This is my sermon from December 18.
So far this advent we have focused largely on preparation.
What is it we prepare for exactly? 2,000 years after Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection, hasn’t it already all happened? Advent means coming, but hasn’t Christ already come again in the resurrection? As Christ-centered Quakers we believe that Christ is present here among us, we don’t have to wait until Christmas for Christ to come, God is birthed in the world everyday. And in this sense, Quakers should be celebrating Christmas everyday!!!
And besides this preparation is very difficult.
From black Friday to the barrage of sales, ever increasing lines at the cash register, and the onslaught of our children us lists of things they want, to the crushing expectations to do the best we can, difficult family relations and little time and little money can make the Christmas season a mixed experience to say the least.
For Me — Remaining open this advent season has not gone as planned. I have felt the holiday rush, between all of the wonderful things we’ve been doing as a church over the last month and half, family birthdays and trips, and my schooling, I feel like I’ve had very little time to breathe, let alone “prepare.” I don’t know about you, but I have struggled to remain centered and make space for God as well as I would like. [It is good to be aware]
It’s easy to feel happy to see it over with just as much as we are happy to see it arrive.
And so even with all this talk about preparation, let us acknowledge that is very difficult to know what it is we’re doing, let alone do it. But the invitation this year, as it is every year, is to remain open and friendly to God’s visitations in our lives.
This is part of what the whole purpose of the church’s celebration of advent is all about. It is a reminder, a practice, a discipline that helps us focus in on that part of our spiritual lives that needs to remain open and receptive, and if we all confess, is all to easy to close down.
This morning I all that I want to say is that what is of utmost importance is that we find ways to make space for God to be born anew in us. That we make ourselves, to quote the Rev. Dr. Leroy Foster, “both receptive and responsive to the Light of Christ” in our lives.
One man who struggled to make space for God in his own life was Ebenezer Scrooge.
Charles’ Dicken’s infamous character from the Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge, is the personification of winter. He is the more literary counterpart of Dr. Seuss’ Grinch:
The Grinch hated Christmas – the whole Christmas season. Now, please don’t ask why; no one quite knows the reason. It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight. Or it could be that his head wasn’t screwed on just right. But I think that the most likely reason of all… may have been that his heart was two sizes too small.
To be called a Scrooge, even in today’s society, is not to receive a compliment. His character represents the sadness and darkness of greed and wealth – if Scrooge were around today, he’d surely be part of the 1%. And as soon as we meet Scrooge on page or screen, we see above all, that he, just as the cartoonish Grinch later to follow, had a very small heart, or maybe no heart at all.
You all know the plot.
First Scrooge is visited by his late partner Jacob Marley, whose afterlife is miserable and comes to warn Scrooge to change his ways before it is too late. And then, three more Ghosts visit him while he is sleeping – effectively having to catch him off guard in order to get his attention. These are the Ghost of Christmas past, present and future.
This is because in our lives, it is not good enough to simply be stuck in one of these time frames, but allow the power and mercy of the holy gift of Christmas to bear weight on our past, present and our future lives. Each Ghost does the work of helping Scrooge remember who he is and evoke a sense of personal responsibility for his fellow humans.
In visiting Bob Crachit’s family Scrooge is forced to experience the depth of impoverishment that he has never experience, yet at the same time, face the gift happiness and gratefulness in sheer abundance that Crachit expresses.
And he is a difficult study. It takes four Ghosts, each with hard hitting messages, to open Scrooge up to a more empathetic way of living in the world. His defensive were up, he was completely closed off to compassion and mercy. Yet, finally and memorably Scrooge does transform and makes space to both receive and respond.
Once the gates were closed in Ebenezer Scrooge, but finally through the hard work of both receiving and responding his pathway opens. The beauty of Dickens story is that even a Scrooge can come around and have his heart turned towards the love and justice of humanity.
Even in Scrooge God can be born.
Mary – Space for the Uncontained God
Now Scrooge is an unlikely character to receive and respond to the transforming power and call of the Light in Christmas.
But so is Mary the mother of Jesus.
How on earth did God, when he was choosing through whom he would enter the world, decide that he would come through an unknown Jewish girl of no particular family or standing, and to be from of all places Galilee?
For starters what should strike us odd is that she is from Galilee which basically represented back in those days what we might call today “the backwoods” of the Roman empire. As one commentator writes:
“Galilee remained quite backward – at least from a Roman point of view. They had earned a reputation for being uncultured frontiers people who resented the interference of outsiders” (24).
In our terms today, it was a very poor, working class town who didn’t want to be bothered by the outside.
So what does God do but to interfere with this unlikeliest of people.
In fact, Luke tells us more about Joseph than he does about Mary (Lk 1:27):
“to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.”
We know that Joseph is in the family like of King David, but all we know about Mary is that she’s engaged to him, betrothed, and a virgin which is repeat three times in the story.
In other words, Luke wants us to pick up on something here. Mary, who is basically a nameless, poor Jewish girl from a back-wood’s city far away from the city center in Jerusalem, a woman who by all purposes has nothing to offer, can offer herself to God, so that her womb can, as a priest friend of mine puts it “the Home of God.”
If God can transform, through much work, the unresponsive and decayed heart such as Ebenezer Scrooge, than the virgin space, the open womb of Mary is a welcome partner in the birth of baby Jesus.
Mary is the courageous one who not only freely opens herself up to receive the gift of God, but responds becoming the very “home of God.”
There is a poem that captures this well by Denise Levertov.
[Poem: “Annunciation” — Find it full poem here]
Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
a simple, ‘How can this be?’
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
the astounding ministry she was offered:
to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power –
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
The other night at Soup and Bread — (Rev. Dr.) Lee Foster when talking about Quaker minister and abolitionist John Woolman put it this way:
“John Woolman was both receptive and responsive to the Light of Christ.”
Lee went on to say that he wondered how it was that some individuals seem more receptive and responsive to God’s guidance than others (Scrooges vs. the Mary’s we might say).
Is it their preparation? Is that they have some special dispensation of grace? Are some of us just tone deaf? Our some of our hearts too small, are our shoes too tight? [I added that part]. Lee surmised that deep down, the basic answer is that people like John Woolman and we can add, Mary to this list, were people who remained simple in their faith and simply said “yes” to God.
[They didn’t have to have perfect conditions first to respond…]
And let’s not forget, as the poem suggests, for Mary this yes, is a deeply courageous yes considering who she is and where she is coming from. And thus not only does receive but she responds and in responding participates in the very birth of God.
“Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”” (Luke 1:38 NRSV)
So how are we preparing to receive and respond to God’s visitation to each of us?
Are we self-sufficient, isolated, self-righteous. Are our arms up? Do we reckon we have something to lose in responding to the announcement that God wants to be born anew in our lives.
Or are we like Mary, pathways open, simple in our faith, courageous and ready to be the wombs of God, the virgin spaces where we might be led by the Light.
God gently waits and Mary accepts. She welcomes the chance to become the “uncontained space for God” to bear God in her womb, with “infinite weight and lightness.”
She courageously participates in the birth of all that is holy in our world today.
How has God come to us?