December 26, 2021
First Sunday of Christmas, 12/26/2021, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer
Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you. Amen
The members of the Holy Family in most of our manger scenes are often depicted in loving care of one another. My favorites are the nativity sets where the three figures are touching each other, Mary and Joseph leaning into one another while their newborn child rests in their arms: the gentlest of families, holding each other in generous, loving embraces.
Twelve years later, some of the charm has worn off. Mary, usually portrayed as gentle, meek and mild, shows up in today’s text, sounding a bit more frantic.
It was all just too much: the packing up and traveling with the extended family, journeying into the capital for the holy days. And just as they try to wind down from all the fuss on the way back to Nazareth, practicing reasonable social distancing with their maturing preteen, they discover he wasn’t with the clan at all. They spend three more days of unpaid leave time in frantic despair retracing their steps, anxiously searching for him.
It must have been a relief for them to finally find him, but I imagine that their anxiety only shifted to a new concern as they see him there engaged in deep conversation with people three and four times his age. They must have wondered how to support this precocious child as he continued to grow into maturity. Mary speaks for parents in every generation: “We’ve been searching for you in great anxiety[i].”
Great anxiety. If there ever were two words to summarize a whole season for us, or even two full years, this must be it. We come to another Christmas, having trusted the promises that as long as we took every precaution – vaccinate, boost, keep vigilant, avoid crowds, disinfect, wear masks–we’d be able to enjoy a more normal holiday. But instead, we find ourselves faced with the alarming onset of a new wave of infections, sweeping through households, communities, cities,
and in fact the entire nation, with spiking rates of illness, forcing disappointing decisions to celebrate remotely. Many families will once again be exchanging gifts in frosty driveways, and celebrating through a zoom party.
Your worship leaders have been wringing our hands and second-guessing our decisions, daily, sometimes hourly, thinking maybe we should have scaled things back even further. Have we put you at risk by gathering in person these last few days? Should we be moving more of our plans back on-line?
Great anxiety. This pandemic has robbed us of Christmas serenity. Those hymns of sleeping in heavenly peace and ushering in the new morning, feel like false advertising. We spend sleepless nights wondering what we’ve lost. Will our loved ones survive this? Will the hospitals manage? How much has been lost for our kids, and how much more will be taken from them? What will the long-term cost be of all of this time in remote learning or missed family experiences? How have careers been damaged by lack of time in face-to-face conversations with clients, colleagues or supervisors? How will all of those we love who live alone weather the loss of social contact they’ve endured?
And it’s not only the pandemic. So many of you are dealing with family emergencies and crises that seem to exacerbate our sense of loss and fatigue. Outside there’s a growing sense that we’re losing our concern for the common good. Some pundits warn that we’re losing our democracy to false narratives and exclusionary distrust of our neighbors. What have we lost by shifting away from in-person dialogue or shared personal stories with those who have different perspectives or experiences? What will we have left to pass down to future generations?
Our sense of wellbeing is further eroded by descriptions of climate change and irreversible damage to the planet. Weird December tornadoes in Minnesota remind us that the icecaps are melting, the oceans are warming, and our chances for returning to more typical seasons are eroding. How many more sacrifices or adjusted plans and expectations can we manage before we’ve lost not just time or opportunity, but our very sense of self?
Our anxiety only deepens as we wonder whether God’s place in our lives is missing too. Will the church survive this long strange season of isolation, streaming and remote worship? Will young people sense a connection to a congregation if they’ve had so little contact with us, or with each other? What will become of our faith?
Here on only the Second Day of Christmas, we echo Mary and Joseph’s despair when we come to the temple and lament what we’re going through. “We have been searching for you, dear God, with great anxiety. We have been searching for hope, for meaning, for the goodness of Christmases we knew in years gone by. We have been searching for ourselves, and we’re afraid it’s all lost. Where have you gone?”
But notice our young Jesus in the center of the scene. There he is, with the confidence of adolescence, and a depth of spirit that far exceeds his age, boldly discussing scripture with the scribes and faith leaders, amazing those around him with his perspective.
These ancient words they discuss make sense to him. He trusts that the God behind them is behind him, too. He trusts, in fact, that God’s word is not only wrapped up in the scrolls, but is wrapped up within him, and in the whole world, revealing purpose, hope and goodness that will endure, despite all of our fears and anxiety. Like the angels that appeared to the shepherds, his child’s face seems to radiate a calm, “Don’t be afraid. God is not lost. God’s word is alive, is real and trustworthy.”
In Jesus, we discover, that God’s Word takes on flesh, and lives among us. In fact, we discover Immanuel, God with us.
