During the darkest days of our infertility journey, my prayers went like this: “How long O Lord? How long will you keep us childless?”

There’s not a lot of joy in this. Asking for the same thing over and over. Being stuck.

I’ve heard from a lot of couples dealing with infertility the feeling of being “stuck” in an endless process without a lot of hope, and it is frustrating beyond words.

And as I was recently reading, Michelle Obama's new memoir, Becoming, she talks about this very pain in her own journey. Learning this about a very public figure is a good reminder that infertility is more common than we think.

So, no matter what we are waiting for, where do we find inspiration for our "stuck" times?

Simeon and Anna have become two of my waiting heroes in the Bible.  Luke's account tells us that night and day both of these seniors devoted themselves to prayer and waiting for Jesus to arrive in the temple after his birth.

Simeon and Anna waited and waited. And they waited some more.

(If you want the full story, read Luke 2: 36-38). 

Anna's entire purpose after her husband died was to be on this waiting journey—to be that prophetic voice that spoke the truth about baby Jesus who was yet to be born.

And then one day (gasp!) Jesus arrived at the temple with Mary and Joseph. Anna knew immediately! She spoke truth. Jesus was God’s Son. Her waiting was not in vain.

Like Anna, probably felt, a vocation of waiting is not something I would have chosen.

But, the longer I waited too, the more gifts the season of waiting gave.

I learned: who I am right now is ok.

I practiced: what I am doing right now is good (even if it not what I would have chosen).

For, no good waiting season is ever wasted time.

God is a mystery beyond all my understanding.

When my daughter, Amelia found her way into our family through adoption, there's one word to describe the experience of her. And it's JOY.

(And if you've met her, you can testify that this is true).

It's not because as many might think "I got what I always wanted."

Or I finally could feel at home in mom's circles.

Or because I could stop crying so much over my Christmas Eve sermons.

Rather, it was because the soil of my soul was ready. My soul was ready for joy.

I rejoiced in motherhood as I bet Anna rejoiced over Jesus in the temple that day.

I am different kind of mother thanks to infertility. There's no small joy I take for granted. There's no milestone that I don't want to celebrate. There's no happy picture I can't wait to share with family and friends of the fun things we get into (sorry, friends, if I text you too often).

Here's what you need to know: there was a time that I thought I would never have a particular child living in our home.

Adoption seemed too hard, too out of reach. Something we'd tried and had failed at too.

Well, until, it happened.

These days, I still look my daughter eyes with joy as she splashes in the bathtub, asks for more water before bedtime, or exclaims she wants to go to the playground yet again, and I thank God.

I thank God for the gift of growing up with her, learning from her and being HER mother.

My waiting season has brought me this joy.

I pray whatever it is that you're waiting on right now, you'll have the courage to keep waiting on joy too! Somehow, someway, it will come.

You won't be stuck forever.

Our National Infertility Week series continues today. (Did you miss the post from Chris Thomas earlier? If so, stop now and read it here). I'm so glad to introduce you to Maren McLean Persaud, my new favorite Canadian who tells a story of hope, longing and loss. Here are her beautiful words-

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This past fall, we took all our hope, all our prayer, all our being, and all our money and invested it into the expensive and rigorous fertility treatment known as IVF (in vitro fertilization).

We had been trying to have a baby on our own for almost three years only to find out we had around a 1 to 4 percent chance of that ever happening. IVF was our only option if we wanted to have our own child. 

If you have had personal experience with IVF, I don’t need to tell you anything and I salute you.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, IVF is a medical procedure that drains you emotionally, physically, and financially to “retrieve” your eggs and fertilize them with sperm from your partner, or a donor, to create viable embryos that can be put back into you to hopefully achieve a successful pregnancy and live birth.

The process involves a whole lot of needles, drugs, procedures, anxiously waiting for phone calls and embryo updates (spoiler: not all of them make it) and in the end, you might just end up with nothing to show for it.

So we did all that with the confident attitude that it would work, because, why wouldn’t it? We’re young!

And it did work! We got pregnant and even had one little embryo to tuck away in the freezer for a later date. What a great return on our investment.

Three days before Christmas, on our wedding anniversary, we floated into our fertility clinic for the 8-week ultrasound ready to hear the heart beat and successfully “graduate’ from the clinic.

Not even thirty seconds into the ultrasound our doctor said “I don’t have good news”.

After that it’s all a blur, but essentially our embryo was there and had grown, but there was no heartbeat. I would miscarry soon. That night I slept as though I was playing dead. No dreams, no restlessness, just darkness. The next morning, I woke up to myself sobbing, wishing I hadn’t woken up.

‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’

My husband turned into our PR guy, messaging family and friends, letting them know what happened and canceling Advent/Christmas events we had planned to host in our home.

My family rushed in to spend Christmas at our house and they let us be the couch potato, tear-filled slobs we had turned into.

They cooked for us, cleaned for us, looked after us and although we had trouble recognizing it in the moment, brought a lot of light to our darkness.

My husband is a minister and in the days after our ultrasound he had to soldier through services that celebrated a special baby being brought into the world.

Being the bad minister’s wife that I am, I didn’t go to those celebrations with him.

The baby has always been my favorite part of the Christmas story. The fact that God chose to enter our world in that new and hopeful form so full of potential has always filled me with wonder and joy, but not this year.

‘Screw you and screw your baby, God!’

I wasn’t having any of it. How could I hear the ‘good news’ when only days before my Doctor told me there was no good news?

I was literally losing my baby as I rang in the new year.

In the days and weeks that followed I threw myself back into work, almost manically making plans and getting things done.

All the while I was haunted by the exact moment when we heard “I don’t have good news”. I would cry almost every night.

By February every night turned into once a week and by March there was even more space between these “episodes”.

With the Christmas story long behind me I felt like Lent was a good place for me at this point in my life. Focus on the depravity of the human condition while contemplating death on a cross? Yes! Let’s get sad, people!

Lent is coming to an end though and I can feel the tension building in my body as we inch closer to Easter. The Lenten focus on depravity of our sinful nature will turn into celebrating the Love God has for us and death on a cross will turn into resurrection. Ugh.

I’m not pregnant and am still grieving our loss, you expect me to sing Hallelujah soon? I feel like the Grinch, “I must stop Easter from coming, but how?”

Currently, there is hope in the little embryo we have tucked away at the clinic, waiting for us.

There is hope in how even though this experience tried to shred our marriage into tatters, my husband and I have become closer and more tightly knit than before.

There is hope in the stories of infertility and loss that others have personally shared with us; there is hope in that every time I see my psychologist I can honestly tell her I’m doing a “bit better” than last time we spoke.

But ultimately, there is hope because 2000 and some years ago God proved that there is no darkness where God isn’t with us. God will bring all things to a good end, and that is where our hope is.

I will reclaim the doctor's words: “I don’t have good news” and hope that the absence of Good News is not real.

I want to live a beautiful story of hope.

Maren McLean Persaud grew up in Nova Scotia, Canada and pursued her studies in music and theology at Mount Allison University and then Knox College, Toronto School of Theology. Most recently, she worked as Director of Camping Ministry for the Anglican Church in New Brunswick, where she currently lives with her husband, Christian. Prior to that, Maren worked as a ministry student intern in Alberta where she studied the ways that summer camp can teach the wider church to be more creative in community building and spiritual formation. Maren is most passionate about ministry with children and youth and incorporates her experiences in camping and her musical training into that work. She loves spending time outdoors, drinking her coffee black and laughing until she cries.

