Sunday, December 24, 2006

Expecting the Unexpected at Christmas

In the Name of Jesus

Dear Brothers and Sisters Baptized into the Birth, Death and Resurrection of Christ:

Are you expecting any unexpected visitors on Christmas Day?
"There here!" announce the children in front of the television screen in a famous science fiction thriller, and the news is far from good news.
Our reaction to the announcement that someone's coming towards the door or down the chimney all depends on the reason for their advent -- or why we think they are sudden appearing.
If we are expecting the plumber to call and stop the water from gushing out of the back of a toilet tank or the firemen to arrive and douse the fire in the attic, the sound of the doorbell is pure Gospel in the midst of quickly overwhelming chaos and destruction.
We welcome a house call with open arms and loud rejoicing if the dwelling housing those under our care is quickly filling with the smell of natural gas and a strong arm with the right sized wrench arrives to rescue all inside.
But these days, those called to visit our dwellings and rescue from certain calamity find it increasingly difficult to get any response at the door or even gain entry through a window.
Why does the fire truck find windows locked and covered with wrought iron grates? Why does the search and rescue unit find doors locked and bolted -- and double-bolted? Why do those sent to our homes to serve and protect find it impossible to gain access in order to save life and limb?
Deep down inside, we fear visitors. Southern California is not only known as the land of movie stars and stretch limousines, surfboards and fish tacos, it is the land of gated everything; front lawns sporting signs of warning from security companies; back yards darkened by the height of our razor-wire decorated cinderblock. Our neck of the woods has become the land of security cameras and pit bulls and metal detectors and unlisted phone numbers.
Deep down inside, we fear visitors. That's why especially at this time of year we see news reports of inhabitants dying while rescue personnel attempt to gain access to their fortified apartments and condominiums and houses. Neighbor-hood has been replaced by person-hood and privacy.
I remember making my first "pastor call" in Huntington Beach to a couple who had visited services here. I rang the door bell and thanked the family for visiting. In kind, they thanked me for thanking them and then ended the conversation by saying, "Thanks for stopping by, and, next time, please don't show up before calling first."
We don't want unexpected visitors; we want them to stay away and leave us to our own devices. It's almost like it's part of our very nature.
But Christmas Day flies in the face of all our little kingdom building and gate constructing and lock installing. God comes to rescue us, even though we may not yet know that we need a rescuer. God sends his merciful messengers to prepare us for the great visit of his only-begotten Son. We have been visited, not by aliens from another planet, but by harbingers with something heavenly: the Word of God. That's the way it has been since Adam and Eve were barred from Paradise by their own doubting thoughts and rebel acts under the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The Word of God has come to every generation to announce: your redemption and your children's redemption will be sent from heaven, and through the seed of the woman you will be snatched from your own destruction.
Visits by bearers of God's gracious Word were the order of the day for Abraham and Noah, Jonah and Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, David and Daniel. God never tired of the resounding message of his love and care for the un-loveable and the uncaring. "The Messiah is coming. The Messiah is surely drawing near." cried the prophets.
Christmas is a season in which God's Word comes to level valleys and hills and make impassable roads ready for the feet of the Christ Child come to save. Christmas is a season in which God's Word comes to a manger to break down the walls and gates and locks we have constructed in our minds and hearts -- out of self-centered ambitions and spiritual fears.
"He's here!" proclaim prophets and angels, the messengers of God's undeserved mercy and forgiveness. "Despite the fact that you do not love God with your whole heart and your neighbor as yourself, God still comes to take away your guilt and shame and bring back to Paradise all who receive his message in repentance and faith."
Christmas begins with heavenly messengers coming to Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph. "It is time. The advent of the Messiah and his fore-runner is here. Now, the Son of God will visit his people and take upon himself the crushing burden of their sin."
