Muslims and Jews follow a lunar calendar, so their holidays move around a lot. But last year the birthday of Mohammed fell on Christmas Eve. And this year, the first night of Hanukkah falls on Christmas Eve for the first time in 111 years. For the children of Abraham, that's a remarkable convergence. So I've asked my husband, Hank, to tell the story of Hanukkah, light the Menorah and say the blessing in Hebrew. Then I'll tell you why.
So, what do we say to them? How can we bring them the Good News of Christmas? How can we assure strangers and friends that life can begin again? Preachers, teachers, counselors: we all rely on words. But sometimes words aren't enough. Yes, in the beginning was the Word, but we're not here because of the Word made words! We are here because of the Word made flesh. We worship Jesus Christ. And that's where you and I come in. We are the Body of Christ, so you be his kind hands. I'll be his sure feet. You be his clear eyes. I'll be his sharp ears. You be his loving arms. I'll be his strong back. Together, we'll get our loved ones to Bethlehem so that their world and ours can begin again.
The truth is that the true light will never be seen in one of those light-infused homes in a Thomas Kinkade painting, because no one lives there, least of all Kinkade himself... The Good News of Christmas is that the true light is coming...into our homes, with all of our cracked windows, dirty closets and dishes piling up in the sink. The true light is coming into our lives, with all our broken promises, festering wounds and bags of guilt and regret cluttering up the hallway. But the good news is that we don't need picture-perfect lives, where the darkness in us is painted away with dabs of false light. We can face and embrace the darkness because the true light is coming.
If recessions, droughts, hurricanes, and wildfires can't keep Christmas from coming, what makes you think you can? Nothing that is going on in your life right now, nothing that is going on in our country or world right now, can keep God's love from coming in the flesh. Christmas comes even when we don't have any money or any energy and when we feel like we are losing our sanity. Even if the worst happens and we have to cancel the celebration, God's not going to cancel the incarnation.
And that just touches the need in our own neighborhood. What about Nazareth? Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Two thousand years ago, Jesus did. Today, the Jesus Trail does. The good news coming out of Nazareth today is the Jesus Trail. It was started by two young guys who had hiked all over the world and wanted to create a world-class trail in Israel that would not only promote ecotourism but "build transformational relationships and understandings between different nationalities, cultures and religions in the Middle East." [from jesustrail.com]
We never hear about him again, but I think the character of Nicodemus is meant to be a stand-in for a lot of us who are not quite there yet, but are on the way. He certainly stands in for Christians who seem to be stuck in Stage Two, thinking too literally about the stories of our faith. Whether we regard them as historically and factually true or dismiss them as nonsense—either way, we miss what the Spirit is trying to do: bring us to a deeper, richer, more multi-layered and contextual understanding of these stories and to a more God-filled experience of their truth for our lives today.
If it's any consolation, young people just starting out are not the only ones who feel that way. We can get stuck in the birth canal at any time of our life. In fact, it's much worse the older you get. Then it's not so much that we're stuck waiting for life to begin. It's that we get stuck not believing that our life can change. We're stuck with a body we don't like, in a marriage that doesn't work, with a job we can't stand, a mortgage we can't pay, or a disease we can't cure. When we graduated from high school, the world was full of boundless opportunity. Now that we're much older, we start to see a world of endless impossibilities. Welcome to the world of Nicodemus.
To be sure, the early Christians argued over who Jesus was. That's why the Creeds were written. But they never settled the question of exactly what Jesus did and how he did it. We are accustomed to saying that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, but it isn't immediately obvious what that has to do with our salvation. There is no clear, logical connection between his death and our life. So the cross needs some interpretation.
The Samaritan woman who asked Jesus to give her living water, never let down her bucket, never took a drink. And after speaking with Jesus, she left her jar at the well and went into the town to tell everyone about the Messiah. I guess she didn't need her jar anymore because she became one. Jesus filled her up with Living Water so that she could leave her jar of junk and go fill someone else. Sometimes the only way to fill your jar is to go empty yourself into someone else's need.
Worship happens when and where the curtains that are closing us off from the Holy One are torn in two. Celtic Christians had a name for special places of divine encounter. They called them "thin places." They had a saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even smaller.