Grant us peace

This evening we find ourselves at the threshold of all that Christmas anticipates. Our sight is therefore narrowly focused on the immediate. After all the waiting and the long journey, Mary and Joseph have finally arrived at the place of nativity, in Bethlehem.

And, like any expectant father and mother, they find themselves embroiled in the hustle and bustle that immediately precedes birth. Christmas Eve is therefore all about a sense of ‘place’.

Everything happens here, on this holy night. We are drawn to this place in this time to remember and re-enact what happened on that very first, special holy night. At one moment in history, God entered the world on that first Christmas. In a specific time, at a specific place — the town of Bethlehem.

The children re-created the version of the Christmas story according to Luke. And they made sure we got into the roles and felt that sense of place — the innkeeper’s door, the manger scene in that town surrounded by shepherd’s fields under a starry night.

It was that small, dusty, ordinary, rather plain and dull place that was to receive the greatest gift of all time — the gift of God incarnate. Bethlehem was the scene of the glorious host of heaven entering into the world. But, “How could anything good come out of Nazareth?” was the condescending yet prevalent attitude expressed by an early disciple of Jesus (John 1:46). How could it be that Bethlehem and its ragtag cast of characters would receive this gift?

Indeed, receiving gifts is just as important as giving gifts at Christmas. I think, in our achievement, accomplishment and success -oriented culture, it is more difficult to truly open our hearts and unconditionally receive a gift of great joy. When we don’t feel like we have to somehow return the favour, or earn it by our hard work. I think for many of us busy-bodies, to stop and just be — before any active response — is tough to do.
We are so used to ‘providing for’, doing it, giving it, expending our energy, performing, succeeding; or, God-forbid failing at succeeding, accomplishing by our acts of heroism — to care for another, to make it happen for others. We are compulsive in our drive to be a champion of something or another.

You’d think we were the Messiah coming to save the world by observing some of our actions.

I heard from several of you this Advent how you haven’t this time around either decorated or baked or ‘checked off the list’ all the things you’ve normally done in years past. And this was cause for moments of anxiety: “Would Christmas be the same?” And what a gift it was to hear from you confess that, indeed, Christmas has come to you at a more meaningful level as ever before.

Could it be, because we are slowly learning, simply, to receive the gift that comes, despite us?

One of the oldest prayers and carols in the Christian tradition, originally expressed in Latin: Dona Nobis Pacem — give us peace. “Peace on earth” is the purpose of Christ-coming. The peace we seek in our lives. And for that to happen, we need first to relinquish our Messianic compulsions. We need to recognize and accept our human limitations. And that is good. Because when we can release our grip — or at least loosen it for a moment — could we, then, have peace.

O Little Town of Bethlehem signifies this gift of peace. Why? Precisely because it is un-spectacular. It is not an exceptional town in the region of Nazareth. You would not find Bethlehem listed prominently in the Frommer’s tour guide books from the 1st century. Maybe that’s why it took the Magi some time to get there. It’s like one of the ‘if you blink you’ll miss it’ crossroad hamlets that dot the rural landscape of our land.

If you drive down highway 41 south from Pembroke through Eganville towards Denbigh, you pass by one of those blue-coloured town signs with the word “Khartoum” written on it. Khartoum, Ontario — do you know it? It is actually a town — but you might count three houses driving by amidst the pine, spruce and rock-lined, winding roadway. Khartoum is like the Bethlehem of Ontario.
Perhaps because expectations are low. Why so many don’t have peace at Christmas is because expectations are so crazy and unreasonable at this time of year. Again, assuming ‘we make Christmas happen’. But this is not the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We do not make Christmas happen.

The Gospel — the good news — of Christmas is that the baby Jesus had to rely on this ragtag cast of characters to survive. The holy child, the divine made flesh, the almighty God — became vulnerable. God had to wait. God had to receive the gift of these imperfect characters, these unimpressive, un-extraordinary people. Jesus the baby had to receive their gifts of protection, love, care, and support. In order to be the greatest gift for us, God had to receive our imperfect gifts. God waits to receive our imperfect gifts, our offerings, our giving.

I’m learning something as I begin the second half of my life: The art of letting God come to me. It’s not dissimilar from the the concept espoused by those who coach sports, who advise: “Let the game come to you.” They make reference, of course, to players and teams on a winning streak who play loosely, who are not trying too hard, who don’t hold their sticks or bats too tightly; And, who nevertheless concentrate, who are in the flow, in the zone. Yes.

But they are not making it happen. They are not driving it too hard. Doing too much. Nor are they over-stating their presence, pushing it. Let it come to you, rather than trying to make it happen — this is the practical yet difficult challenge at Christmas.

