Sunday, December 20, 2015

When God Comes

December 20, 2015 –– 4th Sunday of Advent
Micah 5:1–4a / Hebrews 10:5–10 / Luke 1:39–45

God was sending his Word into the world. It might seem the best way to get everyone’s attention would be through the Emperor––or at least the Governor. Even a governor had the power of life and death in his hands. But God didn't send his message through them. Maybe a religious leader would be best. Shouldn’t God work through the high priest? Well, he didn’t, but our temptation is so often to do the opposite of what God does: to look to those who are on top, not at those who are on the bottom; to those who are prosperous, not to those who are in need. Today’s Scriptures remind us that when we’re looking for the biggest and the best and the most, God still comes––but we can miss it. God is incredible at using what we call “insignificant”.

God’s Word came through Mary. If we really think about it, God often frustrates our expectations. Even though Mary is connected to the house of David, she is living in Nazareth and not Bethlehem (and neither of them were “significant”). Even though Mary is engaged to Joseph, she is not yet married and, being a godly woman, had no out-of-bounds sexual relations. Yet the angel says she is going to bear a son. Mary is astounded: How will this be, since I am a virgin? But God always acts consistent with his character: he chooses a pure vessel, for the child to be born will be called holy––the Son of God.

But even though Mary is a pure vessel, she is a “nobody” in her world. On top of that, Mary’s situation was not “pure” in public opinion; she was suspected of adultery, and Jesus probably grew up with his questionable birth in the minds of his hometown neighbors.

From our way of thinking, God does wild and crazy things. He encouraged Mary through Elizabeth––this relative who was an old woman well past child-bearing age, whose unexpected pregnancy was possibly an embarrassment. (It was certainly an inconvenient interruption in Zechariah’s life, at least initially.) This is because God so often does almost nothing according to expectation…. except to prepare us to expect the unexpected. The angel tells Mary nothing will be impossible with God. So when Mary travels to see Elizabeth, and the developing child in Elizabeth senses the newly conceived embryo within Mary, an inspiration of the Holy Spirit comes upon Mary and she exclaims the words we have come to call the Magnificat––an extended celebration of the way God turns the world upside down:

He has shown the strength of his arm,
  he has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things,
  and the rich he has sent away empty.

This is one of the most basic things about what happens when God comes. Our own expectations need to be released so we can focus on one thing: an openness for God to be God.

God wants to come to each one of us, and yet his coming is not always obvious. The Chinese bamboo tree does absolutely nothing––or so it seems––for the first four years. Then suddenly, sometime during the fifth year, it shoots up ninety feet in sixty days. Would you say that bamboo tree grew in six weeks, or five years? Our relationship with God can be like the Chinese bamboo tree. Sometimes we put forth effort…. we invite God to come in fresh ways…. we pray more and do other spiritual disciplines we’ve been taught, and nothing seems to happen. But when we learn to enter the spirit of Advent––the seeking, the repenting, the waiting….little things that our culture disdains––then there will be those moments when God’s presence breaks through the fog that enshrouds this world.

We need God to come. We need God to do what we cannot do. We need to accept humbly that by ourselves we are mostly helpless and hopeless, but believe that nothing will be impossible with God. God loves to come to unlikely people. Like Mary, we need to have open hands and humble hearts when God comes. This is how God works again and again. It happened in Bethlehem, a little insignificant village. It happened in Elizabeth, an old woman who everyone thought was well beyond any productive years. It happened through Mary, a poor yet pure virgin girl who could believe and trust and surrender.

And so God comes. “He does not come with military divisions; he comes instead with a wounded heart that…. proves to be the true and wholly other power and might of God” (Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI).

We are invited to believe that God comes in what we tend to think as the insignificant––even the disdainful. And because God is God, he comes the way he wants to––not the way we would choose. A shattering phone call…. a disturbing email…. an overwhelming interference with our plans…. these kinds of things may be the first stage of God coming in an incredible way.

The Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem has only one entrance, and you cannot pass through it without bending down. This door is supposed to remind pilgrims that in order to penetrate the deep meaning of Christmas it is necessary to humble oneself and become little. Can we dare to be “little” enough to recognize God’s coming? Don’t let what the world thinks is impressive distort your expectations of God. Look for God to come in ways are often dismissed and overlooked. Be open for God to be God. What “insignificant” (or even “awful”) thing in your life is God wanting to explode into power and glory (even it’s only in your soul)?! This is a great week to give God your “littleness.”

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