**If you are looking for another story of loss, hope and healing check out Birthed: Finding Grace Through Infertility wherever books are sold.***

Someone around you is grieving right now. Even if you don't know his or her name. Even if you don't know why. Even if you'll never know why. So many people grieve on overdrive at this time of year.

Recently, I was teaching at "Attending to the Grief We Don't See" workshop at a congregation and I encouraged them to pay attention to certain times of the year trigger grief.

We all agreed that a season that tops that list are the calendar days from Thanksgiving to New Years. Such was my experience for years as my husband, Kevin and I waited with hope that we'd be parents one day. For a couple expecting but not yet expecting a baby or who have recently lost a baby, Advent can be a miserable time.  (As everything in the culture screams children and babies!)

And for others of us, we're weighed down heavy by--

Hearing our cancer has returned.

A bout of depression which isn't getting better.

A child diagnosed with a learning disability.

An aging parent given months to live.

Enduring a job search with dead-end after dead-end.

Family dynamics that are just weird.

While songs of “peace on earth, goodwill to men” and “joy the world, the Lord has come!” are blasted on the radio, the grieving among us experience December more like Holy Week than Advent.

That first Christmas without mom here . . .

That second Christmas of being a divorced dad sharing custody of your kids . . .

That third Christmas that your son is in jail . . .

And on and on it goes.

Yet, because it is the holiday season many of us want to be happy, regardless. We want to be able to put whatever is bothering us aside and rejoice as the scripture exhorts us too. We want joy—even as much as our life circumstances aren’t naturally joyful.

So how can we be joyful? Is it even possible for the grieving? 

I would love to offer that joy is a formula that can be followed (as many preachers offer: Jesus first, Others second, and Yourself last).

I would love to suggest that joy is an emotion of the will that we can just pray harder to make happen.

Or, I would love to tell you if you "Sing one more Christmas carol or bake one more sheet of cookies, then joy of the Christmas spirit will find you!"

But I can't.

Maybe you’re better at joy than I . . . but it has been my experience that seeking joy in the midst of waiting does not come through formulas and cookies.

Waiting on joy has looked more like:

Crying until I’ve run out of tears.

Sitting among the rocks and dirt in my backyard.

Drinking too much wine.

Pulling myself out of bed, brush my teeth and go to work without clean socks believing I'm doing the best I can.

And I've done these things on repeat. Then when I've been lucky, others have come to sit with me and done these things with me.

Here is what I most want to tell you: as I've allowed myself to feel what I feel and been honest with others about it, a miracle has happened.

My spirit has began to move just a little. It moved toward hope—that the next day would be brighter than the one before.

It moved toward love—that someone needed me to notice their pain so getting out of bed was, in fact, a really great idea.

And finally it moved toward joy—that though sorrow lasts for the night, in the morning joy comes.

Such is what I'm hoping for you this holiday season.

Your joy might not be bright and showy. You may not be the one in the choir singing the carols loudly.

But you'll be hanging on because of your quiet strength. And you will get through because you're braver than you know.

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Did you know I wrote a book for Advent? Check out Seeing a Different World here.

Want to hear more of my grief story? Check out my spiritual memoir about my long season of infertility. You can buy it here. 

Would you like me to come speak with your congregation or community group about sitting with grief during tough times? Contact me. 

Who says that your life has to look like everyone else's?

Who says that emotions of Christmas are reserved only for those who you are related to?

Who says that you can't travel to two continents in one month to celebrate Christmas with over 150 children/ youth just because?

God has blessed us and so there's only one choice we have: give back. Not just in things but in physical presence.

Such as been the story of Christmas JOY for the Hagans since this time last November.

We celebrated Christmas in Kenya with these beautiful children.

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Then we traveled the last weekend to Honduras to celebrate Christmas with a group of boys living in a children's home we also knew well from our time at Feed the Children.

We just hung with the youth of the center.

We danced the night away with these little guys too!

And today, we gathered around the table of those who bear our last name and played with little guys like this one . . .

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And extended family like this during the most tropical Christmas on record in Georgia!

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I truly believe that JOY is an emotion that you can FEEL if you allow yourself to experience it. And I feel so grateful to have received it in several unique places over the last several weeks.

In all of this, I don't want you to think that everything is perfect in our lives. There's sadness this Christmas for me as there always is. But there's joy alongside the sadness. Joy that finds a way to bubble up when I stick close to dear ones like these to me from all over the world.

Where did joy find you this Christmas?

(Thanks to Edna and Heidy for capturing some of these lovely moments on your cameras!)

Today, I have one question: God, really what were you thinking hanging all of the hopes of the world on one birth and one night?

If you and I have any logical sense, hanging all ours hopes in life on everything aligning correctly as God did at Christmas Eve was a pretty stupid thing to do. We’ve all come to know that life is too fragile and too uncertain for only one plan of ours working out perfectly, haven't we?

Especially for the overachievers, we are the people of a back-up plan.

When we or our children are applying to college or graduate school, we want to know: “what is your fail proof school?”

When we are applying for our “dream” job, it is often asked of us, “what is your back-up offer?”

And, during late night sessions with best friends, we often ask: “If I am not with someone by this age or if my spouse dies early, can we be each other’s back-up plan?”

For we are a people who like to know that the odds of our decisions are working in our favor—and that if plan A doesn’t work, there is an equally good plan B around the corner.

But in the Christmas story as Luke 2 tells it, all of God’s hopes for the blessing of all the world were on one womb . . . one night . . . one mother . . . one willing partner . . . one band of shepherds . . . ONE chance to get it right or it would be a fail. For, there was not a back-up plan.

There was only ONE plan.

And God trusted human beings to carry it out!

And, in this one plan, God trusted Mary and Mary’s body . . . as there was no room for error.

God trusted Joseph to be there for Mary . . . as we are told no midwife attended to the birth.

God trusted the shepherds to respond  . . . as there were no other visitors right away.

God trusted the angels to sing . . . . as they were the creators of the first carols.

God trusted the star not to refuse to shine . . . as without the star, the shepherds did not know where to go.

The only ONE plan was built upon the audacity of God’s trust in everything happening as it should.

I was thinking this week if there was anything as audacious as this in our modern senses so to compare this to and I thought of a family facing foreclosure on their house and buying the most expensive lottery ticket.  And, as they bought it, saying to themselves: “This ticket is going to save our lives.”

Never mind you, that it is commonly known from statistics that one’s chances of winning the lottery on a single ticket are highly unlikely with all of the probability variables. Even if you play a single state lottery (you best case scenario), the chances of one’s winning with a single ticket are 18 million to one.  But, even still, this family buys the ticket, holds on to it and believes it is their one plan out of destitution.

And, so, it was the posture of God that night. Though no studies have been written to qualify the odds of the whole Jesus being born in a manger thing working out, we know the fates of this world were all stacked against this plan working out too.

Really, who could believe that a teenaged mother and a lowly group of animal watchers in a borrowed stable could be a part of something magnificent? What a motley crew!

But, yet we know on that Holy Night, the greatest lottery of all times came to be won as Jesus came forth and became called, Emmanuel, God with Us—welcomed by just these folks.

Though such a story can be hard to believe sometimes, especially for the most skeptical and analytic among us.

But our faith asks us to believe in the most bizarre of circumstances that God hit the jackpot that night and a child, who was called Christ.

And here is the real question: do we really want a story that makes perfect sense that is fully understandable? Do we really want a God in our lives who is just like us?

I don’t know about you, but as this year comes to a close and I look at all that has gone wrong and all that is not right in this world (oh the lists we could make!), I know one thing: that I don’t want my God to be just like me.

