And the word to guide me through 2016 is…

Two years ago at this time, I was frustrated by the degree to which I felt encumbered by my own fear. I decided to dedicate the entire following year–2014–to courage. I often wrote the word on my wrist as a reminder and, even when I didn’t, I thought about it almost everyday. To my surprise, the decision to focus my energy on one word really did help me to be brave in all sorts of ways and situations I wouldn’t have expected myself to be. I learned a ton and felt empowered and alive. I have carried that heightened sense of courage with me ever since.

Last New Years, I decided to dedicate 2015 to the word “patience”–a concept I have struggled with for my entire life. This turned out to be an important, if challenging, choice. 2015 was a difficult year for me–possibly my hardest ever–and my commitment to patience helped me to breathe through the really tough days, weeks, and months. Again, when I needed the reminder, I wrote the word on my wrist, right about my Trinity tattoo. Again I will carry the lesson I’ve learned about courage and patience forward with me into the years to come.

But a new year begins tomorrow and it is time to dedicate myself to a new word. This promises to be a year full of changes: a new job, a big move, new relationships, and a new decade of life. To be honest with you, I’m terrified about all of it and I wanted to find a word that would anchor me on this sea of transition. The obvious choice, I think, is “trust,” but that is the word that underlies my whole life–trust helped me find courage and patience and it will lead me through every year.

Rather that just claiming trust as what will get me through this year, I want a word that will govern how I show up for and live into this year.

A few months ago, my improv class went around the circle and shared somethingwe each wanted to accomplish in our life–something really special and important for us individually. I said “one day, I want to choose the heart thing instead of always just the smart thing.” With so many choices ahead for me this year, this seems important to keep in mind. And so, the word I have chosen to dedicate myself to this year is: LOVE.

I am a person who loves deeply, but I am not always good at showing it, prioritizing it, or doing it well. I want this to be a year when I make choices, as often as possible, based on what leads me toward love. Love for myself, and for others, and for God. I want to be bold enough to say no and turn away from choices that lead me away from love. I want to say yes to love–good, healthy love–every second that I can and in every way that I can. The prospect makes me excited to dive into the coming year.

Life is short and full of things we can’t control, but we can control how we choose to show up and what we dedicate ourselves to. This year, I’m choosing love.

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By Any Means Necessary: A Christmas Sermon

**Originally preached on Christmas Day at Fourth Presbyterian Church Chicago in 2015**

Luke 2:1-7 (page 54 of the NT)

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

Every year when I was growing up, my church would put on a live nativity scene the week before Christmas. I lived in a suburb that rested right on the edge of Atlanta but had the remarkable quality of often feeling like its own small town. My Presbyterian church sat keeping watch over one of our major roads, just down the street from my high school, and so our live nativity was viewed by many as they drove past on their way to shop for gifts, or go to holiday parties, or visit with family and friends. Quite a few would pull in to our parking lot and climb out of their cars to bear witness to the nativity up close.

Music would drift over the scene from speakers and in and around the manger the scene of Christ’s first night on earth would play out complete with Mary and Joseph, shepherds, three kings, and one or two cherubic angels. The only parts of the nativity that weren’t “live” in fact, were the baby Jesus (a doll swaddled in cloth), and the animals—donkeys and sheep which were creatively constructed from wool blankets with cardboard faces, and then draped over chairs.

My family participated in this nativity scene for several years when I was very young, and, budding thespian that I was, I took my own role quite seriously. While the three kings, and Mary, and Joseph were all parts reserved for grown-ups, shepherds were open to both children and adults, and the part of the angels was reserved exclusively for children. In my own mind, there was no doubt that “angel” was the most coveted role.  You would have had a hard time convincing me back then, that Jesus was the most important part of the show. As an angel, you got to look pretty and heavenly dressed all delicately in white with a shiny halo, standing on a chair above everyone like you were flying. And I wasn’t the only child who felt this way about being an angel—there was stiff competition. Every kid had to pay their dues first. So for a few years, I made peace with being a shepherd and bided my time.

