A sermon preached by Pastor Ken Carrothers on December 24, 2019
The story begins in this way — on a cold day in December, a mother gave birth to a baby boy. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Perhaps, but keep listening.
Seventeen years later, the young boy sat in the mother’s kitchen with a towel around his neck while she trimmed his hair. For some boys there comes a time when they no longer want to be touched by their mom. For this mother, in this moment, this was as close as she was likely to get for a long time. Circling him, snipping behind his ears with the scissors, gently brushing the hair off his eye brows. Can you picture it?
Hours earlier, Jody, the mother, wasn’t even sure if her son was dead or alive. A few months earlier he had been arrested with a baggie full of drugs. After getting out him out on bail he had threatened to either flee to Mexico or kill himself rather than go to trial. But then on his trial date, he showed up early in the morning. He had come home one last time. He borrowed his brother’s shoes and asked his mom to trim his hair. So there she was circling him, gently pulling his hair out to trim off the ends, little wisps of hair catching on her clothes and falling to the ground. Loving him the best she could, by serving him as he asked.
Then a few hours later, his trial ended with a guilty verdict. Her son, now in the back of a police car immediately leaving for the state school. The boy stared straight ahead, even as his parents stood outside the car, leaning into one another, seeking comfort from the cold wind and terrible news. “Say good-bye,” the officer ordered the young man. “I don’t know them,” the boy whispered. The car door slammed shut and away he went.
On a cold day in December, a mother gave birth to a baby boy. Not the story you were expecting I imagine.
The story we know and expect with this beginning is familiar to us. Mary giving birth to Jesus and laying him a manger. But perhaps the story is too familiar — too well used — in a way that it can no longer surprise us. It is so familiar that we hardly hear it anymore. In fact that story has been used by so many and for so many different purposes that it threatens to make this miraculous story irrelevant. Case in point — I heard about a display in the mall around Christmas time. Two giant plush bears robed to represent Mary and Joseph. They were then positioned around a swaddled baby Jesus bear in a manger. Awesome right?
If there was ever mystery and wonder around the Incarnation, it appears to have vanished. How do three big plush stuffed bears proclaim any kind of promise? What does a circle of cuddly bears have to say to the real pain in our world? How does that scene help us make sense of searing heartbreak? Can a ridiculous mall scene speak a word of hope to the sharp pain of a guilty verdict directed at one we love? Can stuffed bears speak to the silence prior to a car door slamming shut and the tail lights disappearing into the darkness?
I understand the desire to find God compassionately loving in the midst of harsh judgment, but the testimony of scripture never proposes that God be imagined as fluffy or cuddly. If we reduce God to a teddy-bear, we will find God to be powerless. God will be unable to ease our suffering or meet us in the depths of our agony. Whereas in Jesus, God is dramatically human — walking with us, enduring with us, suffering with us, dying with us.
God cannot be less than us — God is and will always be more. Our understanding is partial at best, but it is precisely in our limitations that we know that God is greater than us. We use analogies, but must remember an analogy can only go so far. Some people are artistic, but God is the greatest artist. Some are wise but God is wisdom who will finally silence us in awe. Some people have the capacity to care for others, but God is the highest caring, because God is love. Maybe that is the best we can do tonight — to say: God is love. Love who comes into the shadows. Love who comes into our hurts and disappointments. Love who draws us close in our profound sorrow.
Now when we say love, we are thinking more of God loves us like a parent, rather than a lover. Because romantic love while dazzling and exciting, is often fickle. While parental love on the other hand, may not be flashy, but is a love that endures. The inspiring love of God which is expressed in this manger story is the love of a parent for a wandering child. The awesome love of God coming in the darkness of this night to bring everlasting light is the story of a loving parent who is quick to respond to a child’s request for help and at the same time is willing to endure the silence of contempt coming out of the despair, shame and guilt of the present situation. The everlasting love of God never fails to give despite a lack of gratitude and if we fallible humans find a way to love each other in this way, then God must love even more.
On a cold day in December, a mother gave birth to a baby boy. She was weary from the long journey she had made with her betrothed to come to this place. It wasn’t what she imagined — giving birth in a stable — but it was what it was. Her little boy came into the world and she laid him in the feed trough. Then a few weeks later, she carried her baby into the temple and an old man stopped her to say: “This child is destined… to be a sign that will be opposed… and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
The hidden theme within the Christmas story is the suffering parent. We hear it in Jody’s love for her son, we witness it in the love that Mary has for hers and we stand in awe of what mothers will endure for their children. But will it translate? Will we see that God endures for each and everyone of God’s beloved? God who is determined to love all God’s wandering children.
Because this crazy thing happened: God came down to earth, became one with humanity, and spent a time sharing God’s love for all God’s people. This loving walk and talk of the boy born in Bethlehem ended up offending God’s people to the point they tortured God to death. Yet by that death, God destroyed death — rescued us and gave us life everlasting, along with every other good thing. Into this life crammed with pain, we say God came down, because God loves us with a kind of love we can only understand by thinking of how a parent loves their child.
God longs over us — people who are capable a deep care for each other and capable of deep hurt. A people who whisper, “I don’t know them” as the door slams and we are driven away. And yet God loves us even as God waits. We ridicule, trivialize, bicker, and take credit for all good, while blaming away all bad. And yet God loves us even as God waits.
Now maybe you don’t buy it. Maybe you believe this universe really is just a meaningless swirl of gases. Maybe you think all the cruelty we have inflicted upon one another proves this story could not have happened and no one outside of this world cares about us. Maybe you assume this life is all there is — a world bursting with detail, but in the end completely meaningless. Maybe you determine the stars and the vastness of the universe, are simply there just for us to look at — far away and cold. I don’t know.
What I do know is that Jody embodied what I believe about the other December night. For later that same December evening, after the taillights of the car were but a memory, Jody looked up at all the stars and the moon — she looked at the vastness of the sky and in spite of everything that had happened that day, she still felt an unbroken connection to her son. She realized that he was probably looking at those same stars as he reached his destination about that time. She thought about the difficulty of getting to an unfamiliar place in the dark. She thought about the coldness of that place he was in — buildings lined up side by side, blackened windows, with the chill of concrete and bars. She thought of her son lying awake in a strange bed, wondering what lie ahead. She wondered what he was feeling and she loved him. She would always love him.
Jody thought about her son. No matter what happened, no matter where he was, no matter what he had done, he was hers and she would always be his. And if that is true for Jody’s son, on this Christmas Eve imagine what that means for us — God’s very own wandering and beloved children. Amen.