I don’t want my God to give me exactly what I deserve.

I don’t want my God to be one in whom I understand, explain away and make into a pretty scene sitting on my coffee table.

No, because life is just too messy. Life is just too painful. Life is just too busy. Life is just too unfair to hang my hopes tonight on a story I am in control of!

For, I need a God who is faithful, even beyond my most faithful friend to bring about something beautiful in my life.

I need a God who can work through the most impossible of circumstance to bring about something new, something that I cannot create on my own.

For, I need a God who can’t be explained through apologetics or formulas or charts.

I need a God who can align the paths and people and places of this world so that in the midst of darkness a great light is seen again.

For, I need a God who is beyond all comprehension as my ability to fathom mystery is to rational for the conception of something as wonderful as Savior born unto me again this evening.

For, I need a God to do the impossible . . . . to show up, to be present once again and to show me that life is not as it seems just as it is now.

If you are with me with any of this, then I tell you the good news this evening: Christmas, then, is just for you.

For just as we have been on this Advent journey all month, waiting for something, hoping for something, rejoicing with what was not yet, and imagining the possibility of loving fully once again: on Christmas Day, such blessing IS here.

The incarnation—this impossible thing— is a sign to us that no matter what happens in your life and mine or in this crazy world of ours, the impossible is always possible. And, we are not alone!

God came to earth and took a body. A body in all its messiness! God became one of us. If this is not humility and love, I don’t know what is!

What a gift! What a night! What a baby we have to celebrate!

It is Advent.

Mary is 36 weeks pregnant, and baby Jesus is due any day.

How do we learn to wait for a baby savior?

Waiting for Christmas is about waiting for a baby to be born, and as any mom will tell you, that kind of waiting is hard work. We get impatient. We get distracted. We take baby waiting as primarily an excuse to eat huge quantities of butter, chocolate, and combinations of the two. But babies change everything, and learning to wait with hopeful longing for God’s new life to burst into the world is at the heart of the Christian faith.

But not everyone who waits for babies waits 40-week gestational periods. There are some parents who must endure rounds and rounds of infertility tests and treatments to even have the possibility hearing that a baby is officially on the way. There are some parents who wait by wading through the rigors of adoption paperwork and court dates. There are some parents who wait for babies who doctors have said have little chance of survival out of utero. There are some co-waiters: aunts and uncles, grandparents, and siblings who come alongside those who wait for babies, both when there is a due date and also when there is not.

What can all of these experiences of waiting teach us about waiting for baby Jesus?

sarah2.0We (Sarah and Elizabeth) became friends as roommates at Duke Divinity School. We later were both ordained as ministers within the Baptist church. Several years after seminary, I (Sarah) birthed two girls back-to-back and wrote a theological reflection about the experience in a book called, Creating with God. I (Elizabeth) am still waiting to become an official mother, and have written a book (forthcoming) about infertility. How could we as pastors and friends hold our radically different experiences of waiting in the same conversation? This writing project is our answer.

This Advent season, we invite you to learn to wait for a baby Savior by waiting with us.

We have asked 4 people with radically different experiences of waiting for babies from even us to write one meditation for each of the four weeks of Advent: Joe, Susan, Beth, and Dayna. We hope that over the course of Advent you get to know each of us better and enter into our stories in a deeper way. We’ve also asked guest writers to join their voices to our project too: Joy, Chris, Jonathan, Jennifer, Kevin, Ed and MaryAnn. They’ve got some fabulous things to say too!

Join us in this conversation of study and preparation this Advent. If you would like a PDF of the project emailed to you, leave your email in the comments or sent a message in the "Contact" section of the blog and we'll be glad to send you the daily devotions.

With anticipation,
Sarah and Elizabeth

If you want to read some posts- check out these favorite ones from some of our writers posted in Advent 2013:

Discovering Joy” Dayna Olson-Getty (a grieving mom’s story about finding peace)

Discovering Joy” Elizabeth Hagan (a grieving mom to be)

Discovering Joy” Susan Smartt Cook (a midwife’s perspective on waiting)

Love That Groans” Beth Dotson (a grandmother who has waited with others)

Love That Groans” Joy Bennett (a grieving mother who lost a child)

Waiting with Hope” Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (an adoptive dad)

Waiting with Hope” Sarah Jobe (a mom of 2 young girls)

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;

from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.

The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him—

the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,

the Spirit of counsel and of might,

the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the LORD—

and he will delight in the fear of the LORD.

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,

or decide by what he hears with his ears;

but with righteousness he will judge the needy,

with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.

He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;

with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.

Righteousness will be his belt

and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

The wolf will live with the lamb,

the leopard will lie down with the goat,

the calf and the lion and the yearling together;

and a little child will lead them. Isaiah 11:1-6

I lay on my back, my mind and body numb from the shock. Both of my hands rested on the warm, squishy lump that the midwife had deposited on my chest. I couldn’t see her, but she felt like a wet puppy – one of those wrinkled puppies with rolls of extra skin. I remembered the woman in the birth video I had watched weeks before. She had delivered an eloquent speech to her newborn son, exclaiming, “My son! My little son! Welcome to the world! I am so glad you are here!” It had seemed like a good way to welcome someone into the world, and I had resolved to welcome my daughter with a similar speech. But now my legs shook with fatigue, and my tongue was thick with exhaustion.

It is Christmas morning. Jesus is a warm, wet, puppy-like lump resting on Mary’s chest. And some of us are singing and saying, “I’m so glad you’re here!” But at my house, the children are allowed to get out of bed and wake us up any time after 5am…so here at my house on Christmas morning, on this birth-day morning, I find myself a little sleepy. I find myself living into an exhausted peace that I have come to know well.

The truth is that my first child was born six years ago, and I haven’t yet stopped being tired. It has been six years, and we still wake up in the middle of the night for sounds and tummy aches and trips to the bathroom.

New life grows slowly. New life grows up into the world slowly. But in its slow coming we learn the practices of peace. In the midst of welcoming new life into the world, we learn God’s shalom; we practice God’s wholeness.

In the six years since I gave birth, I have learned to listen when small people whine. I have learned that the whining represents need and want and endless desire. I have learned to clothe the naked and feed the hungry….three, four, and five times a day. I have learned that today’s acts of feeding and clothing don’t affect tomorrow’s needs. I have learned that when I feed and clothe someone every day they will love me with a wild, devout, and startling love that no one could ever deserve. I have learned that this startling love comes in picked flowers, giggles, and hugs with a running start….and I have felt that kind of love heal my wounds powerfully and inexplicably.

I am learning the practices of peace, and my little children are leading me into them. It is slow work. I am frequently exhausted. But peace is coming into my world.

It is Christmas morning -- Jesus is born! Now we begin the slow and steady work of patiently raising the Prince of Peace into the fullness of his kingdom. Grab a diaper, and join the movement; the work of nurturing a baby Savior is at hand.

Let us pray:

Jesus, we are so glad you are here! Forgive us when we are too exhausted to say so. Empower us for the slow, daily work of nurturing your Body. Teach us the practices we need to be your peaceful people. And give us what we need this day to rejoice in your coming – we are, indeed, so glad you are here. Amen.

SarahJobeSarah Jobe is an ordained Baptist minister, prison chaplain, teacher, and mother of two. She lives with her family at the Rutba House, a Christian house of hospitality in Durham, NC. She is the author of Creating with God: The Holy Confusing Blessedness of Pregnancy. As a prison chaplain, she is hoping for the reconciliation of mothers and their children this Advent.

