In his book, When God Came Down, Max Lucado tells of a professor who is about halfway through his lecture when a young man in the auditorium stood and started asking him questions.
“Are you telling us that God Almighty really became Mary’s little boy?”
“Yes,” said the professor.
“Are you really asking us to buy into a religion based on a young girl’s dream of divine pregnancy?”
“Are you insinuating that the life of Jesus then actually affects us now?”
The young man stood silent for a few moments and then he replied, “How absurd,” and he sat down. (1)
How absurd. It is absurd, isn’t it? It’s absolutely absurd that this God, this Almighty God, the Creator of all that is, would choose to interact with humans in this way. The young college student was right. It’s absurd.
The story of the Annunciation as we read it in Luke and Matthew is just hard to process. We’re asked to believe that the Omnipotent became an embryo, that the Infinite became an infant, that the Almighty became a tiny child nursing at his mother’s breast. It’s more than our little minds can comprehend. (2)
The absurdity of it all is encapsulated in Luke’s story of Gabriel’s encounter with Mary. “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.”
Imagine that. Call his name “Jesus.” Jesus. That’s the equivalent of naming your child John in these days. It was a common, often used, name. Name him Jesus. Granted, Matthew’s version adds a bit: “You shall name him Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.”
Jesus. Ah, the absurdity of it. Jesus. You shall call his name Jesus. It may be absurd, but it’s the most profound expression of God the world has ever known. We have this picture of Christmas in our minds. Every year we recreate the Christmas story. We put the table up in the yard of the church, we pull on the shepherd’s robes, some wise men costumes, and we make sure Mary is dressed in a different color than all the others so she will stand out. Sometimes, if the right member of the congregation has had a baby at the right time the manger actually has a baby portraying the infant God.
We decorate the sanctuary, decorate the trees, make sure the paraments are the proper color, the poinsettias are in place, we sing the Christmas hymns, and over the course of the Advent season read the scriptures pertaining to the season. We do this with the familiarity of a people who have done this so many times we’re just numb to it. It’s routine; it’s everyday; it’s commonplace.
And there is the mystery of it. What we do is so familiar to us we barely take notice of it anymore. There’s no thunder in the heavens when Christmas rolls around. There’s no sound of angel trumpets when the Advent season begins.
There’s just this tree, these poinsettias, these pieces of cloth covering the altar table and the pulpit. It’s Christmas. It’s Christmas again.
Do you feel the ho hum of it? It’s Christmas. And I bet you’re wondering how long I’m going to preach. It’s Christmas, but there are things to do at home. It’s Christmas. Aunt Sarah wants to know if everyone can come to her house Thursday night. It’s Christmas. Oh, my goodness it’s Christmas. And, truth be told, Christmas has become ordinary for us. Christmas has become just a repeat of what happened last year. It’s Christmas. There are only seven more shopping days.
Christmas is ordinary. And that’s it, folks. That’s the message. God has come. God has come to be born of a teenage girl, to suckle at her breast, to squirm when God’s diaper was wet, to cry when God was in need of comfort. Imagine it: God learning to walk, God stumping God’s toe, God worried about what folks might thing, God with a pimple of God’s face, God shoveling the manure away from the door, God with chores, God with the sniffles, God attending synagogue, God being … God being … well, God being just like you, God just like me.
The young college student’s questions in Max Lucado’s story was right. It’s absurd. Think of it. Think of the absurdity of it. God here. God among us. God one of us. God working down at the carpet mill. God shopping at the Dollar General. God trying to make ends meet. God in our world. God experiencing human wants and human fears and human hope and human love. It’s absurd. But it is the message of Christmas. God is here.
You shall call his name Jesus, just a plain ordinary name for a fellow human. God here, today. God singing the hymns with us. God praying the prayers with us. God being human while God is being God.
God waiting for the sermon to end. God belting out the closing hymn. God walking out the door. God shaking the hand of the preacher (I don’t want to contemplate what comment God would make.) God getting into the car. And God heading out for lunch over at your house.
