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Christmas Has a Name and a Face

In the Christian calendar, there are four Sundays before Christmas that we call "Advent," in which we prepare ourselves to properly celebrate the birth of Jesus. Today is the 2nd Sunday in Advent.

The 1st chapter of the Gospel of John characterizes the coming of Christ as "the word made flesh." Jesus came to give substance and form to our understanding of the great God of the Universe. In Him we see -- in the flesh -- what God is like. Jesus came to give God a name and a face. "If you have seen me," said Jesus, "you have seen the Father." The Christ who came 2,000 years ago keeps on coming as Christmas takes on a name and a face. That is what I want to talk about on this 2nd Sunday in Advent -- Christ has a name and a face.

Several years ago Dr. Rodney Wilmoth told a story which always comes back to me when I see people putting up outdoor Christmas decorations. This family had the custom of putting large plywood letters bordered with Christmas lights on their roof each year. The letters spelled "NOEL." It was an unusual piece of decoration. One year the father was a little slow in getting the letters up on the roof. Finally, late one Saturday afternoon in mid-December, he got the project under way. The letters were large and hard to handle. It was a very windy afternoon, and he was heard to mutter some rather "unchristmasy" comments under his breath as he struggled with the large plywood letters. When at last he finished he climbed down the ladder triumphantly, instructing the children to plug in the lights. When the lights came on and blazed against the dark sky, everybody rolled in laughter. He had put the letters backwards Instead of "NOEL" he had spelled "LEON."

I never did learn what the errant father did, or said, about the situation. I was afraid to ask, but I think I might have left the letters just as they were. Very few people know what "NOEL" means, though we sing it each year, but everybody knows somebody named "LEON." If Leon came by and saw his name in lights on a house, I am sure he would be touched.

Christmas, in its deepest meaning, always has a name. It never becomes real until it becomes specific. Our gifts to one another at Christmas, like God's gift of Christ, always carry a name. Merry Christmas, Leon, wherever you are.

It is dangerously easy to love everybody in general and nobody in particular. Particularity seems to threaten us. That's why churches tend to get excited about foreign missions, but hesitate to reach out to the grimy, gritty, poor and oppressed who live near where we preach and pray about charity and love.. Have you ever noticed how reticent we become when charity takes on a name and a face? Specificity frightens us.

If Christmas is to be more than an annual holiday -- a sort of mini family reunion with bright lights and presents for every body -- then it must be given first place and celebrated in a timely fashion. In biblical Greek there are two words for time, which sound alike, but which are vastly different. They are "chronos" and "kairos." Chronos time is clock and calendar time, as in chronology. Anyone who is half-careful can be timely, "chronos." Now, "kairos" is a different kind of time altogether. It is something which happens at the "right" time, no matter what the clock and calendar show. When the Bible speaks of Jesus coming "at the right time," the word "kairos" is used. When someone does or says something at "just the right time," we mean "kairos", not "chronos."

Three or four years ago, after we had finished Wednesday night church supper and were just starting the Administrative Council Meeting, a stranger appeared at the church door. She did not look as if she belonged. We later found out that she was in her 40's, but she could have easily have passed for 60. Several of us saw her, but tried to ignore her in the hope she might go away. We were very busy! Those who were not involved in the meeting were "studying their shoe laces", trying to avoid looking at the stranger who was now inside the door. But she won. They always do. We can pretend to be preoccupied with "God's business" only so long, and then "those eyes" finally stare us down. She had those tired accusing eyes. It was Pam, our young Director of Christian Education, who got up first and walked to the door to see about the strange intruder. She was followed quickly by Peggy, our Business Manager. Some people just will not let us ignore the needy, while shuffling our papers.

Who was this ragged, weather-beaten woman who had the nerve to interrupt our Administrative Council Meeting with her pitiful needs? We have learned she left Kalamazoo, Michigan five weeks earlier on her bicycle. She was going to Pensacola, Florida. She did not know anybody in Pensacola, but she had heard that it was warm there in the winter. Her bicycle chain broke about a mile out of town, and she pushed her bicycle to our church. Who was she? She said her name was Joanne, but who was she, really? She certainly interrupted our routine! It upset me! We grudgingly fed her. She asked if she could sleep somewhere in the church. Someone said we had a policy against that. Someone also suggested that the "policy" was violated at 11:00 every Sunday. By common consent we agreed to ignore the policy. We were "put out" that this strange, tired-eyed nomad with a broken bicycle had interrupted our routine. Didn't she know we were busy with God's work, and did not need to be interrupted?