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With no thanksgiving holiday to wait to pass, Christmas came early this year in Nairobi among the FTC family. It was a delight to be able to share in a worship service with the entire Kenyan staff this week.

God Finding Us
Dagoretti Children’s Center, November 22, 2013
Nairobi, KENYA
Isaiah 1:2-4, Luke 2:1-20

When I was a child, staying close to adults who were in charge of carrying for me was never my forte. I was the oldest in my family so I often thought I knew how to do things all by myself—even if my caregivers directed me otherwise. I liked to wander out on my own. I was a nightmare to keep up with in a grocery store!

According to the many stories that my mom could tell you if she was here today, I loved to go by myself when we were shopping even as young as 3 years old. I very much liked to look at aisles of things that interested me. Then, I would often come back to the shopping cart with things I wanted— with little regard for how much money my mom had already told me that she had to spend. Needless to say I often got into trouble!

In fact, I got so good at wandering off (scaring my parents to death, I’m sure) that my mom had to create a signal of sorts to find me. It became her sign to me: her famous whistle. I would show you what it sounds like, but I was not blessed with the gift of whistling. Anybody out there can whistle? (From now on in the rest of my sermon, when I say the word whistle could you help me out—those of you who can whistle by whistling?)

The funny part about my mom’s whistle is that it became one of those cues in my mind that still is with me. Even today, if I’m out with my mom in a store and she wants me to find her, she whistles. Sad, though that it works, even at my age. I’m a grown up who comes when my mom whistles—kind of like when you might call a dog.

And today as we just heard a reading before the time when Jesus came—taken from the book of Isaiah, we see that the Israelites they weren’t very good at staying close to their caregiver, God, either as they waited. They were so ready for their waiting to be over that they TOO started going out on their own. They did what was right in their OWN eyes.

Though they’d heard countless prophecies about the coming of a Messiah—about a man who would save them from their sins, in their heart they’d stopped really waiting or trusting in God to take care of them.

No longer did they see the need to listen for God. No longer did it matter to stay close.

No one was doing those daily practices like praying or reading scripture. No one was telling the truth anymore. Corruption was the name of the game in the land. Did you hear how Isaiah describes them? None other than a “a brood of evil doers!” Strong language, huh?

However, in Israel’s defense, though, by time we get to the beginning of our gospel reading for today, God had been silent for 400 years. From the end of the Old Testament to the start of the New Testament was give or take about 400 years. Can you imagine how long that was? A VERY LONG time. And if you think about it, what was there really to listen to anymore?

But then, their whistle came. And, it came loud and clear. Luke 2 verse 1 begins: “In those days Ceasar Augustus issued a degree that a census should be taken of the entire world.” God used the political situation in the land to start the whistling process.

As the story goes, Mary and Joseph each in their own way got the news that Jesus would be their son. Jesus would be born. God was about to show up in the flesh.

When you think of Christmas what do you think of? (RESPONSE)

Many people, when they think of Christmas they have in their minds images of lovely manger scenes, beautiful people smiling, and lots of pretty decorations.

But, what was going on with this whistle—of God coming to earth through this baby named Jesus—was a huge redemption plan: a plan that would one day touch the lives of you, and you and you and me.

Though the peoples of the earth had made many mistakes and though the peoples of the earth were corrupt as they could be and had each turned to their own way, God was about to whistle loud and clear a message of: “I have found you!”

Have you ever stopped to think how crazy God’s plan of redemption was as it began in that very first Christmas?
I mean, really, what was God thinking hanging all of the hopes of the world on one birth? Just ONE birth.

Yes, a birth, the middle of the ancient times when medical care was not at its peak—childbirth was very risky enterprise in fact.
Yes, a birth of one child, of only one child, given from heaven to the fragility of human hands and a teenage mother at that with little training on child-birth or raising!

Yes, a birth, of one to a world where anything, yes, anything could go wrong at anytime?

Yes, a birth, in horrific conditions that could have easily caused the most willing mother and the most support father and even the most eager shepherds to give up?

What was God thinking, I mean really whistling in this way?

If you are a logical person (which I like to think I am most of the time), hanging all your hopes in life on ONE THING as God did in this case was a crazy thing to do.

When I have a plan, I always like to have a back-up plan. If I have a plan A, I would like to have a Plan B. What about you?
Life is just too fragile, just too uncertain for the hope that only one plan would actually work perfectly, right?

How many times have you in your life set out to do something and it doesn’t go as planned? How many times have you hoped for something, prayed for something only to find out that it doesn’t come out exactly the way you wanted?

If I were to make a list of times in my life where ONE plan did not work out perfectly the list would be longer than could ever be written down in this room! Pages and pages and more pages in books could be filled with disappointments of plans not working out.
But, in our gospel reading for today, all of God’s hopes for the blessing of all the world were on one womb . . . one night . . . one mother . . . one willing partner . . . one band of shepherds . . . ONE chance to get it right or it would be a fail. For, there was not a back-up plan. There was only ONE plan.

And, in this one plan, God trusted Mary and Mary’s body . . . as there was no room for error.

God trusted Joseph to be there for Mary . . . as we are told no midwife attended to the birth.

God trusted the shepherds to respond . . . as there were no other visitors right away.

God trusted the angels to sing . . . . as they were the creators of the first carols. God trusted the star not to refuse to shine . . . as without the star, the shepherds did not know where to go.

The only ONE plan was built upon God’s trust in everything happening as it should.

Recently, Kevin and I traveled to the US state of Hawaii. It is a beautiful state with lots of palm trees and beaches right next to the mountains. I was to preach at a Christian School conference and Kevin was learning about programs there that helped children and families. While we were there, we met a lot of homeless people—though we thought was strange because it was a beautiful place. But as we walked the streets to go shopping (and I stayed close to Kevin this time—I didn’t get lost), I can’t tell you how many homeless people we met.

I asked one homeless man to tell me his story. He said, “I used to be homeless in the Mainland part of the United States. However, I lived in a very cold city, so I got a job and saved all his money to buy an airline ticket to fly to Hawaii—almost 10 hours in the airplane from where I lived.”

When I asked him what he expected to do when he got to Hawaii, he told me: “I trusted it would be ok. I didn’t even think I’d get a job here. I heard about a program where people live together on the beach. I figured if I just made it there—even though I was so far from home and without a home—I’d be ok.”

I could hardly believe what I heard. No backup plan. No concern for a real home. Just plans to be ok in a place so far from what was normal or familiar.

And, so, it was the posture of God that night. God had one plan and one hope! It’s wasn’t normal to us and most certainly was not what we expected. But it was God’s plan, nonetheless.

Though no studies have been written to qualify the odds of the whole Jesus being born in a manger thing working out, the fates of this world were all stacked against this plan working out too . . . who could believe that a teenaged mother and a lowly group of animal watchers in a borrowed stable could be a part of something magnificent?

But, yet we know on that Holy Night, the greatest gift of all times would be welcomed by just these folks—folks who weren’t anything special as far as the world was concerned but CHOSEN by God. It’s was God not normal, but wonderful plan.
---
Though such a story can be hard to believe sometimes: that a child, who was called Christ, the Lord was born and was thriving from the first day of his day in the arms of a mother who treasured all these things in heart, this is our faith, my friends!
Our faith is about God showing up and doing only what God can do.

How often, though, our faith is questioned at this point? How can we believe something that doesn’t make perfect sense?
Yet, I am going to pause here and ask you to reflect with me, my friends, do we really want a story that makes perfect sense that is fully understandable?
Do we really want a God in our lives who is just like us?

