Christmas Day 2016
I recently filled out the hospital pre-admission form for this baby due one month for today, and was careful to check one particular box. “Do you want to listed on the patient roster?” The form noted that if I wasn’t listed, my religious leader might not be notified I was in the hospital, and if visitors inquired at the front desk, they wouldn’t be given my room number. As a pastor who is at the hospital looking at that roster regularly, I knew those things, and eagerly checked the box marked “NO, do not list me on the patient roster.”
You see, when Ollie was born on Christmas day in 2009, I didn’t think about this. The church I was serving was two towns over from the one I lived in, which had its own hospital, so I thought there was little chance of having visitors.
Wrong. Two days after Ollie was born, there was a knock on my hospital room door, as I lay in bed recovering from an emergency c-section and bad reaction to anesthesia afterward. Assuming it was a nurse coming to check in, I hollered “come in”. And Surprise! In came Duane and Danica, a father and daughter who were members of the church I served down the river. I don’t remember much about the visit, except that I was terribly conscious of how long it had been since I showered and that I was relieved when they left.
I’m planning to avoid such surprises this time around, though the Christmas gospel reminds me that these things are never really in our control anyway! I’m sure the shepherds watching their flocks in the field that night never expected a bunch of angels to interrupt their evening with terrifying light and songs about the Messiah being a baby in a manger. I’m sure it never occurred to Mary, exhausted first from her journey to Bethlehem, then from the search for shelter, and finally from labor itself, that a bunch of stinky shepherds would be able to find them in that out of the way place she’d given birth.
I think it quite possible that Luke is leaving out some less beatific details when all he says about Mary’s reaction to this surprise visit is that she “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” Then again, this is the same Mary who answered the shocking news of her immaculate conception with more grace and faith than I have ever mustered in my life. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be to me according to thy will” she said.
As I tell you my plans up against the Christmas story, I begin to wonder. What would happen if angels tried to break into my birth plan next month. Or if Jesus tried to surprise me with visitors in another setting, at another time. Have I so organized my life that there is no room for surprises, even those bringing good news of great joy? Have I perhaps already missed some of God’s good news in my life because I have guarded myself so careful against such surprise visitors?
It’s that question that sticks with me this Christmas, and I pose it to you this morning as well. I suspect you are not too different from me in your discomfort with unexpected visitors, partly because of how many times members of this congregation have told me not to come visit when they were not at their best, or apologized for their personal or home’s appearance when I have visited.
There is a scary vulnerability is unplanned visits, which makes us uncomfortable simply because we are human. And yet, when God came in person, in human form among other humans, it was in the vulnerable form of all, a baby. When God came, his coming was replete with unplanned visitors, from angels to shepherds to wisemen to the prophets Mary and Joseph will meet at the temple.
There is something God means to tell us with all these surprises, I think. Or perhaps a number of things.
Chief among them, I suspect, is that we are not in control of God’s story, even if we’ve falsely convinced ourselves that we are in control of our own lives. God will bring about her way, her plan, with or without our help. God will burst in whether we are ready or not, whether we are paying attention or not, whether we are believers or not. And this is good news, because it tells us that no matter how many times we get things wrong, or mess up the part we’ve been asked to play, God will find a way to bring love and salvation to earth.
God also means to tell us through this Christmas story and all the other holy surprises in Scripture that it is in just such unexpected people and places and times that we should learn to look for God. I’m sure all those people who turned Joseph and a very pregnant Mary away from their doorsteps were just being practical, and logical, and wondered why they didn’t plan ahead better. And yet that one household who found a place, even if it wasn’t a proper place, for Jesus to be born, ended up hosting God himself.
If we truly want to see what God is up to here and now, we should be looking in the places and faces where we’re sure God shouldn’t be. If we are people who take the patterns of Scripture seriously, we should get a kind of holy tingle when someone shows up on our doorstep, in our office, or otherwise runs into us when we are least expecting it.
And finally, we should know that if God can announce his most important act ever to lowly shepherds out in the fields, to a poor teenager with no qualifications, then God can use our lives to do great things too. On that note, I’ll close with a wonderful quote from Meister Eckhart’s famous Christmas sermon:
What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? And what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I also do not give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time. When the Son of God is begotten in us.”
“We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born.