Advent: People to Meet & Places to Go
Sunday, December 8, 2013
I remember a Christmas experience that took place a number of years ago when I was in seminary. I was serving a small congregation in North Carolina at the time that did not have a history of a Christmas Eve service. As a result, Ann Marie and I had planned to leave to travel home to Alabama somewhere in the vicinity of Christmas Eve. As we said our goodbyes after worship on the Sunday before Christmas, we shared with countless people in the natural course of conversation our holiday plans while at the same time listening to their own plans and schedules for the season.
When the day of our intended departure finally rolled around, there was also ice and snow making its way up the East coast from Georgia to South Carolina and into North Carolina. By and large it was following the exact path we were to travel. As I recall, our plan had been to leave somewhere into the afternoon or early evening as we both had final work responsibilities to accomplish and other errands to run before leaving town. In turn, what I remember so vividly is that as the weather begin to make headlines, the phone at the church began to ring off the hook with numerous people from the congregation letting me know that I didn’t need to wait any longer, rather if Ann Marie and I were planning to make it home for Christmas we needed to go then and not delay our travels any longer.
What still speaks to me today about all of those calls on that particular Christmas many years ago is what led folks to pick up the phone, check in on us and encourage us to leave ahead of schedule. You see, many of those same people who called and were concerned about us did so because they had similar concerns for themselves, their children or grandchildren who would be traveling a similar route at roughly the same time. They were worried about their own wellbeing or that of their family. They were also keenly aware of their own family needs to leave early to avoid the coming weather if possible. As a result, their own life circumstances in that moment led them to identify with our situation. They wanted to reach out to us because their own lives and concerns mirrored our life at that time.
I think something similar was afoot in our passage for today from Luke 1 regarding Elizabeth and Mary. In the text, Elizabeth shows profound love and care for the much younger Mary. In essence, she and Zechariah provided Mary a safe, non-threatening, and private place to rest mentally, physically and spiritually in the early days of her pregnancy. Elizabeth also seems to have offered Mary a listening ear and a friend for the journey that she found herself on.
I think we can be almost certain that none of this happened by accident. Rather, the love that Elizabeth exhibited happened chiefly because Elizabeth, more than anyone else, was able to identify with most of the feelings that Mary was having. Why? The reason is that Elizabeth was also pregnant and dealing with many of the very same worries, fears and emotions herself.
The scripture itself points toward this idea in a fairly direct way if we listen carefully and don’t miss the obvious hints. When we find out in verse 24 that Elizabeth was pregnant, Luke tells us that she went into seclusion for a period of five months. Again, without question, considering all that she was dealing with on all levels, she simply needed time away to wrap her mind around all that was happening, to care for herself and her needs. In the same way, in verse 56, Luke also points out to us that Mary came and stayed with Elizabeth and Zechariah and thus away from everyone else for the first three months of her pregnancy — or, until John was born.
Again, why would Zechariah and Elizabeth welcome their relative Mary into their home and provide her a place to stay at such a difficult and hectic time in their own lives particularly since Elizabeth was in her final trimester of pregnancy? They did so because they loved her and because that love was born out of their unique ability to identify with her and her situation as they were living with many of the same realities.
If you think about it, the gospels also make it clear that Jesus’ own ability to love us was born out of his unique ability to identify with us. Jesus was God who had become a human being like us. Think about the way that the gospel of John describes it in chapter 1. There the scripture says that “the word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The literal translation of that statement is that God became flesh and “pitched a tent in our midst.” In 2013, we might say that God became flesh and bought a house on our street or in our neighborhood. In Christ, God moved next door. In Christ, God learned what it was like to be you and me. In Christ, God learned to love us in a profound way as God learned what it was like to be us by becoming one of us.
What Elizabeth reminds us I think is that learning to identify with others and seeing ourselves in others’ experiences is a rich and meaningful way to live and it is the best way for us to develop a passion and love for other people. What I mean by that statement is that when we recognize that others are traveling where we have been or that they are dealing with the same issues or life struggles that we are or once dealt with then our ability to identify with them also helps us to learn to love them. When we see ourselves in them, we love them, we are gracious toward them and we are more motivated to find ways to support them.
I remember making a particular visit to a family at a rather large hospital in Atlanta. Their family member was in the ICU there and they had gathered in the waiting area. When I arrived, there was great looking and wonderful smelling food all over the waiting area. It didn’t look like institutional fare instead you could tell that it was a real, expensive gourmet meal. It literally looked like a party had broken out in the waiting room. As we talked with each other, curiosity got the best of me and I asked one of the family members where all of the food had come from.
They answered by sharing that several years ago another Atlanta family had lost a child at that exact time of the year. The final days of the child’s life had been spent in that exact same ICU and the family had waited anxiously for days in that same waiting room. In turn, each year, on the anniversary of their child’s death, a wonderful gourmet meal arrived unexpectedly in that same waiting room as a way of honoring their child and as a way of showing love to families who were dealing with the same tragedies and difficulties of life that they once had faced in that same space.
Let me say again that we love others most when we relate to their life experiences and when we are able to identify with their pain because of our having lived through something similar. In turn, when we show love, grace and care to others because we have been where they are, we offer a gift of care and support that is incredibly valuable.
As we walk through this season of gift giving, I want to challenge all of us to do something. I want us to take a moment and to think about the life experiences that we have been through and the journey that we have taken. I want us to think about our struggles to afford college, our difficulty in dealing with problems with our children, our sadness when we lost our job, the hard task of adjusting to a new place to live, the hard journey of overcoming a spouse, child or parent’s death, or the difficult year that we spent our first Christmas alone. In turn, as we reflect on the difficult experiences we have lived through, I want to invite us to begin to pray that God will place someone in our lives who in this moment is walking through the valley that we ourselves once traversed.
And, when God reveals them to us, when they emerge in our lives, I want us to love them, to support them and to let them know that they are not alone just as Elizabeth did for Mary. We will do that? This Advent season, will we pledge to offer this gift of love to someone who is a part of our lives? I hope and trust that we will. Amen.