I don’t know about you, but as this year comes to a close and I look at all that has gone wrong and all that is not right in this world, I know one thing: that is that I need my God not to be just like me that I can understand, explain away and come to life through Christmas decorations.

Life is just too messy. Life is just too painful. Life is just too busy. Life is just too unfair for it all to depend on someone with a mind like mine.

For, I want to testify today that I need a God who is faithful, even beyond my most faithful friend to bring about something beautiful in my life and in the deep corruption that seeks to destroy the GOOD that could be in this world.
I need a God who can work through the most impossible of circumstance to bring about something new, something that I cannot create on my own even when I get lost.

For, I need a God who can’t be explained through formulas or charts. I need a God who can create a new path so that in the midst of the darkness of this world, a great light is seen again.

For, I need a God to do the impossible . . . . to show up, to be present once again and to show me that life is not as it seems just as it is now.

If you are with me with any of this, then I tell you the good news today: Christmas, then, is just for you.

This is the season to rejoice with what was not yet. It is the season to imagine what we cannot see. It is the season to believe in the possibility of loving fully once again because Jesus first loved us.

As simple as the coming of Christ in the form a baby, years long ago, this is it! This gift is the gift that has the power to bring us this Christmas exactly what we are hoping for.

It’s THE gift of knowing in our darkest days we are not alone, in our most confusing journeys there is always more than we can see.
In our life situations that don’t make a bit of sense, there is big star out there, guiding us, guiding us home again.
Silent Night, Holy, Night. All is come, all is bright.

Calling all dreamers . . . calling all wonderers . . . calling all grieving friends . . . calling all those who want a life different than you see right in front of you right now.

God is whistling for you. God is signaling your NAME.

Come again this year and meet the babe Jesus the Christ, the most Holy One, the one who has never given up on us and will keep whistling for us until we follow.

Thanks be to God for this gift of Christmas.
AMEN

jesus-birthLuke 2:1-20
Christmas Eve 2012

Silent night, holy, night, all is come, all is bright. Round yon virgin Mother and Child . . .

I get chills every time I sing this song, especially on this night. I don’t know about you, but it seems to be the one carol of all Christmas carols that seems to pull at the strings of all of our hearts—a song that reminds us to slow down be still and consider what the birth of this child of a babe called Jesus is all about. It’s a song sung a few hours ago in the Holy City to commemorate what happened in this very special locale. Some say it wouldn’t be Christmas in Bethlehem without it.

In fact, I dare say, many of you would just not think it is really Christmas until you sing Silent Night by candlelight in community with others—just as we are going to do a in few moments. Maybe it is just tradition. Or maybe it is softness of this lullaby that evokes memories of when we were children. But, regardless as to why, Silent Night seems to be the carol for many of us that symbolizes the fact that on this night, it was not an ordinary night—it was eternally special.

It’s beautiful isn’t it the way we think of the Christmas story every year? Just like this song, we think of Christmas as peaceful, quiet, and so holy that we almost have to whisper so to honor the words . . . . Mary sleeping, all covered up in a long flowing robe with her hair perfectly combed to the side. The baby cooing, drifting off to sleep too while Joseph stands there, staff in hand, perched over the manger, with superhuman new dad strength to stay awake. The barn animals bowing at the newborn while the shepherds stand around in amazement of “the good news of great joy for all people . . . a Savior who is Christ the Lord.” It’s almost as if all the characters are glowing as we think of them, iconic in our minds just as we’ve seen them portrayed in stain glass windows cathedrals or in portraits.

We like Christmas this way. We like knowing that a hush fell over the crowd. We like proclaiming that “all is calm, all is bright.” We like pretty people doing beautiful things like giving birth. We like singing joyful songs about “good tidings to all people” believing we’re doing just as the angels did long ago.

It’s almost as if Christmas is the one time of year when we get to take a time out from all that is wrong in our world and believe again that peace on earth is actually real or at least has hope of coming to us at a time in the near future. Christmas provides so many of us the beauty that we crave in our oh, so messy world. Maybe that is why you came to church tonight—to find something anything that is better than what you were dealing with before you walked in these doors a few moments ago.

I hate to burst your bubble tonight and question some of this sentimentality of this moment. But, I think it would only be fair to the passage before us tonight we examined it more closely.

Though yes, Mary may or may not have been fully covered in long flowing robes, fit for the mother of the Son of God and her hair may or may not have been perfectly combed (probably not), remember this is a story about giving birth.

Giving birth, as many of you have experienced it is indeed labor. It’s full of sweat, tears, anguish, screams of “Get this baby out of me now!” It’s a messy enterprise, especially when you are going at it alone with no one to help you know what to do. (For Luke does not tell us that a midwife assisted with the birth). The main event of this night was about a long period of physical pain, agony, and maybe even some four letter words (or at least thought of them) coming to the forefront of Mary’s mind— what was God really thinking sending her far from home to have a baby in a stable? All was not silent, all was not bright.

And while yes, Joseph, may or may not have been staying awake, doing his good manly diligence of making sure his wife and newborn baby were indeed ok at all times, remember this is a story about an adoptive father.

Accepting a child as a man who you know is not your own can be more difficult than it might seem on paper. In this babe as Joseph stared into the manger, he did not see his eye color in the babe. He did not see his same thin lips or curly brown hair. Even more so, feelings of insecurity ran through Joseph’s bones as they would anyone forced from the resources of home now with a new baby in tow, a baby he was going to need to learn to love and care for as his own. I can imagine thousand thoughts of “what if?” ran through his head, even as relief settled into him that the baby was born and Mary seemed to be doing alright. What was God really thinking putting him up close and personal of this crazy plan? All was not silent, all was not bright.

And while yes, the barn animals and the shepherds may or may not have been looking lovingly into Jesus’ eyes well-mannered and glowing with excitement of finding the one “wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger,” remember this is a story about characters who aren’t used to getting much attention.

They’re field animals and workers who aren’t known for their being in close quarters with others. They don’t know where to sit. They don’t know what to say. When Joseph’s nose starts leaning over toward them the begin to realize they smell and aren’t really fit to be good company. Soon their social anxiety seems to want to get the best of them. They wonder why they came in the first place. Sure, those angels sang and it was quite a sight, but after awhile they could easily begin to second guess all of this in the first place. What was God really thinking dragging them to out to see this? In their troubled minds, all was not silent, all was not bright.

I almost feel sacrilegious in saying anything against the beauty or the time-stopping wonder of that first Christmas Eve. But, I really think as wonderful and as life changing and as powerful that wondrous night of the birth of Christ was—or Emmanuel, God with us came to earth—all was not silent, all was night bright.

Remember this was a human story—filled with human things we know a lot about.

Changing patterns in the night sky

Tyrant governors who declare we must pay more taxes and cause even expectant mothers and fathers to make out of the way trips

Women who give birth without medical professionals to help

First time parents wondering what in the world they’ve gotten themselves into

The awkward dance of human relationships

Strangers showing up at our door who we don’t expect

And because this was a human story, as much as Christ came it didn’t make everything 100% right way. The shepherds didn’t suddenly get the respect they deserved and a fair labor. Mary didn’t suddenly have any more discomfort from birthing a baby. Joseph didn’t suddenly have all the courage he needed to keep doing the right thing as he’d done so far. No, all was not calm, all was not bright.

But, what did Jesus do—what was the point? What are we celebrating tonight then if all was not calm, all was not bright?

