This is the night when we suspend everything for a moment to rejoice in the Light that breaks into this world, when we remember the promise that God is born right here on earth to be with us, that we pause our grieving and worry for just a breath and step into the wonder of hope and life born anew, that we open our mouths to sing GLORIA, praise be to God.
For even though our world has not outwardly changed, when we turn to the beauty and awe of this night, the change within us can and will, albeit often much too slowly for our likes, change the world around us. When we recognize the miracle of Christ’s birth once more, allowing the meaning to truly seep into our hearts and bones, then the world will move closer to a place of righteousness and love.
We almost take this Christmas story for granted…. We have heard it every year since we were children in some form, and the true wonder of it is easy to get lost. Yet, can you imagine being there? For centuries before Christ was born, people had been talking about this king who would come to change the world, one who would see the lowly folk and feed the hungry ones and be God with us and bring healing to the hopeless. A king from before his birth. Yet, God, in the wild, surprising ways of God, sent a baby born in a stable, not in a palace, to parents who were humble, not wearing robes of purple, haloes on their heads instead of crowns. God, in the wild, surprising ways of God, sent a message first to the shepherds, the lowliest of all workers, to come and rejoice in this baby, God enfleshed, come to show us the ways of Love, not the ways of power. Not something to be taken for granted at all, but something to marvel at each and every year!
Kathy Escobar says,
“Emmanuel, God is with us
God is with us
God, with us.
Some other words for with include, accompanying, alongside, amid, among, beside, by, for, including, near, upon, as companion, side by side, in the thick of.
All these words are good for my weary heart, for our weary world.
God near, us, God upon us, God in the thick of us.
God in the thick of us - in the thick of our humanity, our pain, our beautiful, our hard, our messy, our ugly, our joys!”
And this is what fills me with wonder: in God’s wild and surprising ways, God is right there in the thick of it all. God does not turn away from any of it. God is there… God is here.
Pause for a moment and let that sink in.
God is here. In the thick of it. In the thick of us. Right here. Among us humble believers and doubters. Among the joy and the grief. Among the pews and between the family struggles and in the thick of the broken hearts. God is here.
I remember a Christmas retreat I did with some youth in California. As part of our time together we made up bags with socks, toothpaste, deodorant and other essentials for our homeless brothers and sisters. One of my youth was not very churchy…. He came only occasionally, mainly when his grandma was doing something special, and he was doubting that God was anywhere. Kyle had just been diagnosed with a progressive degenerative eye disease, and was struggling with the thought of eventual blindness and worrying if he would ever be able to drive… and those of you who have had teenagers, know that the thought of driving is essential to 13 year olds! He was on retreat with us because he needed some service hours, and was not really interested in the religious pieces of retreat, but enjoying the company of his friends and the games we played. As we headed out to the areas where we knew we would find our street friends, he asked if he had to give anything out, or if he could make Eli do all the work and talking! We got out of the car and began to walk around, handing out bags to grateful people, and getting a lot of Thank you’s and God Bless you in return. Kyle began to realize it wasn’t so bad and took the next bag to hand to someone. A woman was sitting on the curb watching what we were doing. “Can I have one?” She asked. Kyle headed her way and she stood up to greet him. She took the bag, looked inside, and thanked him. “This was just what I needed,” she said. “My socks have been wet and I need to clean up before Friday (which was Christmas Eve), for that’s when I get to visit my son. He looks a lot like you….. his hair is the exact same color as yours….. and his smile is as big!”
Kyle, by this time, was a little embarrassed. “You are welcome.” He muttered. “I hope you have a good time with him.”
The woman continued, “Oh. I won’t get to be with him. He’s dead. I just go to visit his grave. But you are so like him, I think God sent you to me to give me this bag. Thank you.”
We said a prayer with her and walked away with tears in our eyes. This 13 year old touched deeply that he could be a servant of God and bring this woman joy in her time of grief. But she wasn’t done with Kyle yet! She called out and came toward us again, her hand outstretched. “Here,” she said, handing Kyle something. “I want you to have this. I was going to leave it by my son’s grave, but you should have it and enjoy it instead.”
Kyle tried to give it back to her, but she insisted, and I indicated that he should accept it. He opened the small box and, inside was a little God’s Eye stone. He gasped and thanked her. She nodded. And we went our separate ways.
As we debriefed, he asked how she could give this to him…. She who had nothing and was using the little money she had to buy something special to leave at her sons grave….. and how much it meant to him to get something that symbolized the very thing he was really struggling with. “God is with us, in the thick of it all….. that’s the only answer I can offer,” I replied.
Many years later, when Kyle was in college, driving (but only in daylight hours), enjoying life to the full, I saw him as he visited home. We met for lunch and he asked me if I remembered the God’s Eye stone. He opened his hand…. “I carry this around with me all the time,” he said. “I think that God is with me. I don’t go to church or anything, but I feel God in my life. And when I get scared about my eyes I take out this stone and remember.”
As we gather this year we know there will be empty seats at our tables where once loved ones sat. Whether they are gone from this world or we are apart for safety or distance or brokenness or illness, we will feel the pain of their absence. We will gather with worries on our hearts. We will gather with pain in our midst. Yet we will gather with the God who is always with us.
In Judaism there is a beautiful tradition at the Passover festival. A place is laid at the table for Elijah, a cup of wine is poured, and there is the total expectation that he is there with them. Elijah was said to be the prophet who did not die, but was taken up to heaven. He is the one who is said to be arriving just before the Messiah. But the place set also honors the loved ones who have died and are not present at the table. And so, the seat set aside for him reminds our Jewish ancestors that Christ is coming, and of those who have died, or who are absent from the table. It is a reminder that God is with us in the midst of it all.
So remember always how God comes in wild and surprising ways and suspend the belief that that was then but this is now. Remember always that God is in the thick of it with you, shining light into the darkness and filing your homes with love. Remember that God is in the thick of it, and allow that wonder to fill your heart. That God is in the simple gifts we unexpectedly receive. That God is there to bring comfort when fears arise. God is not there as a judge, but as one who comes over and over, into the very brokenness and messiness and beauty of life to be with us, to be with you! And raise your voices to sing loud glorias to this God who is always with us!