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Where God Was Homeless

For Sunday December 12, 2004
Third Sunday of Advent

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
           Isaiah 35:1–10
           Psalm 146:5–10 or Luke 1:47–55
           James 5:7–10
           Matthew 11:2–11

'The Scream' by Edvard Munch (1893)
"The Scream" by Edvard Munch (1893)

           On Sundays my wife and I serve in the nursery at our Presbyterian church, helping with babies under a year old. The week before Thanksgiving my wife noticed one of our co-workers gently crying as she washed her hands at the sink. When Patty inquired, Susan explained: "You have no idea how painful the holidays are for me. My husband divorced me, and later died. My son was killed by a drunk driver, and my daughter died of cancer. A few weeks before she died, my son-in-law, an attorney, stole all the property that she had intended me to inherit. In fact, as she lay dying, she took great comfort thinking that I would inherit her condo. I am utterly alone in the world, without any family."           

           About a week earlier, Patty had spoken to Ella, an attractive, single woman in her forties, an interior designer, who cried while she described her life: "I divorced after five years of marriage, I take Prozac, I'm in weekly therapy, and I hate my job. My gay boss with his massive ego is so hard to work with."

           The teenage son of my friend's colleague just committed suicide.

           These people speak for many others who struggle from day to day and week to week to find some modicum of health and wholeness in a badly broken world. Television shows like "Dr. Phil" and "The Swan" suggest that they are not alone. Phil McGraw's show appears on over 200 stations that cover 99% of the country's market. The show mixes exhibitionism, voyeurism, and vicarious identification into a sort of "therapy as entertainment." Eating disorders, sexual dysfunction, financial disaster, wayward children and the like are regular fare for the 8 million viewers that tune in. McGraw recently signed a new contract that will keep him on the air through 2009, insuring that he will profit handsomely from the pain of others. About 7 million people watch Fox's "The Swan," which features women so deeply unhappy with the way they look and feel that they compete on a show where they are paired with a coach, a therapist and a cosmetic surgeon for a complete makeover—physical, mental and emotional. Or so they hope, and would have us believe. The series culminates in a "pageant" that crowns one woman "The Swan."

           The central plot of the Christmas story is not one of glitz, glitter, conspicuous consumption, and superficial makeovers, but of a God who assumed human flesh and entered our broken world with all of its hells, both deeply personal and tragically global, in order to embrace and redeem us. One of the earliest Christian confessions, known as the Apostles' Creed, affirms that Jesus "descended into hell," which is actually a decidedly Christmas sort of thought.

'Awaiting His Return' by Charles White (1945)
"Awaiting His Return"
by Charles White (1945)

           The God of the Christian Christmas, not to be confused with the cultural Christmas of the shopping malls, cares deeply for the invisible and the ignored, the marginal and the vulnerable, the nameless and the forgotten, all those people whom society pushes to the periphery. I have tried to read the Bible carefully for thirty years, but I must say that I was jolted when I read the Advent Scriptures for this week. In a special way they reveal the center of the heart of God. Four of the five passages (every one except the epistle of James) focus on a litany of the sorts of people whom God goes out of His way to embrace. These Scriptures describe at least eighteen—eighteen!—sorts of people who are perhaps forgotten by the world but who are remembered in God's compassion: the blind, the lame, the diseased, the deaf, the dead, the poor, the dumb, the oppressed, the hungry, the prisoners, the bowed down, foreigners, orphans, widows, the humble, and then my three favorites, those with feeble hands, weak knees, and fearful hearts. The Christmas message to these people is "do not fear, be patient, have confidence."

           These Scriptures remind us that the Christmas story is essentially that of a God of tenderness and love who seeks to redeem us in whatever sort of lostness we find ourselves. In his book Searching for Home; Spirituality for Restless Souls (2003), Craig Barnes observes that sooner or later hell and heartbreak "visit every address and come for a visit." If we are not careful, in those times it is all too easy, in the words of Dante's Divine Comedy, to have our vision "clouded by the mists of hell." But on that first Christmas night, Jesus was born in a dirty stable and not a palace. The central characters in this drama were all homeless—Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the wise men. No wonder so many people missed the miracle, and yet as Barnes notes, Christians believe that when God entered our world with all of its hurts and pains, "everything between heaven and the chaotic earth was changed forever."

            The sacred baby Jesus enters into our secular world, the extraordinary into the ordinary, the heavenly into the mundane. The British writer GK Chesterton (1874–1936) captures this divine descent into the human in his poem "The House of Christmas."

'The Annunciation' by He Qi
The Annunciation by He Qi

There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay on their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.

A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost - how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky's dome.

This world is wild as an old wives' tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.

A foul stable with filthy animals, a pregnant teenage mother roaming homeless, our wild world. It is in God's own homelessness, says Chesterton, that we discover our own sense of home.

           The Hebrew prophet Isaiah (8th–7th century BCE) wrote that some day this coming of God's kingdom will break forth like a highway in the wilderness, or crocuses blooming in the parched desert. Some day, he insists, the blind will see, the deaf will hear, the lame will leap, and the dumb will shout for joy. Water will gush in the desert, burning sand will transform into a bubbling spring. For all of those like my wife's two friends who are bent and bowed by the harsh realities of life, Isaiah prophesies that some day "gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away" (Isaiah 35:10).

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