There Is Always Room for Christmas

no room

It was a dark time in a dark world. Mary and Joseph were on the road to pay taxes to a puppet king in an occupied territory. The road was long, and being with child made the road especially difficult. And to make things more difficult, when it was time for the baby to be born, they discovered that there was no room in the inn.

There is no room. There is no place. There is no way. There is no hope.

But, as God had proved over and over throughout history, from the covenant of Abraham through the great Exodus to the prophets in exile, there is nothing that can separate the world from God’s love. For God, once again, showed up! In spite of every demonic power that tried to thwart God’s coming, God came.

And the good news of Christmas is that God still comes. And there is nothing in all of creation, nor things above nor below, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor life nor death that can stop God from coming.

A church once presented a Christmas play. You know the kind. Three boys playing shepherds are carrying long sticks wearing bath robes with towels wrapped around their heads. And three more boys playing wise men wearing cardboard Burger-King crowns wrapped in Reynolds Wrap are carrying boxes decorated with left-over Christmas garland. They all walk up on the chancel, greet Mary and Joseph, and bow down before the baby Jesus.

During this particular play, a spokesperson for the wise men made the announcement: “We three kings have traveled from the East to bring the baby Jesus gifts of gold, circumstance and mud.”

Of course, laughter filled the sanctuary. But you know what they say: “out of the mouths of babes.”

Through Christ, God came to Mary and Joseph and God comes to us in the circumstance of being told there is no room for you, there is no place for you, there is no way for you, and there is no hope for you, and emphatically says, “Oh, yes there is!”

The good news of Christmas is that God comes to us in all of our circumstances with the assurance that there is no circumstance on earth or in heaven that is beyond God’s amazing grace.

And coming as a human being, coming into the world as a fleshly body, a body made up of dust and water, God comes and joins us in our mud.

Through Christ, God came and still comes into our muck of pain and sickness and offers comfort and healing.

Through Christ, God came and still comes into our muck of loneliness and fear and shares divine presence and a peace beyond understanding.

The world says that there is no room, that things are not going to get any better. The world says there is no way, that the good old days are long gone. The world says that there is no place where evil will not get the best of you. The world says there is no hope because in the end, everyone dies.

Then a young woman named Mary goes into labor as God says: “I am always working all things together for the good!”

The child cries in the night as God says: “Although you cannot go back to the good old days, good new days are dawning, even if you are about to draw your last breath!”

The world says: “There is no room. You will never amount to anything.”

The world says: “There is no way. Sin will always get the best of you.”

The world says: “There is no place for you. Nobody really cares about you.”

The world says: “For you, there is no room, no way, no place, no hope.”

Then a baby is wrapped in bands of cloth born to underserving, unwed teenagers in an occupied land, as God says: “I love you just as you are, and I come to wrap you in my mercy, clothe you with my grace. I know your sins and I forgive you. I will always be with you and never away from you. I will always be for you and never against you. I will always stay by your side fighting for you, even if it means dying for you.”

The world says: “There is no way this country will ever come together. Racism will never end. Hate will never cease. Railroad tracks will always divide. There is no room for compromise. There is no place for reconciliation. There is no hope for unity.”

Then a brown-skinned baby’s birth to a Hebrew woman is announced by angels: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people. For you, all of you, a baby is born who is Christ the Lord and through him there is no longer Jew or gentile, slave or free, male or female for all are one.”

The good news of Christmas is although the world often seems dark, the light of God will not be diminished.

Although politics divide us, the good news that unites us will not suppressed.

Although the sound of violence is deafening, the Word of God will not be silenced.

Although the powerful will always try to oppress the weak, the justice of God will not be defeated.

Although tyrants rule with fear, the prince of peace will not be conquered.

Although hate seems to have its way, love will not die.

Although sin seems to get the best of us, grace will not fail.

Although despair seems to overwhelm, hope will not fade.

Although death seems to be final, the kingdom of God will reign forever and ever.

Hallelujah! Merry Christmas!

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Disappointment at Christmas

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Matthew 11:2-11 NRSV

It’s the Third Sunday of Advent. The days are getting shorter. The nights are growing longer. The last month of the year is a darker, colder place to live. And it is in this cold December darkness that we are all a little more sensitive, a little more attuned to the real darkness and chill of our world. The world around us appears even more fragile than usual, more harsh, and more broken.

Human service organizations report record number of volunteers and donations in the days leading up to Christmas. It’s really kind of silly when you think about it. The homeless are still homeless in July. The cold are even colder come February. Nursing home residents won’t be any younger when March arrives, and the hospitals are filled with the sick every month of the year. But at Christmas, our hearts become a little more tender, and they tend to bleed just a little bit more.

And here lies our great December disappointment. Our holiday awareness of the world’s plight is the great paradox of Christmas. If God so loved the world that God was willing to become flesh and be Emmanuel, God with us, why is there so much pain and suffering in our world? Why is there so much poverty, sickness, injustice, and pure evil? Why is this world so cold, so dark?

Death, divorce, disease, destitution, desperation, despair—darkness—it envelops us like a December Arctic blast.

If God so loved the world that God was willing to become flesh and dwell among us, if Christmas really occurred, if God truly came, if good news actually happened, why is this world still so cold? Why are we left disappointed?

I believe these are the questions with which John the Baptizer struggled.

As we mentioned last week, John is the very first character in the Christmas drama. He is the one of whom Jesus says: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than [he]”. He is the one who had given his entire life to God, who had very faithfully and courageously lived out his purpose in life preparing the world for the advent of the Messiah. His important role in salvation history had been prophesied years earlier by the prophets Isaiah and Malachi. And he fulfilled this role with utmost humility and commitment.

