I love song titles which ask a question. A question mark in the title means the lyrics are full of story, the best songs tell a story. If the best story is that of Jesus’ birth, then it follows that all songs about His birth should be titled with a question.
“What child is this?”
More than any other year, 2020 and I have asked each other more questions than I was prepared for. Will I serve my community? How can I help? How can I help those I usually look away from? What are my responsibilities? Who do I vote for? What do I believe? Why do I feel guilty for still having a job? What do I say to my friend whose mother is in the hospital? What parts of my ‘routine’ have to change? These questions, of course, all have answers. Answers found in the Bible. Answers found through prayer. Sometimes the answer is laughter, sometimes tears, sometimes surrounded by those you love, and sometimes completely alone.
“Why lies He in such mean estate, where ox and ass are feeding?”
While not usually thought of as the theological lynchpin of the song, this question carries an important message. Jesus could have been born anywhere, to any wealthy family, by the warmth of a fire, in any palace. For me, it is His manger birth which reminds me of the earthly side of Jesus. It is easy to think of Him in brilliant white robes and to picture Him in Heaven. It is much harder to imagine Him stubbing His toe on a rock He didn’t see, getting sand in His mouth while playing in Egypt, or scraping His knee chasing a dog down a side street. Why lies He in such mean estate? To remind all of us that the King of Kings started His earthly life in a small wooden structure, open to the elements, full of animals and their waste, under a bright star, “whom shepherds guard and angels sing”. As we contemplate all of the carnage of 2020, and struggle to make sense of it all, the clearer it becomes that we cannot make sense of any of it. That, family, is the point. That is faith. That is the manger birth. Despite being unable to see any of you for months on end, the church is more alive now than ever before. Grad student peers of mine who have never prayed a day in their lives have asked me to pray with them. Charitable donations are skyrocketing nationwide despite people having generally less money in their pockets. Hope and faith are alive and well in 2020. The struggles of humanity, the pain and suffering, the unanswerable questions, THAT is why Jesus had a manger birth. That is why He lies in such mean estate, where ox and ass are feeding.
“The King of Kings salvation brings, let loving hearts enthrone Him.”
The lyric is clear: loving hearts. Not Republican hearts, not Democrat hearts. Not ‘Boomer’ hearts, not Millennial hearts. Not gay hearts, or straight hearts, or cis hearts, or trans hearts, or non-binary hearts. Not black hearts, or white hearts, or Latinx hearts, or Middle Eastern hearts. Not rich hearts, or poor hearts. LOVING hearts. Jesus brings salvation to every loving heart, despite any of the labels and walls we attempt to build in secular society. Let loving hearts enthrone Him. Whether you have gold, frankincense, or myrrh to offer; or all you have to offer is a song. The lyric is very clear here as well: peasant or king. With so many uncertainties in our future, 2021 promises to be a year of equal change and turmoil. Through all the upheaval there is a constant, the salvation brought by Jesus. His manger birth. Let Jesus be the hope you are seeking. Wise men still seek Him. “Haste, haste to bring Him laud”, “Hail, hail the Word made flesh”, “Joy, joy for Christ is born”.
Luke 2: 21-38 “After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.’ Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.Guided by the Spirit, Simeoncame into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeontook him in his arms and praised God, saying, ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servantin peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’ And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage,then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”
One of my favorite Christmas Hymns (and there are tons, tucked away for this Season of Christmas running post-Thanksgiving until the end of January!), is “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.” We await Christmas in this new church year for a matter of four weeks of Advent” known in our tradition as Ordinary time. But 2020 has had very little ordinary time. Our world is fighting a virus and our nation is wrestling with a divide that we have tucked away for too long. If ever there was a time to hold onto hope, it is now.
In a season of waiting to remember the birth of Jesus into a broken and divided world I look to Simeon and Anna. Living in an occupied city, both have longed their entire lives for the Messiah, Son of David. Their anticipation was not a matter of days, or weeks, or months but part of a longer period of longing for God’s promise to be fulfilled to God’s people over centuries.
