As we stand in the glow of Christmas, Paul’s words reminds us that we need to think differently about who we really are.
It seemed like the big Christmas gift to give this year was DNA testing from websites like Ancestry and 23 and Me. I assume this gift is so popular because we know the holidays bring out certain family traits that might make you wonder where they came from.
Those who have had their DNA tested know more about their genetic make-up, uncover certain health traits, and some people, like our friend Becky, have found family members they didn’t know they had.
With all the great things genetic testing can produce, it can’t change your family, or the baggage each person brings with them. Whether you are from a healthy family or a broken family we all have our social position (or birth order) in the family that defines who we are.
For example Kathleen is number 5 of 9 kids. She is often seen as the fulcrum that balances the family dynamic. If you are a middle child, then I image you, Kathleen and Colleen have some things in common.
I cannot speak to them, because I am the last of 4, the baby of the family. If you are like me, your siblings often see you as the spoiled and getting away with everything. I’m not sure that is totally accurate. But I do think the last-born are our parent’s favorite because we’re their last chance of getting it right.
Hierarchical patterns are found throughout our society. Most corporations, governments and religious communities are set up in a way where each person has their own particular place of power and prestige.
In India, the cast system still divides their society into different social classes; the easiest way to rise up through the ranks is by death and reincarnation. We might be quick to think we are different. Even though our constitution states, “All men are created equal,” our country’s story would suggest otherwise.
The good news is (and I hope you remember this as you either gather with or runaway from family functions this holiday season) that no matter where you are born, in whatever order, or to whom your birthright belongs, we are all created equal in the eyes of God.
Through Christ, each one of us was given the same blessing of salvation, even if our lives seem radically different.
As we stand in the glow of Christmas, Paul’s words reminds us that we need to think differently about who we really are. To summarize Paul, “God sent his Son, born of a woman, to redeem us and adopt us as his own children. As a child of God, you’re also an heir, with complete access to the inheritance” (Galatians 4:4-7)
Some children inherit great financial wealth; others receive great debt. One might get their mother’s eyes, while the other inherits his grandfather’ high forehead. This is not the inheritance that Paul is talking about. He points us towards our divine DNA.
Created in the image of God, we are born blessed by God. And thanks to our Christmas gift of salvation, we become a new creation. Through this little baby, wrapped in swaddling cloth, every person in the world receives an equal portion of the same gifts and grace; the same love and forgiveness; the same salvation from sin.
Through Christ we are reconnected to God. Through him we share not only a name, but a heart; one love, and one forgiveness of all we’ve done wrong. This DNA makes us part of a process much greater than our parents creating a biological exchange.
It might be hard to believe that little old you could be that special or important to God. But you are. To think that Jesus chose to leave all his heavenly glory, emptying himself and taking on the form of a slave just to give himself up for you and me.
As John the evangelist declares, “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory!”
More than that, Jesus didn’t just become human for a minute or an hour or a day and then go right back to heaven. He lived among us for thirty-three years, enduring the messiness, the heartbreak, the inconvenience, the joy, and the pain of human life.
There was no reason for him to suffer the pain he went through. From getting sick to getting in arguments to having clueless disciples to the excruciating suffering he experienced on the cross, Jesus proved that God’s love for us would never abandon us to suffer alone.
Jesus entered our pain willingly because he wanted to go to the darkest depths of human suffering. He wanted to meet us in those places we all find our self, some of us more than once. Rich or poor, black, brown or white, male or female...the darkness of life does not discriminate. And neither does God’s Love that shines brightly through Christ, and through us.
Because God made the choice to share Godself with us in human form, we have not only seen God in Jesus Christ. But through him we have received new status, and become a new family. Nothing can separate us; not death, divorce, or differences of opinions that cause us to turn on one another. “Nothing,” says the Apostle Paul, “can separate us from the love that God gives through Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:38-39)
DNA testing might tell you of some impending health issue, or help you better understand why you have brown eyes while everyone in your clan has blue eyes. But we don’t need to mail in our saliva to know who we belong to and from where we came.
As children in this divine family, we are all created equal, and we are all loved equally. We need not only to recognize this in our own life (with its faults and failures) but also in the follies and foibles of others.
If God is in us, then God is also in others. And so a true test, then, of our DNA is seen in the way we seek out God in the heart of every human being. When we can see God in others, we can give freely and fearlessly of ourselves to others.
When we recognize and realize that the blood of Christ is mixed with the blood of everyone around us, then we can share the gift of love and grace with everyone around us. The gift we received at Christmas is the gift that keeps on giving.