Well, despite the circumstances or the flavor added in by the human characters, this remains this same: on this night, we celebrate Jesus, the one who was called Savior, Christ the Lord. We are celebrating the coming of the one to earth who would give all of us an opportunity to know what God is like in the flesh. We are celebrating the One who would later show us on a cross and on an Easter morning what God ultimately wants to give us—new life. We are celebrating the coming of light—light that would begin to shine and ultimately as this Jesus grew up, show us more of God’s love. Over time, as the story unfolds, more and more of his hope would be given to all of us.

Jesus comes as the light, the light that shone in our dark, dark world. A world where all was not silent, all was not bright.

What good news this is to our weary worn eyes tonight! What good news this is for us faithful churchgoers who have heard the Christmas story over and over again and wish our lives would change and so many remains the same year after year! What good news this is for those of us who want to follow Jesus but find our own depression, anxiety, fear or hurting hearts holding us back! What good news this is for our conflict filled families who will bicker around the Christmas table tomorrow! What good news this is for a world where little girls and boys and devoted teachers get shot on Friday mornings the week before Christmas!

No matter what may be, Jesus is the light!

And, though it is true and the light has come, we, like the first participants in the Christmas story, are residents of this world. We also must face the doubts of “Why me, God?” We also must face the loneliness of being close to the light and sometimes finding few are with us there. We must also face the anger of why bad things happen to so many seemingly good people.

But this does not change the light! We, my friends cannot change the light. No matter how we whim, or moan or mess up or what folks with guns or bombs may do, we cannot change the light. The light has come!

Jesus, this babe would later grow up to say, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart, for I have overcome the world!”

And to you this night I say, take heart. Even on Christmas, you still live in a world of trouble. But the light has come and the darkness, no matter what, could not overcome it.

AMEN

1Matthew 1:18-25

How many of you have been to a living nativity sometime this year? Or even ever? They’re one of my favorite things do visit this time of the year. For someone like me who has heard the Christmas story over and over again, it’s always a cool way to see the Christmas story with fresh eyes.

Recently, a dear friend of mine with a newborn was asked by a local congregation in her hometown to be a part of the drive-thru living nativity.

With her daughter less than 2 months old, and the church without enough newborns on its membership roles to cover the multi-evening event, the baby girl was desperately needed to staff an important role: Baby Jesus. Who cared that she was a girl . . . no one would know the difference anyway the production team said.

I asked my friend what would she be up to during the event. Would she watch nearby? Of course, she said, she would not leave her baby alone on the hay so the director made arrangement for her to be staffed as Mary. She would be on sight in case baby girl (aka Jesus) cried and needed to be nursed or needed a diaper changed. Mary and baby's relationship was crucial to the show going on. But what about her husband? "What was he going to be doing during the afternoon?" I asked. My friend's husband was told he could tag along in costume as well, playing Joseph, but only if he really wanted. If not, other fill-ins would be easy to find for the part.

I don't think dear ole Dad was feeling the love, being told he had a part that was so replaceable.

And it is true: of all characters to be left out if one had to go in our Christmas plays and pageants, Joseph, I guess is the one we could most easily do without.

In Luke's account of the naivety that we all almost know by heart, Joseph doesn't have any lines. If Joseph was looking for a script from the Biblical text, he'd have trouble knowing what to say or do. For all we know is that he is called to census in his hometown of Bethlehem which is how Mary ended up giving birth to Jesus in this small town. Different from other characters, he's not wrapping the baby up in those nonexistent clothes. He's not coming to worship or bringing gifts. He's not treasuring all of these things in his heart. He makes no grand gestures or tries to upstage anyone. He's just simply there. This is all.

However, if we read the less popular, but still important version of the birth story from Matthew's gospel, we find just the opposite, Joseph playing a leading role: crucial to the operation Son of God comes to earth mission going on without a glitch. Though not given a huge speaking part, Joseph teaches us what it means to wait— even when the details are murky and the way ahead is unclear.

Can you imagine what the conversation between Mary and Joseph was like that day when she had to let him in on the secret that she had hidden away in her heart? Different from any first time fathers hearing the news that their wife is expecting a baby—this was full of so much greater emotion.

“Hey, Joseph.”

“What Mary?”

“Well, I’m going to have a baby.”

“What???”

“Yes, I’m going to have baby.”

“How can that be? We, we, haven’t been together?”

“Well, the angel of the Lord told me that the Holy Spirit came upon me. And I would have the baby that would save our people from their sins.”

“What???” (exit Joseph stage left)

For none of this really made a lick of sense . . . If Joseph was going to have his first born son then it needed to be his child, not someone elses.

Joseph knew this baby to be in Mary's womb was not his. He knew he hadn’t shared a bed with Mary quite yet. Of the Holy Spirit? That just sounded like a really good made up excuse for a one night stand.

So, Joseph needed to call things quits. And the law of the land was on his side.

Sure, he could have scoffed off the Jewish law if he wanted and pretended without cause, but the Matthew writer who is always concerned with the Jewish point of view, tells us that Joseph was not your high holidays kind of Jew, he was a righteous man. He wanted to do the RIGHT thing.

And being a righteous man, a man who didn't want to bring this young girl and her family any more hardship than she would already experience with a divorce to their name, he came up with the plan to divorce her without any bells and whistles. And to ensure that Mary and her unborn child were not killed out of it-- as the law says that stoning her was an option.

And in his "seeking to the right thing" ways of life this "quiet divorce" plan seemed like a good plan. It was his lovingly way of both following what he thought God wanted (the law) and what was in the best interest of Mary (the law). For at the time, God and the law were one in the same.

But, then everything changed one night when he went to sleep. As Joseph waited—as Joseph wasn’t sure what was next—you know two really not so good choices—the holy came.

I don't know how many of you have dreams on a regular basis that you remember. While this is something I personally struggle with (actually remembering), I know that for many of you it is a spiritual practice to remember, record and think about the meaning of your dreams. For often truths that are deeper than we are able to consciously understand in the daytime come out in our dreams—and such was true of Joseph.

And this was the word: Joseph was not to be concerned about Mary’s pregnancy, but to believe Mary-- to take to heart the message that had been told to her from the angel Gabriel.

Indeed the child that was growing within her, was not his, but was the Lord's doing. And, because this baby was of the Lord, Joseph needed to embrace the babe as such, welcoming him into his life, into his family, into his history, as Joseph would do with any other child of his that might come in the future.

While amazing, life-change and awe inspiring news this was in a dream, I can only imagine how hard it was for Joseph to accept it.

Most of all Joseph was being asked to wait with a plan that not even he understood much less anyone else. For it wasn't like he had anyone to talk to about such an experience among his hometown friends-- this God and this Emmanuel was too weird for any sort of reasonable explanation. No one had heard this before. .

But, in obedience to the word of the Lord that he knew in his gut that he had heard, he decides to keep Mary as his wife and "adopt" Jesus as his son.

He decides to stick around and see what the Lord had in store.

He stays to be the one Mary needed to lean on as she soon will undergo the pains of childbirth.

He stays to fulfill the prophecy that the Messiah would be coming from his family line.

He stays because he cares for Mary, even if they were having the craziest spiritual experience they'd ever heard of, and with both of them on the same page, the needed to find encouragement from one another to stick with it.

He stays because by his sheer presence-- even if he doesn't say a thing-- he provides the protection Jesus will need to grow up, mature and fulfill the reason his was born in the first place.

As Joseph waited around with active courage, he saw with his very own eyes the fullness of God coming forth.

Though not cast in a traditional role, though not cast in a role he had originally wanted or planned for, the story could not go on without Joseph's realization of God's love shinning upon all of them in the days leading up to the birth of Christ.

