Recently I saw an interview of a young family - a mom and a dad and a little girl of four or five years of age, refugees recently escaped, exiles of war-torn Syria living now with us in the GTA. The little girl has learned many new words in the short time they’ve been here. I listened with tears as, in response to a reporter’s prompt, she sang:
Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are, up above the world, so bright, like a diamond in the night. Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are.
Do you remember your own wonder as a child? Do you still have within you some vestige of it, in this mean world this Christmas? We read once more – or someone reads to us - 'A Child’s Christmas in Wales' or ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.' We sing the carols: 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing; ''Joy to the World!'' O Come, O Come Emmanuel, ''Mary Did You Know?' We listen to the hauntingly beautiful choirs of King’s College, Cambridge, the Vienna Boy's Choir - or from Christ Church in Dublin. We want the Celtic Women to go on and on, singing 'The Wexford Carol' and 'O Holy Night.' And every year, we continue our profound rituals at church and maybe some silly ones at home.
The Hope Candle, this first Sunday of Advent is also called the Prophets' Candle as traditionally it's about the promises of the Old Testament prophets. Hope is announced for this old world. It's grounded: Judaism and Christianity are earthy. The prophets were honest about the darkness around them in their world, but declared that in the midst of it a great Light would shine. The Light of Life would surely come in the Person of God’s Messiah. So - Comfort ye, comfort ye my people . . . And - He shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father – the Prince of Peace. Isaiah said it first; we hear it again each year in Handel's Messiah.
There’s even the promise in the Garden – the Garden of Eden, that one day for sure the seed of the woman would finally defeat and destroy, the seed of the serpent. And a little later in Genesis: The scepter will not depart from Judah, said one old prophecy, until Shiloh comes, whose right it will be to reign. And as we think of all the injustice and unfairness in the world, the Psalmist reminds us (in Ps. 2) that God has set his Son on his Holy Hill in Zion. People, nations and their leaders may laugh at God's Word in scorn. But their laughter, rule, power and prominence will choke in their throats as God has the last laugh. The Kingdoms of this world will become the Kingdoms of our Lord, and of His Christ; and He shall reign forever and ever.
We make Christmas pretty and I think we should, but there were some awfully ugly incidents associated with our Saviour’s Advent. And think of the vulnerability of God’s plan to save the world. Deity contracted in a span, is how John Wesley put it. A wee baby - about 22 inches in length. And this is the Lord of Glory?! - the Hope of Glory?! - This little one lying helpless in a manger a few feet from horse or cow, donkey or oxen, Just above the strawy mess and manure that animals leave. Watch where you step!
There was ‘the slaughter of the innocents’ - paranoid, power-hungry Herod killing all the males circa two years old just to be sure he'd reign for ever and ever - well for a little while longer, anyway. And think of what Joseph and Mary had to do when Jesus was about that age. Sure, they trusted God and everything but it meant also that they had to do something. Warned by an angel – in a dream yet (do you follow your dreams?), they fled for the life of the child and maybe their own, too. The One who created the world. Coming fully into it, was at its mercy and ours. The One who offers grace and mercy, at our mercy to do with what we will. This was no bubble-boy baby!
And after a while, it was time and supposedly ‘safe’ to go home – so the angel said. That’s what some Russian vacationers thought too, a few weeks ago. But what do you do when the flight home from Egypt gets shot down by fanatical terrorists?
There has always been poignancy in the Message of Christmas, from First Advent till now. We’re all frail creatures of dust – stardust, we're told. And we feel there’s little we can do in a world too big, too scarry, too full of uncertainty and danger. And once again this Advent for some people around us, the major colours are not red and green; the major colour will be blue. It’ll be a blue Christmas for many. Christmas seems especially poignant in our world this year. There’s been so much tragedy, so much loss, so much senseless evil has been unleashed – in war, riots and refugee flights. Hapless victims have drowned; little children’s bodies washed up on foreign shores.