As we move forward into a new year, let us not look back from which we came, but look ahead, to see the person right there in front of us. For each human being is the one who points us towards the Kingdom of God, our place of salvation and redemption.
Rice, Whitney. In the Beginning. From episcopaldigitalnetwork.com, 12-30-17.
In Jesus our God “became flesh, and made his dwelling among us.”
If you know me then you’ve probably heard me say this before, but if my mom were to ever cheat on my dad I’m pretty darn sure it would be with Santa Clause.
One look inside her house at Christmas time and you’d think she’d already flown the coop to be with her other true love. This is to say my mom has eye, and a heart, for Christmas. And if she had her druthers, every day would be Christmas Day. And I think we could all learn something from her.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized all our family vacations shared something in common. Each destination had been cleverly mapped out around a Christmas superstore. We learned early on to pack clothes you were willing to lose because there was always the chance that someone’s suitcase would have to be sacrificed if Mom found a killer deal on Christmas decorations.
I wouldn’t be too far off the mark to say my mom has over 50,000 ornaments in her house, give or take a few thousand. They come from all around the world, from the people they have visited and the places they have traveled too. I like to believe that in that collection you will find endless stories about who my parents are and the way they see life.
This year, Kathleen chose to decorate our tree using ornaments that we’ve picked up in the various places we’ve been. One of the joys we get from decorating the tree is that it helps us to recall cheerished memories of our past that somehow get lost in the busyness of life. For example, the hanging the leather moose ornament somehow takes us back to a time before kids when Kathleen, armed only with a video camera, came face to face with a great Alaskan moose.
So many ornaments, and so many stories; each one worthy of hanging on the Christmas tree because each one connects us to the great Christmas story where in Jesus our God “became flesh, and made his dwelling among us.” “Full of grace and truth,” Jesus showed us how to truly live this great adventure called life.
Yet in the celebrations and trappings of Christmas, it’s easy to overlook the meaning behind his great story.
Eventually, we will take down our tree, and put away the wreath, the stockings, and all our decorations, and return to that busyness of raising a family, looking for work, and intentionally walking with Christ. This last one especially requires a little bit more than just my faith in God. I have to keep the Christmas story alive in all that I do.
Thus there’s one particular decoration that we keep out all year long to remind us to make every day a real Christmas Day.
The story behind this hunk of wood is worthy of being a Macdonald family heirloom. It came to us in 2001, while on vacation in Costa Rica with my parents.
It was two fun filled weeks relaxing on sandy beaches; hiking in the rain forests; swimming in volcano heated springs; visiting coffee farms, and yes, making the occasional stop at the local Christmas shops that just so happened to be located in the same places we were staying for the night.
So here we are, in a small village that had only one restaurant and one hotel. But don’t you know it…there was a place to buy Christmas ornaments! Granted, this place was nothing like the ones filled with tacky, glittery, touristy trinkets. This one, dare I say, was magical.
Specializing in hand-carved crafts made from local exotic woods, it was like stumbling into the secret part of Santa’s workshop where the artisans and master crafters designed new toys, and hand-carved them for their boss’ wink of approval. One such craftsman specialized in carving individual nativity scenes out of chunks of old coffee roots.
It’s not your typical holiday ornament. With a quick glance you might not even recognize it as a nativity scene. In fact, as it sits on our piano in the living room, it is often mistaken for a piece of art.
It wasn’t our intention to leave it out all the time, but for some reason it never felt right to pack it up with the blinking Christmas lights and plastic garland. As such, this uncommon nativity scene helps me see what I need to see every day – a glimpse into God’s heart.
Here is the little baby Jesus welcoming me with open arms. His heart exposed to the heavens has made him vulnerable to the attack of a hateful world that He will overcome without lifting a sword or firing a shot, but by the freely giving of his divine love.
From the time of his birth, this Jesus, our Emmanuel – the God who is with us – calls us into his arms and claims us worthy and righteous no matter what we’ve done.
That’s the great Christmas gift. This nativity, as C.S. Lewis wrote, “is the central event in the history of the earth, the very thing the whole story has been about.”
Each one of us has a Christmas story to tell. Whether it’s told through a family ornament, or recalled with deep painful memories, your story and my story are intimately tied to the story of this small Christ child; the one God gave us out of great love for us, “so whoever believes in him should not parish but have eternal life.”
Jesus’ story is the great reminder that God loves you so much that he would do anything to be with you. He came into this world on human terms. He experienced our human pain and doubt. Felt human betrayal, hatred, and rejection. Just for you.