The passage tells us that Simeon “was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.” (v 25-6) Simeon’s hope came from the Holy Spirit and upon seeing the fulfillment of this promise breaks into song.
The gospel gives us less information about Anna, also a prophet, who “never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.” (v 37) She too was filled with longing based in hope for the birth of a child who would bring the redemption of Jerusalem. (v 38) She was sustained by the life she was living. Both centered their lives in the temple. At Oconee Street UMC, a church on the hill, we do not center our lives only in our temple. It has been mostly empty for months and yet who we are to each other and our community continues to live on. It is an embodiment of hope. We are a church family that is intentional about living as Christ. But even in our action we still wait, we still hope.
Our Hope, like that of these two, comes from God through the Holy Spirit. We may not have the assurance of Simeon or the fasting rituals of Anna but our expectations, our desire as followers of the Babe of Bethlehem sustain us. In my lifetime, in this season, I had hoped our healing would be greater and deeper. Like that hymn my hope remains that Jesus will release us from our fears and sins and bring the gracious kindom near. Hope brings us strength and consolation; it sustains us in our despair. This hope also calls us to do our part, not in celebration, but in this waiting to move to listening, action and healing.
Oh God of waiting, you gifted us with Jesus, a babe long hoped for. Send your Spirit upon us as you did for Simeon and Anna. You can release us from our sins and fears. Help us move our Hope to Love so that we may do our part in the gracious kindom.
2020 is a weird year for hope. When I think back to January, we had so many dreams and plans for the year that vanished in a puff of smoke. My planner has a yearly “bucket list” in the front that now looks like a joke. I think the only thing I can actually cross off is we got our toddler potty trained.
November was when my hope hit the low point. Cases for the pandemic were going up. I was hoping for a landslide victory for my presidential candidate of choice and that didn’t happen. In fact, it took days before we knew the results. I felt so much relief when I found out that what felt like four years of outrage, fear, and sadness would be over. News of a vaccine began to become real. I began to feel hope again.
But then I started to wonder what would have happened if my candidate hadn’t won. What would have happened to my hope? And I began to think and realize that my hope had been misplaced. My hope is not in old white men, no matter how thoughtful and compassionate they are. My hope is not in a vaccine. My hope is in a “brown skinned homeless radical preaching love and justice 2000 years ago.” My hope is in a God whose kin-dom is the only thing that will matter in 10,000 years. My hope is in a Church that lives out our directive of loving our neighbor as ourselves.
I’m not there yet. I still place my hope in jobs and footballs and election results. But I’m also placing my Hope in Christmas cactuses that bloom and yeast that rises and the flicker of a candle. So here’s to a hope that will anchor our souls in the coming year. May it be a glimpse of our kin-dom that is coming.
Luke 19:41 “As Jesus approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it.”
Sometimes hope feels like a happy, buoyant feeling. Especially when it pops up unexpectedly. But often hope feels more like a decision to me, a determined resolve. So many times this year as I’ve despaired it has helped me to remember that Jesus also wept over selfishness, greed and violence, but continued with his journey into Jerusalem and towards the cross. Jesus’ resolve bolsters me to sit with God in silence asking for guidance, and to continue to do the small acts of God’s work that I am invited to participate in each day.
But this grittier type of hope can sometimes get shriveled like a dried sponge. Even though Christmas brings mixed emotions, and this pandemic year will continue to have unique losses and disconnects, I am already feeling my “hope sponge” swell.
We have several nativity sets that are meaningful for different reasons, but year after year this Joseph especially draws me in. When I gaze at him I feel humbled and awed that I am nestled in a much, much bigger story than my own. God reveals God’s self to us in little glimpses we can handle, and on Christmas morning that is through a vulnerable baby born into poverty in troubled times who will show us what it is to live in complete surrender. May all of our weary spirits be lifted this Advent as we anticipate the miraculous and mysterious incarnation of Christ.
Living Christ, renew our hope with the celebration of your birth. Bathe us in awe. Refresh our spirits so that our actions are hope for the world. Amen.