In her book, ‘Small Wonder,’ Barbara Kingsolver writes: “The closest my heart has come to breaking lately was on the day my little girl arrived home from school and ran to me, her face tense with expectation, asking, “Are they still having that war in Afghanistan? She continued: “If people are just going to keep doing that, I wish I’d never been born.” Kingsolver writes that she sat on the floor and held her tightly - “ to keep my own spirit from draining through the soles of my feet.”
And yet. the lights of Christmas always shine best in night skies and against dark backgrounds. All of this world's tragedy, weakness and vulnerability is not new. It was all there in the first Christmas story. The Gospels say that It's always been this way. There are dangers as well as delights in each and every Christmas. So how do we keep on hoping, trusting, believing? How do we keep on waging peace in a war-torn world? How do we find and share joy and love? - the true joy and love of Christmas that God wills to bring us and our world through.
Think about both the WONDER and the WORRY of Christmas. I put it in that order: WONDER first and then WORRY, because every year we are seized again with wonder, I think . . . but then life happens, something new threatens us and we begin to worry. We worry and wonder how this can be if God really has entered the world in Christ. Where’s the peace, the joy and hope and love of Christmas promise?
Consider Mary's story, the mother of our Lord, for the promise of deliverance was to come through her, through her acquiescence, her faith, her own hope and her own obedience.
Here it is in Three Acts. (There are more - but, these three.) I want to pay particular attention to these passages and events as they show that even in the midst and mix of situations, words and events that bring wonder, as well as warning and worry, we can be like Mary in our responses of faith and faithful action.
Scene 1: The Angel tells Mary she will have a child. Scene One is about the unfailing word of God - and Mary’s response to it. I suppose that any mother especially, and any father too for that matter, worries about how they will manage when a new baby enters their lives. What will happen? And in Mary’s situation in the close-knit village of Nazareth, given that Mary is not married yet, if it does happen what will people think?! God comes to us in the midst of challenging and impossible situations. He speaks words that seem impossible to fathom – their implications unclear as yet. And yet we believe that His Word is certain and sure. In sheer faith we say, 'Amen: Let it be! Ainsi-soit-il (and so it shall be'). This scene challenges us to respond with words like Mary, when God speaks: - "Be it on to me according to your Word."
Scene 2: Here, in Luke 1:46 – 55, we have the unceasing worship of those who are blessed by God. With Mary, we travel to a little village in the Judean hills when Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, wife of Zechariah the priest. Elizabeth acknowledges that Mary is the mother of her Lord. In fact moments before, her own six-month gestating John (the Baptist to be) had lept in her womb as Mary (the Christ-Child within her) approached. And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”
The responses of Elizabeth and Mary are pregnant with worship and praise. Scene One was about the unfailing word of God. Scene Two is about the unceasing worship of God. Scene Three continues the thoughts of all concerning the unending work of God in our world.
Scene 3 is set before us in Luke 2: 34, 35. Imagine yourself in the Temple in Jerusalem when Mary and Joseph brought themselves and their son Jesus to be presented in dedication to God. Old Anna and equally elderly Simeon have been waiting there for years for God's Promise, God's Messiah. And as he takes the Child in his arms, Simeon’s words convey a thought that would give every mother, every father, pause - and cause for worry. Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
There is much to be wondering about in our world but there’s also, indeed, much to be worried about in our world. I don’t know how or when, but in each of our lives things will happen that will pierce our soul. Something will – maybe in this week. I heard a godly pastor once: “It’s doubtful God can use his choice saints until He’s allowed them to be hurt.” I think that’s true. Somehow what is good is produced in the midst of what is bad. Sometimes it’s even where sin abounds that grace much more abounds, writes St. Paul in Romans.
Do you remember the speech by John Coffey, from the movie "The Green Mile"? – "I know you hurtin' and worryin', I can feel it on you, but you oughta quit on it now. Because I want it over and done. I do. I'm tired, boss. Tired of bein' on the road, lonely as a sparrow in the rain. Tired of not ever having me a buddy to be with, or tell me where we's coming from or going to, or why. Mostly I'm tired of people being ugly to each other. I'm tired of all the pain I feel and hear in the world everyday. There's too much of it. It's like pieces of glass in my head all the time."
