He’s got our back

Third Sunday of Easter

John 21:1-19

By Emily Rowell Brown


If you’re anything like me, today’s gospel sounded curiously familiar, but you couldn’t place quite why it set off such déjà-vu.  Jesus feeding the disciples fish on the shores of the Sea of Tiberias seems similar to Jesus’ feeding of five thousand people with five loaves and two fish in that same place.[1]  Cana, the hometown of one disciple, recalls the site of Jesus’ very first sign, turning water into wine, at the wedding.  That the disciples do not initially recognize Jesus hardly surprises us, since the disciples are always slow to catch on, but this instance is a subtly altered repeat of the resurrected Jesus’ other appearances to a confused Mary, who mistakes him for a gardener, and to Thomas, who demanded proof that the Jesus who had been raised was the Jesus who had been crucified.  And John never tires of likening God’s people to sheep, and Jesus’ commission to Peter to tend the sheep sounds like Jesus’ Good Shepherd teaching.[2]

But what may be most resonant of all is the exchange between Jesus and Peter, which again happens in “threes.”  We recall how Peter denied that he was Jesus’ disciple before the cock’s crow preceding Jesus’ crucifixion, just as Jesus had predicted.[3]   Three times accusers asked whether Peter followed Jesus, and three times Peter protested.  This was not the answer Jesus wanted, but Jesus refuses to give up on Peter.  Here, post-resurrection, he questions whether Peter loves him, and this time, Peter answers affirmatively.  But Jesus does not merely ask once.  He asks again.  And again.  (If we’re counting, that makes three.)  And every single time, Jesus’ response is not a “good” or “that’s the right answer” or “thank you” but a charge.  “If you love me,” Jesus says, “then you will feed my sheep.”

In other words, loving Jesus is about discipleship.  Jesus’ repetition of the instruction to tend the flock hammers home the implication that faith in Jesus requires not merely a profession of words but action.  We’ve heard it before: Love God by loving others.

While Peter may feel reticent to accept Jesus’ vote of confidence in him, Jesus does not send him off aimlessly or without provision.  Notice what happens before Peter and Jesus’ conversation: Jesus feeds him.  Even at their final meeting with Jesus, the disciples still cannot catch fish on their own.  In one sense, the reality is discouraging: have they made no progress, have they learned nothing, over the course of their time with Jesus and one another?  Yet the deeper point rests in their utter reliance on Jesus.  They need Jesus–they show up confused, broken, hungry, not always even sure why or of what they have need–and Jesus provides.  Always.

This story is an apt metaphor for what happens to us when we come together as church or seek Jesus in our own lives.  We show up here– some of us Sunday after Sunday, some of us on those occasions we can manage to get everyone’s hair and teeth brushed on time without murdering a fellow family member in the process–and Jesus feeds us: in the bread and wine of communion, in the caring faces of our community, in the inspiring examples of those we feel privileged to call brothers and sisters in faith.

Jesus takes the fear of those like Simon Peter, who retreats to his work in avoidance of Jesus, afraid to look his friend in the eye again after failing him; the fear of those like our fellow citizens, who worry about the security and political stability of our country and world; and the fear of those perhaps like you or me, who question whether they are measuring up and succeeding in their work and relationships, and Jesus absorbs it.  He alleviates fear by feeding us, by directing us to an abundant supply of all that which will nourish us, by calmly inviting us to come sit down by the fire with him and have breakfast.  It will all be okay, he whispers into our ears.  I’ve got you.

This image of Jesus as a parent teaching a child to ride a bike readily comes to mind.  The child so wants to ride the two-wheeled bicycle and seize the freedom that it offers: the ability to explore the greater neighborhood, to meet friends, and to develop independence and claim agency.  Yet the child is nonetheless scared.  It is not a question of whether she will fall but when, and she tentatively climbs and shuffles on the bike with a sense of impending doom.  The parent holds on to the back seat and helps her to gain balance and confidence, and offers guidance and advice, but the time comes when the parent must let go.  And the child pedals and pedals and glides, almost as though floating on the road, until she falls.  She cries and yells, and her parent embraces her, holding her close, until the child feels safe again and not so afraid.  But the child cannot stay in the parent’s arms forever; she must go out again.

