It was Advent season years ago, and Rev. Michael Brown was hoping to counter all the commercial Christmas frenzy swirling about his children, and to teach them what the season was all about. So he sat down at the kitchen table with his young child in the middle of December and they began the project of assembling a cardboard cutout crèche, or nativity set: stable, manger, baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, sheep, cows, shepherds, and the magi. “Fold on the dotted line,” the directions said, “Place tab A in slot B,” etc.
Easier read than done, of course, and within a few minutes, it was a disaster. Nothing worked as intended. Nothing looked like the picture on the box. Brown had all but taken over, but he fared no better than his four-year-old partner. The kitchen table was littered with torn, bent, spineless figures just wilting over. Pieces were frayed and taped together. The father in his frustration was close to clearing the table and trashing the whole thing. Meanwhile, the little boy was less than impressed.
So surveying the scene on the table, the four-year-old who was supposed to be learning the real meaning of Christmas – that Jesus is God’s son – said, “So, Daddy, where is God in this mess?”
A poignant Christmas memory, which also remains the quintessential Advent question: Where exactly is God, in all this mess?
Somewhere someone set up half the night last night – a longtime dedicated employee whose job was eliminated before the end of the fiscal year: “Where is God,” they wondered, “amidst this disruption?”
Somewhere a spouse grips the hand of their beloved, awaiting news of diagnosis: “Where is God,” they wonder, “in this uncertainty?”
Somewhere, a family gathers around the bed of a loved one at the end of their long journey, “Where is God,” they wonder, “in the midst of our loss? Our particular grief?”
This very week, conflict intensifying in Israel-Palestine, not far from the site where shepherds once heard from angels and even oxen kneeled peacefully at a manger, “Where is God,” we wonder, “amidst this discord?”
Or midweek an email came from friends at FaithAction International House here in Greensboro, about a family of immigrants – some of our newest neighbors. Their father and breadwinner has been detained and they’re about to lose their housing: “Where is God,” I wondered, “amidst our brokenness?”
Or my memory takes me to a children’s museum 5 years ago this week, grabbing my coat when the phone in the pocket buzzed with a bulletin about gun violence at a school in Connecticut. And I knelt to help my two-year-old with his zipper – a hard enough task under normal circumstances, much less with blurred vision and shaking hands and asking as I do again now, “Where is God amidst our madness?”
Pieces of our lives scattered about. Frayed edges. Wilting figures. Where is God, in all of this mess?
It’s a question we’ve asked throughout Advent with the people of Israel, passing through their experience of exile and uncertainty, and listening all along to the word of the Lord to them through the prophet Isaiah. “Lord, open the heavens and come down,” the prophet proclaims in chapter 64 in the text from the First Sunday of Advent. “Comfort my people,” comes the cry piecing through in last week’s text from Isaiah 40.
This week’s prophetic word, from Isaiah 61, comes from what we understand to be the third section of Isaiah – chapters 56-66. This is post-exilic literature. Cyrus of Persia has defeated the Babylonians and changed the policy. All those Jewish exiles subjugated by Babylon, are now permitted to return to Jerusalem, complete with support to rebuild their homes and their temple.
But that return is not quite the highway to paradise they had previously imagined. So as they arrive, note v. 4 of our text today, they find themselves amidst ruins, devastations, and a generational loss in need of repair. “Where is God,” they must have wondered, “amidst the ruin?” These new post-exilic challenges created new post-exile crises of faith. Is God powerless to achieve what was hoped for? Is God faithful to keep what was promised? Have God’s people been abandoned?
The prophet’s answer is less a word of comfort than it is a word of commission – or it’s a comfort that comes through a calling. The same Spirit of the Lord that anointed their ancestors now anoints a new prophetic mission – one of release and righteousness carried out by God’s servants. It’s a call of ministry to the ones whose hearts are crushed, to the captives, the imprisoned and to all who mourn. The anointed will deliver good news to the oppressed, healing the broken hearts, proclaiming liberty for the captives and working for an opening so the imprisoned may find release.
But it’s not only envisioned for Jerusalem, and not merely for the people of Israel. The scope of the promises is broader than we’ve heard earlier in Isaiah. It’s not limited to these exiles returned. It’s a belief that through God’s people, this justice will be known by all the world – all suffering reversed, all captives liberated, all broken hearted bound up, time itself redefined. To use the language of our advent hymn, it’s the “desire of every nation” that the prophet proclaims, for in every nation the question has come, “Where is God amidst it all?”