Yes, over at your house. At your table. In the shadow of your Christmas tree, interacting with your family, and who know, maybe after consuming a large second portion of that gastronomic creation for which you’re so famous leaning back and trying to stifle a burp. God at your house. Can you picture it? I know it’s absurd, but it’s the message of Christmas: As absurd as it may seem, God is with us, right here, right now.
1. Max Lucado, When God Came Down,” Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah, 1999.
2. This train of thought suggested by Dr. Howard Olds in his sermon, “How Can This Be?”, esermons.com.
The day had been long. Darkness had long ago closed the door to the sky. Now the parson and his faithful canine companion, Charlie Brown, were headed home through the chilly night.
The parson was tired. Two-and-a-half hours after the morning worship, he'd gathered with some of the men of the church. They'd stood staring at the pile of lumber the parson and two others had hauled to the church from a church member's old chicken house. The stared and stared. The parson insisted the pile represented the correct lumber. When asked how he knew the parson pointed to the manger that he'd found on top of it.
Somehow the group had constructed the stable in rapid time. It wasn't as intricate as the one they'd used the year before, and there was a considerable bit of lumber left over, but it looked good.
At the prescribed hour the “actors” arrived, partook of the refreshments and quickly were transformed into shepherds, wise men, Joseph and Mary, and an angel. Taking their proper places the nativity was given life.
Now, heading home, the parson spoke to his faithful companion, “You know, Charlie Brown, I'm trying to figure out some things about these living nativities. After all these years, I've got questions. You got a minute?”
Charlie Brown made no protest which encouraged the parson to continue. “Okay, Charlie, here's the first question: Why don't church people label the parts of the stable so next year's crew will know how to put it together?”
Charlie Brown made no response.
“Okay,” the parson offered, “try this one. Why is it that as soon as everyone takes their place in the scene one of three or a combination of three things happen: one, it rains; two, it snows; or three the temperature drops twelve degrees?”
Charlie Brown did condescend to shift about on the rear seat of the car, but other than that gave no indication he knew the answer.
“So, here's another one for you, Charlie Brown: Why is the part of the Mother of Jesus, a young woman living in Israel two thousand years ago, usually played by a blond blue-eyed beauty?”
Still Charlie Brown made no response.
Now the parson pulled up the steep slope that is his driveway leading to his little bungalow on the hill overlooking the activities below. The parson opened the door, exited the car, opened the rear door to facilitate the exit of his faithful, if silent, canine companion. Charlie Brown was halfway up the steps when the parson asked his final question: “And by the way, Charlie Brown, where in the gospel stories is there any reference to an adopted stray dog being part of the manger scene?”
Charlie Brown stopped halfway up the steps. He turned to look at the parson with an expression that seemed to indicate he would not dignify the question with an answer.
For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air and so we will be with the Lord forever.
-- Thessalonians 4: 16-17
Christmas Eve. The time was late-thirty. She absolutely would not go to sleep. My frustration was awaking. Gifts needed assembly; presents needed wrapping. Sand tick-tocked steadily down the hour glass. Sleep weighted my eye lids. Alertness permeated my daughter.
Usual threats would not work. At a quarter-past-really-late, drastic measures were being considered. She was reminded, not so gently, that little girls awake were not visited by Santa. She went to bed. Fifteen minutes before too-late up she hopped.
I slipped outside unseen. Time for a desperation strategy.
My predecessor had left some sleigh bells at the parsonage. Don’t ask. I have no clue what a North Georgia United Methodist minister would be doing with sleigh bells.
Quietly I climbed onto the roof, carefully muffling the bells. Once on top, I proceeded to run up and down while loudly ringing the bells.
Panic took residence below. In a blaze of fear she dashed to her bed, screaming and crying Santa wasn’t going to leave her anything.
In later years her mother snitched and told her what happened that night. Not a nice thing to do to me. I don’t think she’s completely forgiven me to this day.
There’s a parable here.
Jesus is coming. Preachers don’t often preach this. Congregations don’t relish hearing it. But, like it or not, Advent is the reminder of his coming, coming to judge, to establish his kingdom.
We all know this. We just don’t want to deal with it. Not just now.
