A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on December 9, 2012.
“I realized it for the first time in my life: there is nothing but mystery in the world, how it hides behind the fabric of our poor, browbeat days, shining brightly, and we don’t even know it.”
• Sue Monk Kidd in The Secret Life of Bees
O God, we thank you that Christ did come into this world as an infant. We thank you that he brings even to us the joy of new life as he did to Mary and Joseph and all who gathered in that stable on the first Christmas. Thank you for sending him, innocent and vulnerable, that we might not be threatened, but instead be drawn to the circle of light surrounding his head and encouraged forward to kneel in the circle of love surrounding that manger. We gladly receive him as your son as a child. Today, we pray that we might also receive him as king. May we receive him not only as the Child of Bethlehem but as the one before whom every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord. May this advent season kindle in us a renewed devotion and obedience worthy of his lordship. May every area of our lives come under his dominion in such a way that our words, our actions, our loves, our vocations, and all things represent his desire for us. Purify our thoughts in this holiday season. Strengthen our will during this advent, and increase our devotion so that, with gladness, every step we take we may be found following him. We ask it in his Holy Name. Amen.
It happens every year about this time—the desire for a better world or a better life, a world where things that take place are not as dark, not as foreboding or not as sinful. Some people try to distance Christ from the holidays by not saying Merry Christmas and instead saying Happy Holidays, having no idea that they are saying Happy Holy-Days. No matter what you try to do you are going to be stuck with Jesus. But even people who try to ignore that fact cannot keep under wraps a desire for a better world. It does not crop up in the fall or summer. It crops up this time of year around the time we celebrate Christ’s birth. The theme is prominent everywhere we look: A new world, a better world, a world where hearts are changed, where families are reconciled, where parents are able to see their children, siblings who have been estranged from one another come back together, children who have been praying for their parents find that their lives can somehow be brought back together, a world where kindness is multiplied and joy is possible, a world that is fair. No, it is not fair. It is beyond that. A just world, and as Lincoln described, “the better angels of our nature,” a world where the better angels of all of our nature somehow are more prominent in what we do. We long for a new world and we long for it in us.
It is the theme of stories as old as Dickens’ A Christmas Carol where Jesus is only mentioned at the end, and stories as silly as Home Alone where the family comes back together, and I don’t think Jesus is ever mentioned. This desire for a new world, a better world, is in us. Where does it come from?
For centuries, philosophers have put forth the idea that every hunger within us is there because it can be satisfied. If we are literally physically hungry, it is because we need food. If food is available, it would satisfy it. If we are thirsty, it is because we long for water. Water would satisfy our thirst. If we long for something that is beyond and above what we can see, it is because God is there and is the answer to that longing and God has planted within our hearts this hunger for a better world because he has prepared it for us. It is there waiting for us.
Last week as we thought about this new world, we talked about how the new world is available for everybody. It would not be much of a story of Good News if there were a group of people who were excluded, but it is possible for us all.
This week, as we move through this advent season, we are reminded that the new world, the better world, is possible now. In fullness and completeness, yes someday, but among us, the better world is possible for us and available even now. It doesn’t require that the Mayan calendar be right and something catastrophic take place in a couple of weeks. The new world, the world of Christ, is possible now. The Babe of Bethlehem invaded the world with the presence of God. The presence of God is in and among us and possible today in this very ordinary world.
I am not a big fan of church signs. I guess I am not creative enough to think of things that would go on them that people would actually want to read, but I remember driving through the country one time and seeing a sign that really did strike me. Just in front of the church on its marquee, it said, “Some ordinary day, Jesus will come again.” I thought, That is certainly true. I doubt if we will get up one morning and think, This is the day. The air is electric. Jesus is coming. It will just be a day like any other day. That is the way Jesus comes now. It is the way that the possibility of the world of God in and among us comes all the time. It is just in this ordinary life.
Jesus’ birth attests to how the holy comes into the ordinary place, invades it, and takes over. We talk about a stable, but scripture does not actually say “a stable.” It just says, “He was laid in a manger,” and we assume we are talking about a stable because that is where a manger would be and because scripture also says, “There was no room in the inn.” That’s a nice way of saying “a barn.” We try to make it a little more romantic than a barn.
The animals are there with all their accompanying odors and everything else that goes with animals. No Lysol spray. No Clorox wipes. It is enough to make a germaphobe apoplectic, but this is where Jesus is born. We sing Silent Night, but it is only silent after Mary’s labor pains have subsided. We sing about how the cattle are lowing which is, again, a romantic way of saying they sound like a bunch of Chick-fil-A cows making their noise. It was an ordinary place, and only the people who really had eyes to see what was going on, only the people who responded to the invitation, only the people who took enough time to look past all these things could see the holy in that baby and the baby’s parents.
When Jesus grew up, he saw God everywhere. Everywhere he looked, in the most common elements of life, he saw lessons of God, he saw the presence of the holy, he saw things that we can learn about our spiritual nature. He saw it in a farmer sowing. He saw it in a fisherman casting a net. He saw it while attending a wedding feast or observing the work of shepherds. He saw a woman sweeping her house and told a story about a friend coming at midnight. He saw it in the flowers of the field, the birds of the air, and everywhere else he looked. It was just incredibly ordinary stuff except Jesus used it to tell us about the wonders of God’s love, the proof of God’s plan and the riches of God’s grace. It is just out there in the world waiting for us to pause long enough to be touched by the spirit of God in such a receptive way that we can finally look at it and see it.
There is a new world coming. It is a world where peace, joy, reconciliation, and a new heart can come to anybody. It is a world where ordinary people in whom Christ lives can be generous, do God’s work, forgive one another, and pray and know that God listens. Leaving here today, walking outside the walls, looking past the windows, and being on the outside today could be a spiritual adventure.
There might be a stranger somewhere who is an angel waiting to bless us. it could be a stranger that is Jesus Christ waiting to test us to see if we really would do it to the least of these and do it as well to him. It could be a former friend that God has put there in a place for us to encounter to see if we will take advantage of the opportunity to reconcile with each other. God puts people, things, and events in our paths all the time but we have our life blinders on and buzz right on by them and never recognize that God’s mystery, God’s holiness, and God’s spirit is right there. Today could be a spiritual adventure because 2,000 years ago, God invaded this life through his son, Jesus Christ, and Christ is in the world. He said, “The kingdom of God is at hand.” God’s rule in our lives is possible for each and every one of us. Who is to say what ordinary event today, tomorrow, Wednesday, next Friday could not contain the mystery of God at work for us?
Today, we leave assuming two things: Christ has come and all things are possible with Christ. Some ordinary day, some ordinary moment, we will turn around and realize that God is speaking to us through a neighbor, through a child, or through a billboard. We will realize that someone who has been placed in front of us is a messenger from God and that Christ himself has visited us. Some ordinary day, every day, Jesus is near.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.