Christian writer and teacher, Henri Nouwen, wrote: “Christmas is the renewed invitation not to be afraid, and let God …be our companion”. Allow God — whose love is greater than our own hearts and minds can comprehend — come to us. (Henri Nouwen, “Gracias!” in “Advent and Christmas Wisdom from Henri J.M Nouwen”)

A birthing experience will force all closely involved into a receptive state of being — as uncomfortable as that might be for some of us control freaks. We do need to just let it happen when it will. Let the gift come to us.

The unconditional love, unconditional positive regard, the faithfulness of God in us, the trust of the baby Jesus — these truths bring us all to a level playing field. There is no them-and-us. There is no outsider in God’s realm. There is no hierarchy of social standing. There is no moral-achievement program here. There is no ladder to climb.

Rather, God climbs down the ladder to us, just as we are. Because God’s love for us is so great. That is the message of Christmas. That is the peace that we seek.

Let there be peace on earth and goodwill among all people! Merry Christmas!

Bethlehem: house of bread

There’s only one problem with the nativity set. Do you notice? All the characters are in place and accounted-for. 

But no stable. No barn. No shelter for the Christ-child, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and Magi. Not to mention all the animals.

I think in the nativity set around the altar we accounted for this obvious ‘missing piece’ by placing all the matching pieces right beside a figure of a church building. There’s something that feels right about doing that, despite the historical disconnect between modern church building and the first century birth we celebrate this holy season of Christmas.

Because Jesus needs a house. Significant, isn’t it, that Bethlehem in Hebrew means, “house of bread”? Bethlehem, the town of David (Luke 2:4), was foretold by the prophets of old: “But you, Bethlehem, too small to be among the clans of Judah, From you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel; Whose origin is from of old, from ancient times” –Micah 5:1. Bethlehem was the ‘house’ into which Jesus was born. And Jesus, then became the house wherein all who sought God would find comfort and rest.

Is this not what we celebrate at Christmas? Our homes, places of comfort, places where we find our roots, our grounding, places where we meet and live with those beloved to us. These nativity scenes adorning the altar normally form part of our Christmas decorations in our homes. They, in a sense, bring Jesus — the house of all people — into our houses, our homes. Into our lives.

At Christmas we sing for Jesus to come into our lives. But do we think of what it would mean for us to make room for the Christ? And welcoming the stranger?

In a verse from the hymn, “Christ Be our Light” we sing —

Longing for shelter, many are homeless. Longing for warmth, many are cold. Make us your building, sheltering others, walls made of living stone. 

Christ, be our light! Shine in our hearts. Shine through the darkness. Christ, be our light! Shine in your church gathered today. (1)

Many times in the Gospels, Jesus describes the “kingdom of God”. One of my favourite images is from Mark (4:32), where Jesus compares God’s reign to a small seed that ” … becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
This image gives an all-encompassing, expansive vision of what God intends: a home for all creatures great and small.

Of course, the problem is, that so many people don’t have this shelter, this safety, this home. And it’s not just a spiritual reality. It’s also a material, earth-bound reality.

After all, Jesus himself, was a refugee. After his birth, Jesus’ parents Joseph and Mary had to flee the threat of persecution in their home country. In Matthew (2:13) we read: “… an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Jesus, Christians believe, is the Son of God. And this God we worship experienced, on earth, what it means to be a refugee and to be homeless.

Jesus, the comforting house and home for all — like the giant tree housing all the creatures of the earth — knew what it was to be without home, without shelter.

Elsewhere in Matthew (8:20) as Jesus exercises his ministry of compassion, healing and grace to the downtrodden, he reminds those who listen: “Foxes have holes and birds of air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

We are called, therefore, to care precisely for those who are homeless, who are refugees today as if we are loving God. Sri Lanken theologian D.T. Niles stated: “Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” (2).

Where do we find this ‘bread’ today? Because we will not travel to Bethlehem to find Jesus, like the Shepherds and the Magi did over two thousand y ears ago. Today we may ask God as the righteous did of old: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And Jesus answers, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to least of these … you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:37-40)

And, in so doing, we reveal the truth that the author of the last book of the Bible expressed: “See, the home of God is among mortals!”(Revelation 21:3). God’s home in Christ Jesus is here on earth, among those who need the “bread of life” (John 6:35). 

Our job this Christmas as all year round is to feed the hungry and house the homeless. Because Jesus has come into this world. He is out there. And he calls to us. Waiting for us to respond. To be and make home for us all.

(1) “Christ Be Our Light” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Augsburg Fortress, 2006 #715

(2) Joseph R. Jeter in David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor & Kimberley Bracken Long, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion” WJK Press, Kentucky, 2014, p.65