As preached at Albemarle Road Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC today, November 25, 2012.
I'll try to add the audio later.
I grew up in this church and in the scout troop. A favorite pastime of camping trips was the telling of stories and jokes. A favorite form of torture for our leaders was joining in this time. Now and then, when we had a whole new batch of young scouts, Mr. White would stand up and begin telling a joke about a man who was building a house. When the man was finished, he had a brick left over. Mr. White would then scratch his head, look very apologetic and confess that as he was getting older it was harder and harder to remember what that man did with the brick. The young scouts would be very confused and feel sorry for him. Mr. Blackmon would explain it was a symptom of “Old Timers” disease and we’d go on telling jokes. Mr. White’s joke never went over well.
Mr. Blackmon though, had a great joke. He’d tell one where a grumpy old man was riding a train with a young snarky woman with a poodle. The old man was chomping happily on a very large pickle. The young woman became irate as his chomping and his pickle were disturbing her sensitive poodle. He refused a number of times to discard it in the trash. Finally, the irate woman grabs the pickle and tosses it out of the window of the train, very satisfied till he retaliates by tossing her poodle out. As they arrive at the next station and get off the train, the poodle catches up. And of course, in his mouth, he’s got the... The BRICK! Think about it. ;-)
The joke relies on your expectations. It’s funny precisely because it’s unexpected. God is more than anything, master of the unexpected. The birth of Christ isn’t so miraculous, amazing or funny because it happened and happens in the midst of a historical or seasonal lull. It happens instead of what was and what IS expected. The Jews prophesized, expected, and yearned for a savior, particularly under Roman rule, but many other times in history too. It’s why we read Isaiah each year. Christ’s coming, life, and death are foretold long before he arrives. But as we’re reminded so often, no one expected it in a manger or to such unlikely young parents or RIGHT THEN. No red carpet, no royal treatment, not even a bedroom. They didn’t expect a baby, they expected a king. His entrance to Jerusalem on a donkey much later is no different. All the best and most important parts of scripture can be finished not with ‘Amen,’ but with, “SURPRISE!”
Christmas historically replaced the pagan winter solstice. It’s no accident. Church leaders wanted to replace the major pagan parties of spring and winter solstice with Easter and Christmas. Time and time again, we can almost hear God in the background nudging us, “See what I did there? Betcha didn’t see that one coming.” Wink, wink. Our God is the God of the unexpected, the interruption.
Unfortunately, too often, we do it right back. (Pause) We love to swoop in and interrupt what God is up to with our own agenda, our own punch line. If ever there was a human punch line that fell flat, it’s the way we celebrate Christmas in a way in which we replace the anticipation of the birth of our savior with the anticipation of giving and receiving of material goods. And there’s some merit to the metaphor of the wisemen bringing gifts to Jesus and us exchanging gifts. It’s symbolic. But much of our season of anticipation, which we call Advent, has shifted the focus from God’s gift to our gifts. We prepare our homes for guests and parties. We prepare a tree as a landing zone for presents. We prepare our church for visitors and those returning home. We prepare our minds with music we love. And none of that is wrong or bad. In fact, Scripture encourages much of that. But far too often, we don’t prepare our hearts for the gift that Christ is to our lives.
There’s a comedian who points out how much we forget how disconnected we are. As he says, “And kids eat chocolate eggs at Easter because the chocolate reminds us of the wood of the cross… Noooo. And the bunnies remind us of the rabbit holes where the cross was stuck in the ground… Noooo. And at Christmas, Jesus was born to a large jolly guy in a red suit… of COURSE not. No fir trees in Nazareth.” He reminds us that eggs and bunnies were pagan symbols of fertility and trees were symbols of growth and nature and harvest, not of Jesus and resurrection and Christianity. When we find our meaning in traditions instead of building traditions that focus on remembering meaning, we lose something very important.
