Long time readers of my Late Night Bible Study might remember that I have this strange quirk when it comes to the Christmas season. Well, ok, at least one. One I intend to tell you about right now anyway. Unless something else comes up in the conversation. Cause, I mean, you never know.
Where was I? Ah, yes, quirk. I like to go shopping on the Saturday before Christmas. There, I said it. Laid it out right there in front of God and everybody. Like a twelve step group or something. “Hi, my name is Derek and I like to go shopping on the Saturday before Christmas.” “Hi Derek!” I’d say I was in recovery, but I’m not. I love it. Weird, I know. To say that you enjoy shopping on a day where you spend more time creeping through lanes and searching for parking spots than actually shopping; to claim some satisfaction when standing in long lines of people most of whom ran out of Christmas spirit a few stores ago, and the clean up on aisle nine is a meltdown of apocalyptic proportions; when the check out clerks flinch when you clear your throat because they have been yelled at and complained to and snubbed in disgust so many times they are wary of the slightest sign of displeasure; who in their right mind would venture out on such an expedition?
Well, you got me there, that right mind thing. Never promised that. Still, I find some joy in the adventure. Call it a search for ... well, a search. For the last minute gifts that I’m always trying to secure, there is that of course. But that’s not it completely. There is something else that sends me out, even in a driving rain, to observe, to catch a glimpse. Something out there, bigger than just me and my wants and dreams, my hurts and my needs. Something beyond pettiness of the politics of division. Something beyond the frustrations of family over-familiarity and frayed fellowship. And something beyond the ravages of consumerism and the confused notion that spiritual hungers can be satisfied with material goods.
That’s what folks have told me over the years when I share this odd quirk with them. “It is materialism on overdrive, don’t you know?” they tell me. “It is the worst of us in the season that should bring out the best in us. It is the opposite of what Christmas is all about.” And they are right, these voices that I hear. I can’t really argue with them. Yet ... I go, and watch, and listen, and enter in the melee, the scrum, the .... hopes and fears of all the years.
One of my favorite Christmas hymns is Rev. Philips Brooks’ classic carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” And while the scene I witness out and about just before Christmas is the exact opposite of the opening verse, it still seemed to speak to me about what I was wandering through.
O little town of Bethlehem / How still we see thee lie / Above thy deep and dreamless sleep / The silent stars go by / Yet in thy dark streets shineth / The everlasting Light / The hopes and fears of all the years / Are met in thee tonight.
The stillness was replaced by the flurry of activity both motorized and pedestrian. Instead of silent stars there were the long lines of headlights and taillights piercing the gloom and gray, snow that was more drizzle than flakes, but the streets were “shineth-ing” something fierce. But was that everlasting light there? That’s what I went to see, that’s what I hope to find. Hopes and fears aplenty, met in the latest gadget, in the thing of beauty that just might somehow convey to friend or family member something of what they mean to us.
Something to search for, something to name. That’s what we hope for at Christmas, something we can name, something we can claim as real, as ours, something that puts all the pieces of our lives together. That’s what we’re looking for, even when we don’t always know it. Even when it catches us by surprise and, frankly, scares us a little bit. Or a lot.
Matthew 1:18-25 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us." 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Joseph seems like one of those carried along in the wake of Christmas. Like the dad carrying the coats in the big box store, with a glazed look on his face waiting for his wife to make all the important decisions. He is just supposed to nod along when asked his opinion. Joseph doesn’t even get a visitor like Luke tells us Mary gets. He gets a dream. And in the light of morning who can trust in a dream?
Joseph can, apparently. He was, Matthew tells us, a righteous man. Up to now, that usually meant he followed the law. He was obedient to what God had outlined in the law and described by the prophets. Joseph was a law-abiding man. Until now. When the dream told him to not follow the law. The law said get rid of her. The law said she has shamed you, she has broken the covenant, and the punishment was separation, dismissal, humiliation, even death. Joseph was a righteous man, and his righteousness said what he had to do; she had to go. But he could be compassionate too. He made up his mind to be as kind as the law allowed.
But the dream wanted more. The dream wanted faith that goes beyond law. The dream wanted hope in the midst of despair. The dream wanted a future in the face of dissolution. And perhaps that was what Joseph wanted too. Maybe that was why he could be transformed by a dream, he could redefine righteousness as obedience to God who is the law, and is doing a new thing. Do not be afraid, the dream said, to take Mary as your wife. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in you tonight, Joseph. Name them. Claim them.
So he did. As simple as that, he did. As amazing as that, as outrageous as that, he did. Matthew says that God wanted Jesus to be a part of that line, that line of faithfulness, of those who were righteous not because they stayed within the boundaries of polite society, but because they ventured out into the wild world and took a risk. Joseph was in that line and now Jesus was, because Joseph claimed him. Those last words, seemingly insignificant, what’s his name? It is more than just naming, it is claiming, it is saying he is mine, my son, my savior.
That’s what we’re looking for, out and about in the busyness of the world around us. Something that will define us, something that will remake us, transform us. Some relationship, some hope, some love that will make us new.
O holy Child of Bethlehem / Descend to us, we pray / Cast out our sin and enter in / Be born to us today / We hear the Christmas angels / The great glad tidings tell / O come to us, abide with us / Our Lord Emmanuel
What I go out to see in the muddle of our world is not necessarily the Christ child, or the light that glows within. No, I think what I’m going to find is the world that he came to save. The masses of humanity who think they can find salvation in the stuff of this life, like I know I do sometimes. When I forget. A world that has room for a Savior, even when we’ve forgotten it. And part of what I’m trying to see is whether we can make room. Room for grace, room for joy, room for peace, even at our worst. At our most needy. Except. In the end, we aren’t the ones making room. Like Joseph, we’re called to claim the room that God has made for us. And to proclaim to the hurting world that there is room for them.