Finally, my year arrived. I eagerly awaited our night for the nativity, dreaming of my impending chance to shine. When the time came, I traded in my winter clothes for the thin, drapey white angel costume and carefully donned the golden halo. With a giant smile on my face, I ventured outside with the rest of the nativity crew, and took my place overlooking the scene. It was my dream come true… for about 30 seconds. And then, I realized—it was cold. Really cold.

Atlanta is not a city known for its winter weather (certainly not like here), but this particular December was unusually frigid. Within minutes I was shivering and looking longingly at the other children—all dressed in heavily layered, wool shepherds costumes. I did my best to summon warm thoughts and stick it out—but I don’t think I lasted even a quarter of an hour before I was crying. One of the adults led me back inside where I quickly re-dressed with numb fingers. I was devastated. I had waited years to be an angel, only to have my moment of glory stolen away from me by the bitter cold. But the nativity had to go on, and somehow or another, I still needed a part to play.

All the shepherd costumes were taken and all that was left was a grungy wool blanket with a cardboard donkey’s head stapled to it. It was ugly and old, but it was warm. So I grabbed it and made my way back out to the nativity. I hunkered down on my knees among the shepherds and covered myself with the wool donkey blanket. It was meant to be the Christmas I finally became angel, but I became a donkey instead. Not beautiful or heavenly, but still happy and warm.

All these years later, the live nativity still goes on at my home church, but now they bring in real live animals for visitors to pet and delight over. The dirty wool blankets with their cardboard animal heads are long gone, but I will always be the first live animal St. Luke’s nativity ever had.

 

The Christmas story is an old story. Most of us probably know it well enough to tell it from memory. We can talk about the journey to Bethlehem from Nazareth, the innkeeper who can only offer Mary and Joseph a place in his manger. The lowing and bleating animals, the shepherds and angels, the star overhead.

In our attempts to make this old, well-worn story new, we’ve added and embellished things over the years. My childhood church has added their petting zoo—which now includes goats, rabbits, and a Scottish Highland cow.

A classic Christmas carol adds a little drummer boy. In one scene in the modern holiday movie, Love Actually, a mother is surprised to find that her child has been cast as “2nd lobster” in the school nativity pageant. In response she exclaims, “you mean to tell me that there was more than one lobster present at the birth of Christ?”

Just recently, I came upon a snarky cartoon that said “After the three wise men left, three wiser women came” bringing diapers, casseroles, and formula.

These songs, and jokes, and nativity accessories help us to encounter this story in a new way each year as we celebrate Christmas Day. And it’s good, I think, that as time passes we find new and creative ways to make this story our own. But they can also make the story a little crowded and that can make it hard to remember what the true message is. The truth of Christ coming to us in love is not a message the gets old or needs to be made new. It’s a message that always delivers grace to us wherever we are in life, and so we need to be reminded of it over and over again in each new place in life that we find ourselves.

As I read this story of Jesus birth for perhaps the thousandth time, I was struck by the last line: “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

What struck me wasn’t the unexpectedness of Jesus’ being born in a manger. After all, I have been a nativity scene expert since I was 6 years old. I was the donkey present at the birth of Christ!

We all know that Jesus was born “away in a manger, no crib for his bed.” In this old, old story, the humble location of Jesus’ birth tells us about the kind of person and the kind of messiah he will grow up to be. He will align himself with outsiders and outcasts, he will make room for those whom the world has not made room for. He will not be a military leader, or wealthy politician, or powerful king. He will be a common man from a common place and, as such, he will provide hope not only for the high and mighty, but also—perhaps especially—for all who are not.

Knowing that the very nature of his birth reflects the nature of Christ’s life and ministry, it makes sense that the crowded inn and Jesus’ birth in a manger were all a part of the plan. It is just part of the story—of how it’s meant to be told.

But none of that is what struck me when I read through this well-worn story this year and got to that final line about the manger.

Instead of all that, I thought, what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if the registration and journey to Bethlehem and the crowded inn and Herod’s anger were all unexpected, troublesome road blocks that could have derailed the whole plan. But they didn’t. None of those things stopped the son of God from coming into this world. None of these things got in the way. I realized as I thought of a tiny baby lying among animals: Jesus Christ was going to come to us and for us… no matter what.” Jesus would have come if it was in an inn or a barn or a shopping mall, with a midwife for company or some sheep and a donkey, or no one at all but his mother. Nothing—not a thing in the universe—was going to stop Jesus from coming to us on Christmas.

