Fourth Sunday of Advent
“God is Coming” // A Sermon by Fr. Sammy Wood
Luke 1.39-49 (50-56)
† In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Just five more days.
It’s hard to believe, but after all this time — after watching and waiting and (in the case of my kids) willing the weeks of Advent to go by, Christmas is this week. Still, I feel like it’s on me before I’m ready. It arrives out of nowhere and never goes like I planned.
Almost nobody sees Christmas coming.
But that story’s nothing new. The prophet Micah, 8 centuries before Christ, said:
You, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel . . . . (5.2)
Everybody knows Bethlehem. We definitely do now — what with singing O Little Town and all. Even when Jesus was born, Bethlehem was on the map, geographically and culturally. In the Bible, the Book of Ruth happened in Bethlehem. David lived there; it’s where Samuel anointed him king.
I’ve been there. Two winters ago, Renee and I helped Fr. Warren lead a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. When Jesus was born, Bethlehem was just a tiny village of maybe 1000 people, 10 km south of Jerusalem. Today a lot changes as you drive those 10 kilometers. Come to find out, Bethlehem isn’t actually in Israel; not anymore. It’s in the West Bank, and to get there, you have to go through a checkpoint with armed guards to get into the Palestinian Territories. The tiny town is now a bustling city of almost 30,000 people. I remember lots of construction, half-finished houses, people selling sweets in the street. Bethlehem is bigger and busier; but back then, it was just a little, backwater village.
And yet — that unlikely little village is where God chose to be born. Everybody knew — because of Micah’s prophecy — the messiah would come from Bethlehem. What made Bethlehem unlikely isn’t that nobody was looking for it — it’s that nothing was there. Nothing, just a backwater ‘burg down the road a piece from Jerusalem. But God does that — chooses little things — the the insignificant, the forgotten, the out of the way. God comes in the unlikeliest of places under the unlikeliest of forms. And like Christmas, he surprises us. Most of us never see him coming — for two reasons: (1) God’s confounding decisions; and (2) God’s confusing disguise.
First: God’s confounding decisions — God decided on Bethlehem precisely because it was so little. God does that for a living — makes “upside-down decisions.”
- Out of all the people in the world, God chose Israel to be his very own people. Why Israel? Deuteronomy 7 says It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples . . . . (Deut. 7.7)
- When it came time to choose a king, God had Samuel look through all Jesse’s sons — Eliab and Abinidab and Shammah — Samuel passed over all seven sons Jesse thought were the best, just to get to David, the boy shepherd God decided to make king. (1 Sam. 16.5-13)
- And Jesus — he chose half a dozen fishermen, a tax collector, a revolutionary — all uneducated, rough and unrefined; not a graduate degree between them — but they would be his disciples.
- A teenage girl and her betrothed carpenter; shepherds; mystics from the East — all of them, God’s confounding decisions.
Because that’s how God works — His decisions confound us. Where we’d pick the ablest or strongest to lead us; “God looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16.7) and uses those whose hearts are his. We’d pick the nation with the largest standing army or the most robust economy — God picks a downtrodden people just to keep a promise he made to their great-great-great-grandfather. God doesn’t decide how we’d decide — he chooses lowly and despised things, things that aren’t, to shame the things that are. (1 Cor. 1.28) He gets glory not by flexing his muscles, but when his strength shows up in our weakness. (2 Cor. 12.9) God’s decisions confound us, so we seldom see him coming.
A second reason no one sees him coming: God’s confusing disguise — O Bethlehem . . . from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. (Micah 5.2) I said earlier that everybody knew the messiah would be born in Bethlehem. But they thought: Surely an aristocrat, or a military prodigy. But Jesus didn’t have an army or royal blood — just a carpenter for a father and his teenage wife.
God has a habit of doing that, too — showing up in a confusing disguise. And it’s distressing! Know what I think is hands-down one of the scariest parts of the Bible? “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?” Then he will answer them — “as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” (Matt. 25.44-45)
What if you’d been the innkeeper in Bethlehem? I like to think I’d have found a room, but I doubt it. Dorothy Day says:
It’s no use saying that we are born two thousand years too late to give room to Christ. Nor will those who live at the end of the world have been born too late. Christ is always with us, always asking for room in our hearts.
But now it is with the voice of our contemporaries that he speaks, with the eyes of store clerks, factory workers, and children that he gazes; with the hands of officer workers, slum dwellers, and suburban housewives that he gives. it is with the feet of soldiers and tramps that he walks, and with he heart of anyone in need that he longs for shelter. And giving shelter or food to anyone who asks for it, or needs it, is giving it to Christ.
. . .
If everyone were holy and handsome, with alter Christus [“another Christ”] shining in neon lighting from them, it would be easy to see Christ in everyone. If Mary had appeared in Bethlehem clothed, as St. John says, with the sun, a crown of twelve stars on her head, and the moon under her feet, then people would have fought to make room for her. But that was not God’s way for her, nor is it Christ’s way for himself, now when he is disguised under very type of humanity that treads the earth.
This week, as you prepare for Christmas Day, remember the Collect for this Fourth Sunday of Advent: We beseech thee, Almighty God, to purify our consciences by thy daily visitation . . . .
God visits us every day.
- What if tomorrow he decides to ask you to do something you don’t think you can do, to go in over your head? To say something you think you’re too timid or ineloquent to say?
- What if he comes in a distressing disguise — the poor, the needy, the lonely, the stranger, the refugee, the immigrant? What if it’s him when your caller ID says it’s the needy neighbor or the “friend” who has taken advantage of you one too many times?
God is on his way. But he doesn’t decide the way we decide; and he can come as you’d never expect.
Keep watching, or we won’t see him coming.
† In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Day quote taken from Dorothy Day, “Room for Christ,” in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Farmington, Penn.: Plough Publishing, 2001): 179, 183.
For a recording of this sermon via Dropbox