Sermon preached on Christmas Eve
Are you ready? Are all your cards mailed? Are all the light bulbs working on the tree or on your house? Do you still have gifts to wrap or stockings to fill? Are all your groceries purchased? Ready or not, Christmas is here.
“Ready or not.” This is not just a phrase for a children’s game – “ready or not, here I come.” Life often presents itself as “ready or not.” A few years ago, our daughter Sarah, now 20, and I were talking. She asked me what was so great about growing up. I thought for a bit. Driving – but then there is insurance and the possibilities of fender benders. Voting – important but sometimes a challenge and it requires some time and attention if you want to be an informed voter. New responsibilities come with adulthood, some not necessarily easy or enjoyable. I think I finally settled on the accumulation of experiences and the ability to remember past joys as you also experience new ones, that’s part of the joy of becoming an adult. Yet, however we think about becoming adult, ready or not it will come.
With adulthood can come marriage and perhaps children – and children arrive ready or not. I think about my own family. Our son David was born while I was still in seminary, after Julie and I were married a mere eleven months. Julie was working only part-time. And when David came no one was quite yet ready because he was six weeks premature. There we were, parents in our early twenties, just getting by economically, with a premature baby – ready or not. Beth was born in Roseau, arriving smack dab in the middle of a church service. She came, ready or not, and I unexpectedly missed church that day. Sarah was born in Dallas, after I had returned to school. Again, we were not at our economic best, living in a two-bedroom apartment with two children already. But Sarah was born, ready or not. [I guess you might say that Julie and I flunked family planning…. But that might be a TMI moment]
Now today/tonight Julie and I are waiting for the birth of our first grandchild. She will be born to a woman our son dated for awhile, but they are not currently a couple. The circumstances are not ideal, but ready or not, she will arrive.
Life arrives, ready or not for what it may bring our way. I work with a number of couples as they prepare to get married. In fact, I use a pre-marriage inventory with them called “PREPARE.” We do some work together to help strengthen their relationship heading into marriage, and discuss ways to build on those strengths during their marriage. Yet by the end of the wedding service, when I announce that the couple is now married, ready or not, they are married.
Life arrives, ready or not for what it may bring our way. Sometimes what comes to us and at us is difficult. There are times in life when we will be hurt, disappointed, frustrated, and sometimes taken aback. Ready or not, life arrives. Sometimes what comes to us brings serendipitous joy. Last Sunday I preached a sermon which focused on the idea of courage, utilizing the frequently heard biblical phrase, “do not be afraid.” We had a guest youth choir with us and their final song was entitled “Healing Rain” – with a chorus that says, “healing rain is falling down, healing rain is falling down; I’m not afraid; I’m not afraid.” This was not planned. It was not ready-made, but the moment arrived and I was filled with gratitude for its serendipity. Perhaps we should always come to worship ready in some way for serendipitous grace and joy.
Life arrives, ready or not for what it may bring our way. Sometimes it brings joy, sometimes pain. Sometimes we are more ready than others, but ready or not, life happens.
Maybe it is a good thing, then, that the God we know in Jesus arrives into our lives and into the world, ready or not. Actually, there is no maybe about it. That God arrives, ready or not, is good news. It is good news of great joy for all the people.
Here is the good news. God doesn’t wait until the world is just right to arrive into it. God comes into the world again and again even in unlikely times. The people of Jesus, the Jews, were living under Roman occupation in Palestine. When a decree went out from the Emperor, everyone followed because of the power of Rome. Roman citizens were privileged in this society in which many found themselves poor and just getting by. Rome accomplished a great deal, but justice was what the Emperor decided it was, and again more justice was possible for citizens. Perhaps this seems an inopportune time for some new arrival of God, but ready or not, God comes.
Here is the good news. God doesn’t wait until we have it all together in our lives to arrive. God comes to us again and again. There is a question that I get asked from time to time, yet it never ceases to amaze me. “Do you have a dress code at your church?” Somehow the church, many churches, have given the impression that God will touch your life only after you have gotten it together enough to show up in church properly attired. When you manage to be good enough, then God will come into your life. I understand how such a message has been sent by churches, but the heart of Christian faith, and the heart of the Christmas story is that God comes into our lives, ready or not. We don’t have to be “ready” for God to touch us and teach us, love us and lift us, to inspire and enfold us. Remember the story. Mary and Joseph were not married when Jesus was born, at least according to Luke. Jesus arrived, ready or not. The shepherds were minding their own business that night, tending to the task at hand. Jesus arrived, ready or not. Angels announced the birth to the shepherds, catching them completely off guard. In the arrival of Jesus, we trust that God arrived into our world in a new way.
