The truth is that the service project with the junior highers was finished an hour earlier than I’d anticipated. I was in a pickle that every youth minister can relate to—how to kill time in a way that doesn’t necessarily involve one hundred rounds of foursquare (at best), a wrestling match, or mindless, reckless running down the halls under the guise of “hide & go seek.”
“Circle up!” I said. Eyes rolled.
We sat and I passed out note cards and my box of markers, and I just started asking fill-in-the-blank questions. I wasn’t sure yet what we’d do with the answers, but I figured I’d cross that bridge when we came to it…
“My favorite time of day is...” “I am happy when...” “I am sad when...”
And then I upped the ante: “I feel close to God ….”
“I feel close to God in church…
…when I pray
...when I visit my grandparents.”
…when I fail a test.”
…when I get hurt.”
…when I’m upset.”
…when I hear bad news.”
…when I’m in trouble.”
…when someone dies.”
…when everything around me is bad.”
“I feel close to God in the dark.”
I’m not sure what, if anything, I was expecting. But I do know that I was, as always with teenagers, surprised and delighted. They tapped into one of the great, beautiful paradoxes of our faith—that we believe that God is so good, so good, so good—AND—we believe that when things are so bad, so bad, so bad, that’s when we know that God’s shown up.
Over two thousand years ago, God showed up.
So, this Caesar Augustus guy decided to do a census. His power had gone straight to his head (it happens), and he wanted to know just how many peeps there were in the region so he could know just how much money he could collect that year in taxes.
This was a world ruled by the Roman Empire—5% of the people owned 95% of the land and resources. So, this census, frankly, was just rotten. An abuse of power.
You know the story—Luke tells it beautifully. Joseph is a good, honorable, very poor man. He’s not going to avoid the census, but he’s also not going to leave his pregnant girlfriend behind. So they saddle up on a donkey, and to Bethlehem they go. They don’t have anything. They are the poorest of the poor. But they care for each other. And for the miracle growing inside of her.
Well, of course they get 45 miles down the road—only half way there—when her water breaks. They veer off over there, a couple miles out of the way, where they know they’ve seen an inn before, but there’s no room (and even if there had been a room, there’s no guarantee they could afford it anyway). So, the keep going—almost there—when the wind picks up and it blows open a barn door just ahead. Shelter.
God shows up.
It was in that shelter—a dirty barn with dirty animals, hay for pillows, and stagnant water for relief—that Jesus Christ is born.
God shows up.
As a baby—a human baby—God shows up with nothing to speak of other than a couple teenagers—his mom and her very poor carpenter fiancé.
In a world where the rich were really, really rich and really, really comfortable, and relatively speaking really, really healthy, God Showed Up In A Barn. Not a palace. Not a castle. Not a house. Not even a rural inn. A barn.
The New Order Has Arrived. And it doesn’t look anything like The Current Establishment.
The New Way, God’s Way shows up in the dark.
The New Way, God’s Way shows up among the poor and oppressed.
The New Way, God’s Way, the New Order meets us in the darkness.
This is Good News Indeed. God Showed Up among the Least of Us. The world has never seen anything like this before—power to the powerless.
+ + + + + +
It’s been one heck of a year, hasn’t it?
Terrorism hasn’t stopped. Remember what happened in India just last month?
We’re still at war.
Tornado season yielded nearly 60 deaths in the southern region of this country.
Gas prices are better now, but holy moley, that was a rough four months.
That tropical storm in Myanmar back in May killed over 133,000 people.
Hurricanes Gustav, Hanna, and Ike killed hundreds and hundreds.
And then. September. Lehman Brothers filed bankruptcy, and we knew we were in trouble, didn’t we?
This economic crisis is touching every single one of us.
Yeah, it’s no secret that we aren’t exactly living in The Best of Times. Even Buckhead, Georgia feels a hit, and we’re scared. Words like “bailout” and “recession” are common vernacular these days. Pfft. What a drag.
Never mind everything else.
Who have you grieved this year?
What are your losses?
How much of you is in the dark?
But there is Hope. Hope with a capital H.
Turns out that God’s All Time Favorites are those who are down and out. Eternal success isn’t measured in stocks or property, land or money. Eternal Life is something we all get, no matter what. And the people who know that best, the ones God is closest to, are the ones without. Obviously. Look where he was born.
The birth of Jesus Christ is Good News because in it lies our ultimate security. Hope that no matter how bad things get, we know that God showed up first in the dark.
I am not about to stand before you today to tell you that Everything Is Going To Be Okay. I am here to say that Everything IS Okay.
No matter what you’re going through.
No matter how hard it is.
No matter how thick the darkness.
You Are Okay.
And the darker it gets, the more likely you are to be present to God who—as it turns out—has been there the whole time.
Those middle schoolers that day, sitting in the circle. They hit God’s Great Truth out of the park...
The Truth is that God Loves You more than you could ever ask or imagine. Maybe you’re uncertain about that. Maybe you can’t feel it. But I have proof:
God Still Speaks. Maybe not audibly, like a voice from the heavens or a visitation by an angel—though I’m certainly not going to put it past God to appear to any of us in any way at any time. But tonight—right now—in the midst of the mystery and wonder of God’s Coming—God is speaking to through this most miraculous story. God is speaking in the story of a baby, born in a barn, who was sent to bring peace and comfort to our very affliction.
The story of God Born In A Barn has transcended time and it now gets to be ours.
Tonight. God has Shown Up for us. The Hope is tangible when we’re open and ready. And I believe we are. It’s been a long, cold Advent. We’ve waited with the patience and stillness of Mary. And now, tonight, God Has Come. And everything is Okay. God is with us—no matter what—and we couldn’t be better.
Can you feel the grip of baby’s hand around your finger? Is there anything better than that? “I’m here,” God is saying. “I’m not letting go.”
Sleep in heavenly peace.