Our Advent claim is that God is right there in the middle of it all. We reflect on this text from Isaiah in Advent, because it is our confession that this desire of every nation is realized in Jesus Christ, and that the justice so loved by God and proclaimed by the prophets continues in the life of Jesus and in the ministry of Christ’s church, as we proclaim a God who is in the middle of the mess, where anyone is spineless, or frayed, or scattered about.
God is in the middle of the mess of a long journey when Mary is nine months’ pregnant. The mess of no room in the inn. The mess of birth in a stable. The mess of a census and its control. The mess of a political situation so fragile and frayed that any hint of a threat to the powers that be was seen as a warrant to kill even the most vulnerable, as Herod perceived even babies as a threat to his powers when he heard about the birth in Bethlehem.
Our claim is that the creator of the universe chose to assume the limitations of this mess. To say, “Let me go there to that place where people are tossed and torn.” God is not off in the sky, on a throne, watching life on earth. God is not an elegant philosophic abstraction, the ground of being, the first cause. No, God is a baby. God comes to us in a human birth and a human life. It’s all right there in Luke chapter 2, our classic nativity story with all it’s familiar, imperfect characters standing by and God in Christ right in the middle of it all.
But as the story continues, sometimes we forget that God in Christ never leaves the mess, as Jesus makes his home, always, in the most challenging places, with the most vulnerable, brokenhearted people. Jesus finds his way to them, at every turn. He connects his life to their lives. So God enters the mess of our world in a stable, but then in Christ, God never really leaves it.
In fact, it’s just a few pages later in Luke’s gospel, with manger put away and cast of nativity characters dispersed, that a now grown Jesus appears on the scene, and Luke describes his first public words. It’s after his baptism by John in the wilderness, his temptation in the desert, and in Luke chapter 4 Jesus returns to Galilee in the power of the Spirit. On the Sabbath Day he enters the synagogue of his hometown where he’s invited to speak. He strides to the front, and in his first words he proclaims the prophecy of Isaiah we have read today: “Good news to the oppressed, liberty for the captives, binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor.” Because this is where Jesus made his home. He was born amidst the vulnerable, the broken, the captive, and he never left them.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew so well this God in Christ who is close to the brokenhearted, who proclaims release to the captive, and who calls his followers to do the same. Many of you know Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and promising theologian in the early half of the twentieth century, was imprisoned for working with the Resistance and participating in a plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler. He was executed by the Nazis just a few days before the end of the war.
Some years ago a long correspondence between Bonhoeffer and his fiancée, Maria von Wedmeyer, was discovered and released for publication by Maria’s family. The volume of his Letters and Papers From Prison has long been celebrated and widely sold, but the letters to Maria, Love Letters from Cell 92 as they were published, are more personal. In a Christmas letter from 1943, Bonhoeffer writes this: “Dearest Maria, let us celebrate Christmas… Don’t entertain any awful imaginings of me in my cell, but remember that Christ, too, frequents prisons, and that he will not pass me by.”
God in Christ, visits us in our most broken and captive places. He will not pass us by. He finds the people oppressed, disenfranchised, underrepresented, powerless, voiceless, doubted and disbelieved.
This is what we hear in the voice of Jesus echoing the prophet Isaiah in Luke 4. In fact, there’s something about this passage I never noticed before until recently when my friend, Dr. Darryl Aaron, helped me to see it. Dr. Aaron, who is the Pastor of Providence Baptist here in Greensboro, points out that as Jesus steps to the front of the synagogue to read, he does not simply read the first thing to catch his eye. It’s not as though the scroll rolls open and he places his finger in a random spot. He does not simply read what’s prominent. The passage in Luke is careful to say that Jesus “found his place” in the scroll. He found his place here in Isaiah 61. Of all the places, you see, Jesus fond his place with a voice proclaiming justice and release. And Rev. Aaron said, “It makes me want to make sure I’m finding my place, where Jesus found his place.”
So, if God in Christ is in the middle of the mess, where then are we? Where are we finding our place?
This Advent, as I listen to this call and commission, I have to admit how often I find my place in more comforting settings. How often I avoid the mess, or overlook the injustice and unrighteousness. How often I flip right past the call on my life as a follower of the one who in life and in death proclaimed release.
