God is about to smuggle himself into our world. We stand at the borders of our souls, expecting a glorious, conquering hero to come. After all, this is the infinite Lord of the universe. This is the one who the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins calls, “The heaven-flung, heart-fleshed, maiden-furled, Miracle-in-Mary-of-Flame.” How can God break into human existence without at least an earthquake?
But listen to the story. There are these two teenagers living in a small town in a backwater country. The boy is a carpenter – an honorable trade, but nothing fancy, and the girl is just a girl named Mary. She is a country girl, someone with calluses on her hands from hauling water and grinding grain. And then something terrible happens. She gets pregnant. These days, we may shake our heads or be embarrassed when a girl gets pregnant out of wedlock, but for Mary and Joseph, this is a life-shattering event. Joseph has every right to break off the engagement, especially since he knows he is not the father of the baby. The best thing to do would be to break the engagement quietly and send Mary off to live with a distant relative until after the baby is born. If the news gets out that Mary is pregnant out of wedlock, she might well be disowned by her family and forced to live the rest of her days as a beggar or a prostitute. But Joseph chooses not to do that. He does the unthinkable. He takes Mary as his wife and takes on the task of helping to raise this unusual child.
Who would expect God, infinitely powerful and infinitely vast, to sneak into the world in such a way? And what is it about these two young people that makes them God’s choice? They are not described in any gospel as particularly outstanding. They are just regular people, like you or me. But they say yes. As Luke tells Mary’s story, she simply says, “Let it be with me according to your word.” And Matthew tells us Joseph’s side of the story. He wakes from his dream and simply goes ahead and does what he believes God wants him to do. It’s not quite what we are used to. This is not glamorous or flashy courage. It is simply the courage of consent. It is the courage of people so clear in their love for God that their “yes” appears easy.
God could come into the world in any way at all. We could have seen Jesus coming in blazing chariots of flame or with conquering armies. But God is not just infinitely powerful and just. God is also infinitely loving and graceful. God is too kind to ever force us into love. God will not break into our lives without an invitation. And God does not ask us to do things that we are unable to do. However, this does not mean that allowing God into our lives comes without cost.
Mary surely understood what her consent would mean. She took a terrible risk to bear the Son of God. And Joseph knew what he was taking on as well. If this was the Son of God, their lives would be completely overturned from that moment on. Joseph and Mary knew that nothing about this child would ever be ordinary or easy. Their “yes” was not the naïve agreement of people who didn’t know what they were in for, and yet they gave consent anyway. Now we begin to see the full dimension of courage that was required of these two young people.
We tend to think of Jesus’ coming as long ago and far away. We don’t generally cast ourselves in the roles of Joseph and Mary. But the fact is that God continues to smuggle himself into the world. He comes quietly, in the lives of ordinary people just like you and me. He doesn’t force himself on us, but slips in quietly, when we say yes to Love. And he asks of us what he asked of Joseph and Mary. He asks us to be transformed, to have our lives changed from the inside out. God asks us to bear him into the world, to love with heart and mind and soul and strength. We may suffer for this love. We can be guaranteed that bearing Christ will not make us live happily ever after. But God promises that if we will simply consent, the world will be changed.
May God give us in these days the eyes and ears to hear his gentle coming and may God give us the courage to say yes.
John was disappointed; He had wanted Jesus to be the mighty warrior who drove out the Romans. He believed that the Messiah would bring the reign of God to the earth with power and triumph and glory. Instead, Jesus had wandered around the countryside teaching and healing and bringing reconciliation. There was no army, no battle, no victory. And John began to doubt that Jesus was really the Messiah after all. So he sent a message to him, a message which was both poignant and desperate. “Are you the one who is to come or should we wait for another?” And Jesus puts the question right back in John’s lap. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
The proofs of the Kingdom are the works of the Kingdom. If you want to know who Jesus is, pay attention to what he does. Jesus is showing the power of God and beginning the reign of God by what he says and what he does. And, the power of God is not the same as human power. Jesus is not about raising armies or winning wars. The power of God is the power of love. John doesn’t get it.
He can’t see that Jesus’ power is far greater than human power, and it looks so different that he completely misses what it really is. One of the ironies of the Gospel story is that the people who should most easily understand what Jesus is really about, like John the Baptist and Peter, for example, miss the point so often. And the people who really do get it, who understand that the power of God can change the world, tend to be people like the Romans and Herod, who are threatened by the message and ready to kill Jesus. One of the stories of Jesus’ birth that we conveniently skip over is Herod’s massacre of the children, which was done simply because Herod understood that Jesus’ power threatened his own. Entrenched power – economic or political or social – always has to work very hard to keep that power. It is one of the things that makes it so different from the power of love, which grows by being given away.
But as distracted as we get by human power, we still hunger for the power of God’s love. Two things this week brought that home to me. The first was the death and funeral of Nelson Mandela. It seemed as if the whole world turned out for that event. Television and social media were packed with remembrances of this extraordinary person, someone who did the works of the Kingdom – who met evil with good and hatred with forgiveness and reconciliation. South Africa could so easily have disintegrated into hatred and war after the end of apartheid, but under the leadership of people like Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu, the country has managed to stay intact and even to begin to narrow the terrible gap between rich and poor that exists there. It is so different a story from so many other countries that we are forced to acknowledge the power of love to change history. And though most of us struggle just to love our friends, much less our enemies, the life of Nelson Mandela proves that regular men and women like you and me have the power to live lives of extraordinary love and power. All we need are the courage and imagination that God is always ready to give us.
The second event was Time Magazine naming Pope Francis its Person of the Year. This man does something almost every day that surprises and delights me. The problem with the Church – and I am talking about the Christian Church, not just the Roman Catholic, but all of us – the problem is that the Church is an institution. And institutions have ways of being and behaving that are pretty much standard. Institutions have a strong survival instinct. They live to perpetuate themselves. Making themselves stronger, bigger and richer is important. That may work pretty well if the institution is P&G or a bank. It does not work so well if the institution is the Christian Church, whose founder made it very clear that we only live by laying down our lives, by giving it all away, by letting go of what we hold most dear. And for two thousand years, the Church has struggled with that, wanting to live as Jesus told us and showed us, but way too often choosing instead, security, wealth and power. Pope Francis is showing us a different way to be the Church.
He doesn’t ride in a limousine but in a ten year-old car. He doesn’t live in the Papal apartments, but in a modest guest room. He doesn’t do what people expect of him. It even turns out that he has been sneaking out of the Vatican at night to spend time with people who are poor and homeless. What he does isn’t showy or flashy. It is just a Christian man trying to live the Christian life in the way he believes is most faithful And the world is hungry for that example. For people who have been turned off by the Church’s self-interest and selfish disregard for the poor, this is witness to something very different and quite wonderful. And again, like Nelson Mandela, this man is not a superhero. He is just like us, and he is making choices that any of us could make as well.
If we make the choices of the Kingdom – to feed the hungry, to bring justice to the poor and oppressed, to bring a new vision to the world – people may misunderstand or be threatened. But other people, people who are hungry for the Kingdom of God, will see what we are doing and respond. If we want to attract people to the Church, we cannot do it by being bigger or richer or more powerful. We CAN do it by doing acts of love and healing and reconciliation. If we want to prove that Jesus is real, we can do it by doing the things that Jesus did.
And the world is desperate for that. Let us celebrate the coming of Jesus by doing the things Jesus would have us do. In that way, we can change the world as powerfully as Nelson Mandela or Pope Francis. And that is what the coming of Jesus should be about.