On this third Sunday of Advent, we find ourselves just 11 days from Christmas. It is a special time of year, of course, as we celebrate Jesus’s birth. But sometimes even the best of us can forget about Jesus during Christmastime, as we make our last-minute purchases and stress out about family gatherings (or maybe virtual gatherings this year). We wonder whether people will enjoy the gifts we’ve purchased; we wonder whether we’ve spent too much or too little; whether we’ll successfully steer clear of politics around the dinner table; whether the food will satisfy expectations; how we’ll get along with our extended families. In this context, I’d like to offer a brief reflection on a couple of the lectionary texts for this Sunday (Isaiah 61:1-4 and Luke 1:46b-55) with the hope that they might remind us who Jesus is and what his ministry was all about, that is, why we celebrate Christmas in the first place. I’m hoping that might help you (and me) make it through the next week and a half before Christmas.
This year I wanted to have a nativity set for my two year old daughter to play with – one preferably made out of wood, with lots of little people and animals to look at and rearrange. I first tried Amazon, to no avail since the sets are mostly plastic and their skin is lily white. I turned to Etsy, where I found a few wooden sets that were way too expensive for a toddler to play with. I decided to take myself to Michael’s and try to find some materials to craft my own nativity set. My spouse helped me find everything—a collection of farm animals, a couple sets of wooden peg people, a cradle, a make-shift stable, and a package of wooden stars. That evening, I glued, I pressed, I painted, and I prayed that it would turn out ok. And indeed, it did. And now it is my joy to watch my daughter play with the set. She especially appreciates the goat, sheep, and dog, which she routinely puts to sleep by laying them on their sides. She also has a fondness for Mary, because I painted her robe blue and my daughter has just learned the word for “blue.” She also likes Jesus and the other children I placed in the scene – perhaps because they’re smaller and fit in her palm just so. This is the first time I have really been able to talk with her about Jesus, to say his name, to explain that he was born in a barn.
The manger where he sleeps is important to me because it is a reminder of his humble beginnings. He wasn’t born in a palace, or surrounded by important people, with a silver spoon in his mouth, or swaddled in satin. He was born in a stable, surrounded by shepherds and animals, and swaddled in whatever the traveling couple had on board.
These humble beginnings foreshadow his ministry. As an adult, Jesus would begin his ministry with these words from Isaiah: “The spirit of God is upon me, because God has anointed me; God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” Jesus’s ministry was, from the beginning, a ministry to the oppressed, to those who were exploited, mistreated, looked over, marginalized, hated, and taken advantage of. His message was for the brokenhearted, the captives, prisoners, to those who mourn. And his goal was to bring them comfort and gladness. Glad tidings of great joy.
It would be one thing for Jesus to have such a message and mission if he were from a well-off or a well-reputed family. Then he’d be like a hero who swoops in to save the day, a savior who takes pity on people and raises them up to his level. But our nativity scenes remind us that Jesus was born in a smelly barn, conceived out of wedlock, received by a stepdad who didn’t originally want to raise him, and into a land from which he would have to be carried out under the radar to avoid violence from a political ruler. This is no hero who sweeps in from on high. Instead, Jesus seems like a nobody in the world’s eyes, the son of a carpenter from a little town nobody cares about called Nazareth, but whose vision caught on and has the potential to keep helping people.
There can be no doubt and it must be acknowledged that Christians have not always helped people. In fact, on our pessimistic days we might say that Christians have hurt more than they have helped. So many people have been hurt by the church, or some of its leaders, or individuals in congregations. This hurt is real, and deep, and lasting. Many have therefore given up on the church, and try to approach God where and when they are able, without the help of a community. And this is a very understandable approach. Wherever and whenever Christian churches or individuals have hurt people, their victims have appropriately turned away to take another path. On our optimistic days, though, we may also want to affirm the many good things that the Christian church has done – both on local and wider levels. Churches, their leaders, and congregants have shown God’s love in multitudinous tiny ways that no one remembers, and also in ways that have led to women’s right to vote, the civil rights movement, and other movements for justice. So, many of us persist; we are trying to make our churches the kind of communities that do good in the world and avoid doing harm.
Story Corps tells the story of Danny Cortez, who was the founder and pastor of New Heart Community Southern Baptist Church in La Mirada, CA in 2014 when his 16 year old son, Drew, told him that he was gay. As you might imagine, up until that time, the church had always recommended celibacy or so-called reparative therapy for people who identified themselves as homosexual. Even before Drew came out, his dad Danny had been reevaluating his position on homosexuality, and whether he was doing more harm than good. When his neighbor invited him to visit the HIV clinic where he worked, Danny was introduced to a community of people he had not previously known much about, and that led him eventually to a change of heart. After Drew came out, Danny told the elders of his church that he had changed his mind about homosexuality, and then he announced it to his congregation. When he was asked, “how does it feel to know you might be terminated in a few weeks,” Danny replied, “I’m at peace. I’m at peace because my heart has been enlarged.” He concluded his sermon by saying, “I know that whatever happens, compassion is giving me clarity. It’s giving me clarity in my purpose. And I pray that our church will survive this.” As a result of his sermon, the Southern Baptist church cut ties with Danny’s church and his congregation split. When I hear about stories like this, I see very clearly how the church can do great harm, and also how the church can be a vehicle for grace, goodness, and justice as well.
Jesus himself seems to have envisioned God as a God of justice. I think he got this theology in part from his mother, Mary. In the Luke passage we read tonight, we hear her speak. She says – in so many words – just what Jesus says when he begins his ministry: that God scatters the proud, brings down the powerful from their thrones, and lifts up the lowly. She preaches that God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty. Mary preaches here what we hear Jesus say over and over again in the gospels: that he is interested not in the righteous but in sinners; not in those who are interested in looking pious, but in those who are interested in helping people. His ministry, indeed, seems to be one of helping people in body and mind and heart.
What, then, is so important about the manger, the stable, the farm animals, the straw? Why do we tell the story of Jesus this way, set the scene in lowly, humble beginnings? Well, I do not think we do it to show the contrast between the almighty power of God and the tiny helplessness of a baby. We do not do it to wonder at a great and pure and clean God who takes on human flesh in the midst of dirt and animal feces and dusty straw. We do not remember the birth of Jesus in a stable because we want to stand in awe of the great paradox of the almighty God who comes to us in the form of a tiny baby. Instead, we make this kind of nativity scene because we want to remember that God is not typically to be found at all in the powerful, the pure and clean, or the almighty. Instead, God is ever to be found in our world, in despised places, in challenging situations, and in the lowly. There is no other place to find God but here – in the cry of a baby whose life is in danger.
We who are hungry, and thirsty, and ignorant, and poor, and strange, and needy; we who are flailing, mourning, who feel like we’re not good enough, who can’t go a day without making so many mistakes; we who have nontraditional families; we who were born and raised in nowhere towns. God can be found not even here, but especially here, in and among those who know their weaknesses and their limitations, in and among those who have been rejected by family and friends and acquaintances. God is to be found in compassion that brings clarity, and in hearts enlarged. At Christmastime, we hear God in the sounds of a crying baby, an otherwise silent night, and in the gentle sounds of parents who are in love with a little bundle of flesh.
So – 11 days from Christmas – with perhaps a few more presents to buy, and food to prepare, and details to fret over, we pause and reflect on who this baby laying in a manger is and what his ministry will become. We celebrate Jesus’ birth because it is the decisive word in our story of God’s abiding with us, in and with our stink, our dust, our fears, and our failures. Hear the word of God, Jesus will say: God “has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.”