Isaiah 42:5-9; Romans 8:35, 37-39
The Reverend Tom Herbek
December 3, 2017
He came to bring us hope. One of the things we must all remember about Christmas, though, is that God doesn’t always come to us the way we expect God to come. We mustn’t miss out on hope because it isn’t packaged the way we expect it to be.
For most of us, Christmas is a season where little things can make a big difference, little things like:
- when someone takes the time to write on their Christmas card, “We’re thinking of you.”
- when you pull out that ornament for your tree and the memories flood over you.
- when you taste Christmas cookies and that familiar taste makes you feel all warm inside.
- when the angels move into place for the candlelight service, and you remember the first time you were here for Christmas Eve.
- when you give a Secret Santa gift at work and you see the light come into your co-worker’s eyes when they open it.
- when you hear that Christmas carol on the radio and it reminds you of your first kiss under the mistletoe.
- when you turn the corner and see the lights in the windows, and know you are home for the holidays.
All of these are little things that are packed full of meaning. Both the wonder and the problem of Christmas is that everything is so much more than it seems.
Even the littlest things about Christmas are packed with so much meaning. Christmas is all these things, just like a baby is all these things. The littlest things can make the biggest difference, like a little baby born in a little town in an out-of-the-way stable to a poor couple.
At Christmas, sometimes we are surprised to find that we have an unexpected guardian angel in our midst. For Jesus’ mother, Mary, it was her cousin and friend Elizabeth. Joan Chittister describes their friendship and says that a real friend for us is someone like Elizabeth:
Elizabeth was the cousin to whom Mary of Nazareth went, betrothed, yes, but unmarried, and pregnant to someone other than Joseph “before they came together.” It was a major issue, both religious and social. To be pregnant and unmarried in the Jewish community of the time was not simply to risk disapproval, it was to risk death. It was certainly to be shunned. But Elizabeth, contrary to all tradition, against all common sense, took Mary into her home, no questions asked, no verdict levied.
More than that, Elizabeth recognized in Mary the great gain that would eventually come from a situation that looked like such great loss to everyone else. Elizabeth accepted Mary for who she was, and she saw the goodness in her. Literally. Immediately
Elizabeth’s power in friendship is a fierce commitment to hold on with hope to the life of a friend. However dark, however debilitating the circumstances with which the friend may be grappling at the moment, Elizabeth knows that in the end will come goodness, because goodness is of the essence of the one we love as we love ourselves.
Joan Chittister goes on to describe how doing this, being a true friend, also changes us:
What we accept into our lives in the other changes our own sense of what life is really about. For that reason, acceptance is never merely tolerance, it is vision.
It is the new juice of soul that comes from understanding. It is what stretches my own spirit beyond the truisms of yesterday. Acceptance is its own reward.
Acceptance is the universal currency of real friendship. It allows the other to be the other. It puts no barriers where life should be. It does not warp or shape or wrench a person to be anything other than what they are. It simply opens its arms to hold the weary and opens its heart to hear the broken and opens its mind to see the invisible. Then, in the shelter of acceptance, a person can be free to be even something more.
- The Friendship of Women
The real gift of friendship is when we accept the people who journey with us in the tough times, as well as in the easy times. Friends give us a glimmer of hope by their acceptance. And we must each remember that hope begins small, and that each of our lives makes a difference in the fabric of our world. Guardian angels remind us of hope and possibilities, and that our life makes a difference.
Perhaps the most powerful message of Christmas is that the most important things in life begin small. The story of the birth of Jesus reminds us not to look to the places of greatness, to the spectacular people and places and events for hope, but it reminds us to look for something that surprises us, from deep within ourselves or from something insignificant or small.
In fact, it may even dawn on us this Christmas that we have within us what it takes to make a difference. And that may be the beginning of hope for us and for our world.
There is a Christmas classic, a movie that still has the ability to speak to me after all these years. It is called “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It is the story of George Bailey.
