December 28, 2008

The Christmas Parrot

Psalm 148
Luke 2:22-40

Did you get what you expected for Christmas? Or did you spend the last few days standing in line somewhere, waiting to exchange? It is always nice to get the perfect size, the right color, the preferred item, at the outset, but sometimes, in spite of our lists and our not-so-subtle hints, that just doesn’t happen. Usually we can – and do – swap for something else, but there are those things that we just get stuck with – no exchange, no gift receipt.

This happened a number of years ago to friends of mine. On Christmas morning, one member of the family received a huge box. I imagine it was far and away the biggest gift under the tree. Everyone waited in anticipation to see what it was.

Well, what it was – was a very large, ceramic parrot. The parrot was about three feet high, painted a really bad shade of green with orange and yellow trim. It was pretty awful.

I don’t know if the gift-giver meant it as a serious gift or not but the Christmas parrot became a great tradition in that family. After the first year, the object was for the previous year’s recipient to foist the parrot on another relative. And, as I understand it, the rules of this tradition mean that once you have, you have it until you can get somebody else to receive it. The Christmas parrot roosted in my friends’ sun porch for several years, actually.

After the flannel shirt is frayed and worn and the sweater is moth-eaten, when the box of candy is long-gone and that year’s hottest toy is gathering dust on a shelf somewhere, the Christmas parrot endures. How ironic that what seemed to be a joke at first has become one of the most lasting gifts in my friends’ family.

Now, you probably don’t have any Christmas parrots in your family – it seems a unique tradition, fortunately – but I imagine almost everyone has received a gift that was not quite what they expected. And that should not be a surprise or a disappointment to us, because when you think about the story of the first Christmas, almost no one there got what they expected either. From the very beginning, Christmas is about the unexpected.

Old Zechariah in the temple is visited by an angel who tells him that after he and Elizabeth have given up, they will indeed have a child. And that child, John, will be the one to prepare the way for the messiah. Zechariah’s reaction: “How can this be? Are you sure?” The angel also visits Mary and gives her unexpected – unbelievable – news. Her reaction is the same: “How can this be?” And Joseph, an orderly, measured man, no doubt, a carpenter, receives life-changing instructions in a dream. It would not be surprising if in the cold, bright light of day he asked himself: “How can this be?” Then the two of them, Mary and Joseph, find themselves in Bethlehem, a baby needing to be born, and no provisions. And we might ask ourselves: “How can this be – that the son of the great God of the entire universe should come into the world in this way?” Yes, from the very beginning, what people got was not what they expected.

And the beginning is even before Mary and Joseph. The prophets told of the unexpected as well – a messiah, a savior, coming in a world of disarray and disappointment, a world of sorrow and sadness and sin.

And even that is not the beginning, perhaps. If we had the vision to see, it might be that we would know that the beginning is without beginning. We would know the most unexpected thing of all – that the Lord of all the world cares even for us; that before we even existed, a great and powerful love was built into all that would come into being; that this love would not depend on our merit or worth or goodness, but it would come to us as an amazing unexpected gift of grace. We would know what Simeon and Anna knew – that God has not abandoned us, but instead has provided for our salvation, even when that means saving us from ourselves.

But this knowledge of the prophets is not an easy knowledge. It defies our expectations. All the waiting and anticipation for deliverance comes, not through power and might, but gathered up in a tiny baby. The prophecies are fulfilled in the strangest way imaginable, wrapped in fragile flesh and completely helpless. God wears a human face, and is called by a human name, and lives a human life. And almost everything about that life, the life of Jesus, is unexpected: his birth, his ministry, his friends – none of it what the people were looking for.

The one who fulfilled the ancient prophecies of the messiah was born to a poor unmarried couple, far from home, with no place to stay. The first witnesses to the miracle of his life were shepherds – unsophisticated, uneducated, unwashed field hands. He never wrote a book, built a church, had a family – never did any of the things that we might think memorable. For his entire, brief ministry, he associated with the most unlikely types – not the rich and powerful, not the religious leaders, not the respected of society. He spent his life with common laborers and IRS agents, with fallen women and contaminated lepers: the outcasts of society, the least and the last and the lost.

Even during his lifetime, the good news he brought was a strange kind of good news. So why should we be surprised if the gift of the presence of God still comes in strange and unexpected ways. Just like the first Christmas when it seemed nothing quite went right, and yet the Lord was in the midst of it, so it often is in our own lives. And sometimes it almost seems that everything has to fall apart in order to make room for his coming. Perhaps Simeon’s words to Mary are also meant for us: “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many. . . . And a sword shall pierce your soul, too.”

“A sword shall pierce your soul.” The cross is in the cradle and we do not receive the baby of Bethlehem without also embracing the man of sorrows. Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner explains it this way:

“Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again. Once they have seen him in a stable, they can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of humankind. If holiness and the awful power and majesty of God were present in this least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant’s child, then there is no place or time so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be present there, too. And this means that we are never safe, that there is no place where we can hide from God, no place where we are safe from his power to break in two and recreate the human heart because it is just where he seems most helpless that he is most strong, and just where we least expect him that he comes most fully.” (The Hungering Dark, pp.13-14)

“Just where we least expect him that he comes most fully.” God comes, in loss and disappointment and broken dreams. God comes, disguised as illness. God comes, through unlikely companions and disrupted plans, through heartbreak and betrayal. It is all gift, but it is gift cloaked in mystery, because what seems at first to be a joke turns out to endure through our lives, bearing the presence of God in a way we least expect.

When your marriage has not lived up to your hopes and dreams, when your children turn out to be a disappointment, when your life seems dull and unfulfilled, for the face of the savior. He will be there, born to you in a form that you least expected. When you are sick, really sick, or worse still, when someone you love is ill, look for the face of the savior. He will be there, leading you into a new way of life, showing you how precious the ordinary days can be, offering healing whether or not the doctors can promise a cure. When nothing seems to be going right, when everything is falling apart, look for the face of the savior. He will be there, born in the midst of the world’s chaos.

That is how it was at the first Christmas. And that is how it is now, too. We sing “all is calm, all is bright”, and that is true of the places where he is, but it is also true that he does not wait until everything is calm and bright in order to come. He is to be found in the places of fear and unrest, in pain and suffering, in the darkest of times. His presence is a gift, a soul-piercing gift, and it comes in the most unexpected ways.

Especially at Christmas, we want a God who will lift us out of our troubles and instead we get one who comes to be with us in whatever mess we are in; one who will use anything, even the woes of the world, to touch our hearts, to turn our heads, to get our attention; one who knows both the joy and the sorrow of being fully human. We get a God who comes to be with us, because this is the one who loves us with an everlasting love, and that is the greatest gift of all.

So let us take what is offered, this amazing, unexpected gift. And like Simeon and Anna, let us seek to live out our days in peace, because with our own eyes, we have seen our salvation. And let us praise God and speak about this child to all who will listen.

Thanks be to God for the gift of Jesus.

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