I am mindful of the phrases that youth have said in the past when a person is caught staring at them, “What are you looking at?” or “Do you want to take a picture so you can look at me all day?” We have all been taught that it is impolite to stare, and I guess, the reasons are obvious, we all feel uncomfortable when someone is staring at us.
I have been mindful, this Advent, particularly from the 2nd Sunday of Advent, when we focus on the role of the prophets and peace in our preparing to celebrate Christmas. In the three year cycle of readings, we used the account from Matthew (3:1-12) where John is Baptising people in the Jordan, calling for a baptism of repentance, turning to God, in order to receive the Christ who is coming.
On the 3rd Sunday of Advent, we read of Jesus reflecting on John the Baptist’s work. Jesus challenged those who went out to John the Baptist, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? Someone dressed in soft robes? A prophet?” (Mt 11:7, 8, 9) Jesus question, “What did you go out to see?” is a little more polite than the rhetorical questions of our youth, “What are you looking at?” but it demands a response, either, to look away, or to think about what it is that has caught their attention.
Here you are, sitting in a church building, it is almost midnight, you would normally be at home in bed because Santa knows who’s sleeping and he knows who’s awake. The same question is in my mind, “What did you come out to see?” Why are you here? For some of you this may be the only, or one of the only two times that you come to be a part of a gathering as church. For others it might be the first time that you have come amongst the church. What did you come out to see?
Joseph was in Bethlehem because it had been decreed that a census should be taken and Bethlehem was the home town of his family in the family line of David. He was an innocent, yet faithful, character in the event. Mary was there because she was engaged to Joseph, not yet married, but legally bound to him. She was a significant and faithful character in the event.
The shepherds were not innocent in this event. They were simply doing what they were paid to do – out minding the sheep in the fields. But, something happened to them. They were met by a divine messenger who, initially, scared the living bejeezus out them. These divine messengers told them that the one whom they had been hoping for had been born and they would find him wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger. So significant was the event that they went looking. What did the shepherds go out to see? It is clear that they went because the events that had taken place had compelled them, as St Paul puts it, to go. They had been transformed by the events and I suspect they were transformed by meeting with this holy family.
Matthew includes, in his account of the nativity, although at a later time, the arrival of the wise men. Being men of knowledge and using the stars to determine events that were taking place in the world, they were captivated with the star of a king that had appeared in west. So they travelled to seek out the king that had been born. They, too, were not innocent in their presence, they were their by choice. Outside of Jewish tradition and scripture, they were not their because of the hope in a promised one, as learned traders, they were probably there to secure diplomatic relationships with a king to ensure continuation of, or establishment of new, commercial opportunities.
What did these wise traders go out to see? Clearly they were looking for a king. They went to the most obvious place first, the palace, yet they did not find what they were looking for there. So they went on looking, eventually finding the child where the star stopped. What they experienced moved them to a response, inspired in them action. They gave gifts as symbols of how they understood this child to be: gold – for one who was king; frankincense – for one who is worshipped; and myrrh – for one who would die. And, so moved by their experience, they are converted, they return home by a different road so that they will not be obliged to betray Jesus’ identity and location.
I love Christmas. I have loved it as a child with all its excitement and preparation. I love it as an adult. “What did I come out to see?” I come out to be reminded of a God who wants to be a part of the lives of his people. He, himself, takes on their humanity, born in human flesh in the person of Jesus. I come out because, even though this God cannot abide sin, he chooses to dwell in the midst of sin in the person of Jesus. I come out because I am reminded that I am loved and welcomed by God in this divine incarnation.
But this is no passive response. I am not invited to sit back and bask in the hope, peace, joy and promise of the birth of Jesus – that somehow God alone has done something. I come out because this unique expression of God, expressed in no other religion, invites me to respond. No! That’s not strong enough! Invokes, inspires, compels me to think and act differently. Once we meet with a life-changing event, we can’t go back. The event changes who we are.
“What did you come out to see?” Is it a coming because it is your custom to do so? “What did you come out to see?” Is it because you love the traditional expression of worship? “What did you come out to see?” Is it because someone made you come, Grandma always comes, and it is a part of our Christmas gift to her to come to church with her? “What did you come out to see?” Was it to celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus, and is he still a baby in your understanding of the faith of which we celebrate?
”What did you come out to see?” Did you come out to see this incredible expression of how we understand God interacting with, moving among and restoring his world? This is the most profound part of how we understand the nature and person of God, revealed in Jesus Christ. It is our response to this theology of God taking on human flesh in the person of Jesus that will ultimately determine what we have come out to see.
It is the reason and motive for why we have come out which will be an expression of our relationship with God and our worship of God. It is the reason and motive we come out which will express whether or not we share in the song of the angels, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours.”