So is true for us.  We cannot stay in the warmth and security of Jesus’ outstretched arms (or, for that matter, in the beauty and comfort of our churches) forever, cocooned off from the challenges and adventures and sometimes threats of the world.  It is telling that John’s gospel–all the gospels, for that matter–ends not with Jesus but with Jesus’ followers.  If the climax of our faith is Jesus’ glorification through his crucifixion and resurrection, the resolution is Jesus’ commission to the followers to carry on the mission, to keep on building the kingdom.  We are nearing John’s final words to us (only six verses follow today’s gospel text), and he leaves us with momentum, a push to go out and to ride that bike, to be disciples.

One of my professors in divinity school is a scholar of John’s gospel, and the book she wrote about the Fourth Evangelist’s characters she entitled Imperfect Believers, which says everything we need to know.  Jesus’ followers then–the disciples–and followers now–among which we include ourselves–serve Jesus imperfectly.  We will stumble, we will fail to see and understand how and when and where God is working, we will shut Jesus out.  But this is the body of people whom Jesus has chosen–imperfect believers.  He believes quite perfectly in us.

It is because he has poured such love into feeding and sustaining us that we can go out, strengthened, encouraged, endorsed, knowing that Jesus has always got our back.


[1] John 6:1-14

[2] John 10:14

[3] John 18:27

God of Joy

A Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany

By Emily Rowell Brown

1 Cor. 12:1-11

John 2:1-11


I pray in the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. : “Eternal God, we bless you. Help us to seek that which is high, noble and good…Amen.”


On my wedding day, my dress didn’t fit, rain poured down from the sky, and our newly pregnant event planner kept sneaking off to the restroom to toss her cookies.  Fortunately, all ended well: once we figured out how to arrange the corset correctly, my gown fit perfectly; our photographer made the best of the weather and captured artsy, romantic shots of Dan and me walking outside under a large umbrella; and the event planner recruited her assistant to take over and proceeded to deliver a healthy baby girl seven months later.


Anyone here who has planned a wedding has likely, at some point during the big day, felt a similar sense of disaster looming, and I wonder if it was not so different at the wedding in Cana.  You can almost imagine the parents of the bride frantically soliciting Jesus’ mother for help while attempting to remain unruffled amidst the other guests.  They perhaps instructed the servants to lessen their pours, meanwhile hoping that they would find dozens of bottles hidden in a corner of another room or that somebody would come to the rescue.  That somebody turned out to be Jesus.  


Despite how relatable the premise of this story is, there are some strange things about the ensuing response.  The hosts know to go to Mary and Jesus for help–how is that so?  What made them confident that Jesus could solve their problem?  Jesus calls his mother woman–why distance himself from her in that way?  The first miracle John reports in his gospel is the turning of water into wine.  Why testify to a miracle about saving face at a wedding party and not something more significant?  Miracles, after all, are the signs by which the disciples–and we–learn of Jesus’ identity.  Is this miracle supposed to convince us that Jesus is divine, that God has come to save us?


These idiosyncrasies all serve a larger symbolic purpose.  John never misses an opportunity to layer on meaning, and this very first sign foreshadows what is to come at the end.  The six stone jars used for Jewish rites of purification are filled with new wine, showing us that Jesus creates something new within the midst of his heritage.  To his mother, Jesus acknowledges his fate with the remark “My hour has not yet come.” And we cannot miss that it is water that also pours out of Jesus’ sides when he is later nailed to the cross.  The transformed wine invokes the depths to which Jesus goes rescue us, his love spilling out on the cross as he endures and triumphs over suffering and death.  


While the symbolic overtones of this miracle invite contemplation, at face value, the water-to-wine conversion seems magical yet incidental.  God shows up to a celebration, a feast, of all things.  God lavishes the guests with gallons and gallons of wine, and at the very end of the event, when everyone expects to be drinking the cheap stuff.  We expect God to raise the dead and heal the sick but not so much to salvage a party…and in our modern context, examples like this prompt concerns about the dangers of excess, particularly when it comes to alcohol.


