Joy acknowledges that life is not always easy, but it also knows that we are never alone, even when it may feel like we’ve been abandoned. Our human family, our friends may turn away from us–but the One whose birth we are preparing to celebrate never does.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite stories (and movies) this time of year–Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The Cratchit family lacks much of the “things” that we tend to think are necessary to find happiness, and also are dealing with the illness of the youngest child–and yet when they are preparing for their Christmas dinner, Bob Cratchit (the patriarch of the family) is still able to offer a toast of thanks and gratefulness for what they have…the love of family. They have joy.

And so…as we light this candle of joy, my wish, my blessing for each of you is this quote from Tiny Tim: “God bless us, every one!” And may you be blessed with true joy, not just this day but throughout the year.

 

Hope

 

Yesterday there were two candles to light…the first candle of Hanukkah and the first Advent candle, the candle of hope.

In some ways these two might not seem to have anything in common. And we might wonder what they have to do with hope.

The typical definition of hope is kind of shallow. We might say “I hope it doesn’t rain” or “I hope I can see that movie”…or “I hope…[something else].” That’s short-term or wishful thinking and doesn’t require much of anything from us.

But there are some other ways of defining hope that are more meaningful in this season of advent.

Hope can be seen as an optimistic state of mind based on expecting positive outcomes regardless of what is going on in the world around. It can mean to expect with confidence or to cherish an idea with anticipation.

In the Christian tradition, it can be seen as faith directed toward the future. It is “the conviction of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1).

Hanukkah reminds us of hope in a God who knows our needs and provides what is needed–in this case, eight days of oil which allowed the Jews to rededicate the Temple that had been desecrated under the rule of Antiochus Epiphanes. There was only one day’s worth of oil available to light the candelabra and begin the process of rededication–but it burned for eight days.

Advent points Christians toward the celebration of the presence of God in the world through Jesus…a celebration of the time he came 2000 years ago but also a looking forward to his coming again.

Both of these things seem impossible–and yet they happened.

And because they happened, we can acknowledge hope as more than just wishing that something will turn out well. We celebrate hope as a faith that looks toward the future with confidence…that God is, and that God continues to care for all of God’s creation.