We celebrate the coming of Immanuel—God with us in Jesus the Messiah—in a world desperately in need of good news and forlornly weary of platitudes. Glory to God in the highest! Well, yes, but what about us in the lowest?
If it doesn’t work for the whole world and all of reality, does it truly work? That’s a question I have been asking of my preaching and teaching in recent years. I was forced to ask it seriously and urgently when I began going to other places, addressing other cultures, and found that some of my “best stuff” just didn’t work there and in those circumstances. So, does it work for the whole world—for the highest and the lowest places and those who inhabit them?
Advent 2009 comes to a world where:
· little girls are robbed of their childhood, to be enslaved for unspeakable purposes,
· little boys are forced to take up real arms and taught to maim and kill others,
· millions are displaced and driven to refugee camps by tribal conflict, genocidal assault, famine, and political corruption,
· millions more are living without hope of a future better than their present meager subsistence,
· millions of others endure in despair even though they will never worry about creature comfort, adequate daily provisions, or lack of opportunity,
· millions have never not been in danger, who live in war zones, among predators, or in places of social and cultural hostility,
· millions whose circumstances and surroundings are safe and secure, but still live in fear and angst.
Meanwhile, here at home in the USA, Advent continues to wash over us with promises of hope and help. Yet such promises are muted for those:
· who have lost their jobs,
· who have buried their loved ones,
· whose children are missing through unwise choices or broken relationships,
· whose dreams for the future have shattered,
· whose past has caught up with them,
· whose pain—whether physical, emotional, relational, or spiritual—has become unbearable.
Advent 2009 teases the many who would like to help, who long for all that is wrong to be right around them and within them, but have begun to worry that it’s never going to happen!
Now, here we are, followers of the One who has come, who is here, whom Scripture names Immanuel—meaning “God with us,” celebrating this good news. Can we be serious?
I think we can, even though everything I’ve said above is accurate, even though the world is as it is. Let me tell you why I think so.
To begin, the story we celebrate acknowledges the world as it is, or was, which reflects the sad realities I’ve listed and their less than encouraging portents. Into just such a world angels visited, announced the good news, followed by unexpected and miraculous conceptions, real labor, delivery, danger and threat, narrow escape, rejoicing, and then … and then … well what looks like more of the same ole same ole.
The child was born and then many years of hardly a God-sighting, until the beginning of a ministry. Even after that beginning, which was truly exciting and full of unexpected and miraculous signs of God-with-us, there was rejection, abandonment, betrayal, and dying. Of course, after that came resurrection and Pentecost and then wildly expanding and out of control multiplying of God-with-us communities all over the place. Finally, it seemed we were on the way. But, then … again! In other words, upon careful reading the story itself prepares us for how the story unfolds, for the fact that at times it may seem not to be unfolding at all, for moments when we are nearly distracted altogether and tempted to think the story was fanciful fiction rather than ultimate fulfillment.
And, upon even closer attention to the story—this time the Advent story itself, we find this same feature. An Angel comes to announce that finally the consolation of Israel is at hand, that ancient promises are to be kept, that the Messiah is coming. But then a baby, in Bethlehem, to nobodies—this is the way God will act? Yes, this is the way. Not as you would think. Not as you would prefer. Not on your schedule. Not by your means. This is the way.
A child is born. A Son is given. The seed is planted. The leaven is working. Here and now, in this world, amongst people dwelling in various shades of darkness, yearning for relief that just seems so long in coming—here and now help and hope inhabits, purpose and power engages, light illumines, life surges, a way opens up by which the NEW comes.
A child is born. A son is given. Watch this child. See him grow and go. Follow him closely. See what he does. Follow carefully. Watch not only what he does but how he does it. Follow closely. Follow him, not other followers, not abstractions of him, not a philosophy about him, but him. Follow. Keep following. Keep watching, maintain focus. See it his way, plan it his way, and walk his way. Follow and keep at it. See what he does. Marvel that it happens in that way, his way! Watch how something small grows large, something hidden all of a sudden pops into view, something weak outwits and outmatches in ways that are huge. See how light exposes and clarifies. See how life swallows up death, how good and right somehow manages to win—not always and not quickly but surely often enough to launch new ventures of hope!
Immanuel! Really and truly.