For if we are going to follow the example of Joseph this day and make room in this the 4th Sunday of Advent for more of Jesus in our lives, we've got to think more closely about waiting for God even when we don’t understand the details either. And this is what I mean:

Like Joseph, when times get tough, when life gets rocky, our first response needs to be of sharing, clinging, staying put instead of running away.

I’ve heard several of you say in the past couple of weeks as I shared my plans and the fact that my time with you as pastor would come to a close this year—that “I’m not sure I can come to church here anymore. I’m not sure our church has a future. How are we going to make it without you here?”

While I want to thank you for caring about me as you have and I want to acknowledge that it is true: transitions are filled with grief, I don’t think now is time to quit. This church or any church for that matter is not about who sits in their pastoral office. This church is not about its trustees. This church is not even about what affiliations you have with different church groups. It’s about Jesus—it is about waiting together in expectation of what only God can do for us.

I can’t tell you how disappointed I would be in you, beloved children of God after all the good we’ve done together, if you choose to give up now.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a seminary classmate of mine from Duke, writes in his book the Wisdom of Stability, how easy it is in a culture such as our to be lured away by the promise of a better offer. We think things are always better somewhere else, with someones else. Yet, he talks about how what the gospel witness needs more of comes in packages of permanency, unconditional presence and not hitting the road, leaving a church or a community when people get on your nerves (for inevitability they will!).

Not only do we need to stay put no matter who the leader may be, but as we stay put, we need to ground ourselves in community life making giving and receiving here a priority.

I'd be remised if I didn't say to the Christmas only crowd this morning that Washington Plaza would love to receive you in January as much as they loved receiving you today.

I'd also be remised if I didn't say to the regulars around here that as you wait for God, you’ve got to spend more time together. Sure, life is busy. Sure, family and friends outside this place see to take up all your free time. Sure, this town where we live runs like nobody sleeps and thus we often we don't really either.

But if Washington Plaza is going to be a community that makes room for the Christ child, just as Joseph did, investing in one another outside of Sunday mornings is just as important.

For it is in being together, for it is in waiting with God together that the details of “what is next” make just a little more sense each step of the way.

So in the meantime as you wait for more of Christ to come in your midst, I leave you with love. Love is not short tempered. Love does not keep record of wrongs. Love does not leave when feelings are hurt. Love stays. Love protects. Love, God's love, is what is with us as we wait.

When I think about all that we've been preparing for this Advent season, it's love that I know our community need the most to have a bright future for the new year. Didn't the Apostle Paul once say about love, "Now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love."

Thank goodness then, as we prepare to welcome tomorrow night, Christmas Eve, the babe called Emmanuel, God with us, born for us, we welcome the one who taught what love truly meant for Jesus was love incarnate. And, by following him, we can learn to love one another, even when times are hard or the way is unclear. In following him, we can delight in knowing of our great future. There’s no question about that. Like Joseph waited with acts of obedience, we wait too.

AMEN

shepherdsWaiting with the Shepherds
Luke 2:8-12

Who is on your list of people that you don’t like?

Of course, talking about people who we don’t like isn’t really something we often do in public, especially in church. And, I know it is Christmas. Most of us are well on our way to be appearing to be nicer than we seem with the corporate theme of “Peace on earth and goodwill toward all men”

But, seriously, I’m asking. Who is on your list of people you don’t like?

We all have them.

From the mechanic who installed faulty brakes in our car just last week to the neighbor who wakes up at 6 am and starts the leaf blower or the chainsaw directly below our bedroom window.

To the family member who tells racist jokes about our dear friends, even when we ask them to stop.

And horrifically, to the shooter who changed the world as we knew it on Friday morning—when 26 precious lives were taken from this world by gunfire at their elementary school.

(Such is of course an example of “people we don’t like” that I didn’t plan on including in my sermon for this morning. But nonetheless it happened. If you are like me, as the scenes of parents picking up their children from Sandy Hook Elementary rolled across the television screen on Friday and reports of how many parents would not —I couldn’t help but think oh so mean thoughts about the kind of person who would do such to innocent little children in school. Very mean thoughts in fact).

From the trivial to the tragic, there are plenty of really valid reasons to not like people—even as we know our calling as people of faith is to “love one another.” It is as my husband says to me after we’ve had a “friendly” marital dispute: “Honey, I love you but I just don’t like you right now.” (Anybody ever had been in this place too?). We all have people in our lives that we just don’t like, even if we love them or know that we should love them.

And along these lines, I suggest that the sermon title for this morning should be changed from: “Waiting with the Shepherds” to “Waiting with the Despised” or “Waiting with those whom we belittle” For the small chunk of our beloved Christmas story before us today features a group of folks who were very much disliked in their time. Though for many reasons that maybe weren’t fair—prejudge and classism— the shepherds were put down nonetheless.

When I say “shepherds” it’s hard to get your mind around the idea of the association of not liking them, isn’t it?

If you know anything about Biblical history, you know that scripture is full of stories about shepherds. If you are a child growing up in children’s Sunday School as some of us were—you learn how to get good at sheep crafts because there are lots of lessons by which they apply. I can’t tell you how many cotton ball sheep I made in all my years of church classes.

Pertaining to sheep, we tend to think favorably of them. Moses was a shepherd when God called him. So did David claim this profession and several of the prophets too. What more beloved passage of scripture do we have than Psalms 23: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want?” Didn’t Jesus later say, “I am the good Shepherd?

And these days- when we think shepherds we often think of cute kids with bath towels wrapped around their heads in Nativity plays.

Or we think of burly but strong characters from our coffee table manger scenes.

Or at worst we think of smelly field workers who could really use a hot bath, but not the despised.

I mean, how could we dislike characters that were among the first to worship and greet our Lord?

But, in the time of Jesus’ birth, to be a shepherd was not a ticket to popularity. While sheep are cute and the Bible seems to speak of sheep and shepherds often—what we need to understand is that being a shepherd in this day and time was the modern equivalent of being a trash collector or a someone who empties the latrines of our airplanes or someone who is forced to pick up trash on the side of the road as part of the patrol from jail.

For what does a shepherd do? They raise sheep and goats—smells and all. They guide their sheep to graze in open land. They live a nomadic life without a permanent address or even a P.O. box. They put up with some of the most unpredictable creatures on earth—fuzzy, stubborn creatures who don’t always go where they were led or remember to stay in the bounds of their owner’s land.

It was a rough life. We don’t know if they had mental health issues that had forced them outside the bounds of “normal” society. We don’t know if they had addiction problems. We don’t know if they had mother or fathers or wives to welcome them home once the herding was over. We don’t know if they wished they had a better job—if they’d only be offered the opportunity to thrive somewhere else.

All we DO know is that to be a shepherd in Jesus’ time was to be unseen by those outside of the working class like them. It was to be overworked, without holidays or weekends off. It was to be paid less those with more important jobs in palaces, the city square or even at the temple. And most of all to be shepherd was to be a little less human.

And it is to this collection of guys the multitudes of the heavenly hosts appears at night saying, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior which is Christ the Lord.”

The Presence of the Living God comes to this unlikely band of sheep herders and says, “The best thing that has ever happened to the world is in your hood. Your heavenly Father has picked you first to see it. Now, go!”

Wow—what a special invitation this all was!

But, remember our theme. Today we are talking about what it means to wait. In particular, what does it mean to learn from the waiting the shepherds did to get to this climatic moment in their lives?

Different from other sermons in this series, we’re not talking today about the process of actually waiting and what it was like for the shepherds to hear the good news. Because, hey! I don’t imagine that this group of fellas thought they were waiting for anything special at all. No wonder scripture tells us “they were afraid.”