The story of Jesus’ birth tells us something about God’s love for us—God’s love is so deep and powerful and profound that God is going to reach us by any means necessary. Come hell or high-water, come unexpected cold, come shivering angels and woolly donkeys. No matter what. That is powerful, powerful love.

It makes me think of the way flowers will wedge their way through cracks in concrete just to blossom and give beauty to the world. The love of God that comes to us in Jesus is a love that will not be stopped. It will come up through the cracks in our lives and blossom like a miracle in our midst. And it comes not just for some people, or for the world in general, but for us too, for me and for you.

This isn’t just what Jesus’ birth is about. It’s what Jesus is about. Jesus’ birth and life and death and resurrection are all about a God who so loves us and so strongly desires to be with us, that God would willingly enter into the confines of a human body, a human life—would experience pain and fear and doubt and even death—just to touch us, embrace us, teach us, and reach us. Just to share in life with us.

The image of Christ as a tiny vulnerable crying baby lying in the arms of his scared mother in a barn in Bethlehem with no place else to go—that is the image of the most powerful force in existence—the unconquerable, unwavering love of God. They laid him in a manger because there was no room for him in the inn—but he still came. For us.

Perhaps this isn’t a new or revolutionary discovery about the Christmas story. But I think it’s one we need to be reminded of, especially now. It has been a hard year for this world. We’ve seen unprecedented violence. We’ve been torn apart by terror and discord. We’ve watched as millions across the world from us face great danger in search of a place of refuge. We’ve seen neighbors face hatred from others because of who they are or what they believe. And at times, it has felt as if our broken, hurting world is so far from what it should be that it might be too messed up for even God to reach.

But this year, the old well-known story of Christmas reminds us anew that the God who didn’t hesitate to come to us in a messy manger, will never be stopped by the messiness of this world. And God won’t be stopped by the messiness of our own lives either. God reaches us no matter what. God comes in love by any means necessary.

In general, I am not one who tends to claim many concrete experiences of really feeling God talking to me. But one December during college, I found myself, late one night, wandering around the parking lot of my dorm, shivering in unexpected cold just like I had on that nativity night years before. I was hurting and sad. My life felt all wrong—I felt all wrong—nothing was going how I had planned or expected or hoped. I was afraid. And in the midst of all the seeming wrongness I felt terribly lonely and abandoned.

I had fallen out of the habit of praying, but that night, alone in the dark parking lot I cried out to God. I said, “If you love me so much, then why don’t you just come down here so I can feel it.” I imagined that the answer was that I was a lost cause. A hopeless case. Too much for God to worry about. But something happened. Almost immediately, I felt deep inside of me a certainty of God’s own yearning to wrap warm arms around me and hold me close. I could almost hear a soft voice whispering in my ear: “I do and I did. For love of you I came.” On that night, the wonder of Christ’s coming and the power of love behind it became real to me like never before. It felt like grace.

Years before, I had dreamed of the perfect live nativity and my angel debut. But the unexpected truth that came to me only after I had traded in my angels wings for a donkey blanket and which came to me again in that college parking lot, was that Christmas has nothing to do with the perfect scene and everything to do with the imperfect one. Christmas is about a God who finds us wherever we are. So however your life looks this Christmas Day—whether it is filled with joy or hard things or both, whether it is crowded with unexpected chaos or hurtles, or if it feels not full enough—know that on this day, Christ comes to you and for you.

So we can crowd our Christmas story with lobsters and drummer boys, and donkeys and wiser women, and we can crowd it with the messiness of our own lives too. Just as long as we remember this day and always, the truth that shines through all of that mess: the truth of a God who comes in love to be with us and for us no matter what. In the manger. In the mess. Through the cracks. By any means necessary.

Merry Christmas .  And amen.

An Almost-Mother’s Song: A Christmas Poem about Mary

**Originally written and performed for Jazz Worship at Fourth Presbyterian Church – Chicago on Dec. 20, 2015**

When I was fourteen
My biggest fear was the virgin birth
there was nothing on earth
I could imagine worse
I mean, it kept me up with bad dreams
This is a thing, it turns out
for religious girls
fear of a life unasked for
a crash course in unearned “impurity”
and no one to believe.