God is here. God is here even though the world is a mess. Maybe God is here especially because the world is a mess. God is here in the unmet expectations of a second pandemic holiday, the delayed celebrations, the lost tempers, the shattered dreams, the broken hearts.
God is here saying, “My child, my beloved one, my own, didn’t you know I would be present in your anxious longing? Didn’t you know I would be tending the broken, reaching out to the lonely, repairing the breach, responding to the confusion, and wiping away your tears? Didn’t you know I would be busy doing God’s business?”
We may be anxiously mourning that this is again not a very perfect Christmas but I suspect there never has been one. Christmas has never really been about that perfect present under the most elegant tree. Christmas has never been about a perfectly happy family, a perfectly exquisite celebration, or a perfect time in history.
Christmas has from the beginning always been about God’s power and grace entering an imperfect world. Christmas has always been about God sensing all of our anxiety and confusion, and holding each one of us in the most tender and gracious of loves.
Where is God? God is alive in the ancient texts and psalms Jesus discussed with his elders and is still alive as we read them again to each other, Sunday after Sunday, Christmas after Christmas. or day after day. And what those words of grace proclaim to us is that God has never been lost. God has chosen to be born for us over and over again, even in imperfect lives, in countless, ordinary ways.
Christmas persuades us to see God being born to shepherds and immigrants, being born in the rebellious independence of preteens, and in the wisdom of elders, within the vulnerability of infants wrapped in swaddling rags, and the tenderness of parents managing their anxiety in every generation.
God’s compassion is born through the ways we work to offer simple goodness to each other–the gracious emails sent to the people you’ve missed, the handwritten cards expressing care and concern for the friend who is grieving, the baked goods wrapped in foil and dropped off at a neighbor’s door, the unexpected phone call.
God’s gift of eternal life is born for us in surprising reminders of those we grieve, whose sweet memory still brings a smile to our faces. God’s tenderness is born in moonlit walks through the dark of winter nights, or the favorite carol played on the radio, or the warm cup of cocoa and soft blanket embracing us in kindness. God’s creative spirit is revealed through poetry and symphony, through story and song, through imaginative playfulness. God’s delight is born for us every time we hear a child’s laughter, or marvel at the beauty of candlelight[ii]. After yesterday’s successful launch of NASA’s new space telescope, I trust that God’s wonder will be revealed in the mysteries uncovered in the far edges of the universe.
Today at this table, God’s own body will be shared in simple bread and wine, in trusting hands held open, in words of promise. Our anxiety is met by God’s presence, which though we despaired was missing, has never been taken away from us. A weary world rejoices.
I wonder if Hannah, our ancient mother, was as nervous and anxious as we have been these last two years, wondering whether she was doing the right thing in sending off her firstborn to the temple, as she had promised[iii]. I wonder whether she fretted that Samuel was missing too much of life with the family, that he wouldn’t know the goodness she and Elkanah would have offered him at home. I wonder whether she ran to the temple each year, desperately hoping to find that he hadn’t lost his love for her, hadn’t lost his childlike goodness, wasn’t losing his childhood.
Each year, she prepared a new robe for her little boy to wear for his duties. I picture her a little like Molly Weasley, faithfully knitting a sweater each year for each of her children at Hogwarts. And each year, I imagine Hannah grieved a little as she cut the fabric a little larger, watching her precocious boy grow into maturity without her.
I suspect there was some anxiety in her heart as she wove it together. The robe couldn’t have made up for all that she would have shared with him had he grown up at home. It wouldn’t have filled the mother-sized hole she worried could be growing in his heart, nor the adolescent-sized hole that was expanding in her own.
But each one of those annual garments was a gift of her love, a token of trust that her child’s work was what God’s world needed that year. Perhaps as she stitched that robe’s tiny seams, her own anxious heart was mended too, and she was reassured of God’s presence in the world, holding both her and Samuel in grace.
St. Paul reminds us of the robe our baptism has woven for us to wear in these anxious days, too, woven of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, peace, love, gratitude, song[iv]. What a lovely garment tenderly sewn for us to wear in this new year, wrapping each of us in God’s generous, loving embrace, turning all of humankind into the holy family of God. We are invited to put it on like a new Christmas sweater for which we can only tell our Mother God, “Thank you. It fits perfectly.” And then wear it with grace, witnessing to God’s perfect arrival in our perfectly anxious world.
Thanks be to God.
[i] Luke 2:41-52
[ii] Boynton, Paul, “BeginWithYes,” https://www.facebook.com/beginwithyes/posts/464358878387510
[iii] 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26
[iv] Colossians 3:12-17