Despite all the worse that human beings could muster up, Jesus continued to show nothing less than perfect love and remained faithful to God… to prove to us that doing God’s will daily, can and will transform real darkness into true light. This is the power of God’s love for us, and the real meaning of Christmas; the story we often forget once the decorations are boxed up and stored away.
Just as a dried up root from a dead coffee plant can become a living story or a beautiful work of art, so too can we be transformed and made anew by the one whose arms are open, calling us home.
A Nativity might look oddly out of place in the summer time, but the essence of Christmas, does not need a crèche, shepherds, or angels anymore than it needs red bows, piles of gifts, or roast beef with all the trimmings. It only needs you, and me. Through Christ we become the Christmas present. And through us Christmas happens every day. And so, it is time now, writes Howard Thurman, for the work of Christmas to begin. Go and make your story come alive.
She tells us about her ‘year of hard things’. Her experiences include a ‘traumatizing pregnancy,’ a cross-country move, leaving behind close friends and steady jobs, and moving ‘into a cramped, loud, chaotic apartment complex.’ She recalls an extraordinary circumstance where someone from the neighborhood drives his car through her daughter’s bedroom wall! All of these things, not surprisingly, bring about great anxiety and her being unable to work. It is a bad year to top bad years.
But after being out of their home for a few days so the wall could be repaired, she finds herself feeling glad upon their return to the ‘crowded, chaotic’ apartment. She says because ‘it felt like our place.’ She recognized in it her new normal. She reconciled where she was, and found in it, the renewal of hope. She was not okay but that was okay.
As her focus began to change – anticipating the things to come like the baby crawling, her returning to school, the family having a little bit more money in the bank – she realized too that her understanding of Jesus had changed. That he is no longer an abstract figure far removed from her. He is her ‘bruised and battered brother’ beside her- that he been there through all of this.
I found comfort in her words, reconciling that even though I am not as okay as I thought, I am okay with that.
Then this week, I read a short yet remarkable account of a young girl who got pregnant. She wasn’t married and the impression I got was that the small town she was from, being very religious, frowned upon this sort of thing. One can only imagine the dinner table gossip about her, people who don’t know what happened, but will speak as if they do. Those who will judge as if they are somehow entitled to and then share their unfounded story with others whether it’s true or not. The poor kid didn’t ask for this but they will offer her no grace.
And in denying her grace, they deny the one through whom grace has come.
Despite knowing nothing about being pregnant, giving birth, or raising a child- this very young girl, chose to accept what God was calling her to do even if it meant she would be doubted, shunned, maybe not even believed. But she knew the truth. That God blessed her among women to not only carry the Christ child into the world, but to love him, raise him, care for him, and stand by him even when it meant having to watch him die.
We can all draw from Mary’s strength, her faith and follow the example she sets. She shows us how waiting with joy-filled anticipation can be the most perfect way to embrace God’s will within us. She doesn’t fall prey to condemnations and comments, but instead sings her Song of Praise high above those who point their fingers and whisper behind her back!
Her faith encourages us to accept the grace that it is okay to not be okay. It is okay to worry, wonder, or doubt- it is in the trying to grow through these things that we find joy.
So this year, I learn again that this is what Advent is about: standing honestly in what I know to be true, recognizing it. Sorting through the stuff I have to sort through- reconciling it, trying to heal from it. It’s about looking inwardly at the dark corners and finding the light, the renewal and promise- anticipating the coming of something great.
As we wait in the uncertainty of our faith for the coming Christ, may we all do so by making advent a time of recognition, reconciliation and renewal. By seeing the grace, welcoming it into our hearts, and offering it to others.
Recognizing that we all have our struggles. We all have our pain and our sin. And we all have Christ, our ‘bruised and battered brother,’ beside us, who as a baby taught us how to be vulnerable, and as an adult how to be kind, faithful, and caring.
So as this season of Advent moves closer to the manger, may we recognize, reconcile and renew ourselves closer to the great gifts of unconditional love, grace, forgiveness, and hope in the New Year. Amen.
It’s time to get ready and to prepare a path that'll lead God right to your heart.
Each of the gospels use the words of the prophet Isaiah to describe John as a voice, crying out from the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord. He is the one who teachers us “how” we prepare is just as important as “who” we are preparing for. Are you seeing a pattern here?
If you want to put Christ back into Christmas, then you must be prepared to be like him; to prepare yourself to be the presence of Christ for Christmas.