Nonetheless, God’s providing abundantly reveals a God who enjoys fun, who delights in at times spoiling her children.  Part of the challenge here is to believe that God is in the small things and wants to be invited into celebration and joy.  We give the obligatory reverence and thanks to a faraway God for the birth of a child or a new job or recovery from illness, and we readily call unto God to help us when we are in pain.  C. S. Lewis has an all-too-apt observation about how we seek God only when there seem to be no other options.  As he puts it, “We regard God as an airman regards his parachute; it’s there for emergencies but he hopes he’ll never have to use it.”  Yet on the whole, we are reluctant to seek God in less weighty matters–perhaps because we think we have them handled on our own, or perhaps because we think God is too busy with other, more important stuff.


Our lectionary readings today call us to experience a God bigger than our preconceptions and expectations.  The words Paul offers to the Corinthians (who are all fighting about who has the most important spiritual gift) have an almost ho-hum quality to them.  Of course God creates and equips us differently, and of course the Holy Spirit will work through us uniquely.  It is logical that some of us will be good at some things, and others better at other things.  A church is a perfect example of how many different people and gifts our world needs.  What would St. Mary’s do without our numbers people and our construction experts and our teachers and our gardeners and our talented home cooks?  We would not eat nearly as well or have such beautiful grounds, for one, and we might not be around at all.  


What Paul’s words also tell us, however, is that God appears in a number of ways, that God does not confine himself to particular personalities or scenarios or activities.  We are currently in the season of Epiphany, which has everything to do with illumination, or knowledge of who God is, attained especially by looking at Jesus.  This season helps deepen–and sometimes blows up–what we think we know about how God works.  It is not up to us to say where God will and will not show up.  Sometimes it is through miracles and signs, or through speaking in tongues, or prophetic words; sometimes at weddings, births, church services, or soup kitchens; sometimes in laughter, tears, or joy.


If God is in such profane experiences as parties and events, food and drink, then we must expand what we count as holy.  Holy is the good wine at the end of the party, the hospitality of wanting your guests to enjoy the best even at their final sip.  Holy is the bowling alley which sometimes hosts deep youth group discussions about faith and spirituality but more often simply provides a cell signal-free zone to enjoy being human together.  Holy is the knock-knock joke you hear from your grandson, which always ends with the same punchline that he delivers as though it is the first time.  Holy is the lipstick you put on before church because you want to look nice for your pewmate, and nice for God, and God notices and delights in it.  Holy is the good time had around the coffee table with friends and popcorn during the Super Bowl or premiere of the new season of The Bachelor.


Because God is celebration and pleasure just as much as God is mercy and forgiveness, and that is reason to rejoice in a world that can be all too weighty, all to solemn.

Teenagers Know Best

A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Christmas-January 3, 2016

Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.

Luke 2:41-52

The parents of Jesus went to Jerusalem every year for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.

And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.


Teenagers Know Best

I have a group of good female clergy friends who serve at other Episcopal churches around RIchmond, and one of the ways that we keep in touch is with a running Facebook message thread.  Sometimes we encourage each other through busy, stressful times (“We can make it!” we’ll say during Advent and Christmas), sometimes we share more serious concerns and mention prayer requests, and sometimes we get just a tad irreverent.  The latter was the case this week when we looked at the lectionary’s gospel choice.  We began swapping cheeky alternative titles for the story of Jesus getting lost while teaching at the temple, some of which included: He Came to Save, Not to Behave; How Not to Parent; A Precocious Tween and Two Disgruntled Parents Walk into a Temple.

Joking aside, this is one of our stories that can trip us up, since it disrupts our ideas about a perfect Jesus.  It can be uncomfortable to think about Jesus disobeying his parents, and if we sit with the notion of a rebellious Jesus for a moment, we can get, as my friend Kristen would say, twitchy, trying to explain away what he did and why he did it.  Many interpretations would tell us that Jesus was not in fact ill intentioned or misbehaving at all. Jesus’ parents’ limited understanding meant that they could not keep up with their son.  We might call them neglectful, since they simply took off assuming Jesus would make it back all right.  Or we might say that Jesus had to choose between two goods: obedience to his parents and obedience to God, and Jesus chose the greater good, subordinating human social customs to God’s will.