The Christian Life, anyone's life, is not immune from life’s difficulties; but even in the midst of deep trouble, struggle and loss - we can know –and we can show: hope, peace, joy and love. ‘Are they still having that war in Afghanistan – in South Sudan? In Nigeria, Lebanon, Syria? - Yep . . . God always comes into impossible situations. He brings down rulers and nations and raises up others. The state of the world from our perspective is not the view nor the plan, nor the meaning nor the end God has in mind. His ways are not our ways and neither is His timing. His eyes and ears and hands (metaphorically speaking) are not closed, nor are they stopped or thwarted or tied.
God is good and good will prevail. He will surely intervene. This too shall pass! God is God and no one can stay His hand or tell Him what to do or not do. God works with us and with our world unendingly, and Christians believe Him and take Him at His Word when He says He has willed to bless and change and renew - and bring back the world: - to its former Creation glory – and more.
SO, HOW SHALL WE LIVE? How will we observe Christmas in this old world this year? Well, worrying is certainly one option. And there’s a proper time and sense of concern that we’re right to have. But there’s a kind of worrying that’s debilitating, paralyzing; it’s a killer - that like faith, only in an opposite fashion and direction, is a way of borrowing from tomorrow - borrowing not from God’s Kingdom power and resources, but from this world of time and space with its own confusion and despair. Corrie ten Boom, who suffered so much in a Nazi Concentration camp, wrote in her book The Hiding Place, “Worrying is carrying tomorrow’s load with today’s strength - carrying two days at once. It is moving into tomorrow ahead of time. Worrying does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow; it empties today of its strength." And later in the book: “Some knowledge is too heavy; you cannot bear it. Your Father will carry it until you are able.”
Another Option . . . Some people’s idea of being faithful is to be watchdogs when it seems someone in the public sphere is taking Christ out of Christmas, or maybe not including Him in the 'holiday season'. This year the furor has been over Starbucks 'negligence' in that regard (say some) and social media was abuzz with opinion. But let’s be clear: Christians keep Christ in Christmas. It’s not the task or responsibility of some faceless corporation. It’s personal. It’s up to us, the Spirit of Jesus indwelling, helping us. In his newly published book, The Yuletide Factor, Tim Huff says that we ought to think of Christmas as a verb. It’s about how we experience and how we show the reality of God’s entrance into the world in the Person of Jesus Christ, not only in December but throughout the year, in every day and in every way that we live. Tim says that we Christmas best when we Christmas always.
As we wait during this Advent, though we may often be powerless, we are not helpless: we can do something. If you want to keep CHRIST in Christmas, here’s what you do. Remembering God’s unfailing word, His unending work, and our unceasing opportunities to give Him worship and praise . . .
Go to your neighbour, your world – and become Jesus to them. Visit the sick, the imprisoned and the dying. Care for the poor. Forgive people - even those unworthy of it. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked; visit people in prison. Help figure out housing issues; fight injustice, help sponsor a refugee family. Determine what you’re going to give this year, a World Vision or Canadian Baptist Ministries (or such-like) gift-catalogue in han. Buy the gift that will help to drill a well, build a hospital, send medical supplies, help feed a family for a year, buy a sheep or goat or three, sponsor a new child.
Be the twinkling star in someone’s night sky. Be a candle in the dark room of someone’s depression and despair. Hold your kids close and tell them that sometimes you don’t have all the answers, and in some situations no answer at all: you’re letting the Heavenly Father carry it. Speak up and live out the Message of Hope to neighbours known and unknown. Remember that God is working all things for good - perhaps sometimes even through your own good self.
So as we go forth into our world, into our own life situations, let’s trust God – and step out with more wonder than worry, with more faith than fear. Let’s take Him at His word and Hope in Him - and Worship Him as best we may, wherever we are.
I wonder as I wander out under the sky how Jesus the Saviour did come - for to die, for poor on'ry people like you and like I. -- I wonder as I wander out under the sky