Saturday, December 25, 2010

You Will Find the Baby in the Neediest Place

Preached on Christmas Eve

Scripture readings: Isaiah 42:1-9; Luke 2:1-20

On the hills above Bethlehem, the shepherds saw, and heard, and felt unimaginable things, indescribable things. Angels: but there was more than angels with them. “The glory of the Lord shone around them.” (Luke 2:9)

The glory of the Lord is the sign of the presence of the Lord. The Lord was there; and the shepherds experienced his presence as an exceeding weight, and light, and fear, and joy, and peace. There are no words for this.

The Lord was there. But the Lord was also to be found in a manger. He was lying in a feed trough in the place where the animals were kept for the inn at Bethlehem. There would be no sense of glory there: nothing that you could see, or hear, or feel. It would not be obvious.

The angel had to give the shepherds signs, so that they would know when they had found the Lord who had come to be the Christ, the Messiah, the king of the kingdom of God. According to the signs, they would have to find the Lord by means of priorities that were the exact opposite of what everyone else would have expected.

The message of the angels was about good news, joy, and peace. And these are things the world desperately needs and cries out for. We want them too. Sooner or later, we cry out for them. We want good news for a change. We want joy. We want peace. The message of the angels, and the directions they gave, and what the shepherds found tell us things about good news, and joy, and peace that very few people know anything about. The angels sent the shepherds to a place where no one else was going.

We think that if we could only go where everyone else is going that we could find good news, joy, and peace. We think that if we could only be like what everyone else seems to be, we would be happy.

Everybody thinks this by nature. Even those who seek to live in total rejection of being like everyone else find their happiness in being like others. The people who are Goths: who wear black clothing and black lipstick (even the guys) and dye their hair black, and wear spikes, and get piercings all look alike. They all look for much the same things. They like the same things, and that is their happiness.

The shepherds had to go to a really strange place, where no one else seemed to be going, to find the Lord. Maybe there were other babies in other mangers; but, if there were any, it was completely unintentional. In order to find the Lord, we must look where other people don’t look. We must go where no one goes intentionally. This is a mystery.

It is a strange kind of search that the shepherds were on. They were looking for the Lord who was really looking for them. The Lord insisted on finding them by making them go to the places where they wouldn’t want to find him. The Lord found them by sending them to the neediest place in Bethlehem.

I am thinking about going where God wants me to go, and experiencing what God wants me to experience. But I want to tell him what and where those things are. I think that I will find God there, but God sends me where I have no intention of going. God sends me to the neediest places.

I visit people in hospitals and nursing homes. Especially at Christmas time, I look for people who need help with groceries and other necessities. I deal with people who need to give gifts to their children, and they lack the means to do it. The greatest need a parent can feel is the need to give something good to their children. God often sends me to the neediest places, on behalf of his love for the world. This is not just what I do. It is what we want our communities to do. It’s what we want to be for others.

Sometimes God sends us to the places where we become the needy ones.
When these are the places we go, when these are the places where we meet other people, and where we pray for the wisdom to think the right thoughts, and speak the right words, and do the right things, it makes us have very interesting conversations with God. It forces us to look for the Lord in a different way, and a different place, than we would otherwise.

The holy family and the baby Jesus were in the neediest place. They were people who were pushed around by government programs. They were uprooted. They found all kinds of doors slammed in their faces. They had almost nothing. They had no idea what to expect next.

But the baby was the Lord himself. The Lord, himself, was to be found there in the middle of these unexpected and completely undesired circumstances.

Sometimes God blesses us with plenty. We have comforts. We have shelter. We have family and friends. We have plans. We have predictable lives, for a while. We can find God is these places. We can find him richly. But we often find him in the rich places in such a way that we do not really know him or know ourselves.

It is in the needy places where we must depend on God alone, and not on our money, or our health, or our work, or the kindness and welcome of others, that we will find the Lord, and really know who he is and who we are with him.

The good news of joy and peace belongs to a world that doesn’t know much about them. The good news is the news of a God who steps into the center of a needy world, and steps into the center of our lives when we need him most.

If we were able to see our own great need right now, we would be in the place where we could truly find the Lord’s presence and a glory that cannot be seen, or heard, or maybe even felt, but the Lord’s presence in born within us and makes its home in us.

This is why the Lord’s Table is such a simple thing. Bread and wine are the things you might find a beggar eating and drinking under a bridge in Spokane, or in a stable. It really is. And maybe, spiritually, we know what it is like to be in such needy places of our own.

The story of the baby in the manger is the story of God with us in the needy places. This is one of the greatest lessons of Christmas.

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