The Rev. Leslie Barnes Scoopmire
Once, we knew we lived, and walked, with God.
In the beginning God placed us in a beautiful garden(1)—an orderly place, where everything had a name, and everything had a purpose, and everything, even the humans, had been placed there in this beautiful garden by God. We knew we lived with God because every day God would come and walk in the cool of the evening with us. (2)
We’d stroll along, companionably, and talk about our day together. God would ask us what we had done: “Today we found a new plant over in the verge over there, and we were drawn to it by its amazing fragrance. Few flowers smelled anything like this plant, God, so we named it fuschia.” And our days were filled with wonder, and everything we saw and tasted and touched was a miracle. And God was very pleased.
When we asked God what God has done, God would talk about very important matters, something like midwifing a new solar system in another galaxy (3) or watching puffins play or teaching chimpanzees how to use a stick to dig termites out of their mounds so they could eat them as a tasty treat. And always making sure to be home in time for our shared evening walk.
But our restless selves were not satisfied, and so we chose to move away from God and God’s loving companionship. We chafed to be independent. We chafed to make our own rules.(4) That garden and that companionship was tossed aside. (5)
But God has been chasing after us ever since.
And when we are very honest with ourselves, we have felt something missing deep inside us.
We built monuments to ourselves in Babel, in Nineveh, in Athens, in Mesopotamia, pretending we didn’t need God. God kept visiting our ancestors all along the way, and maybe we’d walk beside God for a while, but always, always, we would decide we could choose our paths better, find an easier way. God even rescued us from slavery in Pharaoh’s courts, parting the waters of the sea like they’d been cracked open like an eggshell, but even then we complained and carped.(6)
Out in the wilderness, where everything was as un-gardenlike as possible, where hunger and thirst and rattlesnakes dogged our every step, we grudgingly agreed to not only follow God’s cloud in the day and fire in the night and eat the food of angels and the fried chicken God rained down on the ground,(7) and in return we agreed to follow God’s 10 Simple Rules—all of which boiled down to one word really: Love. Love of God and love of each other.(8)
We’d promise—and it would last for a little while. But then, like the trickster raven, we’d get distracted by something bright and shiny, or we’d want to be like the other scrabbling clans around us, or we’d decide we didn’t need a God so incredibly close to us, and we’d push God away and wander off again to do our own thing. Over and over.(9)
When we did turn to God, all God asked was to love us and have us love God and love each other and have some faith. All God asked for was for us to honor God’s presence in the midst of us—not for us a God who needed mountains like the Greeks or Ziggurats like the Babylonians or Teocalli like the Aztecs. All God wanted was to live in the midst of us, and for us to love God and each other. Really.
But we wanted control. We kept trying to put God in a box. David tried to build God a house of cedar, and his son Solomon actually achieved it. God said, "No, no, I’m happy living among you all, a tent is fine, really!"(10) But we wanted our God to be just as awe-inpiring as the neighbors’ gods.
Each generation made that house bigger and bigger and bigger, and added porches and courtyards and antechambers dripping in gold and gemstones and ivory, all obscuring the fact that they thought they were further confining God out of their everyday lives. Soon, talking to God was reserved for only special days for a select few, and the rest of the time they could go about their business without even thinking about God shut behind those imposing walls and turrets.
But God would not be shut in a box. Not then. Not ever. God would not only be willing to be brought out like the fine china on special occasions or like a lucky rabbit’s foot when things got tough. Because here was the secret: even when we shut our eyes, even when we pushed God away, God was still there. Not forcing us, but waiting for us to see and trust in God.
See, God is always with us, loving us—even when we turn our heads, or our hearts, and insist on our own way—even when our own way is out there with the rattlesnakes and the desert wastes of our fearful hearts even when our own way looks more like a hell of our making. God comes to show us that love is justice and mercy in action—and calls us to embody that with joy and faith. So simple, yet so difficult.
And so it went on. God calling to us, setting before us God’s beautiful vision for which God had made us—and us resisting, mistaking selfishness for security and wealth and power for well-being. Which never worked, much as we wouldn’t admit it.
Finally, God decided that prophets and saints and sages and mystics and even angels just weren’t enough to get us to remember those days when we knew God was always with us.
God with us…..
That gave God an idea.
God, who is the literal embodiment of love and community, decided to actually become one of us. And not as some fire-bolt throwing, six-pack flaunting, bearded Titan; not as some pampered princeling with a fine pedigree and a fancy mansion. Oh no. God had had enough of boxes, even fancy ones. God wanted to show us that God is always loving and present to us—even in the least significant places.
God came to be one of us—and one of the least of us, because God had been trying to tell us all along that money, fame, political power, military might, and oppressing others in the name of our comfort were no way to fill the aching empty spaces in our hearts.
God came to us as the most helpless creature in the world—a human infant, born to a teenaged mother in an occupied territory under the thumb of one of the greatest empires the world has ever know. God came as a little child, to show us the qualities that really matter by embodying them:
Compassion for the lost and aching.
Healing for the hurting.
Wisdom and teaching.
Food for the hungry, given freely.
Empathy for the wayward.
Freedom for the oppressed.
Community and equality for all.
Self-sacrifice and virtue for everyone’s mutual benefit. Especially the forgotten.
A little child, wrapped in rags, lying in a manger—a feeding trough. He and his family looking, like all of us, for a home. Born TO us, born FOR us, living and teaching and loving among us.
Tonight, tonight, if we are very quiet, we can hear—if we are very still and intent—the slight rasp of angel wings as they flutter overhead just as they did to those ragged shepherds all those years ago, and we hear that promise, as much a promise as a plea:
Do not be afraid.
To you, and me, and to all of us is born this day a savior.
He will be called Emmanuel—God With Us.
He will be a Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Prince of Peace.
He will come to live among us, to walk alongside us, in every moment of our lives, no matter how much we try to shove him back in a box and only bring him out on Sundays.
No, our Savior is looking for a home. May we open the doors of our hearts, and spirits, and invite him in, that he may guide us in learning how to live a life of purpose, of joy and connection and life eternal, grounded in love. Jesus didn’t come to reward us for when we die. Jesus came to show us how to live. And it starts by remembering how to walk alongside him, allowing him to show us the way of virtue and love, every day of our lives.
Joy to the world! Jesus Christ is born this night. All he asks is that we live among him, and allow him to a home inside our hearts, that we may walk beside him. Tonight, and every night. God with us. Emmanuel.
Preached at the 8:00 pm Christmas Eve Choral Eucharist at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville, MO.
(1) Genesis 2:8-19
(2) Genesis 3:8 a
(3) Job 9:7-10
(5) Genesis 2:24-25
(10) 2 Samuel 7:1-11
Image: The Nativity, by Carol Aust (b. 1958)