Wooden, weak, leftovers

Luke 1:46-55; Isaiah 11:1

As is so often the case in our reflection on God’s Word to us there are, heading into Christmas, more than one perspective, more than one view of what is glorious about the season.  Traditionally, in our society, we set up celebrations that are “shiny”—candles, flashing coloured lights, silver and gold, stars, glass ornaments, tinsel garlands—colour and glimmer and brightness.  But many of you will give pride of place to nativity scenes of carved wooden figures, rough stables, scattered straw.

We will play music—with bright and bouncy tunes that lift our spirits—joyful, loud, bells—massive choirs and huge orchestras—yet will cherish as highly the barely heard voices of children singing simple carols.

We will feast on the family’s favourite foods until we burst—but will, the following day, recognize something about the bounty and blessing of having leftovers the next day, and the quiet of simply sitting, lethargic conversations with family or friends, the kids occasionally asking for new batteries….

It is, in fact, the rough wooden figures, the weak voices, and the leftovers that figure in every Advent story—every story leading up to and preparing us for the birth of Jesus.  Even the name “Jesus” contains a paradox—“You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus,” Mary is told; God tells Joseph, “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins”—Jesus—it means “Saviour”, a glorious, powerful name!; but the ‘tag’ gives us the other perspective, too:  “he will save his people from their sins.”  The Good News is glorious!—a powerful message of salvation!  Hope!  Joy!  But the recipients are poor, weak—nothing shiny about them:  Mary, young, faithful and obedient, anxious and troubled by the news, the situation, the context, the world; Joseph, faithful and obedient, but shocked, and shamed;  cousin Elizabeth, old, past it, given up(?) yet hanging on…; Zechariah, incredulous, incompetent priest?  or simply a realist, resigned?; all of them joined to a struggling nation in a struggling world….

And then he comes!  The Saviour!  Jesus!  The words of the Advent prophecies are fulfilled!  The magi, of course, who have studied things carefully, head for Jerusalem, the capital expecting to find him there; Herod, the local king, goes into a panic at the thought of a rival power (a real power perhaps!?); the scholars search to try and locate this descendant of David, this King…and it all leads to Bethlehem…a little town…a nothingness.

Small people; in a small town.

And when the visitors arrive to see the King, the Saviour, the Christ, the Lord!—a baby:  weak, vulnerable, ordinary…human.  Really human.  God’s real presence, in the real world, real people, real lives.

Isaiah 11:1:  “The royal line of David is like a tree that has been cut down; but just as new branches sprout from a stump, so a new king will arise from among David’s descendants.”

In parts of Germany there is a custom on 4 December to bring into the warmth of the house branches of cherry trees with buds which will then blossom at Christmas.  I read recently that on the 13 December Croatians traditionally plant wheat seed in a shallow bowl.  By Christmas the sprouts are several inches tall, symbolizing rebirth in the birth of the Christ, and they form the central decoration at the holiday table. 

Henri Nouwen, a Dutch catholic priest, wrote: 
“Our salvation comes from something small, tender, and vulnerable, something hardly noticeable. God, who is the Creator of the Universe, comes to us in smallness, weakness, and hiddenness. I find this a hopeful message. Somehow, I keep expecting loud and impressive events to convince me and others of God's saving power; but over and over again I am reminded that spectacles, power plays, and big events are the ways of the world. Our temptation is to be distracted by them and made blind to the ‘shoot that shall sprout from the stump’.” 

Small, tender, vulnerable.  Mary was small, tender, vulnerable.  And when we join in singing or saying her song you will notice her praise for the God who bends down and lifts up the small, tender, vulnerable; who extends his mercy to his lowly servants; who gives his bounty to those who are powerless, hungry, oppressed.

In the coming days you will have the opportunity to sing well loved Christmas hymns and carols in worship.  Each week, throughout the year, when I prepare worship, I read carefully through dozens of songs to think about how the words link in with the themes of the day.  During Advent and Christmas that reading may take a little longer—the songs are rather “thicker” and “heavier” (maybe not what you think in relation to the happy holidays); the legacy of our hymnody at this time of the year is, in my opinion, the theologically richest of any season…because it considers how to effectively tell the story of the Almighty Creator, whom we traditionally think of as “up high”, “in the heavens”, “bright” and “glorious” and “powerfully ‘out there’”(!), stooping down, bending down, getting down to where we are—connecting to the lowly, the poor, the helpless.  Almost every song we sing will contrast and then bring together the joy of the powerful love of God, with our weakness and our need for mercy and forgiveness and healing and comfort and peace. 

The “shiny” of God’s grace is wrapped around the dull, wooden me.  Because if God’s grace doesn’t come to me, be where I am, I cannot shift—I am stuck in my dark, in my poverty, in my weakness.

This is the crucial concept in understanding the whole of the Gospel of God’s grace—it is not that I reach up and hold on to him with every ounce of my faith or my will or my strength, but it is that God bends down to hold me with every ounce of his faithfulness, his will, his strength, his love.

And when God is with me—wherever I am!—when God is with me, then I am in the glory of his heaven, the joy of angels and saints singing together!

To hear and understand this Gospel of God’s faithfulness and God’s mercy—in Mary’s song, in the humble manger, in the message to the shepherds-on-the-outer, the patient Simeon, or the aging Anna—to hear this Gospel and to understand it invites us to celebrate in the reality of our world—noting and praising God for his wonderful blessings to us and, at the same time, holding on to, connecting to those who struggle.

I invite you to sing with me my favourite Christmas hymn (I think appropriate still in Advent).  It begins with a bright invitation for us to sing joyfully; but you will notice that the reason we can raise our voices, is that God has moved down to us; and in his movement we are suddenly caught up in heavenly joy.

Now sing we, now rejoice!

 

1.  Now sing we, now rejoice,
Now raise to heaven our voice;
He from whom joy streameth
Poor in a manger lies,
Yet not so brightly beameth
The sun in yonder skies.
Thou my Saviour art,
Thou my Saviour art!

 2.  Come from on high to me,
I cannot rise to Thee;
Cheer my wearied spirit,
O pure and holy child.
Through all Thy grace and merit,
Blest Jesus, Lord most mild,
Draw me unto Thee,
Draw me unto Thee.

 3.  Now through His Son doth shine
The Father’s grace divine;
Death o’er us had reigned
Through sin and vanity:
The Son for us obtained
Eternal joy on high.
O that we were there,
O that we were there!

 4.  O where shall joy be found?
Where but on heavenly ground?
Where the angels singing
With all His saints unite,
Their sweetest praises bringing
In heavenly joy and light.
O that we were there,
O that we were there!

German 14th century. Lutheran Hymnal