Oh, don’t fret. There’s plenty of time. Like my daughter you can stretch it to the very last minute. Keep on doing as you’re doing. There’s time later to get it straight. Don’t sweat it.
Hush! Listen! Did I just hear an archangel call and a trumpet blast?
May it not be the for us an Advent of half-past-time’s-up.
From Heaven Came Down, Meditations for Advent, Copyright 1997 by Guy Kent, Morris Publishing.
My people have been lost sheep; their shepherds have led them astray, turning them away on the mountains; from mountain to hill they have gone, they have forgotten their fold. All who found them have devoured them, and their enemies have said, “We are not guilty, because they have sinned against the Lord, the true pasture, the Lord, the hope of their ancestors.
-- Jeremiah 50: 6-7
As a child, Advent signaled the time to begin hoping. Hoping for a new bike, hoping for a trumpet. Usually, as long as it was within reason, and the hope shared with enough adult relatives, I’d receive that for which I hoped.
It’s not that way anymore. I wonder. Have my hopes become more complicated? I seldom get the things for which I hope. I’m older. I see things in a bit different light. I’ve begun hoping for things beyond my immediate pleasure.
We all hope. The problem is somewhere along the line we stopped expecting.
Our wold is filled with violence. Murder, rape, shootings, gangs. Within sixty miles of my parsonage have been three terror bombings this year (1997).
Our world is disillusioned. Traditional institutions and patters of belief are crumbling.
Half our children love divorced parents.
The majority of our businessmen believe it okay to cut corners, to cheat.
Church attendance is down. Membership is declining. When it does go up, one is often hard pressed to separate worship from entertainment.
A Lutheran pastor friend tells me only one child within his daughter’s social group, could recite the Lord’s Prayer. A United Methodist friend tells that one of his church youth had never heard the story of Noah.
For what do you hope this Advent?
Do you hope for peace? Do you hope for an end of strife, that the hungry shall be fed, the sick made well, the lame to walk? Do you hope for revival in your church, in your community? Do you hope for a day when children shall know with devotion the Lord’s Prayer, when they can retell the story of Noah and his floating zoo?
I hope for these, too. But I hope for something more immediate and personal.
For me Advent has come full circle. I was taught as I grew up not to be selfish, to hope for things which would better others. Now I’m back to hoping for myself. I hope for the presence of God within me. I hope to be a messenger of peace wherever I go. I hope to be an instrument for the feeding of the hungry. I hope to be a path for the lost.
May this be the Advent of your hope.
From Heaven Came Down, Meditations for Advent, Guy Kent, Copyright 1997 by Guy Kent, Morris Publishing
Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.
-- Isaiah 64: 1
My Granddad has been gone a long time. Yet, even after three plus decades, hardly a day goes by when I do not remember him fondly. I suppose I idolize him. But, in my mind, it’s deserved.
When we were children, on him we could depend, depend for all sorts of things. He was there when we needed. He seemed always to have time to listen. He taught us to build things from wood. he insisted we know how to safely handle firearms. He administered discipline with a razor strap, resulting in our not needing discipline more than once or twice in a lifetime.
The thin I remember most fondly is Christmas at his house.
When Santa failed to leave that special thing for which I’d wished so desperately under my tree, I never despaired. In a few hours we’d be at his house. I knew the gift would be under his tree. Everyone in my generation knew that Santa always made two stops for each of us.
My grandfather was always faithful to us. Which explains, I guess, why on some Christmases there were up to seventy-five people at his house. (How did he afford all those gifts?) It also explains why those who grew up there remember his house with joy.
When it’s all summed up, he was always faithful to us.
Somewhere, it seems to me, our religion gets twisted about. Somewhere, someone started insisting the crux of the issue was our being faithful to God. Perhaps, that tact allows preachers to get to us better.
I’ve come to the conclusion, however, the crux of the issue is the opposite.
When the Hebrews cried from Egypt’s bondage “Who will deliver us?” it was God who responded in miraculous ways.
In the midst of Israel’s defeats, the prophet cried, “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” God did.
The issue of faith is not in our puny efforts to be faithful to god. The issue is the faithfulness of God that forms our belief.