When people felt led to worship him, John quickly said, “No, for there is one who is coming who is more powerful than me, for I am not even worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.”

And what does he get? What is his reward?

Imprisonment. He is locked up in a cold, dark cell waiting for the Romans to cut off his head.

Talk about Christmas paradoxes!

“Wait one minute!” John must have thought. “This can’t be happening! Not to me! Not to the one who was chosen by God to prepare the hearts of people for the Advent of the Messiah! I have been so faithful, so courageous. I have sacrificed, and I have given my all. And just look at me now! Look what I have gotten! Look where I am! My world could not be more cold, more dark!  Something is just not right about this.”

Can you relate?

I can.

So, there, in prison, enveloped in disappointment, John sent word asking Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come?” Are you the messiah? Are you the one about whom I have been preaching all these years?

“Or are we to wait for another?” Someone who is even more powerful. Someone who will finally come and set this world straight. For if you are truly the Messiah, why is my world so dark? Why am I sitting in prison about to lose my head? Why do I feel the way that I feel? Why am I so disappointed? Something is just not right with this picture. Jesus, I want, I need some answers!”

Jesus answered John alright. Just not the way he hoped he might answer. Jesus told his disciples to “Go and tell John what you hear and see. The blind receive their sight. The lame walk. The lepers are cleansed. the deaf hear. The dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

What is Jesus telling John by pointing to these signs of the Messiah’s coming?

Well, I know what he is not telling John the Baptist. As one who has read about John ten chapters earlier in Matthew and as one who knows something of the disappointment of this world, I know that Jesus was not telling John what John wanted to hear.

Jesus was not saying, “Yes, John, I am the one. I am the Messiah of the world who is coming with my ax in hand to cut down the Romans and throw them into the fire! With my winnowing fork, I am coming to clear the threshing floor and burn your enemies with an unquenchable fire!

So Cuz, you just sit tight, because Christmas is coming and things are about to get straightened out! Somebody’s coming to town and he’s making a list! He’s checking it twice! So all who are against you, why, they better watch out!”

No, Jesus said, “I am he. I am Christmas. However, Christmas is not carrying an ax and a winnowing fork and harsh words of condemnation. I’m carrying bread for the hungry. I am carrying water for the thirsty, and I’m carrying words of forgiveness for the sinners.”

The one who is more powerful than John comes, but this powerful one comes with a different type of power: a selfless, self-expending power. He comes to rule not with an iron fist, but with outstretched arms. He comes to love and to save and to die. The Messiah goes into villages, not to burn them down with unquenchable fire. But goes into villages to eat at the table with sinners, to give hope to the poor, to bring wholeness to the broken, and to give life to the dead.” This one who is more powerful than John comes as a suffering servant.

From his cold, dark prison cell, John the Baptist heard about this so he sent word inquiring, “Are you the one? Are you the Messiah who is to come?  Or are we to look for another?”  John’s whole ministry had been pointing to Jesus, saying that he is the one. Now John asks Jesus, “Are you really the one?”

John preached, “The Messiah is coming!  He’s going to fix everything.  He’s going to straighten the whole thing out. He’s going to finally set things right.  But now the Messiah had come. And John the Baptist is in prison. And he’s about to have his head served up on a silver platter.

Anticipation of the Messiah has now met the reality of the Messiah.  And for John, and if we are honest, for even us today, there is some disappointment.

And all John was told was to look for these signs of his coming. And although these signs were not what he expected, and certainly not what he wanted, miraculously, John will soon learn, as we all are still learning, that these signs were all he truly needed.

And you know what I am talking about! The good news is: Jesus the Messiah of the world has come to this earth as the light of the world to save us all from Satan’s power, and there are signs all around us that prove it!

The blind receive their sight—you know people who are physically blind, yet they can see God more distinctly, see hope more clearly, and see love more purely than anyone with 20/20 vision.

The lame walk—you know people in wheelchairs who are more whole, more together, more able, and more gifted than some world-class professional athletes.

Lepers are cleansed—you know people who have been demeaned, degraded and dehumanized, yet they have more of a sense of belonging, of distinction, of purpose, of eminence, than royalty.

The deaf hear—you know some hearing impaired who are more attentive, more alert and more keenly aware of this miraculous gift we call Christmas than folks who can hear a pin drop.

The dead are raised—you know people who on their deathbeds were more conscious, more hopeful and more alive than some couples on their wedding day.

And the poor have good news brought to them—And we all know folks who do not have a dime to their name, yet they are richer, more satisfied and better-off than some of the wealthiest people we know.

And there was once an old preacher named John sitting in a cold, dark Roman prison cell, about to lose his head, who, although he did not always realize it, was more liberated, more unfettered and unshackled, and more free than any new born baby!

And then there are the small signs of Christmas that are all around us—in a friend’s or a spouse’s undeserved forgiveness; in the innocent love of a child; in a warm embrace; in a friend’s thoughtful visit, encouragement, empathy and love; in the breaking of bread, in the sharing of a cup.

And these signs can also be seen through serving a hot meal to a stranger; giving a coat or providing shelter to the cold and undeserving; visiting the lonely in a nursing home; and wrapping gifts for families you have and will never meet.

Yes, on the surface, John the Baptist may have been disappointed when Messiah did not come quite as he preached, when Christmas did not come with a fire to conquer and destroy his enemies. But I believe John began to learn, as we are all still learning today, that fire can take many forms. Yes, some of the forms are destructive and dominating in their effects.  But other forms are warm, comforting, purifying, light-producing and life-giving. These are the forms of fire which our Messiah, which Christmas takes in our world.

And because of this, on this Third Sunday of Advent, on this dark, cold day of December, we light another candle, and we are still learning that light does not disappoint us.