Good evening and Merry Christmas! We gather tonight in Itasca on the unceded tribal lands of the Kickapoo, Peoria, Ka-skas-kia, Potawatomi, Mya-a-mia, HoChunk, Winnebago and O-che-thi Sakowin nations, acknowledging that hard past and praying our way into a better future.
And so we pray.
Heavenly Creator – All the walk, all the prep, all the hopes – all are met in thee tonight. Tonight, a baby is born; and well, ok. There are babies born every day. It’s great and everything but how does that concern me? There is so much life around me that I can’t possibly be expected to partake in and celebrate all of it, much less take up responsibility for all of it. Surely Father, you know that. I’ll just keep my head down and take care of my own. Surely you know the limits of my ability. So tonight I’ll check my boxes, head home and keep putting one foot in front of the other. And yet, Creator God, there is something… something speaking and telling me to lift my head, to listen to a song that is calling me to a larger view and a greater story. To lay my busyness aside. Surely Father, you are speaking. In the light of this baby’s birth, open the ears of my heart to be filled with that promise. Amen.
Well, we are at the 2022nd celebration of the birth of the Baby Jesus. And like anything that has gone on for such a long time, it can be tempting to just crave the notch and move on. But Advent is not just the countdown to the past natal event of that Babe in the manger but is also a faithful reminder that we are counting down to the Lord’s return. There’s so much to unpack in that! And throughout this Advent season, God has been nudging me about the nature of change. The book we used as an Advent guide, Christian Minimalism: Simple Steps For Abundant Living by Becca Erlich, has challenged me personally to think about the nature of stuff in my life. What is the stuff I have hung on to, thinking it was important, only to find out it was crowding out room for God really wanted me to carry? Throughout her text, Erlich shares insight after insight from the Biblical record of how God asks us to empty ourselves of a worldly focus to be filled with God’s will and purpose, to be ready to receive God’s plan.
Maybe we think that for something as important as the Second Coming, we can’t miss it and we’ll be ready. I mean, that’ll be a huge thing, right? We’ll see it coming, right? Ah, but God would give us warning, right? Time to put down our busyness and empty ourselves of all the unnecessary things we carry, right? Well, God spent from Genesis to Malachi giving fair warning about this coming Incarnation, yes? Did we heed that? Did we listen to those prophecies? Or did we hear that angel song and wave it away, see that starlight and pull the curtains shut? Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is telling the disciples – stop worrying about all this busy-ness and listen to what God is saying! In Erlich’s book, she lifts many of Jesus’ parables regarding our readiness to recieve, and one that has stayed with me is from Luke 16. There we meet a beggar named Lazarus and a rich man; each has died. Lazarus has gone to heaven and the rich man to hell. The rich man looks up and sees how Lazarus is comforted by Abraham and begs that he might have the same benefit. Told that Lazarus has earned his reward and he his punishment, the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers so that they might escape his end. The response comes:
Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’
You and I from the vantage point of 2 millennia can hear that foreshadowing, can’t we? “Neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” But are we paying any better attention to God’s word than the rich man and his bros? I know that the Lord has continued using prophets to alert us to what we are supposed to be paying attention to! This time of year, many of us watch some form of a Christmas Carol. Charles Dickens wrote that piece in 1843. He was himself a survivor of the kind of poverty and disdain he tried to highlight in his story. At age 12, his father was thrown in debtor’s prison and Dickens was pushed into supporting himself. In his great Christmas novel, Scrooge is seen sneering at the idea of caring for his neighbour, insisting that so many of the poor are simply surplus population. In response to this mindset, Dickens puts these words into the mouth of the Ghost of Christmas Present:
Man, if man you be in heart… forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child.
Dickens isn’t writing a new gospel – he is reminding us of texts and prophesies that stretch all the way back to Genesis. And the question drifts down to us through and across those centuries: who are we paying attention to? What star are we following?
So this evening as we come to the celebration of the manger, we are remembering the historical birth of this child, but we are also being reminded of what this baby offers to us and asks of us. Babies are so awfully cute and cuddly, but they come with A LOT of responsibility – they ask us to care, to open our hearts and to think about things that are bigger than ourselves. The Divine baby who incarnates in that manger does the same thing at a cosmic. If we are going to accept the joy of this baby’s love, we also need to receive the changed priorities he will bring. Jesus shows up in the hay and the smells of a stable; perhaps to remind us of the responsibilities that must be answered as we participate in God’s kingdom. The animals and all of creation rejoice in the inbreaking of the Divine, but they will need to be fed and cared for, and new life doesn’t change those responsibilities – it just reorders them.
In Christian Minimalism, the question isn’t just how we empty our lives, but how we fill them. The Shema in Deuteronomy is again lifted in Jesus’ Greatest Commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, strength and soul; and likewise, you shall love your neighbour as yourself.” When Divine Love incarnates in our midst – as has been promised throughout Biblical testimony – we are called to respond to that love with love. Being filled with love means that we will empty ourselves of whatever stops us from loving. And that means laying down the self-centredness that the world often tells us we should be carrying because you can’t pick up the baby with your arms full of useless junk. You can’t hear the angelsong if you’re drowning it out with the noise of busyness or follow the star if you won’t look up. God comes to us through prophets, preachers and poets, and now incarnates in the mess of manger, manure and mule. If our vision is focused low, guess what we’ll see? But if we lift our head, we’ll see the star, we’ll hear the song and we’ll be filled with the mission that the rich man’s family and Scrooge missed. The choice is ours. It was at the manger and is now as we await the Lord’s return. And I know what I want to fill my life with. Amen.