The Most Unlikely of Places

Text: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 3:7-18

If you haven’t already noticed, Christmas is coming. Twelve more days to go. By now, there have been all manner of parties, various gatherings and celebrations, and now the main event and the big meals await. If we aren’t careful, by the time the 25th rolls around we are ready to collapse in exhaustion. Yet earlier in Advent, I remember seeing this statement: “If you are sick of Christmas by December 24th, you’re doing it wrong.” Specifically, if we are sick of Christmas by December 24th, we are doing ADVENT wrong. Truth is, Christmas doesn’t truly start until Tuesday… or tomorrow night if you split hairs. For as much as decorations have been up since before Remembrance Day in some places, the actual season of Christmas starts on December 25th, and continues for twelve days. If you ever wondered where we get that song from, you should be looking for your partridge in a pear tree on Christmas morning.

So what have we been doing then here in December? In a word: Advent.

Today is the fourth Sunday in Advent. To be sure, Advent is about preparation, and so much of the things we are doing ahead of Christmas IS preparation. Yet if we have lost the sense of hope and joy, and even a sense of peace that comes from preparing for the coming of Christ, then we’ve lost something along the way… and maybe it’s time for us to reconnect with it, even in this last full day before Christmas Eve. Advent reminds us that while the coming of Jesus was long expected, God came to us from the most unexpected of places. No amount of preparation could have truly prepared the world for this kind of welcome.

The stories of Advent, which are definitely tied to Christmas, are about God’s grace, God’s gift coming from the most unlikely of places. Advent readings, regardless of the year, have this element of the unexpected. Luke even gets a bit rude about it when describing John’s rather abrasive style of preaching. People were going out into the wilderness to hear this new preacher, who was proclaiming the coming of the messiah. Yet when they get there, John calls them on it. He calls them a Brood of Vipers, –children of snakes! This isn’t what we expected, but John is speaking truth to power… reminding us that God doesn’t show up where we want, or does the things that we expect, and it comes from the most unexpected of places.

The same can be said about the birth of Jesus. It was not so much an unexpected event, as much as it was from the most unlikely of places. It was offensive to those in power –and Herod especially—that this saviour would be born outside of the palace… outside of the halls of power and their control. This is what makes Advent so revolutionary. While this was something that people expected and hoped for so long, the actual circumstances defied all logic.

So there’s a lesson in here someplace… our Christmas preparations are so much about preparing for the expected. There’s a certain routine we have developed, traditions that we follow, that we leave very little for that sense of expected but unlikely surprise that comes at Christmas. We often spend so much time trying to create that sense of awe and wonder for our children, for example, that we don’t allow room for ourselves to experience it.

As harsh as John the Baptist is to begin with, he reminds people that if anyone has more than they need, share with those who don’t. Never abuse the power that you’ve been given for personal gain… because these structures of power, the things we expect and accept as normal are not sustainable. God is doing something new, and those changes are going to come from the most unlikely of places.  Next week, as a part of the reading tradition, is Mary’s song, what is called “the Magnificat” is a song to the upending of this power from the most unlikely of places. It’s like it’s a theme throughout Advent.

The unlikely origins of where God chooses to act is what gives Advent power. It is truly revolutionary, because it is coming from the most unlikely of places. Imagine if you will if you were rich and powerful and liked things that way, how might you react to this? Probably you wouldn’t be too happy… God’s grace and God’s love comes to us in the places we don’t expect. To quote a song by Canadian singer Bruce Cockburn, “For It isn’t to the palace that the Christ Child comes, but to shepherds and street people, hookers, and bums.” Yet the up-ending of power is not a violent act, but one of quiet defiance that changes the world.

Here’s the lesson: while efforts to hold on to power might work in the short term, those who are desperate to cling to it, often find themselves on the wrong side of history.  Ironically, those who use the Bible to hold on to power, somehow conveniently skip over passages like what we hear from Zephaniah…  “I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise. It’s a lesson that we still haven’t learned… God is never what we expect, and never acts where we might expect. It’s not about ourselves and our comfort, and what we like, but what God is calling us to be. That’s why we need this season called Advent, to remind us of that.

God so often works within the unlikely and unexpected… and Advent embodies so much of that. While we can expect and anticipate and prepare, Advent reminds us that there is always room for uncertainty in that waiting. We never know precisely what God’s promise is going to look like, we cannot ever say with certainty that we know what God is up to. Any effort that we make to control it or define it is a futile effort, but that’s not a bad thing at all. Advent is about trusting God to be there in the midst of it all. So in these closing hours of Advent, maybe take a moment to prepare room for the Christ child, and open our eyes and ears for the unexpected, it makes the wonder of Christmas so much more powerful.

If I can lean into Christmas for just a moment, here’s a short observation: once the 25th rolls around, it ends all too quickly. Decorations at the malls come down, and suddenly there’s no more Christmas carols to be sung. Yet if Advent is the season of preparation, then Christmas is the season of the gift. It’s a season, not just one day. If we are tired of Christmas by the 25th, then we’ve missed something. As I mentioned already, Christmas begins on the 25th, and continues on through January 6th. Here’s a challenge that my family took on, and I realize I might be messing with some long-standing traditions, but we try to let our Christmas tree remain standing until January 6th. It becomes a reminder to us that in all of our preparation, we need to take time to appreciate God’s gift… a gift so magnificent, that the story a poor young man and his wife to be some twenty centuries ago still resonates so strongly with us today.