When we are at our worst, he opens the heavens, becomes flesh, and faithfully dwells among us.
May this be the Advent of acknowledging God’s faithfulness to you.
From Heaven Came Down, Meditations for Advent, Guy Kent, Copyright 1997 by Guy Kent, Morris Publishing.
And she gave birth to her first born son and wrapped him in a manger, because there was not room for them in the inn.
-- Luke 2: 7
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judah, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem.
-- Matthew 2: 1
There’s a story we all love. Elements of a “made for TV” movie are there: a young maiden, an adoring husband, both victims of circumstances, both making the best of it. Rural work ethic makes appearance in amazed shepherds. Nobility of royalty is present in the gift-bearing Magi. And the young baby in all his innocence and helplessness completes the picture.
That’s the Christmas story we like to hear.
If only the story ended there.
Gary DeMore tells a wonderful story. he was pastor of Druid Hills United Methodist Church in Atlanta. His younger son was pre-school.
Riding home after church one Sunday, Gary talked with his son.
“Hey, Benjamin,” he said. “I hear there was some problem in the nursery today.”
“Yes, sir,” replied Benjamin, “some kid gave Tommy a bloody nose.”
Gary asked, “Why’d he do that?”
“‘cause Tommy’s a jerk,” came the succinct reply.
There was a pause as Gary digested the conversation thus far, weighing it against other information he’d been provided.
“Benjamin, who hit Tommy?”
Silence responded to the question.
“Benjamin, did you hit Tommy?”
Another moment of silence was followed with: “Look, Dad, I’ve already told you half the story. I’ll tell you the other half some other time.”
We’re all a little like Benjamin. We’d like to save the difficult part of the story until a more convenient time.
But the Christmas scene in Bethlehem is followed by the slaughter of the innocents, the beheading of the Baptist, the prayer in the garden, the kiss of betrayal, the execution, and the promise of his return in judgment.
If only we could save the difficult part for latter. We, then, would not need to deal with our propensity for the darkness of sin, much less the agony of the cross that forgave that sin.
And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.
-- Matthew 2: 6
Christmas Eve. The year 1865. Phillips Brooks, pastor of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, stood atop a hill. Below him was an undistinguished Arab village. The village was Bethlehem.
Brooks reflected upon the ordinariness of the sleepy village. Yet, still he was impacted. The ery simplicity of the quaint town stirred him. Not only a distinguished preacher, Brooks composed hymns. Of what he was seeing and feeling he knew a hymn must come.
Christmas Eve. The year 1997. Bethlehem is still very much the same little town on which Phillips Brooks gazed. A tired Arab village. But how many will stand upon its hills this Christmas Eve?
Bethlehem in the past years has enjoyed a tremendous tourist industry, especially at Christmas. But December in the ‘90s is a different matter. There is danger all about. There is tension among Christians, Muslims, Orthodox Jews. Pilgrims to Bethlehem in these days could become targets of one faction of the other.
When Brooks stood there his nation was just emerging from the bloodiest war of its history. Today, in Bethlehem, the factions are organized in the name of God, each contesting over a land they each call holy, and they are about the business of killing each other.
We gaze upon our created vistas of Bethlehem. We see shepherds and sheep, wise men and gifts, the mother and the baby. We’re not there, however. Our fantasy is safe. But the truth is the birth place of the Prince of Peace is a place of violence.
In Bethlehem the best and worst of humankind is on display. In Bethlehem, we find the symbol of our hope for the establishment of the kingdom of God. In Bethlehem we see how badly we have failed.
Brooks, looking at Bethlehem, was moved. The feeling remained with him when he returned to America. In 1867 he wrote the words that accurately describe Bethlehem today:
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee …
May this be the Advent of Hope giving rest to your fears.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and turth.
-- John 1: 14
“It all happened in a moment,” writes Max Lucado, “ a most remarkable moment. … That was like none other … God became man.” (1) The enormity of that has always confounded me. God, larger that God’s creation, more profound than our deepest collective thoughts, unencumbered by time, this Deity, became just like me.
Can we ever fully grasp the significance of that?