So, today, rather, we’re taking this opportunity to wait with them, to consider that these were THE ones who were asked to attend to the birth of Christ first. What does it mean to wait for Jesus alongside the lowly among us? What does it mean to wait with those in our life this Advent season who are on our “I don’t really like them very much” list?

It’s one of those piercing questions because of who’s on that list. I don’t like to go there. I don’t like to be forced to consider the fact that I think I’m better than the men who pick up my trash every Friday morning.

I bet you don’t either. It’s easier to go about life as if we’re the most important character. It’s easier to go through life as if we are kings and queens of our own kingdom, inviting only those in our lives who are we like.

But, what if we began to wait with the shepherds among us? What if we saw the world from the perspective of those in whom our society doesn’t value? What might our waiting entail then?

In a mid-size US city much like ours, a man named William Well is homeless. He was interviewed recently by a television station about his story. This is what the reporter said about him:

William is a convicted felon and recovering addict who’s stayed sober four months and counting.

The reporter says about William, ”He’s ready for the cold shoulders and weary eyes likely to greet him from the family next door, should he land a spot in supportive housing for the chronically homeless. For now, though, he’ll bide his time on a waiting list.”

At 59 years old, the Chicago native insists that he’d be happy just to hold down a job and mind his own business.

William says: “At this stage of my life, I wanna be able to help myself … buy my food, buy my clothes, pay my own rent,”

“You’ve gotta give a person a chance,” he said. “It’d make me feel like a man.”

But men like William who walk the streets every day aren’t those who we often give a second chance too.

It’s annoying sometimes to be greeted by a homeless person at an intersection of a shopping center, isn’t? Or, to be greeted by someone going door to door in our neighborhood asking to do odd jobs around our yard? Or to be given a flyer by a person standing a street corner for a service or product we could care less about and becomes just one more piece of paper to have in our purse of pocket?

We look at people like this as beggars, wasting our time, or most of all suspiciously who are just going to take and take and never give back to society. We look at their criminal past and judge them without an eye for the possibilities for the future. We often don’t think God could appear to them, speak through them or be the central characters in a play school children would perform for centuries to come, as the shepherds became that night.

But, the God we know of our beloved Christmas story is the God who appears to those in our world we might dislike, despise or might otherwise overlook in our busyness.

The God we know of our beloved Christmas story is the one who goes where the hungry seekers of faith are found-- those who have been rejected by the world, who are working jobs at fast food restaurants, in cleaning companies, and as street cleaners.

The God we know our beloved Christmas story is the God who often goes outside of the bounds of the city to find those who are ready to worship the Christ child—those in the trailer parks, those in the shacks of country houses, and those who find themselves camped out in the woods of Reston in the tent cities because they have nowhere else to go.

If we truly want to be people who wait with the shepherds as the third candle of our Advent this year asks us to do, then we’ve got to first re-orientate ourselves to the types of people that our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ asked to come and worship Him first.

One of Bill Watterson’s famous Calvin and Hobbes cartoons speaks of the type of mania we deal with this time of year: “Oh look, yet another Christmas TV special! How touching to have the meaning of Christmas brought to us by cola, fast food, and beer.... Who'd have ever guessed that product consumption, popular entertainment, and spirituality would mix so harmoniously? ”

There’s a popular phrase this time of year and I bet you know it. And it’s “Jesus is the reason for the Season.” It’s kind of the Christian catch phrase we use to talk about the rise of consumerism and emphasis on all things Santa that seem to take the thunder away from Jesus.

And of course, it’s true, Jesus’ birth is the reason for all our preparations and waiting this Advent season, and yes, it should be our main focus.

But, I’m here today to offer you something more. Who are we waiting beside? What kind of people are we waiting with? Are we waiting for the celebration of Christ’s birth this year alongside people just like us? Or are we waiting with the shepherds?

Who will be around your dinner table this Christmas? Who will you buy presents for? Who will you befriend in the New Year? If there's anything I've heard over and over about this school shooter in the past 24 hours it is that he was "a loner." Where were his friends? Where was the church?

I dare suggest that if we wait with the shepherds among us this Advent season, what we’ll really find this Christmas is Jesus.

. . . Jesus who humbled himself, coming from all the lights of heavenly glories to become a baby, a tiny, helpless baby so that we could all know how much God truly loves each and every one of us

. . . Jesus who came to help the broken, the tired, the lame not the well and happy

. . . Jesus who came to teach us God’s abundant grace lavished on all of us, not just the select few.

If we want to know Jesus, let us wait with the shepherds among us, let us learn of them, and most of all let’s invite them in to our lives.

AMEN

photoWe have a tree up in our house (see proof to the left!) but no Christmas presents underneath.

It's not that I haven't had time to go shopping . . . I guess I could have made some time if I really wanted to go to the mall (somehow going straight home after work has been more appealing). It's not that I don't like giving gifts or even shopping (when it is has a time limit).

In actuality love giving gifts. I enjoy coming up with creative gift ideas for people I love, and the time shopping to get them doesn't bug me at all. In my house growing up, I was always the designated Christimas wrapper. I'm pretty good at making bows for packages, in fact.

But, I can't seem to get my head into it all this year.  Yet, no matter how I feel, Christmas is coming soon. I've got to get motivated!

I think my resistance stems from this: I don't need anything. The people I am going to give something to don't need anything either.

We live in a country of plenty. Over the travels of this year, I know this fully well.

In America, we "want" is usually incorrectly mixed up with the word "need." Most people I know usually are able to buy something for themself if they really need it or at least save up over a period of time for an item. Sadly, most of us use Christmas to further our dependency on consumerism, in an effort to say we've celebrated the holiday.

Katharine Whitehorn is attributed to saying about our world's obsession with Christmas by saying, " From a commercial point of view, if Christmas did not exist it would be necessary to invent it." I read this quote and immediately said, "Oh gee."

What's the larger point, when we know as Christians that we are celebrating a spiritual holiday? Is the act of gift-giving really that bad? Of course you sound super spiritual this time of year if you say, "I'm not buying my kids or spouse more than one present." Or, "I'm only giving gifts from alternative Christmas markets" But as we all know, I am not that spiritual and I bet you aren't either.  Maybe there is a balance.

Those three kings did bring Jesus gifts in adoration of his Lordship after all. . . .

I believe what all of us need more of is not piles of presents under the tree with our names on them, but love expressed. Author Harlan Miller said: "Probably theChristmas Presents reason we all go so haywire at Christmas time with the endless unrestrained and often silly buying of gifts is that we don't quite know how to put our love into words."

What we all really need is the gift of each other. People in our lives who risk the vulnerability of telling us what we mean to them. Our risking doing the same. Taking time to make those we love feel special and appreciated. Helping each other remember how much God loves us all.

A congregation member of mine once told me about a new tradition she created in her family. Instead of giving gifts to each other, when they gathered, they all wrote letters. Each member of the family took the time to write a reflective letter about something they'd given/ participated in that was an act of service. And then perched the letters physically on the tree at the family gathering.  After dinner, when everyone sat down in the living room, the small children still got a few presents, but the adults then shared their letters with one another. This ritual became a way to teach the children (and remind each other as adult too) what giving is really all about. And remember that Christmas' emphasis on service is indeed for the entire year, not just December.

I know several churches and families like this one have or are thinking of creative ways to participate in Advent in non-traditional ways. I say bring it on! Share any good ideas you or your family have come up with for alternative giving here in the comment section. I want to learn from you.

In the meantime, I am going to keep staring at my Christmas tree, hoping to get inspired.