See, it was all too heady for me then
I wasn’t ready, then
But lately I have been
thinking about Mary
and feeling her in me
and wondering.

I’ve never yet been a mother
so maybe I can’t speak
but then neither had she,
till she was.

What I know is this:
when my nephew was born
my world shifted
it lifted my self-centered haze
And I woke up with nightmares for days upon days
worried for love of this tiny new child
hellbent on sparing him all of life’s trials.

So I wonder

That night, when the angel came
called her by name
and said she’d conceive
by miracle means
And become a mother

That the flutter
in her womb
would soon give birth to God’s son.
Did she shudder?

When he told her:
Fear not God is with thee
Did she want to raise up her brow
and say: Are you kidding?

I wonder how
many fearful thoughts
got caught
in the space
it took her to become
Mary, full of grace.

Did she fear it would hurt?
That the child she’d bear
would tear through her
with pain
even as he came
into this world?

Did she fear he’d get sick or hurt?
Hate her or take after her father?

Did she question if kings
would hate him
and make them
all refugees
forced to flee
for the safety
of other unfriendly lands?

Did she picture his hands
bent in prayer at the temple?
Did she dare to expect
he’d be strong in his faith?
Did she suspect they’d reject him
when he cried out for change?

Could she even imagine
in her mind’s eye
the last time
she’d cradle her son to her chest?
Could she guess he’d be dead?
Did she know that his body
would carry the weight
of a young man unjustly
killed by the state?

Of course she could not have known then
all these things
But no doubt she was worried
what might come to be
So I can’t begin to imagine or dream
of the strength
that compelled her, in the face of all that,
to sing.

My God, she sang brightly
My soul magnifies you
I won’t deny you
I’ll just hold on tightly
to this promise
you’ve made me
this night

See, she chose hope
As the answer to every what if
to this risks, to the list
of new questions that filled her
to the known and unknown,
to it all
to the scope
of her fears,
She chose hope.

This is the wonder of Mary, I think
This is her grace,
She trusts and believes
Not that nothing will happen
no trouble befall her
but to know above all
her God will prevail

That though powers
wage war
And hours seem dark
Still the last word belongs
to the long-bending arc
of justice and love.
that good will drown out
all the hard, hateful things

She believes.
And with courage to open her lips
Mary sings.

We are all almost-mothers
like Mary once was
conceiving within us
the promise of love
We can trust and believe that justice must win
and then
Give birth to the goodness
we were made to create
and bear grace
to a world lost in fear and hate

We too can sing, Mary tells us.
However shaky our voice is
the choice is still ours
to choose hope and to sing and to know we belong
to a God once born from the very same song.

On Waiting: A Wedding Homily for Jeff and John

**This homily was written and preached for the wedding of Jeff Reeves and John Paradowski at Fourth Presbyterian Church on December 12, 2015. With their approval, I’m sharing it here. It was an occasion of so much joy and such a privilege to be a part of. The world needs more love like theirs!

James 5:7-8 NRSV

7 Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. 8You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.

Philippians 4:4-7 NRSV

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

 

———-

About 9 months ago, I was sitting in this sanctuary on a Tuesday evening with hundreds of other Presbyterian clergy and faith leaders, listening to a speaker during a conference about what’s next for the church. Right in the middle of that evening’s presentation, word began to trickle in, via ever present media technology, that our Presbyterian denomination had officially approved marriage equality. After about 10 minutes of restrained silence and growing tension, somebody finally raised their hand and politely informed our speaker what had happened and asked if we might have a few minutes to celebrate.

At once, the room burst into applause and cheering (And this is not really typical sanctuary behavior for Presbyterians!). We hugged, we cried, we laughed. It was a powerful moment of celebration after a long, difficult struggle and a long, difficult wait. And it felt appropriate then to be in the midst of a conversation about what’s next for the church and suddenly rejoicing that at least part of what was next was the genuine embrace of love and covenant relationship for all people. And it wasn’t just next. It had arrived.