Maybe you heard the news this week that Dictionary.Com has named its 2017 “word of the year.” Apparently, in order to be selected as the Word of the Year, a word has to be deemed by judges as meeting two criteria: first, “to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year” and second, “to have lasting potential as a word of cultural significance.” You might remember recent examples like 2013’s “selfie” or the 2014 word of the year, “vape.”
But 2017 took a somber, self-reflective tone, as the word of the year is “complicity.” That is, “Having partnership or involvement in wrongdoing or injustice.” Searches for this word spiked this year, to the point it was deemed to be representative of who we are and where we are. You can think of the climate that leads to this conclusion, most notably and recently the revelation of the number of women who have been victims of abuses of power and harassment, while many knew and did nothing to stop it and are therefore “complicit.”
As those who proclaim a Christ who came to such broken places, and who are called to continue this ministry in this place and time, what about us? Where are we in the middle of the mess?
Where am I in the middle of the mess?
When racism crawls out into the open?
Or when another family suffers and separates amidst the crisis of global migration?
Or when another person suffers from gun violence?
Or when a bully pushes someone to the brink?
Or when a woman comes forward with courage to tell of the ways she’s been abused?
Or when anyone vulnerable suffers?
When the oppressed listen for good news, when the broken hearted wait to be bound up, when the captives seek liberty, when the prisoner waits for release, where am I?
Such questions became too much for the people of Jesus’ hometown Nazareth. In fact, as Jesus proclaimed these words of Isaiah, and their realization in his person in their midst, Luke describes that they ran him away. They didn’t want to hear any more. They even threatened to push him off a cliff. But Luke says he passed right through them and went on his way.
It’s what could happen to any of us this Advent. If we seek only comfort and ignore the call, if we ignore the mess and want only to stay clean, if we ignore the prophetic word that echoes still for us, Jesus could pass right through us this year without really being known.
It was Advent some years ago at the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, and pastor John Buchanan received an urgent plea. It was from the grandmother of a teenage boy who had been a part of the church’s tutoring program as a younger child, and had been imprisoned the year earlier. He had no police record previously. But he had been targeted by a gang and did what he thought he had to do to protect himself. He got a gun, which was a very simple thing to do. When gang members came after him, he pulled out his gun, shot it, but it hit a bystander – a 15 yr old girl who was a lifelong friend of his, since they were in the same kindergarten class. He was arrested, tried, convicted of 1st degree murder, sentenced to life in prison at age 16. It was a situation about as hopeless as it gets.
But his grandmother was a person of faith and she refused to acquiesce to the reality of hopelessness. After his conviction, feeling devastated and helpless, she exhausted her resources thinking of those who could help, and she kept thinking of her grandson’s former tutor, a member of that church. She shared with him how she wanted the conviction and sentence reconsidered. An appeal costed several thousand dollars. The family scraped together all they had and borrowed against a small life insurance policy and still fell several thousand dollars short, and she wanted to know, could the church help?
Should the church help? It was a mess. Lives were frayed, and people were bent, and there were pieces everywhere. But the church felt they could. And they did. And they did it in the name of Jesus Christ, who came to such a place, believing that God is in the middle of the mess and there too God’s people always follow.
It was during Advent that a letter came from this grandmother. “As I sit here and write this letter, words cannot express the way I feel about the generous contribution your church made for my grandson Melvin’s appeal. I come from a poor family. We did not know how we were going to get the money. When I came from court I sat down and asked God to show me the way and Sandy (the tutor) came to mind. I remembered how nice he was to Melvin and how he was always interested in his life. I want to thank you, Reverend, and I want to thank your church for what you have done for my grandson. God bless you.” (2)
When the note arrived, it was accompanied by a bouquet of plastic roses. Artificial, but still containing the promise of Isaiah’s vision that we hear at the end of chapter 61: “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise… to spring up before all the nations…”
Or in the words of my favorite Advent carol: “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming.” Blooming amidst the cold of winter. Blooming amidt the mess of a wasteland of our world. Blooming, even, “when half spent was the night.”
May that be our comfort and our call this day. Amen.
- “Where is God” (December 2008)
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Love Letters from Cell 92, 133-134.
- John Buchanan, “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” (December 1999)