Still, I’m sure the parents among us would have rather him not gone about teaching in the temple the way that he did–perhaps instead requested to stay behind, and then acted more graciously when reunited with Mary and Joseph.  And it must have stung when Jesus answered Mary’s question with an acknowledgment of only his heavenly Father–a not-so-subtle snub of Joseph–as though choosing deliberately to cut his ties with his earthly parents.  Sure, Jesus broke his curfew to provide religious instruction, not to party or steal, but he does not seem too different from a typical teenager here, absorbed in his own plans and dreams and unconcerned that he almost gave his mother a heart attack.  (Although, I should caveat here, that this is how the story reads to us today.  Our conceptions of the teenaged years and adolescence would not have been shared by Jesus’ first century contemporaries, who drew a much sharper line between childhood and adulthood, and 13 was usually the age when one was no longer considered a child).

There is, however, another way that we could approach Jesus’ behavior, a way that is more interesting, if unsettling.  Perhaps Jesus was not perfect, perhaps he was indeed very human with sometimes less than excellent judgement.

This story about Jesus’ childhood does several things.  For one, it roots Jesus and his family firmly within their Jewish context.  We learn that they faithfully observed Passover and made the trek to Jerusalem each year and that they were familiar with Jewish teachings and customs.

The story also provides one of the only glimpses we get of Jesus before he is an adult and helps us form a picture of our savior by connecting the dots between the Eternal Word, the innocent baby lying in a manger, the marvelous teacher and miracle worker, the justice seeker, the sacrificial lamb, and the resurrected crucified man.  We still have many unanswered questions, but we have yet one more piece of the puzzle.  

And finally, this story demonstrates real, messy, human relationship struggles.  This interaction between Jesus and his parents is actually quite relatable; it sounds like an exchange that could happen within any family.  The Jesus in this story is someone who knows us, who gets us, who has experienced the same frustrations and embarrassments and conflicts.

In the Christian faith, we are always moving back and forth between stressing the divine and human aspects of Jesus Christ.  Jesus of Nazareth was the lowly carpenter who showed us how to live righteously in the world, and Jesus the Christ overcame death on the cross, so that sin will not ultimately defeat us.  All of our credal statements attempt to get this balance right–Jesus is mysteriously, somehow, both and fully human and divine.  The creeds’ wording is careful, measured, because it is so easy to slip into emphasizing one part to the exclusion of the other.

Another way we might conceive of Jesus’ humanity and divinity is that Jesus is a figure both accessible and aspirational.  He provides a model for who we are trying to become but is not so far removed from us that we cannot relate.  There always is an unattainable dimension to our walks of faith–we are growing and evolving, and not necessarily linearly or progressively–but we venture on with hope and courage because Jesus has invited us to journey with him.

All of this talk about the fine lines between being and becoming resonates well at the dawn of 2016.  Upon us is a new year, a time for change and remaking ourselves, a time to become better, more perfect versions of who we already are.  I bet we all have read articles about how to set successful New Year’s resolutions: we should make our goals SMART–specific, measureable, attainable, realistic, and time sensitive; we should find someone to hold us accountable; we should not try to make too many changes at once.  While there are some naysayers who argue that we can set a resolution any day of the year, that there is no need to wait until January 1 (and they have a point), the energy and promise that a new calendar year brings is nonetheless contagious.  Advent may technically be the start of the Christian year, but I think January better registers with us as a beginning.  

Why not feed off the enthusiasm of others voicing their 2016 intentions?  Read the Bible for ten minutes before bed each night, or pray and journal for a few moments in the morning.  Volunteer with one of the nonprofits in our neighborhood or one of St. Mary’s partners in outreach.  Establish a tradition of praying as a family each night around the dinner table.  Talk to God about anything and everything during our daily commute.  Give grace to the body which God so wonderfully crafted and gave us, forgiving ourselves when we miss a workout and filling it with good, well grown and well made food.

And…expect there to be bumps along the way.  We will forge ahead imperfectly, perhaps skipping a few days of praying or growing exasperated rather than thankful during grace at dinner after a long day, but all will not be lost.  What I so love about the 12-year-old Jesus is that he manages to hold both together–the human and divine, the accessible and aspirational, the flawed and the excellent.  In one moment, he can share with and bestow upon others amazing insight about God and God’s works, and in another, he can completely lack consideration for his parents.  He shows us that living out our faith tends not to be all or nothing.  Our actions and practices are never all good or all bad, all right or all wrong, and we know that they are not in vain, because it is the striving, the believing that we can, even if imperfectly, that is the point.    

