Advent 4 C 2021
“Where is Christmas?”
We say Christmas is just around the corner now, don’t we? I think if you are like me, you could be looking for Christmas in many things. You can see Christmas in the beautiful lights and trees and decorations; I know that I also look for Christmas in the gatherings and parties; the special foods and drinks. You can sense Christmas in the buying of gifts and the cleaning of the house. But, as nice as all these celebratory things are, and they give us a glimpse of Christmas, the true meaning of Christmas is found in the lowly places.
Here is a true story of a homeless Santa presenting small gifts to strangers. In San Diego, a husband and wife decided to eat out at a burrito stand one evening. As they sat enjoying their meal, she noticed a ragged looking man with a grey beard, carrying a sack with what appeared to be all of his possessions. He was coming nearer to their table from just beyond the stand. She told her husband, let’s just give him a few bucks when he comes over so that we can be rid of him, and continue with our supper. As he approached them, the man slowly opened his sack and searched for a few moments in it. He found a beautiful red apple, which he proudly presented to the lady. He then located a snickers bar which he gave to the husband.
They explained that they couldn’t accept his food (the little that he had). But he replied that it really was okay, because he didn’t have any teeth and couldn’t eat them anyway. So they kept his gifts and tried to press a few dollars into his palm. He said they really didn‘t have to give him anything, but he did finally accept a cup of coffee, and went on his way directly afterwards. Where is Christmas? It is in the homeless Santa, giving gifts from his precious few possessions. It is in the humility and generosity of the moment. Christmas is in the receiving of someone unknown and unremarkable, and honoring his self-giving.
So, when you hear the question of the week—which is often “Are you ready for Christmas?” Think of the lowly. Getting ready for Christmas is looking to where we find the lowly ones– Mary and Elizabeth, and Jesus the Christ, himself. In these humble, generous people, we see what is unknown taking on great meaning for us. In these unremarkable figures—we find the center of our spiritual lives.
The lowly Mary was an unknown, unwed, pregnant teenager. Mary is told she is impregnated by the Holy Spirit to bear a child who will be Son of the Most High God. Mary could have baulked at the prospect, but instead, she calls on her trust in the promises of God. She will carry and bear a child, at the risk of being abandoned and ridiculed and ostracized from her community. Her faith in God was deep and wide.
Mary went to her distant cousin, Elizabeth, for the company that pregnant women can give to one another. She sought out that circle where she would be accepted and encircled by love. On her part, Elizabeth was also a woman who chose a response of faith. She was an ordinary older woman, past the age of child-bearing— And being childless, she was a lowly one in the eyes of the world. Elizabeth was told she would conceive in her old age and bear a child who would make ready the way of the Lord. Neither woman had stature or power or anything to make them worthy of the attention or honor of their world. In fact, this all took place in just a little town in the Judean hill country.
They had to decide whether they would respond to God’s call or not. We may think, well God’s plan was to use Mary and Elizabeth to bring about the births of Jesus and John. It was a done deal; the babies would be born, regardless of what Mary and Elizabeth had to say about it. Yet, both of them were moved by faith to engage with the grace of God. They grasped onto the will of God for them and for all of us to come.
In biblical times, God’s will was a matter of being open to grace; God’’ will was delivered through the action of the Holy Spirit. It is only much later in time that we see God’s will as a detailed personal plan for one’s life. Mary and Elizabeth opened themselves to God’s will through their astounding trust in God.
And look at the magnitude of their responses to God! They responded with complete faith. It was more than a passive acceptance. It was a faith that took the risk of dishonor. It was faith that made bold claims. Faith that embraced a counter-cultural vision for who is blessed by God. The world would be turned upside down. The mighty brought down from their thrones; the lowly lifted up. The hungry fed, and the rich turned away empty. The God of Israel was taking action to do this. God was lifting up the lowly right in a small town, hardly on the map, in the hills of Judea.
Mary and Elizabeth are wonderful models of faith for us. They have given me a sensitivity to finding God, and seeing Christmas among us in the lowly, in our time—right here and right now. This past week, I was blessed by God’s action in the Holy Spirit. The Spirit led a homeless mother and three little children to our church. I was able to give her a night or two out of the cold in the Budget hotel, and I thank you for your kindness that provides funds for me to do this on your behalf. I spread the word to a friend, who also helped her out. Perhaps just as important, I steered her to Partners in Hope and the Troy food pantry. I was ministering to one of the lowly beloved ones of God, and she told me about her faith; she said, just have faith and keep believing that things will get better. As Mary says, the hungry shall be filled with good things, and the rich sent away empty.
Dietreich Bonhoeffer, the 20th century theologian and martyr has written the following thoughts in a Christmas sermon: Each of us lives among those who are so-called higher-ups, and others who are so-called lowly. Each of us knows someone who is lower in the order of things than we ourselves. May this Christmas help us learn that if we want to find the way to God, we have to go – not up to the heights—but really down to the depths among the least of all, and that every life that only wants to stay up high will come to a fearful end.
We need to make clear to ourselves how, from now on, in the light of the manger, we are going to think about what is high and what is low in human life. Not that any of us are very powerful persons, even if perhaps we would like to be, and we don’t like to have that said to us. There are relatively few very powerful people, and there are many more people with small amounts of power—petty power, who put it into play whenever they can, and whose one thought is ‘keep climbing higher.’ God himself thinks differently, namely keep climbing down lower, down among the lowly… if we go this way there we will meet God himself.
Later this week, we will celebrate Christmas Eve. Will we keep climbing higher? Or lower? It is important for a Christian congregation to come to an understanding of this point, and ask “who among us will celebrate Christmas rightly?” Who will finally lay down at the manger all power and honor, all high regard, vanity, arrogance and self-will? Who will take their place among the lowly and let God alone be high? Who will see the glory of God in the lowliness of the child in the manger? Who will say with Mary, ‘the Lord has looked with favor on my lowliness? My soul magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior?’
Rev Ann Marie Winters December 19, 2021