Fourth Sunday in Advent
I have a question. On this fourth Sunday of Advent, as we wait for the Christ child to be born again in our hearts, what do you need to hear today? When you hear the story of Mary being visited by her cousin Elizabeth. What do you need to take away from the telling of this story today? Perhaps one thing we all need and that we all can take away with us today is the message that Mary embodies . . . the message that God is in us too. The message that God is with us too. The message that no matter how many negative or evil forces in the world try to rob us of the hope, the peace, the love and the joy that God intends for us, nothing can take from us that which is good, and true, and pure, and lovely, and gracious. That is the Good News on this fourth Sunday of Advent – that no matter how long the wait may feel for you, you need to know that God is with you.
Jesus was not born into a perfect world. He was actually born into a world that was much more difficult to live in than the one we live in. It was a world in which tyranny ruled and poverty and hunger and suffering were the norm for all but a very few. When you look at the time of Jesus realistically you might easily think that it was a bit ridiculous for Elizabeth to be so full of hope when she saw Mary that day. After all, what did Elizabeth have to celebrate? A pregnancy that had almost led to her cousin’s rejection by both her husband-to-be and by the people who knew her? Times were bad for Mary and Joseph – and it looked like they were only going to get worse.
Like Mary and Joseph, many people suffer today and many people wonder whether there is any real chance that things are going to get better. It seems these days everywhere you turn something is threatening our lives and the lives of those we love – if not practically, then “existentially.” I don’t know about you, but lately, it feels like I’m less worried about the practical things that people lack – food and shelter – and more worried about the attack on our senses and sensibilities. It seems almost like there is a battle going on between the forces of domination and control and despair and greed and the forces of hope and compassion and goodwill and generosity. And amid all of it, too many religious voices remain silent. Too many religious voices are failing to stand up and remind people of the Spirit of God that lives in us and the life to which that Spirit calls us. The Spirit of hope that was present that day between Elizabeth and Mary that calls us to stand up for love.
You see, the Spirit that took hold of Elizabeth that day and the Spirit that conceived within Mary a child to be born for all of humanity, that same Spirit is with you too. That Spirit brought forth life and light to the world in the person of Jesus then – and it can still bring forth life and light to the world through its workings in you and in the people of God around you. That light and that life cannot be destroyed – no matter how bad the times may be. That light and the spirit it represents lived in Mary and Joseph and Elizabeth and Zechariah, and it lives within all of us.
It’s always easier to look at the bad things going on around us and to say that somehow things just aren’t as good as they used to be. Christmas just isn’t like it used to be. That there is so much bad news in the world these days that it’s just too difficult to have hope. But you see, when you start thinking like that you forget that goodness shines brightest in the places where hope is most needed – right next to the bad things – indeed – often right in the midst of them.
Where is Christmas today? Where it has always been – among the humble and lowly, and with those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. And with those who are moved by the Spirit of love, the spirit of Christ, to speak words of hope, joy, peace, and love to those very people.
Christmas is in the story I heard a few years ago of a single mother living in New Jersey who had been out of work for over a year. She had three boys, and just after cashing her unemployment check lost the money while looking after her infant son. She faced an incredibly bleak Christmas – so desperate in fact that her oldest child, a seven-year-old, tried to get a Salvation Army worker to give him his donation kettle one afternoon. This woman’s story appeared in a local newspaper, and two days later a man appeared at her bank, carrying the news clipping, and deposited into her account, without giving his name to the clerk, the sum of $540. When the bank called the mother the son jumped for joy and shouted “We’re rich, we’re rich” – and indeed, in a way that only they could fully appreciate, they were – as was the man who blessed them with his caring gesture.
Where is Christmas? It’s under that Christmas tree we put up in the parish hall after Thanksgiving. The tree that sat gathering Christmas presents for the residents of one of Episcopal Community Services’ transitional housing units in San Francisco. Presents that volunteers from Christ Church delivered last week and that will make Christmas a little brighter for some folks who are facing a lot of challenges in the coming year.
And it’s with the extra donations of warm jackets, and socks, and sleeping bags that have been showing up in the Open Door donation box. Or the Food Donations in the Food Bank bin in Campbell Hall that has been emptied twice already now this month because it was overflowing with donations. And it’s in the giant pile of Christmas gifts that our parishioner Chad Carvey assembled this past week for members of the Anchor Out community thanks to donations from Christ Church and other charitable organizations in Sausalito.
Christmas is also in some unexpected and funny places that catch us off guard, like in the cartoonists, who, at this time of year, give us in their comic strips some beautiful messages to remind us of what Christmas is about. In Family Circus for example – where Billy, after having wandered through various stores and having seen signs that say “Don’t forget Christmas Candy; don’t forget wrapping paper, don’t forget to visit Santa, don’t forget last minute gifts”, and so on, goes home and draws a picture of Mary, Joseph and Jesus and the star and writes on it “Don’t forget”
Don’t forget. Don’t forget that the Spirit that dwelled in Elizabeth and Zechariah and Mary and Joseph and Peter and James and John and Mary Magdalene and the woman at the well and in all the people whose encounters with the Holy are recorded in scripture . . . don’t forget that that same Spirit that we read about every Sunday in Holy Scripture dwells in you too. It dwells in all of us and in all of creation. That is the gift of Advent every year. It is the gift of stopping and waiting to receive the gift of Christmas.
God chose to dwell in the midst of people. God’s son was born in Bethlehem, one of the least of the towns of Judah, and he was born to be the servant of many, rather than to be a king. He spent his time with ordinary people, and he healed and he helped those that others ignored . . . . and then he was killed.
But his life was not destroyed. He rose, and he bestows upon all of us, the spirit of love, and of hope, the spirit of joy and of peace . . . and remembering that is what will make your Christmas truly holy this year.