George Bailey has been helping people his whole life, making a difference in so many lives, but he doesn’t realize it. He owns and runs the Building and Loan Company. Then his Uncle Billy’s forgetfulness and loss of a bag of the Building and Loan’s cash (a huge sum in those days of $8,000) makes George feel that his own life has been a complete failure.
Because of Uncle Billy’s mistake, the Building and Loan is going out of business and George is a failure, ruined. In fact, the evil bank owner, Mr. Potter, says to George about George’s life insurance: “George, you’re worth more dead than alive.”
So George decides to jump off a bridge and commit suicide. But before he can jump, along comes his guardian angel, Clarence, who shows George what life in Bedford Falls would have been like without George Bailey ever having been born.
Without the impact of George’s life, Bedford Falls is, instead, called Pottersville, and is mostly a slum. Main Street is dominated by pawn shops and sleazy bars. Bailey Park was never built and remains a desolate cemetery. George’s home remains a run-down, abandoned mansion.
George sees the people he knows and loves, but none of them know him and their lives are hard and grim: his mother, now a widow eking out an existence by turning her house into room-and-board apartments, and his wife Mary, a spinster librarian, are both lonely, embittered women.
Uncle Billy has been in an insane asylum for years; George’s brother Harry has been dead since he fell through the ice in childhood because George wasn’t there to save him (and consequently the men on the transport ship Harry saved from a kamikaze attack in WWII were all killed).
Mr. Gower, the druggist, was convicted of accidentally poisoning a child since George was not there to stop him, and Mr. Gower is now a panhandler on the street.
After realizing what his life has meant, thanks to Clarence, George returns to the bridge and calls upon God to let him live again. So George is returned to present-day Bedford Falls and the life he was ready to give up.
His guardian angel has given him a new lease on life. Shouting “Merry Christmas” to buildings and people alike, including even Potter, George runs home.
Unbeknownst to George, his friends and family have rallied to collect the money to save George and the Building & Loan from scandal and ruin. Mr. Gower has telegraphed George’s friend, Sam Wainwright in London, who wires an immediate $25,000 advance.
In the midst of the festivities, George’s brother Harry returns and toasts, “To my big brother George, the richest man in town.” Seeing how many lives he has touched, and the difference he has made to the town, is enough for George Bailey to realize that despite his problems he really has a wonderful life.
Perhaps we too need a guardian angel to help us. Each of us has no idea how many lives we have touched and the difference we have made. We also have no idea how many lives we may touch and the difference we will make in the year to come. There is reason to hope, even when darkness seems to be more powerful than light in our world. The story of Christmas is that we find hope packaged in very different, unexpected ways – just like it once was in a baby’s birth.
Hope may just sneak up on us this Christmas. We may be surprised to find out – just like George Bailey – that our lives have truly made a difference, that there is still reason to hope, that new things are coming to pass. It may begin small, and it may not be packaged the way we expect it to be, but get ready!
Perhaps the angels around us will makes themselves known to us this Advent season, our guardian angels in disguise. Poet Ann Weems says it this way:
Wouldn’t it be wonderful
if Advent came filled with angels and alleluias?
Wouldn’t it be perfect
if we were greeted on these December mornings
with a hovering of heavenly hosts
tuning their harps and brushing up on their fa-la-las?
Wouldn’t it be incredible
if their music filled our waking hours
with the promise of peace on earth
and if each Advent night we dreamed of nothing but goodwill?
Wouldn’t we be ecstatic
if we could take those angels shopping,
or trim the tree or have them hold our hands
and dance through our houses decorating?
And, oh, how glorious it would be
to sit in church next to an angel and
sing our hark-the-heralds!
What an Advent that would be!
What Christmas spirit we could have!
An angel-filled Advent has so many possibilities!
But in lieu of that,
perhaps we can give thanks
for the good earthly joys we have been given
and for the earthly “angels” that we know
who do such a good job of filling
our Advent with alleluias!
May all of your days of Advent be filled with the alleluias of guardian angels, perhaps some you have known for a long time, and perhaps new ones that surprise you!