Why in this passage do the people of Nazareth become so angry at Jesus? And what does it tell us about the real Jesus? I think we can sum it up with two words. The real Jesus in this story is both too exclusive and too inclusive for the people to take. Both sides of it tick them off and if we’re honest, they may very well tick us off too.
So here’s the rub. It looks awfully clean around here. Out in the world, we’re told all week long to cover up our messes, to hide our shame in the dark, to paint over our struggles and to minimize our pain. Brothers and sisters, we’ve brought some of that in here. Here into this sacred space where God opens his arms wide on the cross -- can you think of a bigger mess? -- we sometimes bring that lie which says that we can only be loved and accepted if we cover up our messes.
Adam and Eve covered up their mess with fig leaves. We cover up our messes with glossing over and cheerfulness and keeping the closet doors closed and using mirrors to shift shadows around so that other people don’t see any mess. I’m not saying that you need to regurgitate your whole sordid history to the person in the pew next to you; I am saying that we need, humans need, God longs for us to enjoy, truth and transparency.
I’ve found it’s the same with our marriages and rearing children, living with our aging parents, and caring for them with our cantankerous siblings. The easiest and least-suffering that we can experience in these relationships is to be a doormat, or to put up a wall, to let others and their desires and their directions just run your life, or just do their own thing. This is suffering, too, just like if Jesus had said, “Yes, Ma’am,” and gone along with what Mary said. But this kind of suffering, passive suffering, suffering without your taking part in it, without you choosing it, this is not holy suffering. It is cursed. It is the suffering of the battered woman is never God’s call. The suffering of the starving child is not ever God’s call. The suffering of the kid passed around foster care is not ever God’s call. The suffering of being bled dry by an addicted family member is not ever God’s call.
Advent began in the dark as we waited for God’s salvation to come, and then at Christmas the light came on all in a rush: Joy to the world, the Savior reigns! Epiphany is meant to be the season where we all like the three wise men come to Bethlehem to see the Lord. It’s a season that focuses on seeing Christ. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us at Christmas, and now in Epiphany we stay awhile with this one called Jesus. Who is he? Have we really seen who Jesus is, or is the Jesus we thought we knew much smaller than the real thing?
The fact remains, my friends, that for these wise men from the East, God used a star. He showed up in the heavens, not riding on a chariot of clouds or as an old man with a great, flowing beard, but as a light, a ball of gases moving across the sky, a common constellation which St. Matthew tells us the astronomers “observed… at its rising.” If God revealed himself by way of a star to these pagans, and indeed, that sciencey-ball of gas led these Gentiles exactly to the foot of Jesus, I wonder where God might be showing up in our own lives today.
God didn’t have to be born of a woman, you know. The miracle of the virgin birth and the Incarnation is great enough that I suppose God could have sent his Son as a full-grown man, all grown up and able to take care of himself. But that’s not what he did. God sent his son in the relentless, all-consuming, adorably cute, dare I say even manipulative love of a little child.
If you find yourself in the bleak midwinter of life, the Christmas feast we’ll celebrate tomorrow is especially for you. If your health is failing, if your marriage is struggling, if your loved ones are dying, if you look at the mess of your life and are suffering the heartache that sin always brings, Christmas is for you. Christmas isn’t just for the kids. It’s for the grown-ups. It’s for us when we’ve reached the end of the line, when our hope is gone, when our hearts are frozen in the bleak midwinter of grief and anger and we wonder where God went. When that’s where we are, our lives are in the season of Advent.
Do we see, or witness, or experience, a wave of God’s grace and immediately run off to spend it? Do we respond to a prompting of God’s spirit by jumping into action, running off to Home Depot for lumber or to Target for Christmas gifts or to the kitchen to clean up, or make a casserole? I wonder if we might be cutting off the Holy Spirit, if we might be curtailing God’s hand. Not that we wield so much power as to derail almighty God, but like toddlers, I’m afraid we might get up and start running around before the conversation is over, before God is finished speaking.