Perhaps you have heard the words before “Jesus descended so that we might ascend.”  Put differently, Jesus came to earth to show us the way, how we might be forever with God.  As the letter to the Ephesians tells us, God sees us through the lens of Jesus; we get extra credit. God the Father “blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.”  Jesus’ full sharing in our human experience deepens and intensifies God’s love and understanding for us. Our contemporary ideas about adolescence and young adulthood are actually quite lovely to bring into play here.  We know that teenagers’ brains are still forming, that their judgement vacillates between spot on and missing the mark.  We, as spiritual teenagers, if you will, are united to Jesus, in all our missteps and all our glories, and God is good with it.  God embraces us, eagerly, happily.

Maybe my favorite alternate title of all that we tossed around in that Facebook thread was this: Teenagers Know Best.


It wouldn’t be Christmas without…

Isaiah 62:6-12


Upon your walls, O Jerusalem, I have posted sentinels;

all day and all night

they shall never be silent.

You who remind the LORD,

take no rest,

and give him no rest

until he establishes Jerusalem

and makes it renowned throughout the earth.

The LORD has sworn by his right hand

and by his mighty arm:

I will not again give your grain

to be food for your enemies,

and foreigners shall not drink the wine

for which you have labored;

but those who garner it shall eat it

and praise the LORD,

and those who gather it shall drink it

in my holy courts.

Go through, go through the gates,

prepare the way for the people;

build up, build up the highway,

clear it of stones,

lift up an ensign over the peoples.

The LORD has proclaimed

to the end of the earth:

Say to daughter Zion,

“See, your salvation comes;

his reward is with him,

and his recompense before him.”

They shall be called, “The Holy People,

The Redeemed of the LORD”;

and you shall be called, “Sought Out,

A City Not Forsaken.”

1   The LORD is King;

let the earth rejoice; *

let the multitude of the isles be glad.

2 Clouds and darkness are round about him, *

righteousness and justice are the foundations of his throne.

3 A fire goes before him *

and burns up his enemies on every side.

4 His lightnings light up the world; *

the earth sees it and is afraid.

5  The mountains melt like wax at the presence of the LORD, *

at the presence of the Lord of the whole earth.

6 The heavens declare his righteousness, *

and all the peoples see his glory.

7 Confounded be all who worship carved images

and delight in false gods! *

Bow down before him, all you gods.

8 Zion hears and is glad, and the cities of Judah rejoice, *

because of your judgments, O LORD.

9 For you are the LORD,

most high over all the earth; *

you are exalted far above all gods.

10 The LORD loves those who hate evil; *

he preserves the lives of his saints

and delivers them from the hand of the wicked.

11 Light has sprung up for the righteous, *

and joyful gladness for those who are truehearted.

12 Rejoice in the LORD, you righteous, *

and give thanks to his holy Name.


Luke 2:8-20


In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.


It Wouldn’t Be Christmas Without


“It wouldn’t be Christmas without…”  Magazines and newspapers run articles this time of year featuring responses ranging from the serious to the silly to the cynical, and we all could fill in the blank with our own ideas.  It wouldn’t be Christmas without ugly sweaters, the famous and secret family mulled cider recipe, Great Uncle Ned’s crazy story about how he stole the neighbor’s inflatable reindeer as a rebellious teenager, the midnight candle-lit Christmas Eve service closing with the congregation singing the softest, most beautiful rendition of “Silent Night.”  As our seasons of life change, traditions may evolve–your daughter makes the special cranberry relish for Christmas dinner at her house, and you slip into the role of excited grandparent instead of exhausted parent, or you move, and your church home changes, or you lose some special loved ones, and you can feel their presence now only through memories–but there are certain non-negotiables we all have this time of year, and the holidays would not feel like the holidays if they were missing.  


The sameness, the familiarity provides comfort.  There is something to be said about knowing the ending sometimes, knowing that all the men will retire to the sofa for naps following the holiday meal, that the dog will eat too many table scraps and get sick, that the trash company will leave behind a wrapping paper trail after its hurried, half-hearted post-holiday pick up.  


As we leave behind our childhood years, we recognize that the rhythm and routine to it all blunts the excitement of the season, so that the extraordinary, the miraculous, seems manageable, digestible.  It’s the recurrence of the bizarre customs like the plump man who breaks into everyone’s home through the chimney and a virgin becoming a mother to God that makes them endearing rather than frightening, understandable rather than unfathomable.