Just a few months after that, I received an email from Jeff and John sharing their story and the news of their upcoming wedding and asking if I would co-officiate. I was overjoyed and excited at the opportunity. As a member of the LGBT community myself, it is an incredible gift that one of my first weddings would be for such a wonderful pair of men. But the real gift has been getting to know John and Jeff as people—coming to witness their deep love for each other—and getting to be a part of this union between the two of them.

Jeff and John, we have had some powerful conversations over the last few months. It is so clear how deeply you love one another and how deeply you believe in covenant and marriage. When we first began planning this ceremony, you said that you wanted to use some nontraditional scriptures and then we landed on a couple that were related to Advent. In some ways, they seem like an odd choice for a wedding. Rather than scriptures describing how we ought to love one another, we have these texts about waiting and being patient and trusting in God. On the other hand, these scriptures are so perfect for your wedding day, because these virtues of patience and trust in God have been such a part of your journey together.

You know what it is to wait. You have been patient for many long years, loving one another and building a life together even while you waited for our country and our churches to finally recognize the love between you for what it is: a gift from God. You have maintained your faith in one another, in your relationship, and in God throughout all of those years. You have trusted that one day, the world would celebrate with you. And on this day, we do.

Just 6 months ago, the Supreme Court declaring its ruling that marriage equality was a right that belonged to all people: gay, straight, bisexual. All people. And in their ruling, they spoke some words about marriage that I think capture the spirit of what you two have believed and held onto all along. They said:

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

You have waited for these words and the fruit of your patience is that they have come. In some ways, this day may feel like a culmination, like an arrival at an endpoint. It’s not though. This day marks a new beginning. Not the beginning of your love for one another, or even the beginning of your partnership together, but day marks the beginning of your marriage. Today, in the eyes of both God and this whole world, you are two hearts joined together in one life. Today, we say not only that the love between you is good (as it so clear and beautifully is), we say that the love between you is, in fact, holy. And in that love, the love of God is reflected.

I encourage you, as your marriage unfolds, to hold fast to the patience and trust in God that have carried you thus far. Let them help you to bear with one another, to forgive one another, to grow together, and to always discover new gifts in your relationship. Let it help you to remember that your life together is itself a gift that is always unfolding.

Patience and trust are important. In this Advent, as we wait with expectation for the coming Christ, we remember the value of these virtues in our lives of faith.

But it’s worth pointing out, that while Advent may be a season all about waiting, Christmas is not. Christmas is about a God who didn’t wait. A God who didn’t wait for the appropriate time. A God who didn’t wait for the world to be ready to receive him. Driven by irrepressible, unconquerable love, God entered into human life in the form of a tiny child right in the midst of this messy, broken world to reach us and hold us and assure us that nothing can separate us from love.

So on your wedding day, even while we praise your patience, I want to also lift up the ways you didn’t wait. You didn’t wait to be together. You didn’t wait for the world to be ready or even for all your loved ones to be ready. You didn’t wait for the law or the church to tell you it was okay. You built a life together, you celebrated your relationship, and you let yourselves love each other and trusted that it was good. And that defiant unwillingness to wait—that too is a gift. It’s a resounding message of hope in this messy, broken world that in the end, love always wins. And that is a message that all of us—and this whole world—desperately need to hear in these days.

So let that holy impatience guide you in your marriage too. Savor each moment as it presents itself. Seize every opportunity to let the love between you be a beacon of hope and joy in your own lives and in this world.

This covenant is between you both and God. But it is also an endeavor that is bound up in community. You are surrounded this day and always, by people who love you. By family and friends and pastors who stand with you and honor your commitment to one another because in the love between you, we see the love of God.

Remember always that your love is bound up in the love of so many others and let all of that love help you to love one another ever more deeply and fully. And remember too that your holy covenant is also bound up in God’s unwavering, unconquerable love for you. Trust and believe that God is on this day, and has always been, rejoicing in your love along with you. Amen.

LoveWins

John The Optimist: When Good News is Hard to Hear (a sermon)

Luke 3:7-18

7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’ 

10 And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ 11In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ 12Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ 13He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ 14Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’

 

15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

 

A few months ago, I lost my driver’s license while on a marathon training run on the lakeshore path. I researched the process to get a new one and learned that because my previous license had been from another state where I was no longer a resident, I would have to take both a written and driving test in order to get a new Illinois driver’s license. I’ve been dragging my feet on this ever since, in part because I don’t have a car so it doesn’t feel urgent. But, if I’m being honest, the real reason I’m dragging my feet has to do with the first time I took a driving test, 13 years ago.