The next morning we got her bicycle repaired. She refused a ride to Pensacola saying she would prefer to ride her bicycle. It would only take two or three days. She did accept a few dollars for the road and she was gone as quickly as she came. Who was she? Poor old woman from Kalamazoo? I think she was more than that. I did not realize it until after she was gone, but it finally dawned on me who she was. I had seen her before. In fact, I have been seeing her, off and on, for 48 years. Sometimes she is a man. Sometimes a woman, but it was that funny look in her eye that gave her away. And, I know she will be back again. I do not know when or in what form, but she will be back. She always comes back and I never recognize her until she is gone.

She is an angel. She is God's message to us. She comes every now and then to me, and to you, and to us all to remind us who and whose we are, and to break up our self-indulgent, narcissistic religious routines. She will be back again, Just wait and see. I just hope I recognize her to begin with next time. I never have before.

If you are looking for God during this Holy season, watch for the lady with tired eyes on a bicycle, peddling toward a warm place for winter. God shows up in the most unlikely places, and people, and times. He was present that Wednesday night but we did not know until she was gone. He may be back today or tomorrow or next year, or, who knows -- it may be a long dry spell before she shows up again. Keep looking! Christmas has a name and a face.

God gave a name and a face to a concept in the coming of Christ. We use many words, the meaning of which we do not really understand until somebody puts flesh on that word by a tangible act. Consider the word "sacrifice." It is an easy word to say in reciting our religious vocabulary, but we never really understand the word until somebody makes a sacrifice for us.

Several years ago I heard of a child who was born blind in both eyes. The doctors said he would never be able to see unless he could receive the transplant of a cornea from the eye of a living person onto his eye. A man in his late 50's heard the story and offered one of his eyes. He said, "I have seen a lot of the world in 50 years. I think I can make it from here with one eye." This stranger became half-blind so that a child he had never seen could half-see. The transplant was successful. No one will ever have to explain the word "sacrifice" to that child. The word became flesh in the gracious act of a stranger. This word had a name and a face. That's what God had in mind when Christ came.

If Christmas is what it is meant to be, then it is first. It is worth our time. It deserves having our immediate and timely attention. To delay what is most important is to make it secondary to lesser things. To delay is to be untimely. To be untimely is to miss the main thing.

A few years ago someone gave me a lovely legend I had never heard. It is in the form of a poem by Phyllis McGinley, entitled: The Legend of Befana.

Befana, the housewife, scrubbing her pane, Saw three old sages ride down the lane, Saw three gray travelers pass her door, Gasper, Balthazar, and Melchior. "Where journey you sirs? she asked of them. And Gasper answered, "To Bethlehem, For we have news of a marvelous thing: Born in a stable is Christ the King." "Oh, happily, happily would I fare Were my dusting through and I'd polished the stair." Old Melchior leaned on his saddle horn, "Then send but a gift to the small Newborn." Were my cupboards clean and my weaving done, I'd give Him a robe to warm His sleep, But first I must mend the fire, and sweep. "As soon as ever I've baked my bread, I'll fetch Him a pillow for His head, And a coverlet too," Befana said. "When the rooms are aired and the linen dry, I'll look to the Babe." But the Three rode by. She worked for a day and a night and a day, Then, gifts in her hands, took up her way. But she never could find where the Christ Child lay. And still she wanders at Christmastide, Houseless, whose house was all her pride, Whose heart was tardy, whose gifts were late; Wanders, and knocks at every gate, Crying, "Good people, the bells begin! Put off your toiling and let love in."

The whole idea of Christmas is that at the right time and in the right place, the face of God became clear in the person of Jesus.

In the very heart of London is a place known as Trafalgar Square, a memorial to England's great naval hero, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson. Specifically, it memorializes the battle of Trafalgar off Spain's southern coast. There, on October 21, 1805, the British fleet under Nelson defeated the French and Spanish fleets.

It was one of the greatest naval battles in history and gave England undisputed control of the sea. Nelson was wounded and died during the battle. He was brought back to London and buried in a crypt in St. Paul's Cathedral.

In the middle of Trafalgar Square stands a tall column with a giant statue of Horatio Nelson on the top. But Nelson is so high above the passers-by that his features are indiscernible from the pavement. In 1948 something was done to remedy this situation. An exact replica of Lord Nelson was placed at eye level where it could be seen, touched, examined and appreciated by the people walking in the square. They brought Nelson down from his colossal column where common men and women in the streets could see him.

This is what Christmas means. In this event, and in this person, not only does God see us, but now we see Him. Merry Christmas, Leon, and Joanne and John and Mary -- wherever you are.

Dear God, we know you came in Christ. We know you have continued to come in the person of strange people -- at strange times and in strange places. We confess that we often fail to know who you are until after you are gone. Give us sensitive hearts and minds so we will recognize you when you come again. AMEN.