With Christmas comes four sets of familiar New Testament characters - some shepherds, father, some sages, and a mother. I suspect we annually underestimate just how daring their stories invite us to become.
This season, dare to believe that your otherwise diminutive position in the world matters to God. A chief challenge of modern living is the daily overload of painful world news coupled with the reality that 99.9 percent of it is beyond our control. I am not the president-elect, the pope, or the prince. What can I (we) do about a sickly Sudanese child halfway around the world? Yet remember the witness of our Advent friends the shepherds, working third shift on a hillside full of sheep. In a world of Herod the Greats and other big names, they remain nameless throughout history; yet it is they, not he, for whom the heavens are opened and God’s angels deliver their wonderfully disruptive news. “What’s this?” ask the nervous pastors and elders, “God is supposed to work through the proper channels! We have an appointment in the temple come Saturday, right?” Yet there is their God, alive and well out on the dodgy end of town, conscripting nameless herders into the ministry of good-news-telling. Shepherds? It’s a joke. Dare to believe there is work for us all to do.
This season, dare to risk public disrepute for the sake of some worthy calling. How often do we sense a divine nod in this or that new direction, a slight Spirit-filled push toward a scruffy neighbor in need, or some growing sense of call to bold new action in the world. But who wants to appear the fool? Who wants to disrupt the social patterns that have worked so well for us for so long? So instead we lay low, dressed in the warm sweater of other’s esteem. Yet remember the witness of our brother Joseph, who nine months from December finds himself in a real pickle: a pregnant fiancee and high-minded neighbors. But in the middle of the night, a messenger gives him a provocative invitation to move through the disgrace, not around it. God asks him to trust that some larger effort of goodness and grace is afoot--a ministry that will, in the end, vindicate all the public mumbling. Neighbors and their opinions come and go; the love-summons of the gospel remains for us all.
This season, dare to imagine that there is treasure worth seeking beyond what can be procured on Black Friday, or Cyber Monday. Here we are, called to practice a spirit-filled ministry in a time when Big-Box greeters are trampled to death in the mad rush toward “everyday low prices.” How much is a life worth these days? Indeed, these are strange times for us Christians on this continent: On the one hand, we are the very people who most know how to celebrate that the material treasures of this world are God’s created-good-gifts. We know the Giver and thus we name the gifts, so we should be the last people on the block who are scrooge-ish about material matters. But on the other hand, you and I make our profession in a time of hyper-abundance. Christians around the world must hold to this faith under a tyranny of oppressive powers; we hold the faith under the tyranny of Costco, Ollie’s, and Fuel Perks. What’s real treasure when credit comes (came) cheap? Can one find one’s life at the bottom of a bargain bin? What does it a profit a people to secure gifts for everyone on your list, only to sequester your soul? Remember our wise travelers “from the east,” who for reasons no one will ever truly understand, set out on a journey for some treasure more substantial than what already fills their coffers. In the end, even these elites from the east seem willing--wanting!--to lay down serious coin at the feet of an otherwise lower-class child on whom such astounding promises are attached. This season, dare to believe that you will find your God-given life in the unlikeliest of places ... like a Bethlehem barn.
This season, dare to imagine that the barren places in your life are the seedbeds for God’s next act of newness. Families sometimes falter. Marriages grow cold. Hearts are held captive, rubber-banded to broken events decades in the past. Our lives are a curious concoction of grace and wilderness. Is it any wonder that some among us come to the end of their ropes, unable to imagine anything new under the sun? Yet remember our sister Mary, the Christ-mother, whose understandable metaphysical doubt at the news of her pregnancy is met with an angel’s assurance that “nothing is impossible with God.” What a risky narrative we steward: an unwed teenage mother conscripted to surrogate the divine. It’s a tale so provocative it irritates “family value” hawks and fierce feminists alike. I say, let the scandal of Mary’s life-filled-womb rock us from our religious slumbers; let it summon you to imagine what impossible new thing God might do with the lifeless, wilderness places of your life. Don’t get hung up on the biology of her virginity (as the church has done for centuries); think as the Bible thinks: Mary the Virgin is one more willing-but-unable servant in a long line of Biblical stories wherein God makes a way where there was none before. It cannot be; it was. There was no life; there was life. He was dead; he is risen. Dare to believe there can be a bright Easter morning on your twilight Christmas Eve.
Have a very daring Christmas.