Many of us have people in our lives who are special, who remain embedded in our memory no matter how old we get. Maybe a First Grade Teacher – or High School Coach – Business or Professional Mentor who made a difference for us at some point. Could be a Parent or Music Teacher. Someone who came along at just the right time, said just the right thing or did something that we never forget and helped make a difference for us. Someone who instilled confidence, who planted a seed, an idea – that grew into a passion, a love of something…music, reading or learning, sports or traveling. For me, a Sixth Grade Teacher – and a Music Teacher – and Parents – and later on a Pastor who was also a Mentor. All of them loved to travel and talked about places I only dreamed of visiting and some I’ve even had a chance to visit, to experience first-hand.
My first trip to the Holy Land was as a young adult. My Mom and I went, Dad stayed home to take care of the cats. Reality is, he stayed home because of the political unrest there. I’m not sure what it means that it was okay for us to go without him, but like many things in life there simply is no perfect time for any number of things. Including a visit to the Holy Land.
What struck me most about that first visit and what I always tell people is that regardless of your religious beliefs, regardless of your faith – Israel is a place that everyone needs to visit. It’s there that the seeds of faith were planted for the three major religions of the world. And whether you are Jewish or Muslim or Christian – you will find those seeds of faith right there. You can see – touch – feel the wind rush through your being – even smell the flowers and scent from the sea – right there… People are sometimes surprised when I tell them of that powerful experience. But it was that first trip that was for me most special.
When I visited again, it was just after starting seminary, with a group from here, from Faith. That visit took on a whole new meaning for me. Seeing with fresh eyes, with images for sermons and perspectives on the life and ministry of Jesus. To walk in his footsteps, to read the Bible from the Mount of the Beatitudes… Climbing the Mount of Olives and looking at the Old City of Jerusalem. Visiting Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity…Leading an Affirmation of Baptism with Pastor Mac at the Jordan River.
… Wonderful memories, powerful images. Wonderful stories…
As vivid as those memories are, the real power of the Christmas story comes in its simplicity, in its humility. Jesus – is born in a less than ideal situation – born in a dirty stable, wrapped in plain cloth; smelly, dirty animals pushed aside so he can he can get some sleep.
Simple, humble beginnings for this King of all Kings, whose birth comes in the midst of a world upended by social unrest and political turmoil. With leaders who govern by fear and intimidation. Forcing people on the move to try to find some place safe to settle.
God doesn’t wait to send Jesus at the ideal time, but rather sends him in the midst of struggle. To the messiness of our lives. God shows up in the midst of the ordinary. To the lowest of the low – to the shepherds – in Bethlehem. The very people Jesus reaches out to throughout his life and invites to be part of the Kingdom of God. Jesus is born where people need him most – and it’s these same people that we are led to as the church, as this servant community of Faith.
The mystery of God present in a real human child, welcomed into a real world with all its agonies and uncertainties and challenges and joys. We’re invited here on Christmas Eve in our own darkness – in the pain, the grief, the hurt – the places where we are suffering – because God speaks the Good News of Christ’s coming here, to be with us.
In the midst of the darkness of the night and in our world, the chaos and despair, Isaiah’s words from our first lesson come as a beacon of light. Light illuminated in the breath and being of new life, in the shape and form of a child.
Isaiah didn’t know his name – he was born 600 years before Jesus – but we do. Jesus comes to us in this darkened place and time, to remind us that the darkness doesn’t last. The darkness isn’t forever. The light and the life that comes to lead us is the gift that forever illumines our lives and our world.
Howard Thurman, teacher, author and theologian, mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King, said this of Christmas:
“When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.”
It’s here that the seeds of faith are planted, but it doesn’t just end, rather it’s just beginning. It’s nurtured, and hopefully that faith grows – with the help of teachers and parents and mentors along the way.
The hopes and fears of all the years are met with this child, with the babe in the manger – born here, for you and for me. Born to give meaning and purpose to the broken and to the hurting. Born to be with us on our journey right here, and in our travels to new and different places.
God gives us a moment – the promise, the gift – of hope just at the right time. Christ the Savior is born just when the world needs him more than ever. Right now. Amen.