So God arrives into our lives and into our world, ready or not. And there is more to the good news. God is not arriving into our unmade lives and unkempt world just to catch us doing wrong, messing up, so we can then be taken to the proverbial wood shed. God arrives into the world longing for peace and good will, working toward peace and good will. God arrives in small quiet ways. God arrives in mangers and at the margins, rather than in palaces and places of prominence.
Reflecting on Christian faith, the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote: The essence of Christianity is the appeal to the life of Christ as the revelation of the nature of God and of his agency in the world. The record is fragmentary, inconsistent and uncertain… But there can be no doubt as to what elements in the record have evoked a response from all that is best in human nature. The Mother, the Child, the bare manger. The lowly man, homeless and self-forgetful, with his message of peace, love, and sympathy: the suffering, the agony, the tender words as life ebbed, the final despair: and the whole with the authority of supreme victory. (The Adventure of Ideas, 167; quoted in Jackson, A Theology For Ministry, 104)
While God’s arrival indeed can shake us up and can turn the world upside down – who would remember that Pilate was Rome’s man in Palestine were it not for the story of Jesus, and while God’s Spirit will point to those places in our lives that are less than loving, God’s intent is always peace and goodwill. God arrives in our lives, ready or not, to accompany us, to walk with us, to love us and lift us, to heal us and free us, to inspire and enfold us, to bring us joy.
A woman tells the story of her daughter Jessica. Jessica’s early life involved moving a lot as her parents had careers in government service. She and her brother were very glad when her parents decided to settle in a community in Maryland, outside Washington, D.C. Jessica’s parents found a Catholic church they felt at home in.
One of the traditions in this church was an annual Christmas pageant with angels, shepherds, wise men, an innkeeper, Mary and Joseph, and often a real live baby for Jesus. The program was presented by the sixth graders. The parish education director, Sister Margie, felt that one day, when she was in sixth grade, Jessica would make a fine Mary. She encouraged Jessica along the way, and Jessica had her heart set on doing this when she was old enough.
In October of Jessica’s sixth grade year, as the school was beginning preparations for that year’s pageant, Sister Margie asked Jessica’s mother if she might have a word with her. There was a note of concern, even panic in Sister Margie’s voice. Speaking in almost a whisper, in order to avoid any controversy, Sister Margie told Jessica’s mother what a lovely, tall, young woman Jessica had become – with an emphasis on tall. Jessica now towered about six inches over the boy who had his heart set on playing Joseph in the pageant. Margie: Mary must carry the baby Jesus on one arm and take Joseph’s elbow for support as they walk the length of the aisle and make their entrance accompanied by the choir of angels. I just don’t know how that will look with her being so much taller than he.
Jessica’s mother was worried. She understood Sister Margie’s concern. She also knew how much her daughter had been anticipating this pageant and her role as Mary. Jessica approached her mother and Sister Margie. Try as they might to keep the conversation quiet, Jessica had heard every word. She swallowed hard, spoke sweetly yet firmly. Excuse me, Sister. If it didn’t make any difference to Joseph if Mary was pregnant when he married her – do you think it mattered to him if she was taller than him? The pageant went off without a hitch. (from Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas Magic, 67-68)
We spend a lot of time in our lives trying to make them just right so that God might care and arrive in our lives in a special way, we try to be perfectly ready so God might approve of us – our Sunday best, Mary just a little shorter than Joseph, work and play well with others. Nothing wrong with wanting to be a little better, but know this; hear this good news today/tonight - - - God arrives ready or not. We need the love, courage and peace of God, not after we are “ready” – whatever that might mean, but to help us live our lives right now, even if they are a little unkempt and out of order. We need to the love, courage and peace of God to help us move the world along a little bit – toward freedom, justice, healing, release, light and life, comfort, repairing the world. Now is the time in our lives when we need the love of God “a love that embraces the dark night and the joyful dawn” (Bruce Epperly). Now is the time when we need God to touch us and teach us, love us and lift us, to inspire and enfold us, to heal us and free us.. Now is the time, ready or not.
Christmas time is here, ready or not. God continues to be born, ready or not. Good news. Great joy. Glory to God. Amen.