Look Who Showed Up
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church, December 24th, 2017
So, have you found it yet? I mean, we all came looking. And some of you go there early enough; I would have figured you would have looked under the chairs. Maybe it’s there, or behind the piano? Or maybe over by the bell table. The meaning of Christmas, have you found it? It’s here. Shall we talk about it?
I think we should because that’s what I prepared. We’ve bought our up-in-the-air lives, here. We’ve come looking for insight into the meaning of Christmas; the meaning of Christmas. Maybe we need to listen to Mary and Joseph because, for the last nine months, at least, their lives have been up-in-the-air too. And maybe that’s where we begin looking for the meaning of Christmas. Don’t rush to resolution. Let things come.
The sure thing, the pending engagement followed by age-old traditions… yes, not so much. Disrupted, at best. Mary said she had an angelic visit. Do we believe what a woman says about her own sexuality? That’s an age-old question.
Joseph had a hard time believing what she said. The rules about what should happen to women, who turn up pregnant outside of marriage, were very clear. And they’re a lot clearer when it doesn’t affect someone you know; much easier to be absolute in your rightness when you have no skin in the game. It’s easy to be judgmental when you don’t know anybody that it’s affecting.
But then, Joseph has dreams of angels too. And his heart found a way. That’s always how it happens.
Well, today is the day, the wait is over. The preparations have been made. We know the carols, we know the readings, and we know the whole story so well we can tell it by heart: the star, the shepherds, the angel, the wise-men, the baby. Maybe that’s where we should look for the meaning of Christmas. About that baby… Glowing, right, a glowing baby. Kind of giving off light. Wrapped in incandescent flannel. Available from Abercrombie and Fitch. With a silk banner over his head that reads: joy to the world, peace on earth, good will toward men. That’s the biblical image, right? Well, no. No, it’s not.
Do yourself a favor, reach into that Christmas card Jesus that I just described, and pick up that baby. This is the one from the bible. Examine his little fingernails. Notice how his head is a little misshapen and kind of bruised from his entry into the world. Count his toes, ten. Scrape a fleck of cow manure off his little cheek and say to yourself as you look at his head, there in the crook of your arm: this is God in my presence. This is what God has decided to look like. Smell Mary’s breath or smell Mary’s milk on his breath. Feel the damp warmth coming through the layers of swaddling clothes. And say it again: this is God’s presence in my arms.
Perplexing, to witness God, Almighty God, among us, unable to turn over from His belly to His back without help; utterly dependent on the kindness of His creatures. Sure, sure, we know the story by heart, we do, we know it should have meaning, and so we have added meaning to it, by putting it on Christmas cards and reads. But, what child is this? And what is God’s message for us tonight?
Well, the baby is, any baby is, in the best of worlds, evidence that a love affair has occurred. And that is certainly the case with this child. God has loved humanity since the moment She thought us up. But, the relationship has always kind of been a rocky one. In the beginning, God thought paradise would be enough. God gave us everything and hoped for the best but right away we wanted more, and we started blaming each other. And we wound up banished from the garden, ushered out by angels with flaming swords.
So, God said: all right, you need something a bit more concrete, let us make a covenant together, you and me, I will be your God, and you will be my people. You will be faithful to me; I will be faithful to you. But we weren’t.
We doubted God at every turn, and we protested that we did not know what God wanted from us. All right, God said, you need some guidance. Here’s ten commandments. It would please me for you to follow them. I will write them on rocks, so you do not lose them. And, by the way, they’re for your own good. If you keep these your life will be better.
But, we broke those commandments in more ways than one. And so, God took another step in our direction: let me simplify the covenant, God said. Love me in how you love your neighbor; just that. Don’t worry about the rocks. And I’m going to write this covenant on your heart, so it’s not hard to carry around.
But even that was not enough for us. We complained that it was too vague. And who is my neighbor, we wondered. And so, God narrowed it down and specified it to six specific things that God wanted from us, God’s way. Cease evil. Learn good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Seek justice for the orphan. And plead the case of the widow. Six things. We didn’t do well with those either. We complained that it cost something; got in the way of our power games and greed.
See, the history of our love affair with God, is the repeated story of our criticism of God and God’s forgiveness. And every time the distance between us, the distance we’ve put between us, has threatened to end the relationship, it is God who has stepped across the breach; taking on more and more of the burden of the relationship.
And tonight, through the Christ Child, God is saying: put the old covenant on hold. I have a new covenant in mind. I’m going to dwell among you as a servant. I’m going to demonstrate my way in your world. Do what I do.
And so, Isaiah says: to us a child is born. To us a son is given. And the government shall be on His shoulders. Government on His shoulders? Wait a minute, we’ve got to take a little detour, what does that mean? He’s simply bringing the new kingdom. He’s a new king, bringing a new kingdom. Not a kingdom of this world, with borders, and armies, and budgets. Any time that you practice God’s way, you’re living into the kingdom of God. It’s always there; it’s always pending when you live God’s way, those six things: cease evil; learn good; seek justice; help the oppressed; seek justice for the orphan; and plead the case of the widow. You’re leaning into God’s kingdom. That’s what that government talk means.
And He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God. Everlasting Father. And it just occurred to me what that means. He’s the one, you want to sit on His lap and have Him hold you. And we will call Him the Prince of Peace.
God says: I am so crazy in love with you that I will come all the way to where you are. I will be flesh of your flesh. I will be bone of your bone. I will be people like you. I will show you my way. All you have to do is imitate me. I love you enough to become one of you. I love you to death.
Now, I hear this, I contemplate it for a while, and I can’t get past this response: have you met us? Do you understand how creative we are, how gifted we can be at being difficult; at finding an excuse? Have you met us? I mean, God is scandalous here. Where is God’s majesty? Where is God’s dignity? What makes God believe we’re going to respect God after He lays Himself bare and vulnerable like that – He’s shameless. Willing to reduce Himself to vulnerable in diapers, if it will help Him love… help us love Him, the way He loves us.
This is the mystery we came here to ponder as we search for Christmas and the meaning of Christmas; this mystery of an incarnation; the mystery of a God so in love with us, that He came to be one of us. We say: well, that’s silly. But we’re drawn here year after year. It’s something we know so well that we are apt to forget that we don’t understand it at all.
If we did, we’d probably behave a lot more like Megan, a five-year-old, who wound up her own telling of the Christmas story, by asking her listeners: and then the baby was borned. And do you know who he was? The baby was God, she whispered. And then she leaped into the air and she twirled around twice, and threw herself onto the couch. Which is, I think, the only proper response to the good news of God coming among us?
He could have come among us as some monstrous celestial being, or a mighty emperor, with magical powers. Or in some form clearly superior to ours; invulnerable to us. He would have been easier to recognize that way, and we could have kept our distance. But, God chose to come among us as a child, weighing about the same weight as a sack of flour; among simple peasant folk, too. God chose the lowest common denominator; left us no escape from His presence. That’s the message of the shepherds, they’re the lowest, and they’re the ones who are invited. Nobody is standing at the door to keep you out.
I think that’s why it’s so important as we search for the meaning, as we find the meaning of Christmas. To be led to the real child. To ponder that what Mary and Joseph got, was not a Hallmark baby, but a belching, barfing, pooping, squalling, infant who kept them up nights for months; human among us.
Now twirl, and twist, and dive for the couch. Things that cannot be have come to pass this night. God has come among us as a child. Will you imitate Him? Will you follow Him? Will you let Him lead you? That, my friends, is the meaning of Christmas.