This is the message proclaimed this morning for all mankind, for all languages and peoples, from India to Indonesia to Indiana. From Cincinnati to Singapore to Sydney. A Savior -- for you -- is now coming to visit and rescue his people.
From an Australian paraphrase of the Bible, we hear the miraculous coming of salvation proclaimed in our Gospel this morning:
Mary didn't muck about. She got packed and ankled it up to a town in the hills, where she went straight to Zeck and Libby's place, so that she could say G'day to Lib. When Libby heard Mary's Cooee at the front door the baby in her womb gave a kick like a footie player at a grand final, and Lib was filled with God's Spirit. With a big grin, and a voice that could rattle windows, she said: "Good onya Mary! You beaut! God's chosen you out of all the sheilas in the world, and your baby will be God's toddler. But, stone the crows, why would the mum of my Big Boss, my Lord, come and see me? As soon as I heard the sound of your voice my little bun in the oven went bananas with excitement. Good onya for believing what God told you -- for believing that God can do what he says he can do." (Luke 1:39-45 The Aussie Bible)
By nature -- by our own fallen nature -- we guard our hearts and minds as much as we do our homes. We have convinced ourselves, "It's too risky to trust and care and give and give and give, only to be hurt again. This Christmas I'll play it safe and hang out with only those I know won't make things uncomfortable or draining or risky. No one's going to come and show up unannounced and do something unexpected."
But faith believes that God can do what he says he can do -- even with barrier-building children of Adam and Eve. Faith responds to the announcement of angels by saying, "Why would you send your precious Son, why would you send him to be born in my sorry condition, why would you do all of this -- for me -- for even me?"
Do you find yourself this day before Christmas a prisoner of your own making? Have you barricaded the door to your soul and welded an iron grate over your heart? Have you made yourself unable to open the door for God as he comes knocking unannounced?
The Good News only the Christ Child brings is the Gospel that enables us to do what we were unable and unwilling to do: receive salvation as pure gift, receive our redemption as pure grace, take into our sin-stained arms the babe born in our place to live our life and die our death -- all without trades or deal-making.
This is what Elizabeth and Mary began to put their trust in, the same trust God has created in your heart, and in the hearts of all who would receive the Savior as he comes unexpectedly in the wrappings of a manger.
You see, faith in God and the one he graciously sends simply says and sings of God and the one he graciously sends -- to the poor and undeserving.
And then Mary said, "My soul is as happy as Larry with God and my mind is just buzzing with God my Rescuer because he picked me -- me! And I'm about as important as a bottle washer's assistant! But from now on everyone who ever lives will call me well off -- looked after by God -- for the One who can do anything has done great things for me. His name is the only Name that matters. His gentleness rolls on like a river. He has done great things that would just knock your socks off. The rich, the stuffed shirts, the boss cockies, don't impress God; he knocks them off their perch. But those who don't have tickets on themselves he gives a hand to. He provides tucker for the hungry and sends the toffee noses away without a feed. He has wrapped his great arms around his chosen. He hasn't forgotten his kindness and gentleness. Exactly what he promised yonks ago is what is happening now."
Mary stayed with Libby for a few months and then nicked off back home again. (Luke 1:46-56 The Aussie Bible)
It could be said that this song of Mary was the first Christian hymn sung by the first Christian. No wonder why our hymnals contain no less than five different hymns based on these words from Mary's lips as she joyfully extols the greatness of God's kindness shown to all who are spiritually poor and needy and hungry, having nothing to offer a perfect and holy God save their many sins.
Mary will have nothing to do with extolling herself. She sings of what is most sure: what the Lord has graciously done for her through his unexpected coming.
Are you expecting any unexpected visitors on Christmas Day?
May Christ visit you this Christmas morn to tear down the barriers of sin and doubt and fear and speak his word of peace and forgiveness and reconciliation. I have come to rescue you, just as I had promised, unexpectedly, amazingly, through my manger and my cross, through my life and death and resurrection and ascension.
Christ shepherds from this thistled place / The flocks by thickets torn;
His pierced hands heal all your race / Sore wounded by the thorn.
Embrace the Christ child, and with songs / Bind up the hearts of men.
To shepherd-healer-king let throngs / Sing glorias again.