I had dragged my feet then too, so I was nearly 17 when my mom finally took me to the DMV in Atlanta one day after school. When my turn came, the test administrator and I climbed into my mom’s Toyota Camry, and my mom waved goodbye and good luck before going back inside the DMV office to wait for me. After a few parking lot basics, I was instructed to turn onto the major road the DMV was located on. It was rush hour and hectic, and frankly I hadn’t had much practice on busy roads. I nervously steered us along and when the instructor told me to switch into the left lane, I turned on my blinker, took a deep breath, and looked over my left shoulder to find an opening. Meanwhile, my right hand was slowly pulling the steering wheel in the opposite direction.

“Curb,” said the DMV employee. “What?” I asked, turning back to her. And at precisely that moment, the car crashed into and then over the jagged broken curb that lined the road. After correcting the vehicle, I pulled into the nearest parking lot and put on the brakes. It was clear that the car was not okay. In fact, I had completely destroyed both right-side tires and mangled the hubcaps. With very few words exchanged, the test administrator and I left the car behind and walked the few blocks back to the DMV.

When we walked back into the waiting area, my mom looked up at me. Her face was expectant and hopeful. Clearly, she thought this would be one of those joyous milestones of life. I sighed, and said, “Well. I have good news and I have bad news.”

“What’s the good news?” she asked.

“I’m still alive,” I told her, “And I think everything is fixable.”

Her face blanched, the expectant excitement quickly transforming into dread. She didn’t say it aloud, but I could clearly hear the question forming in her mind.

“If that’s the good news, what’s the bad news?”

That is kind of the question I had in mind when I first read through our text for today. After calling his audience a “brood of vipers,” the passionate desert preacher launches into a bold proclamation about bad trees being cut down and bad wheat being burned in an unquenchable fire by the coming messiah. “And so, with many other exhortations,” the scripture tells us, “he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

“That’s the good news?” I want to ask.

I wonder if the people listening to him—those who had gathered to hear this wilderness man give them good news about a coming savior—heard what they expected to hear. I wonder if it sounded like good news to them, or if it twisted their guts a little the way my mom’s gut twisted all those years ago at the DMV. After all, the news John delivers isn’t exactly comforting and it’s bound up with some hard news too.

Even though it calls for a coming savior, it doesn’t seem to be describing the simple, innocent joy of the baby Jesus whose birth we will celebrate in just a few weeks. In fact, John’s calls for repentance seem a little jarring against the backdrop of the Christmas season.

Can I be honest with you? I could use a little uncomplicated good news these days. With so much violence and tragedy, hate and ignorance, discrimination and fear going around in our own country and across the world, the last thing I feel ready for is good news that sounds like a lecture to “be better or burn.”

Indeed, this Christmas season itself seems a little jarring against the backdrop of recent world events and ongoing struggles in our city and beyond. It feels strange and maybe even inappropriate to come together and light candles of hope, peace, and joy, to sing carols and have holiday parties—while outside of these walls friends and strangers suffer. Protestors call for justice. Muslim neighbors fear for their lives. Refugees seek sanctuary on unfriendly shores. And politicians spar over other people’s humanity. With the daily onslaught of negative news, it can be hard to conjure up the real spirit and excitement of this season. And that, in turn, makes it hard to hear words like John’s as comforting good news.

I want good news that makes everything better. I want good news that explains how it’s all going to be okay. I want good news that lets my aching heart rest for just a minute. I’m not ready for calls to repentance and commands about how to act.

In some ways, this Advent and Christmas just feel like they’re coming at the wrong time. And since we’re already waiting, maybe we should wait just a little bit longer and celebrate when there’s less violence and turmoil and more cause for joy—when the world just seems a little bit more ready.