If you really wanna start a fight in a church, forget about recent changes in the PC(USA). I have an idea. Let’s have people sit on this side of the sanctuary if they wanna hear Christmas music on the radio before Thanksgiving and people over here if they insist on waiting till after. Not that I think I could get any of you to change seats. We will NOT do that. Countless times, I’ve been a part of conversations at this time of year where people share their thoughts on preparing for the holidays. “It’s not really Christmas until…” When is it “Christmas-y” to you? Here in the South, outdoor Christmas lights can be a year-round thing, so that’s not always the best indication. For some, the first cold weather or snowfall. For some, the first Christmas carol, or watching White Christmas or Miracle on 34th Street or Rudolph. For some, it’s that first holiday batch of cookies or when their family arrives in town or getting the Christmas tree up. For my mom, it was when we finally read the Luke passage that Charles Schulz insisted be a part of the Charlie Brown Christmas special. “As shepherds kept watch ore their flocks by night…”
How do we prepare our hearts for the coming of Christmas, the coming of Christ? Now you might suspect I have some suggestions. I’ve thought a bit about this God and Jesus subject. I even took a few classes on it in school. Jesus says, and I think I agree, we should always be prepared. Prepared as servants waiting for the aster of the house to come home.
It is preparation and anticipation as much as anything as human beings that gives us meaning. We spend Lent preparing for Easter. Palm Sunday prepares us for Holy Week. Advent is our preparation for Christmas. We prepare not a footbridge or hiking trail for the king to arrive, for the prince of peace to enter. We prepare a highway, we prepare a runway. We prepare because it sets a priority in our lives. All else comes after. Preparation is the ultimate in priority-setting. Guests are important. Their comfort and happiness is above our own, so we change things. We pick up the house more because we want them to be more comfortable than how we live each day. We kick the kids out of beds onto couches and floors and sleeping bags because grandma and grandpa and uncles and aunts are a priority. We cook food we know others love because they are the priority. Parents spend hours wrapping gifts for children because their happiness and joy and memories mean more to them than a few hours of sleep.
My heart is warmed when I see people take items to the angel tree or fill shoe boxes for Operation Christmas child or see folks make plans to visit the homebound and lonely relatives. Making time for such things in the midst of the busiest time of year shows a priority for love, for the one who taught us that we will be known as his followers when we have love for one another. Taking time every single day for three weeks to read from an advent calendar, from scripture, with your family, with children, taking time to tell the story, to build an anticipation, to make your faith and passing on that faith a priority… that is Advent in its most pure form.
Many people will cringe at the greeting, “Happy holidays.” Others will delight in having brothers and sisters who share the faith in which Jesus was raised and other traditions. I won’t ask you to divide the sanctuary on that one either. But, after all, the wisemen were neither Jews nor Christians and the innkeeper who loaned the stable may have been a Roman. I won’t ask you to “remember the reason for the season” or the “real gift of Christmas,” and abandon all your favorite traditions. I will challenge you that if there isn’t room in your traditions for truly anticipating the Christ child, if your faith and your savior aren’t the obvious priority amongst your preparations, you should take some time to make at least as much room in your lives as an innkeeper once did.
Years ago, I heard a story, very likely from Ron. A Church put on a nativity play and all the children participated, including one little boy who was mentally handicapped. The little boy was very friendly, very kind and well-loved. And he wanted very much to be a part of this play. He wanted to have lines. So those in charge made him one of several innkeepers who would turn Mary and Joseph away. His only line was, “There is no room here!” It was a small line, and he delivered it perfectly and with enthusiasm at each practice, but the adults and his parents all held their breath on the night of the show. When Mary and Joseph arrived and asked if they had a place for them to stay, he delivered his line perfectly in a booming voice. “There is no room here!” And as Mary and Joseph turned to walk away very disappointed, his lip quivered and he nearly burst into tears. And he shouted after them, “Oh come on in! We can make room for you, Jesus!”
Can we make room?
So maybe, just maybe, you can find a more fitting place in your home and your heart, so it begins to look a little more like Christmas than just… a little more like a holiday. Maybe, as we celebrate Advent each week this year, you can make hope, peace, joy, and love a part of your lives… and all our traditions can reflect the anticipation we share for the birth of a child, Emanuel, God with us.
Charge: Grinch, Whoville, Sang and Celebrated. Without the presents, their Christmas looked a lot like Thanksgiving. The family gathering, the food, thankful for all they did have. Would your Christmas look so much like Thanksgiving, if all the presents were taken? Maybe this year, your Advent can look more like the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, thankful for all your blessings and the most special gift of all.