Again the lectionary doesn’t begin his Christmas story with angels whispering in Mary’s ear or shepherds keeping watch over their flocks. Instead, ite drags us outside, deep into the wilderness where bandits gather and thieves hide. It takes us way out there to meet an odd character who rants and raves to anyone who will listen. Some recognized him as a priest. Others saw him as a madman.
Barbara Brown Taylor describes him like this. “Dressed in animal hair with a piece of tanned hide around his waist, his breath heavy with locusts and wild honey, John proclaimed that someone was coming, someone so spectacular that it was not enough simply to hang around waiting for him to arrive. It was time to get ready, to prepare the way, so that when he came he could walk a straight path right to their doors.”
It’s time to get ready and to prepare a path that will lead God right into our hearts! This is the good news. Our Emmanuel, God with us, is coming to meet us. God desires to walk with us, and to heal our brokenness and to wash us clean of all that we have done wrong. God wants to give us a fresh start so we can truly thrive in God’s will and not merely flounder in our own.
“John was a messenger-predicted by Isaiah, dressed like Elijah, sent by God- a prophet in the classic mold.” His message is to the point: Repent. Come clean and turn back to God. Be prepared, not just to welcome Christmas, but to welcome Christ, our Emmanuel, God’s great gift to us.
Why then does it take a fire or natural disaster to remind us of this important message?
To live faithfully in Christ’s divine love is to remain open and present to receive God anytime, day or night. It was Jesus who taught us to recognize God in the hearts of every created being. We must stay alert and prepare to do the same, to give God’s love away to anyone who needs it. We must straighten the curves and rough places in life so others can walk with God, and find forgiveness and become new again.
Just as students have to be ready to meet the demands of a teacher who has prepared lessons for the week, we too must be ready to face the test and challenges of life whenever they pop up. It’s like preparing a grocery list to ensure you have all the right ingredients needed to create and enjoy a heavenly feast.
It’s prophets like John who instruct us in our preparations. For example, Micah tells us to “practice justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” Ezekiel says, “Turn away from your transgressions, and get a new heart and spirit.” And Isaiah declares, “Wash the blood off your hands. Remove evil from your heart and do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” The list goes on and on.
You see why people often tend to avoid these guys. “They’re much like those evangelists you might see standing on busy street corners waving their Bibles at you,” condemning you to hell, fire and damnation unless you repent in a way that is to their liking. They get right in your face, and the only way to avoid them is to cross the street or turn around and go another way.
But John was different. “He planted himself in the middle of nowhere, far away from the churches and old ways of doing things. Anyone who wanted to hear what he had to say had to go to a lot of trouble to get there.” They had to get out of bed, and hike through rough terrain, put their life at risk. What were they seeking? Or better yet, what did they expect to find or do once they got there?
As Taylor points out, it seems “People were drawn to John not only because of who he was and what he said…but also because of what he offered them: a chance to come clean, to stop pretending they were someone one else and to start over again, by allowing him to wash them off.”
Yes, far off the beaten trail, John was preparing the way for God to come and radically redefine the world through the forgiveness of sin. This is the path that leads us all back to the heart of God… where Christ’s love was born. This is the Christmas story.
Today that voice still cries out in our wilderness; calling us to wake up and come clean; “to turn around from the old way we do things so we don’t miss out on seeing the new thing God is doing right before our eyes.”
This is why being active and present in this moment is so important. Through Christ’s death our past is washed clean. Through Christ’s resurrection our future is handled. And through Christ’s and by his examples we know what to expect right here, right now. The divinely wrapped gift of everlasting love, peace, and joy.
Christ has come, breaking into our world, into our longing, into our sin and death, to prepare an eternal path that leads us all back home. As we wait, let us be the presence of Christ. Let us tune our ear to the voices crying out for mercy. Let us be ready to touch the hand in need of human tenderness. Let us always be prepared to bring relief to a heart in need of love.
This is our pathway to God and peace in the world. But we have to be willing and prepared to meet Christ in others. It begins by going to the wilderness, looking at the chaotic water and seeing the reflection of Christ within you. When Christ is alive in each one of us, then Christ will always be present, be it Christmas Day or every day.
This message and accompany quotes borrow from a sermon entitled Wherever the Way May Lead. Taylor, Barbara Brown. Home By Another Way. Rowman & Littlefield, 1999.
Advent is uncharacteristically short this year; only three Sundays, with the forth being Christmas Eve. That means there are only 21 days left to get everything done. I haven’t even begun to scramble through the malls or surf Amazon to find that perfect gift to max out my credit card. It’s not like I haven’t had ample warning. The commercialization of Christmas has been well underway long before Halloween. And I swear Hallmark has been playing an endless loop of Christmas movies since last December.
