December 11, 2016
A few years ago at the congregation I was serving at as an Associate Pastor, members of the church were busy decorating the church for the Christmas season. The hallways are decked out in wreaths and garlands, Christmas trees are found in the lounge and in the sanctuary. The decorating had an air poignancy; this would be the last Christmas at the old location of the congregation. In a few weeks, the church would move to a new location a few blocks away.
One of the things that is always fascinating are the manger scenes. Like most folks, people tend to decorate the mangers with all the central characters; the wise men (even though they weren’t at the manger), the shepherds, Joseph, Mary and yes, Jesus. One my favorite mangers at church is one that is basically made for kids. The characters are all dolls and you can imagine a kid picking it up and squeezing it. That manger scene is a bit different. One of the young mothers set it up in front of the communion table. Mary and Joseph are there at the stable, but you have the shepherd on the steps leading down from the chancel and the wise men are all the way in the back of the church near the narthex.
What missing is Jesus. There’s no baby Jesus to be found.
The young mother explained to me that since wasn’t Christmas yet, the characters in the birth story are still a ways off. As Christmas draws closer, they will move in closer and closer. What I was fixated on was the fact that there was no Jesus. She did a good job of hiding Jesus, because I could not find the baby Jesus any where in the sanctuary. Where’s Jesus? Where indeed. Advent is about waiting and expectation, but I wonder if sometimes it’s also about this scary feeling that hope will never come, that things will never change. I think about places like my hometown of Flint, Michigan, known now for the lead in its drinking water, but also a place where the auto industry’s shrinkage has left huge swaths of empty land where giant factories used to be. Or places like the Syrian city of Allepo that has been devastated by five years of civil war. It’s in those dark times that people feel that hope is not present and that Jesus is nowhere to be found. We might pray and pray and for whatever reason, it feels like the phone line is dead.
Isaiah 61 tells the returning Israelites that hope is on the way. This had to be good news to these new arrivals after coming back to the land from years away in exile to a place that was ruined by wars. The unnamed prophet tells the people that the holy city of Jerusalem that had been destroyed decades earlier, would be rebuilt better than ever. It’s a great story and would be even better if it just stopped there. But the background reveals that Jerusalem was never rebuilt in the way the writer of Isaiah 61 said it would-at least not in their lifetime. And yet, this passage is still one of hope. Actually it’s not just about hope, but also about faith. We have faith that hope will prevail even if we can’t see it.
As I said earlier, one of the Christmas trees is located in the lounge. It’s was decorated with lights and an angel at the top…and socks. That year, socks were being collected for refugees, helping newcomers have warm feet in the winter, since most of them are coming from tropical countries to chilly Minnesota. Advent is a time of hope, and sometimes hope comes in the form of…well, socks. Hope can come in the form of socks! It’s hard when you are in pain or suffering to see Jesus anywhere, but maybe we can have hope that Jesus is the giving of socks to the stranger, or in the kind word we give to someone grieving or simply standing by a friend as they battle cancer or even something that only God knows. It is in these acts that God brings hope to the burdened…and it’s where Jesus is found.
Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.