As I was struggling with this very idea this week—struggling with how to bring the good news of Christmas into a hurting and weary world, I stumbled upon a poem by author Madeleine L’Engle. She is best known for her young adult fantasy novels like A Wrinkle in Time, but she was also a devout Christian who often wrote about faith. The poem I discovered was written for Advent and answered the question I didn’t even know my heart was asking. It’s called “First Coming” and this is how it goes:

He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.

He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine. He did not wait

till hearts were pure. In joy he came
to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.

He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.

We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

The unexpected gift of this poem helped me remember an important truth. Advent is indeed a season when we wait with great expectation and prepare our hearts as best we can for the coming Christ. Advent is all about waiting, but Christmas is not.  Christmas is about a God who didn’t wait. God didn’t wait until we felt ready or it seemed like the appropriate time. God didn’t wait until we understood. God, frankly, didn’t care about our readiness or our own definitions of “good news” or “savior.”

God just came. Driven by irrepressible and unconquerable love, God came into this world as a tiny Jewish baby and crashed right into the midst of our messy, broken world. We spend Advent waiting and expecting and trying to become ready, but come Christmas Day, God comes to us in a way we could never expect and never be ready for.

John’s good news may not be the kind of good news we expect and it may not be the good news we are ready for, but it is Good News. John proclaims a savior who will come into this world, ready or not. A savior who will not care if we are children of Abraham or what kind of children of Abraham we may be. A savior who, with the sharp edge of unrelenting grace, will cut away all that is broken and harmful within us: our greed and selfishness, our fear and hate—and leave only the best within us behind so that we might become reflections of grace ourselves. A savior who will change us utterly.

A savior who will come not how we expect, but how we need. Who will come right into the very midst of wherever we are, but will not let us stay there. Given where we are as a world and a people right now—given the barrage of bad news and the seemingly endless tide of evil—I think maybe this is exactly the right time for Christmas after all.

This is a time when we remember that the same one who is coming to baptize with Spirit and fire is himself the light of this whole world. That light shines in the darkness—especially in the darkness—and the darkness did not, will never, overcome it.

John’s good news for us doesn’t just call us to passively accept this promised coming, but to prepare for it actively, by cultivating spirits of generosity and integrity and compassion. The very traits that characterize the coming savior are what John compels us to embody and be defined by. In other words, even in this waiting time, John tells us not to wait. Not to wait until we have the energy or the readiness, and not to wait for Christ to come and take care of everything. Right now, we can repent—a word which, as Shannon explained last week—really means to change or refocus our minds. We can look at the brokenness around us and choose to engage it with our minds and hearts and bodies focused on the love and hope of Christ.

What does this look like? For John, it’s remarkably simple though perhaps not always easy. Anyone with two coats must share with those who have none and likewise with food. We must also be generous and fair with whatever power or responsibility we are have. We give from our abundance and we do whatever big and small things we can do to help heal this world from our particular place and perspective.

A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled on a blog post called “15 Things To Do When The World Feels Terrifying.” It suggested things like, “Open your closet, and find the first warm thing you haven’t worn in awhile and take it to a place where it can be used.” Or “buy an e-gift card for Dunkin Donuts and send it to the staff of the school where Laquan McDonald attended, knowing that this is an especially rough time for them.” “Leave a copy of your favorite book in a public place for someone else to find.” “Think of the kindest person you know personally, and write them an email letting them know you thought of them.” “Think of the people you don’t know but interact with daily, like your barista. Ask their name and then call them by it.”

At first, I thought it sounded overly simplistic. What good could some internet list do when everything in this world is so messed up? But when I read it, I was struck by how hopeful I felt just knowing that there was something—anything—I could do. A starting place.

I’ve seen other suggestions. Ways to be a Muslim-ally. Writing letters of support to your local mosque. Offering smiles or a seat to women in hijabs who may be encountering a lot of ugly looks these days. Calling out anti-Muslim sentiment from friends.

None of these things are enough on their own to turn the tide of brokenness and fix the world. But they are a starting place, and if there’s one thing this season reminds us of, it’s that even Jesus started somewhere. And Jesus calls us to start with him. We don’t have to wait, we can begin right now—we should begin right now. Right in the mess of it all. In a world that is so desperately hungry for good news, we must start by believing that it is, indeed, Good News. And with great joy we can bear that good news to the world. Amen.