Yes, it’s the recurrence that makes the story about a baby being born to a seemingly unprepared, unfit girl–a baby lacking the basic necessities for his care, who in this day and age would be reported to Child Protective Services–sweet and benign.  It wouldn’t be Christmas without remembering Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ birth, complete with the stable and shepherds and angels and bright lights.  But if we place ourselves into the story itself, it is anything but tame and mundane.  “Do not be afraid” are the angel’s words to the terrified shepherds–and those same words are uttered to a frightened Mary and Zechariah, a few chapters earlier.  


“Do not be afraid.”  It’s the most frequently repeated phrase in all the scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments.  It was precisely the unknown that so rattled Mary and Zechariah and the shepherds.  The laws of the world they knew began crumbling before them: babies were being born to virgins and old ladies, the Almighty God was coming to earth in the form of a vulnerable infant, and lowly shepherds were beginning what would become a religious movement that would captivate and transform millions of followers spanning oceans and millennia.  We think of Christmas as the expected; we know the story.  The circumstances which so terrified Jesus’ first visitors comfort us, or amuse us, causing us to smile knowingly and suspend our belief about the actual facts and historical record of how everything went down.  It is old news by now.


I am not sure that we can recapture that same sense of awe and astonishment to which Luke testifies, other than by trying to insert ourselves back into the narrative, or watching the church glow brighter with white altar dressings and candle light, or allowing ourselves to be swept up during our petition to God to keep acting in the eucharistic prayer (which is what the liturgy is always trying to do–take us to that thin place where we meet Jesus, shape us, change us into a holier, more faithful people).  Our response and witness to Jesus may take a different form than the shepherds’, who incited amazement in the crowds, or Mary’s, who held close her intimate knowledge of God.  


The people of Jerusalem, to whom Isaiah spoke thousands and thousands of years ago, may most resonate with us, in this case.  Isaiah tells the Israelites to count on God, to hold God to God’s promises, but not to stop praying and working for justice and peace.  They were to be expectant, not idle.  And God would privilege them, their city, their people.  Jesus shakes that message up a bit. Jesus emerged from Israel–the place, the heritage, the customs–but casts a wide net, enfolding anyone who wants to be caught up in his history.  Maybe we are a bit too complacent with this idea of being partners in building the heavenly kingdom on earth, too confident about the inevitability of a Redeemer’s arrival that Jesus’ birth has lost its punch.  Our culture has domesticated the Christmas story.  It’s almost as though we are entitled to Jesus rather than humbled by him.


“Do not be afraid.”  Do those words hold?  Do we need them?  Yes.


The frightening part of it all, which Luke attempted to point to by describing angels and bright light and signs and heavenly voices, is that God came to save us, not judge us.  We believe that judgment will happen (and it needs to happen, so that violence and oppression and all of the evil in our world do not have the final word), and in fact, we voice that conviction every time we say the creed: “Christ will come again to judge the quick and the dead.”  But God first and foremost desires to be with us.  Baby Jesus tells us that we are not alone, that God is mixed up in this crazy experience called life and wants to know us intimately.  It’s grace.  Before God judges us, God is with us.


That’s the scary part.  It’s counterintuitive, antithetical to our ideas of judges and rulers needing to be detached and mighty, not involved and vulnerable.  Are we prepared for this Jesus?


Madeleine L’Engle, the author behind the much beloved A Wrinkle in Time, writes of Jesus’ first coming.  Her poem conveys that most importantly, Jesus anticipates our needs before we do; Jesus’ time is not our time but it is the right time:


First Coming

He did not wait till the world was ready,

till men and nations were at peace.

He came when the Heavens were unsteady,

and prisoners cried out for release.

He did not wait for the perfect time.

He came when the need was deep and great.

He dined with sinners in all their grime,

turned water into wine. He did not wait

till hearts were pure. In joy he came

to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.

To a world like ours, of anguished shame

he came, and his Light would not go out.

He came to a world which did not mesh,

to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.

In the mystery of the Word made Flesh

the Maker of the stars was born.

We cannot wait till the world is sane

to raise our songs with joyful voice,

for to share our grief, to touch our pain,

He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!


It wouldn’t be Christmas without…Instead of completing that statement, let’s keep it open-ended, trusting that God has just the perfect answer to fill in the blank.