Everywhere you look, the world’s busyness is pointed towards Christmas. But seldom is it pointed toward the coming of the Christ child. Even today’s passage from Mark has us looking somewhere other than the manger. Instead of kicking off with angels and virgins, we get heavenly earthquakes and stars dropping from the sky.
Such strange, apocalyptic imagery might be good for those ancient Palestinians who awaited the day of the Messiah. But we’re more sophisticated than those country bumpkins, aren’t we?
We know exactly the day when Jesus will come, right? After all, we have advent calendars filled with little chocolate squares to help us count down the to the big day.
But there’s a big difference between waiting for Christmas and waiting for Christ.
Obviously, we know that Christmas will come every year on Dec. 25th. And when it comes we pretty much know what to expect. There will be some surprises to unwrap, but for the most part Christmas day is pretty much planned out well in advance. However, waiting for Christ to come – or come again – requires something more, an expectant watchfulness and presence that helps us stay prepared for the day when Jesus will walk among us.
Being present is hard because it requires us to “keep our heart open and soft, and our mind receptive without division or resistance,” writes Richard Rohr. “It’s easier to believe doctrines—and obey arbitrary laws—than it is to undertake the hard work of being present.” And thus, the waiting really is the hardest part. And it’s hard because we have to take it on faith, as we take it to heart.
Now there are different kinds of waiting. There’s passive waiting and active waiting. Passive waiting is the businesswoman waiting in an airport terminal about to catch her connecting flight. She’s on Facebook or plays Candy Crush while she waits to board. Active waiting, on the other hand, is the woman standing at baggage claim, anticipating the moment she gets to embrace her husband for the first time since his deployment six months ago. Her only focus is on reuniting with her beloved. There’s a big difference between waiting for Christmas and waiting for Christ.
Last spring, my cousin passively sat in her doctor’s office waiting for her routine check up. As she sat there, reading out of date magazine, she stared at a young teenage girl expecting her first child.
Other than setting the appointment and not judging the young girl unfairly, Megan didn’t have to do much more than wait for the doctor. It wasn’t until she went in and learned that she too is pregnant, with twins, that she began actively waiting. And celebrating and panicking too I’m sure.
With each new day, Megan awakes full of anticipation and expectation. With two sets of feet kicking her from within, she has no other choice but to be totally present; living every moment. And because she doesn’t know when her babies will actually come, her focus is right where it ought to be; waiting for her two daughters and preparing her life for something she has no control over. Our waiting for the coming Christ is no different. We must always prepare each day by remaining present and active in our faith.
Three times Jesus states, “to keep alert, stay awake!” He calls us to be alive, fully and faithfully, as if he’s here, right now among us. We don’t want to be caught off guard…or miss it completely.
While looking at a cup of tea, a Buddhist priest said, “You must be completely awake, in the present to enjoy the tea. Only in the awareness of the present, can your hands feel the pleasant warmth of the cup. Only in the present, can you savor the aroma, taste the sweetness, and appreciate the delicacy. If you are dwelling on the past, or worrying about the future, you will completely miss the experience of enjoying the cup of tea. Instead you will look down at the cup, and the tea will be gone.”
“Beware, stay awake!” There is no time to drift off in the waiting room, or sit around for our boarding number to be called. Rather we ought to be more like a waiter who is continually busy serving others that we have no time to sit down and count tips.
Advent is a time of active waiting.
It is a time to stay awake and alert, living faithfully… not because Christmas is just around the corner and you want Santa to notice…but because Christ has already come, died and has been raised, and you want the world to know it. We are called to live in such a way that the world will see how God wants to lavish us with abundant love, so that, one day, we will all become like Jesus.
In his first letter, John the Apostle writes, 'All of us who look forward to his Coming stay ready – with the glistening purity of Jesus' life as a model for our own.' By this we will not only be prepared to live in the promised realm of God when it comes, but we also get to experience what life in that realm is like today.
Our Advent wait should always draw us nearer to Christ; always expecting and anticipating his presence in and among us. By living in such a way, in a way that we can see Christ in the face of every person we come in contact with, allows us to experience and celebrate the joy of God’s divine love as if every day is Christmas.
Bartlett, David L., Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.
Gumbel, Nicky. Bible in a Year devotional. December 2, 2017.
Rohr, Richard. Yes, And...Daily Meditations. Franciscan Media, 2013.
has been blogging under the name: Jesus not Jesús: Looking for Christ in the face of strangers. You can read his posts and browse his archives by clicking here.
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