CHRISTMAS COMES ~ Fourth Sunday of Advent
This year let the day arrive when Christmas comes for everyone alive.
“What are you doing for Christmas?” Click here for audio
Pastor Marty Raths
Our theme for Advent has been Christmas Comes, and we have been exploring this theme with the use of some commonly asked questions at Christmas. And as Christmas nears, this is another question that we often ask one another, “What are you doing for Christmas?” and by that we usually mean where are you going to be and who is going to be with you at Christmas?
Though this is a simple question, it does hint at something deeper. As we make our way through Advent, we lift up the promises of hope, peace, love and joy. And Mary gives voice to the joy, singing in response to her angelic visitation, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior . . . ”
Joy is an elusive experience in life. We often confuse it with happiness, but they are not the same. Happiness is connected more to external circumstances, while joy is more a matter of the spirit. Even though we may not be happy in a particular circumstance, we may still feel joy because joy has less to do with circumstances and more to do with a sense of belonging, and a sense of purpose, and a sense of authenticity.
Behind the question what are you doing for Christmas is the recognition that an important part of Christmas is being with those whom we love, and knowing that we belong somewhere. We may experience the importance of this belonging most by its absence. When we spend a first Christmas without a loved one who is far away, or who has passed away, or who is apart from us in some way, we may realize just how important it is for us to be with others at Christmas.
We have a deep need to belong, and there are many relationships in life that can fulfill this need and give us a sense of joy. If we read between the lines a little, we can see that Mary was a part of a community of important relationships. Following her angelic visitation, she hurried off to see Elizabeth, and she remained with her for three months. Last week Donna talked about Joseph, and the righteousness of his character, and how he responded to a morally confusing situation with a righteousness tempered by mercy. He did not have to do that, but he did. So it seems as if Mary belonged to a family community in that most important of ways, she had family that she could go to, and rely on, and confide in, while trusting that they would have her well-being at heart.
Mary also belonged to a faith community, to the traditions and beliefs and practices of her Jewish faith, and this allowed her to hear the angel’s words with the ears of faith. They made sense to her. She understood them, and her song stands in that centuries old prophetic tradition of her people, that enduring tradition of Isaiah and Micah and Jeremiah.
So the question what are you doing for Christmas can be an invitation for us to do more than just be with family and friends, as important as that is at Christmas. It can also be an invitation for us to tend to those relationships. The truth is that our families are a lot like our homes, they almost always need a little work, and sometimes a lot of work. Like most things belonging takes practice, and we have to work at it. So is there something we need to say to someone? Maybe we have been hesitant to say it, for whatever reason, or maybe we have assumed that they already know it. But sometimes for the sake of the relationship we just need to say it, “Thank you. It is going to be alright. I am proud of you. Can I help? I love you.”
Or maybe we need to give someone our blessing. Whenever I have preached on the need to give our blessing, I have been struck by how many people came up to me afterwards and said, “That really spoke to me.” It seems to bear repeating. Be generous with blessings. Few things give us a deeper sense of belonging than blessings, both the giving and receiving of them. My dad passed away over seven years ago now, and a few years after his death I was going through my bedside desk drawer when I came across the last birthday card that my parents had sent me just weeks before my dad died. When I opened it, I saw that my dad had written a little note, “Thank you for being a great son. Love, Dad.” It was just a few words on a card, and maybe they were a little sentimental. But those were the last words that my dad ever wrote to me, and I am taking them as a blessing, and that card is still in my bedside desk drawer, and just remembering them makes me feel connected to my dad. So let me say it again: be generous with blessings.
And then there is forgiveness. “Forgiveness is the oil of relationships,” someone has said. Forgiveness keeps us in relationship, and nothing is more in keeping with the spirit of Christmas. “God was in Christ,” Paul wrote, “reconciling the world . . . and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” Where in our own lives do we need to become collaborators with Jesus in the work of reconciliation? To whom do we need to offer forgiveness, and from whom do we need to ask for it? Do we want Christmas to come this year? Then maybe mending is what we really need to do, doing whatever we can to bring about a reconciliation in a relationship and a restoration of a sense of belonging.
We all need a sense of belonging. We also need a sense of purpose. “We weave meaning in our lives,” someone has said, “as spiders weave webs.” We seem to be hard wired for meaning, and the angel’s message to Mary came wrapped in purpose. “You will conceive and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High . . . “ Mary must have brought those words to mind many times through the years because we can endure most any experience, and Mary had to endure some very difficult ones, if it is wrapped in purpose, and purpose can transform even the most ordinary of experiences in life.
