Once again our society has gotten it almost entirely wrong. Christmas trees have been out on the floors of BJ’s since early October for those who can’t wait to put out their decorations. This includes some in my own extended family who expressed dismay back in early November when they learned that we don’t get our tree until the last weekend before Christmas. A local radio station has been playing holiday tunes 24-7 since November 1. I can not even begin to imagine the number of times “White Christmas,” “Jingle Bells,” or, God help us, “Santa Baby,” has played until now.
The most mysterious character in the annual Christmas pageant is the innkeeper, or rather “innkeepers” if the director has a flourish for the dramatic. You may remember that in the Charlie Brown Christmas, a girl was very excited to be cast as the innkeeper’s wife. Most often the kids starring in these roles get decked out in robes, and they most determinedly—even, dare I say it, heartlessly—shake their heads while mouthing the words “no.” Then they point to some other place where the uncomfortably pregnant Mary and her distraught husband Joseph must go since the last rooms had been taken by the smart travelers who booked ahead on TripAdvisor.
This character of course comes from pure speculation since Luke simply writes, “She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” We don’t really know if an innkeeper or two stood there in front of their establishments pointing up the road to another hotel, or if they had pity and took them around back to the stable for other travelers’ animals so at least they could have a place to lie down after their journey. We just know that Bethlehem’s inns were jammed with people likely because of this worldwide registration by the Emperor, the guy who wanted to know how many people he ruled over so he could stroke his ego a bit more.
Moana just wanted to go out into the wider ocean, something she had felt drawn to since her youngest days when she toddled along the beach near her village in the Polynesian Islands. The ocean called to her. But her father, the leader of her tribe, forbid it due to his own backstory of fear and loss out on the sea. Moana, the title character in the Disney film, spends the first act of the movie trying to get it right, trying to make her parents happy and proud of her as she learns the customs and traditions she will uphold when she becomes the chief after her father. But while she longs for their blessing, she cannot become who they fully want her to be because of that pull toward the ocean and toward her true calling.
“On the fifteenth of May, in the Jungle of Nool In the heat of the day, in the cool of the pool, He was splashing… enjoying the jungle’s great joys… When Horton the elephant heard a small noise.”
If you’ve ever read the classic story Horton Hears a Who by Dr. Seuss, you know what’s going on. But for the uninitiated, let me summarize. Good ol’ Horton, while enjoying the cool of that pool, sees a speck of dust floating by from which he is certain emerged that small noise. Using his noggin, Horton surmises there must be a person on that speck needing help. So he adeptly plucks that speck out of the air, placing it gently among the soft petals of a flowering clover. For, he declares with some bravado and grace, “A person’s a person no matter how small.”
As we begin this new church year and the season of Advent, I have a confession to make: I’ve never preached on this gospel.
While you may not think this is a big deal—this reading from Luke’s gospel only comes up every three years, I’ve only been in ministry 14 years, so mathematically that’s not much of chance at all. But if my ministry lasts 30 years or so, that means I’m nearing the halfway mark and so the question begging to be asked is what am I avoiding.
Mark describes Jesus as packing up for a journey, when a man walks up to him. “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks. Jesus questions his use of good, trying to push on what the man meant by it. “Only God can truly be considered good,” he tells the man before getting down to the answer of his question. Jesus picks out six of the ten commandments, the ones dealing with a person’s interactions with other human beings—don’t steal or murder or defraud. You can almost see the man begin to smile. “Well,” he says, delighted, “I’ve taken care to obey them even from my youth.” That’s when Jesus looks on this man who has come looking for the affirmation that he has figured it all out, that he has taken care of everything and is now riding high until the end of his life, and has compassion on him. Mark writes that Jesus loved him.
My homiletics professors in seminary exhorted us as future ministers that when we prepare to preach on Sunday morning we craft our sermons with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. They said our people, the ones who have come to worship with us, will be impacted by the week’s news, by the cultural shifts or the natural disasters, or by the more local stories less widely broadcast but no less significant to the lives of a community. And, we were reminded, the news of the day will impact parishioners differently, so keep them all in view when you write.
It’s obvious that whoever wrote Proverbs 31 was a man. “A capable wife, who can find,” the writer asks, and then gives us a litany of what the perfect woman looks like which sounds an awful lot like an Old Testament Martha Stewart. She collects wool and flax and spins them. She gets up while it is still dark to get food for the household. She goes out and buys a field in order to plant a vineyard herself, and her garden produces a magnificent bounty. She’s strong, getting in her daily workout, and also is a businesswoman with a savvy knack for buying goods. She stays up later than the rest of her household keeping busy with her many tasks. She’s generous. She’s a planner, having winter coats prepared before it gets cold. She’s an expert seamstress, creating luxurious clothes for her family, and her husband is a mover and a shaker himself, known at the city gates. She’s got enough time to make extra fashions, selling them at the marketplace. She has an air of dignity yet erupts in joyous laughter too. She’s wise and kind and is never idle. Her children praise her as does her husband, telling her she’s the best among all the women.
Jesus was tired.
Mark tells us that Jesus set out and went away into a different region—the area of the Gentiles—to get away. He’d just had that long conversation with the religious leaders about his disciples not washing their hands. He’d been teaching and healing and feeding people all over the region of Galilee, and he set out to a place where he might escape notice. But that didn’t happen.
Whenever you hear the gospelers making a comment about the Pharisees and scribes, you should pay attention. You should do so not because they’re portrayed as the foil for Jesus, as the “bad guys,” but because of what they represent. Far too often we think of them as these mythic villains in Jesus’ stories and then conflate them with all Jewish people, ignoring the reality that Jesus and his followers were also Jewish too. It would be far better to describe them simply as religious leaders or even the religious elite.