Like many of you, when our kids were little, Ann and I found ourselves trying to explain to them, at Christmastime, what all the hubbub was about. Family gatherings and candles and presents – it all feels like a giant birthday party, right? And so it is, we’d say to our kids: Christmas is our birthday party for Jesus. It’s not a bad explanation for a little kid. Maybe not so bad an explanation for the rest of us, either, given our perennial need to remember what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.
But, of course, the best answers usually lead to even better questions. We’re celebrating the birthday of Jesus the Messiah, which means God’s anointed king. So, if Jesus is the King, why did he end up crucified as a traitor? If Jesus is the King, why’s the world in the state it’s in? If Jesus is the King, where is he now, when we need him most? The kids don’t ask that when they’re 4 or 5, but they do eventually. And so do the rest of us, right?
And even before all those good questions, another one comes first: What the heck was God thinking, making an entrance into the world the way we just heard in that famous Christmas story? We’ve heard it so many times, from Linus and in church, that it’s probably lost its punch. But if you try to hear it with fresh ears, the story’s just crazy. We would claim that the baby in this story is the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity … so, actually, fully God. Fully God … that’s whose screaming in the dirty straw, in the animal’s feedbox, in the middle of the night. And to proclaim the coming of God into the world, a divine messenger appears in the night to a bunch of guys working in a field, telling them, of all people, about this “good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10). To the nobodies on the nightshift, God has come as Savior and King.
Of all the ways God might have chosen to intervene in human life – to restore the broken bond between us and our Creator, to heal people’s hearts and make us one – to do all that, God chose the path of most resistance. God chose salvation from the bottom up. God chose to get picked on by the bigger kids on the playground. God grew up in a household where the father struggled to earn a living and feed his family. God learned a manual trade and went to work whether he liked it or not. God lived under an oppressive foreign empire that existed to take resources away from regular folks. God came to know, firsthand, just how hard human life is – the consequences of our choices to turn away from God and from each other. That’s good news of great joy for all people? Yes, it is – because God still walks through it alongside us, leading us into a contrast reality, a kingdom of love that heals.
So, let’s think about those other great questions in the hearts of kids of all ages – the questions that seem too tough to ask out loud on a night like this, for fear of spoiling the holiday fun.
If Jesus is the King, why did he end up crucified as a traitor? For me, the short answer is this: Because, God says, I’m willing to let you do your worst and still give you life that lasts forever. That’s how much I love you.
Well, if Jesus is the King, why’s the world in the state it’s in? For me, the short answer is this: Because, God says, I’m willing to let you make your own mistakes. For love can’t be demanded; it must be chosen. And you can’t choose love without the chance to choose against it.
Well, if Jesus is the King, where the heck is he now, when we need him most? For me, the short answer is this: Because, God says, salvation’s only just begun. Jesus will walk with you through everything you face, if you invite him along. The Holy Spirit will mend your broken heart, if you open it wide enough to be healed. Eternal life is yours for the asking now, in this world and in the paradise that follows it. But, God says, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Hang on for act three, in the fullness of time, when our current mopping-up campaign is over and Jesus returns, love uniting earth and heaven forever.
OK, but still: Where’s Jesus right now? As we throw this wonderful birthday party, where’s the guest of honor?
I want to tell you a story. Like the best stories, it’s one now making its rounds. I heard it at last week’s meeting of our Vestry, our church’s governing board. At the end of our monthly meetings, we take time for something that appears on the agenda as “Catching Jesus in the Act.” We tell stories of how we’ve seen God at work in the world and in our own lives. We don’t call it “examples of the doctrine of the Incarnation” … but that’s what it is.
So, at the Vestry meeting last week, Deacon Bruce Bower told a story about something that happened as St. Andrew’s volunteers served at the pantry at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Westport. St. Paul’s Pantry is one of our outreach partners. Three times a week, hundreds of individuals and families come to the pantry to get food and personal items they can’t afford otherwise; and volunteers are there to serve them. Those volunteers include St. Andrew’s folks the second Wednesday of the month.
Well, on this night, one of the guys who came to the pantry was someone most of the volunteers recognized – a regular named Chuck. He’s disabled, he uses a crutch, and he never says much of anything. In fact, he’s kind of withdrawn and doesn’t make much eye contact … and he’s picky about what he wants in his grocery bag. That’s because he can’t let his bag get too heavy, given that he’s walking with a crutch and lives a long way away.
So, Chuck came to the toiletries station, and dear Priscilla Long tried to engage him: She asked, “Do you need any shampoo for your beautiful curly hair?” Someone else asked if he’d like frozen ham, or turkey, or chicken, or pork to take home. As always, Chuck had little to say, just mumbling a few things here and there.
But, amid the mumbling, one of the volunteers heard him say something significant – that he was an orphan and that today was his birthday. Priscilla picked up on it and announced the special day to everyone there: “Today is Chuck’s birthday – let’s sing!” And the pantry erupted in song. The look on Chuck’s face was priceless as a shy smile grew. Bruce Long, Priscilla’s husband, said to the person working with him, “I wish I’d had my camera ready.” His coworker asked why, and Bruce said, “Chuck’s been coming here for years, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen him smile.” And as it turned out, this was also the first time anyone had ever sung him “Happy Birthday.” And as pantry volunteers left not long after, they saw the guest of honor waiting for his bus and called out, “Happy Birthday, Chuck! See you next time, Chuck! Merry Christmas, Chuck!”
Now, I suppose you could see this as a random interaction among a bunch of good-hearted church folks trying to make a dent in hunger in our city. Or, you could see it as catching Jesus in the act.
But even with that, even recognizing that Jesus was at the pantry that night, we could see him a couple of ways. We might see the volunteers as Jesus – putting flesh and bones on his loving heart in our own time and place, respecting the dignity of people who often become invisible to the culture around them. And that would certainly be right, seeing Jesus at work in our world through us.
But, of course, it’s also true to see those roles reversed. Remember Jesus’ instruction to his followers – to us – as he neared the end of his earthly ministry. When the King comes in his glory at the end of the age, Jesus told his followers, he’ll set some people at his right hand and some at his left, “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Matthew 25:32) You probably know the story. The King will say to those on his right, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me food. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger, and you welcomed me. I was sick, and you took care of me. I was in prison, and you visited me.… Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family” – just as you did it to Chuck – “you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:34-36,40)
So tonight, at Jesus’ birthday party, remember: This is no abstraction we’re celebrating. The guest of honor is here. Jesus is here in the hearts of you lovely people in this room. He’s here in the struggles we each face, day after day, week after week. He’s here in the rancor of our politics. He’s here in the cries of the poor. He’s here in the kids who don’t have enough to eat or a safe place to grow up. He’s here in the young adults who make a mistake and find there’s no way to come back from it. He’s here in the heads and hands and hearts of everyone who tries to bridge a gap and make a difference for good. And he’s here in the face of Chuck, the man whose smile we finally got to see.
As the old carol says, “Ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.” For Jesus the King is here, now, in “the least” of his brothers and sisters. And Jesus the King will return, God’s own Love coming in power and glory to unite heaven and earth forever. Blessed are we whom the King will find ready when he comes.