There is an old story about three men who worked as stone cutters, cutting stones into blocks, each one the same width and height and depth. And each day they labored side by side, cutting stones into blocks for a towering Gothic cathedral that was being built in one of the medieval towns of Europe.
Now one day a passerby happened to stop where these three men were working. When he asked the first stone cutter what he was doing, the man replied simply that he was cutting stones into blocks. With bitterness in his voice, he described a task in which he did the same thing over and over and over again. Now the second stone cutter was doing the same work, but when he was asked what he was doing, his reply was different. With pride, he told the man that he was providing a home for his wife and children and putting food on their table. And finally, when the man asked the third stone cutter what he was doing, he replied with joy in his heart, “I am building a cathedral, so glorious that it will stand for a thousand years, and it will be a beacon to many, and a witness to the love of God.”
Three men were all doing the very same work. Yet each one saw their work differently, with the only difference being their sense of purpose. For the first stone cutter the work served no good purpose. It was sheer drudgery. For the second the work was a way to provide for his family, for which he was rightly proud. And for the third the work was a way to serve God, which filled him with joy.
There is a lot of the commonplace in the raising of a child, but few experiences come wrapped in a deeper sense of purpose, and for Mary there was also the assurance that her child was somehow going to be a part of the saving purposes of God, and in knowing that she rejoiced. And in his life and teachings Jesus would wrap the commonplace in purpose, elevating it all to the status of cathedral building. For Jesus the sharing of a meal, the welcoming of children, the healing of the afflicted, the standing in the truth, the risking of social status, acts of kindness and generosity and courage and compassion and peace, all these were a part of cathedral building for Jesus, a cathedral that he called the Kingdom of God. And by elevating the commonplace in life, Jesus made it possible for all of us to add a few bricks of our own to the building of the kingdom, if like that third stone cutter we are willing to see the purpose in it.
What are we doing for Christmas? It may be that our response to that question does not mean having to add even more things to all the things that we are already doing. It may just mean seeing these things differently, seeing them for what they really are, or for what they can become, cathedral work, and kingdom work. That may be enough for Christmas to come for us this year, and for others in our lives.
At the end of her exchange with the angel, Mary responded, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” There is a whole theology behind Mary’s words, and a radical one. Mary was given a choice here. The angel said to her, “You will conceive not you have conceived.” This exchange was a call not a coercion. Mary was not forced into accepting this role. It required her consent, and she gave it. Here am I, she said.
This was radical theology then, and in some ways it still is now. Last week Donna talked a little about the status of women in Jesus’ day, or their lack of it. Women were literally considered to be property. The constraints upon their lives were near total. But these were human constraints, not divine ones. Women had almost no say in the circumstances of their lives. But in relation to God Mary had a say.
Just like Joseph, Mary was allowed to act in a way that was authentic for her. No wonder she sang, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. Mary was being allowed to be who she was, while being asked to participate in the larger purposes of God. Few experiences in life are more exhausting than trying to be who we are not, and trying to act in ways that run counter to our truest self and our deepest held values. Brene Brown has written a very wise book entitled The Gifts of Imperfection: Letting Go of Who You Think You Are Supposed to Be and Embracing Who You Are. And in the chapter on authenticity Brown writes that we should all be born with a warning label on us, one that reads, “Caution: if you trade in your authenticity for safety, you may experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief.”
It can be hard to try to be ourselves sometimes. There is always the risk that we may not be accepted by some. But in the long run it is even harder to try to not be ourselves, and it is so much more joyless. Again to quote Brown, “Sacrificing who we are for what other people might think just is not worth it. Yes, there can be authenticity growing pains for the people around us, but in the end, being true to ourselves is the best gift we can give to the people we love.” And I would just add that it is the best gift we can give to God as well, the gift of being true to who God has made us to be, and who God is calling us to be. And just as it was for Mary and Joseph, that call is unique to each one of us. None of us should live the call of another, nor should we force someone else into a call that is not their own. There is little joy in that. No, like Mary each one of us must choose to respond to God’s call to us, and to respond, “Here I am.”
What are we doing for Christmas? There can be a little or a lot to that question. It can be more than just a question about where we are going to spend Christmas, and with whom. It can also be a way of asking: who matters to us? and what matters to us? and how might God be calling us? and what are we willing to do about that, and how we respond to all that just might be the difference between whether Christmas really comes this year for us and for others . . . or not.