This time of year, if you are lucky, you are making sure that you have the “perfect” gift for the people in your lives. The thrill of the hunt. The satisfaction in watching other’s joy. The January credit card bill! But we all know that these tangible portrayals of our affection are only an outward sign of the inward truth of our love. That’s the thought that came to me as I read our first Scripture lesson –the idea that David wanted to build God a house, (since God was still appearing in a tabernacle, a tent—while David had settled down and was living in a palace).
And God, through the prophet Nathan, sends a pretty direct message—“Did I ask for a house?” “Did you hear me complaining?” “You aren’t the one to build houses anyway—I am the one who will build your house, literally, I will make you and your descendants important.” (And, of course, in our Scriptures, we are reminded that the ‘house’ of David is the line from which Jesus comes—as Zachariah says “He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old.”
Add to that my musing on the differences between a house and a home—which I have recently realized we use interchangeably--incorrectly. There is a growing acknowledgment of the sentiment from the community that we call “homeless”—who don’t like that term. What is preferred is “unhoused.” Now we could pull up all those adages like “Home is where the heart is” or “The journey is home” or “Home is not a place, it’s a feeling” to bolster this concept. And yet, I think the mistake that King David made, thinking that house and home were one and the same, is one that we continue to make in this day and age.
Advent is a preparation time leading us toward Christmas--that incredible, beautiful day when God choose to make earth God’s home. And isn’t it fitting (maybe) that Jesus is born not in a house, but in an outbuilding, a stable, because there was no room, there was no house, for him. There is a fairly new Christmas carol by John Bell and Graham Maul called “Who Would Think that what was needed.” I know the name is wordy and doesn’t really get at their message—but listen to their first verse.
“Who would think that what was needed to transform and save the earth
might not be a plan or army; proud in purpose, proved in worth? Who would think, despite derision, that a child should lead the way? God surprises earth with heaven, coming here on Christmas Day.”
Yes, who would think of God coming to be with us, to be one of us, as the solution to the world’s problems? And yet, if we truly believe in hope, and peace (shalom), and joy and love, it seems perfectly understandable, that when prophets and kings and messengers of all kinds don’t get the job done, that maybe, a personal intervention might be needed. We just didn’t expect a baby. We are so intent on building God a house, that we don’t remember to build God a home.
That is what Christina Rossetti points to in the last verse of her beautiful Christmas carol “In the Bleak Midwinter.” After talking about angels and archangels and cherubim and seraphim thronging around the manger holding “the Lord God Almighty—Jesus Christ,” Rossetti wonders “What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; if I were a wise one, I would do my part; yet what I can I give him: give my heart.”
On this Sunday when we have lit the Advent candle that reminds us of love, the question is, “What are we giving God this year?” Amidst our lists of —Who gets presents? Who gets Christmas cards? Who will we zoom with? Who do we wish were still here with us?—does God even make an appearance? Do we spend any time thinking what we can give God this year? Do we go through the motions (attending a service, or giving a monetary gift, or volunteering in some way—and all of those are good, mind you!)? But I am coming to believe that those “things” are more like saying that we are going to build God a house—when what God wants is for there to be space, a place, for God to dwell inside us, for God to have a home.
Here’s another verse from Bell and Maul’s Christmas carol:
“Shepherds watch and wise ones wonder; monarchs scorn and angels sing; such a place as none would reckon hosts a holy helpless thing. Stable beasts and bypassed strangers watch a baby laid in hay; God surprises earth with heaven, coming here on Christmas Day.”
“OK Preacher,” I can hear some of you thinking. So the point of this sermon is that we need to give God a Christmas present this year. And this present is about making a home for God here and now. What would that look like? And that is the question. What does making God a home in our lives look like?
Of course, we could “give the gift of our hearts,” as Christina Rossetti suggests—isn’t that what Jesus asks of us all the time? But in this time of hope and peace (shalom) and joy and love, the gift of our hearts isn’t just about a personal opening of ourselves to the wonder of a deeper relationship with God, though I want this for each and every one of us.
This year, I want us to pay attention to how God gave us a present. God didn’t wave a magic wand and make all things better (much as we might wish God would do such a thing). God didn’t send out a new list of “to dos” to get in God’s good graces. And God didn’t give up on us. God did a surprising thing—surprising earth with heaven—coming to be with us, and not just be with us, but be ONE of us—the ultimate type of presence.
I reminds me of a very classic movie called “Spartacus” about the slave rebellion in first century BCE. In it, there is the famous scene where the oppressors offer to commute the rebels execution orders if they will give up Spartacus, their leader, for crucifixion. And one by one, men stand and declare “I am Spartacus,” “I am Spartacus,” “I am Spartacus” demonstrating their common cause and their willingness to die in concert with their leader. God coming to earth, being born not in a palace but in a stable, is an intense way of making God’s point—God finds a home with us.
And that is what giving the gift of our heart is as well. Following in God’s footsteps. Looking for ways to be present with one another. I think of those who take the time to reach out to someone who might be lonely through a phone call or a card. I think of those who have spent time this Advent lifting up prayers for our members, our country, and our world. I think of those who have collected food, and bought presents for people they do not know, and tried to reach out to those in need. And I think of actions, big and small, that highlight that we stand together, in hope, in peace, in joy, and in love.
The story that so touched my heart this year was the tale of the Black Santa. The Kennedy family, Chris, his wife Iddy, and their 4-year old daughter, decorated their property in North Little Rock, Arkansas—as they had for several years. “They strung twinkly white lights along the rim of their home and stationed an inflatable Christmas tree and a towering Black Santa on the lawn, next to a colorful illuminated sign that reads, JOY” (Washington Post, 12/3/20).
And then they got an anonymous, racist letter in their mailbox (although the return address was their town Property Owners Association). It was signed from Santa Claus and demanded that they remove their Santa yard decoration because “I, Santa Claus, am Caucasian, and have been for the past 600 years...” Among other revolting things that this note espoused, it claimed “Obviously, your values are not that of the Lakewood area and maybe you should move to a neighborhood out east with the rest of your racist kind.”
Chris was so offended and angry and hurt that he started a live stream on Facebook where he read the letter and expressed his rage. Iddy was deeply disturbed. “I wondered if we had made the right choice; if this was the right environment to raise our daughter.”
The executive director of the association visited the Kennedys at their home to condemn the incident and assure them that they are valued members of the community. They also received a torrent of messages from neighbors. But I think the reason the story got nationwide press is what happened next. Santas of darker hues began popping up, one by one, on the lawns of Lakewood. So many neighbors have ordered “black Santas” that many retailers are running low on supply. The Kennedys now have two Santas on their lawn because a New Yorker sent another one to them. So many people wanted to make donations that they have redirected all requests to the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Arkansas.
As Chris put it, “At the end of the day, what was meant for evil was flipped for good. We are showing that we are truly better together and united as one.”
To me, those were gifts of the heart. That was a present not just for that family, but for all of us. And it made a small downpayment on enlarging God’s home here with us.
May we keep our eyes and ears and hearts open for our own turn to make a stand for hope, for peace, for joy, and most especially, for love. May it be so. Alleluia, Amen