The Infant Incarnate suckling at a human breast. The Toddler Trinity stumbling through his first steps. The Adolescent All-knowing popping a pimple. The Mature Almighty with an aching back.
He had a heart that was charged by adrenaline when someone sneaked up behind and cried, “Boo!” That same heart was capable of a flutter when a pretty girl walked by. It was a human heart that could feel the pain of loneliness, being misunderstood, betrayed.
God was like us. God felt our feelings. God walked in human steps with blisters on God’s feet. Sweat beaded upon God’s forehead. God worked for a living, a carpenter with callused hands and blue-black hammer-struck thumb nails.
God watched God’s neighbors as they went about their business. God may well have shaken God’s head in wonderment at their humanness.
God went to synagogue. God sat listening to dull teachers of scripture as we sit listening to homilies of boring preachers. Did God smile at the limit of their theological grasp? Did God have to stifle the impulse to stand and proclaim, “Hold on! It’s not like that at all.”
God dreamed dreams as we. God once dreamed of ruling over kingdoms. God deserved it. God turned the dread down.
We dream of doing good things if we won the lottery. God dreamed of filling the bellies of the hungry. God had the power. God decided to not command loyalty with magic tricks. God, in god’s humanness, reached out to establish an eternal kingdom, to feed the soul.
God became human, filled with all the frustrations that wrap that package. God became impatient with people, especially their slowness to catch on, so impatient God called one of his own “the devil.” God knew the pain of dealing with those who settle for the expedient.
Think about it. God had to get up and go to work. god had to sit abou the table with some really dull people. God was forced to deal with other’s jealousies. god had to learn how difficult patience is to practice.
God was human!
May this be the Advent God’s humanness speaks to your living.
1. Lucado, Max, God Came Near, Multnomah Press, 1986, p. 25.
From Heaven Came Down, Meditations On Advent, Guy Kent, Copyright 1997 by Guy Kent, Morris Press.
Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now, when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near ….
-- Luke 21: 27-28
Paul Hanson, of Billy Graham Films, was talking with me. I told him about my church, my vision of where I felt God wanted the church to go.
“If it’s truly God’s vision,” I said, “nothing can stop it from being.” Then I added, “But God is so slow!”
“Yes, God is,” Paul agreed. And then he added, “But God’s always on time.”
I get tired of waiting.
How patiently I waited for my children to grow to maturity, to become independent adults, no longer needing me. Now, they are. My patience paid off.
How patiently I now wait. Wait for my mature, independent children, who no longer need me, to get in touch with me, to let me know what is going on in their lives.
My granddad died in 1963. Thirty-two years later my grandmother died. Thirty-two years she waited patiently to join him. Whenever she and I would talk during those years, she’d inevitably say, “I don’t know why God’s waiting so long to come and get me.”
God finally came. He took her home at the tender age of ninety-five. I’m sure, in Mama’s mind, her patience had finally paid off. But I’m also sure when she reached the Golden Gate she inquired as to what had been the delay.
The early Christians waited patiently. In many ways the early church was obsessed with the coming of the end of time. It’s understandable. Much of Jesus’ teaching was eschatological. The early church waited for Christ’s return with eager anticipation.
Advent is very much about waiting. That’s not an easy thing to do. And yet, we have so much experience about it. We wait for the infirm to die. We wait for the children to come home. We wait for better circumstances, for better finances, for better relationships.
We wait for the church to become the “body of Christ.” We wait for the day when prejudice dies, when barriers fall, when the brotherhood of man overcomes the artificial divisions.
We wait. Life is about waiting. Christianity is about waiting. Advent is a celebration of waiting. Waiting for the Messiah.
This season, let us wait with hope. Let us trun our eyes beyond the darkness, to see the light that is brighter than all our despair, all our disillusionment, all our frustration, all our impatience.
God will ultimately rule. God will establish God’s kingdom. God will triumph. God’s people will someday be redeemed. And those who have waited patiently will be rewarded.
May this be the Advent of the fruits of your waiting.
From Heaven Came Down, Meditations for Advent, Guy Kent, Copyright 1997 by Guy Kent; Morris Publishing
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