The Stranger Among Us
The Stranger Among Us
The Advent season has arrived. There's a lot of tradition represented here: the Advent wreath, the rich color of the paraments, the joyous words of celebration sewn onto the banner.
In many of our homes, this is the time for getting out some traditional decorations as well “ or at least thinking about fetching them from the attic or the basement. Soon “ if they're not up already “ the wreaths and garlands will hang from their usual nails. The candles will shed their warm glow and bayberry scent. The Christmas tree will assume its usual place. Some of us even trundle out whole sets of glassware or dishes, the ones with the Christmas pattern.
Just think of the popular songs of the season “ not the carols so much as those beloved secular songs. So many of them are about keeping Christmas just the same as ever: "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know¦; "I heard the bells on Christmas Day, their old familiar carols play¦; and "There's no place like home for the holidays¦
It's a great time to celebrate tradition at holiday time. God knows, there are many rapid changes overtaking our world. It's no wonder we want to hold tight to tradition!
And so we make sure our Christmas is softly lit by candlelight reflected off brass, cushioned by red velvet and serenaded by soft carols (from discreetly hidden stereo speakers). Oh yes, a crackling fire is a nice touch,
All this fascination with tradition is in tension with another aspect of the Christmas story: the element of surprise, in-breaking disruptions. You can read in the Bible how: an angel disrupts Mary's wedding plans, John the Baptist pays for his prophecy with his life, the shepherds' peaceful rest is shattered by the battle song of a celestial army, the magi are warned not to return to Herod, but to go home another way, Mary and Joseph, with their baby, have to flee for their lives. Except for that holy night “ the night when Jesus is born and shepherds come calling “ there's precious little that's either "merry or "bright about that first Christmas.
But what else would you expect when God breaks into human history? The Lord never enters our lives without shaking us up. This child in Mary's womb came not to provide a mid-winter holiday of comfort and joy, but rather to turn the world upside down!
And so we have a disharmony, a tension, in the midst of our Advent preparation. It is the tension between tradition and something entirely new.
In John 1, the authorities ask John the Baptist what's going on with all this Messiah talk. His answer is cryptic: "¦but among you, he says, "stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie. (Jn 1:26-27).
Among you stands one you do not know¦ That could very well be a timely warning for us “ caught up, as we so often are, in the frantic rush to reinstall our cherished holiday traditions for another year.
A pastor was once rooting around in a storage area in his church building, when he came across a peculiar sign, dating from an earlier era. Evidently, it had once been posted outside the building. On it were the words "Strangers Welcome!
We can scarcely imagine putting up such a sign today. Visitors, maybe. Guests, certainly. But strangers? It sounds less than hospitable.
Yet, isn't this just how Jesus comes to us? The question is, do we welcome Him? There's a marvelous contemporary hymn that captures this aspect of Jesus' coming among us as a stranger. It was written by Fred Kaan in 1966 and is titled, "We Meet You, O Christ. The first stanza goes like this:
We meet You, O Christ, in many a guise: Your image we see in simple and wise.
You live in a palace, exist in a shack. We see you, the gardener, a tree on your back.
Who could imagine that the Messiah could be found in so many unlikely places? In our baptism, at the Lord's Supper, In His Word. Who could expect that He would be born not in a palace, but in a shack? Who could predict that the only time He ever visited a palace he would be bound in chains? Who would comprehend that He would never be carried around Jerusalem in a sedan chair supported on the shoulders of servants, but that He would stumble down the street bent over double, panting under the ponderous weight of that "tree (the cross)?
Jesus still comes to us "as one unknown “ as a stranger. We think we know where he is at Christmastime “ a little wooden figure in the crÃ¨che, safely bedded down in the manger “ but he is not there. This babe of Bethlehem, whose coming we herald, has already come into our world. He is risen from the dead, and rules the world with grace and mercy. This Christmas, the greatest thing you can do, for yourself or the ones you love, is to become more deeply acquainted with him “ the stranger among us.