simple gifts: Christmas travel … Christmas travail

Psalm 98; Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 1:39-45

We’re getting closer! And yet it has occurred to me (may have occurred to you),
that Advent this year is as long as Advent can possibly be.
With Christmas on a Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Advent
is a full week before Christmas,
and so we have as much time as we will ever have to prepare.
So, of course, that means everyone’s done, right?
Presents bought, wrapped, under the tree.
Cleaning done. Decorating all done. Baking all done.
And you come home each night to a lit-up house to work on a Christmas puzzle
to the sounds of the Christmas music you like, munching on Christmas goodies,
sipping some seasonal beverage.
No? Really?
You either, huh?

And some of us won’t ever even settle into our homes for the holidays.
Because some of us have miles to go.
We will buy our tickets or map out the drive.
We will pack our bags. put them in the car—try and put them in the car.
Realize they don’t fit in the car,
say bad words and take them out of the car to repack our bags
wondering which presents might better be kept!
And Allison’s is in Kansas City, MO.
Scott, Kacey and Hazel are on their way to family in Kentucky and Arkansas.
Phil Rhoads up in Michigan with his daughter, son-in-law and grandson.
Anna’s here. Philippe will be winging his way over from France soon.
Linda, Jessi and Gus made their way to us this morning.
David, Karina and Keira will be coming down from Philadelphia.
Greg will be headed down to South Carolina.
College students are making their way home.
I’ve seen Audrey, Mark, Katie, Andy and Meg.
Some of us have miles to go; some of us have already been the miles.

But that’s not the only kind of traveling I’m talking about.
Because, I don’t know about you, but just about every night for the past several weeks,
we’ve had something—
somewhere to be—something to do—some commitment.
Most of them good things, but just non-stop.
And I’ve seen some of you at some of those somethings,
and a lot of times, you’ve been going from that something to something else!
Travel this time of the year doesn’t have to be over long distances, does it?
It can be cumulative!
And we’ve been miles and miles and miles.

Some of you asked this week, “What are you going to do with travel? And with travail?”
But you asked early in the week, and I didn’t know!
Then my voice went away and I couldn’t have told you if I had known.
But I understand your asking. I do.
Travel (let alone travail!) just doesn’t seem as pleasant—
doesn’t have the same warm associations we have with
Christmas lights, Christmas food and Christmas music.
Sure we noted when thinking about Christmas food
the work that goes into special recipes,
but our focus was on the end result, right? As opposed to, let’s say,
Christmas baking, Christmas keeping the kitchen clean and the dishes washed.
It’s not that the work hasn’t been a part of all of it,
but so far, we’ve focused on the results of the work.

As you know, in our worship theme this year,
we’re suggesting that some of the various simple gifts of the season
(like Christmas lights and Christmas food and Christmas music) offer us insight
into the truth of the season—which, given the season,
is to say they offer us insight into the truth of God and God with us—
us in relationship with God.
Well, in thinking about the things of the season
along with the lights and the music and the food,
travel’s a part of the season—

on planes, trains, and automobiles. Buses.
I remember one Greyhound bus trip when I was in college—
actually pretty relaxing with books and with, at the time, a Walkman,
an archaic technology for music on the go.
I think I flew home a couple of times for the holidays from Texas to Virginia.
remember being picked up at the airport—once by Dad,
once, getting in real late, by my brother.
Being met is a good gift with which to start the holiday!
The welcome hug. The catching up on the ride home.
Mostly though I drove.
and when you’re talking about living in central Texas
and driving home to Virginia, that’s no small undertaking!

I still remember the turn at which the excitement really started to build.
I couldn’t find that turn anymore, but I remember it.
You see, I’d be coming up I-95 from the south,
and instead of going all the way into Richmond
and then back out of the city into the west end where my parents lived,
I’d cut through the country. And I remember the excitement making that turn.
I also remember the stress of hoping I wouldn’t miss that turn!
Then there was actually entering the familiar neighborhood off of Short Pump road.
Driving the streets driven so many times before.
Seeing the Christmas lights in windows.
Knowing that I wasn’t just home, but I was home for Christmas.
Turning into the driveway. Parking and just sitting there for a minute—
reveling in having arrived.
Then out of the car, going up the walkway, leaving bags for the moment.
Knocking or ringing the doorbell. Hearing the footsteps.
And then, welcomed into love and warmth and light—
into custom and tradition, familiarity.
I would always take a quick reassuring tour of the house to make sure
all was as it was supposed to be!

We have some sense of Christmas as a time to be with others, don’t we?
And, more specifically, a time to be with those we love.
It was so very significant one Christmas in Richmond, talking to Susie on the phone
(who was in San Antonio with her family),
realizing I wanted her to be in Richmond with us.
Christmas is time to be with those we love.

And, of course, Christmas is the time God came to be with us—
it’s the time God came to be with those God loves.

Now just because I can’t resist: that’s the chronos of the story, isn’t it? The clock time.
God came to be with us in Jesus that long ago time in Bethlehem.
But we also talk about the kairos of the story, don’t we?
The timeless, eternal truth of the story that God is always coming
to be with those God loves.

If we think of the biblical story—or the biblical stories
(in Matthew and Luke, mainly)—if we think of the biblical stories and travel,
we might think of angels dispatched to Zechariah in the temple (Luke 1:11)
and to Mary in Nazareth in Galilee (Luke 1:26-27) and to Joseph (Matthew 1:20).
Or we might think of Mary traveling from Nazareth
to be with Elizabeth in the Judean hill country (Luke 1:39)—
quite a trip for a young pregnant girl to make.
We might think of Mary and Joseph traveling from Galilee to Bethlehem (Luke 2:4-5),
of the angel host sent as heralds of joy—heralds of good tidings of great joy
to the shepherds living on the organ, keeping watch over their flocks (Luke 2:9),
(members of said host wondering if they had in fact gotten their directions right—
wondering what they had just stepped in—
wondering if Gabriel had even asked for directions!).
We might think of those shepherds subsequently leaving their flocks (Luke 2:15)—
course it doesn’t say that, does it?
I’ve always kind of assumed that—
wondering how it fit in with the whole good shepherd idea,
but maybe, greatly complicating their travel arrangements,
and to the utter dismay of the street cleaners of Bethlehem,
but to the integrity of all that good shepherd imagery throughout Scripture,
the shepherds brought all their sheep with them—
the whole flock—not just the two or three nicely placed around our nativity sets!
Or we might think of the magi following the star and traveling first to Jerusalem
and then to Bethlehem and then home by another way (Matthew 2:1-12).
We might think of Jesus being taken to Jerusalem for his dedication (Luke 2:22).
We might think of the flight to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-14).
We might think of the return to Galilee (Matthew 2:19-23).
Lots of travel in these stories.

And while it’s only 5 to 6 miles from Bethlehem to Jerusalem,
it’s about 70 to 80 miles from Galilee to Bethlehem.
Roughly the same to the Judean hill country.
Some 350 miles from Jerusalem to Egypt,
and around 400 miles back to Galilee.
Lot of miles.

We’re making do with one car these days—
celebrating the ecology of that.
It is, no doubt, inconvenient at times,
but it’s been, for the most part, manageable.
And we have, again for the most part, really enjoyed walking more.
It’s wonderful to live close enough to walk to school, to walk to work,
to walk to the bank, to get a haircut, a cup of coffee, lunch.
We don’t walk to get groceries.

Two observations reconsidering the travel of the story.
First observation: we’re not used to being the means by which we get around.
We’re not used to how it taxes muscles. We’re not used to the time it takes.
We think nothing of driving 5 to 6 miles for a quick lunch—
to get to that store—run that errand.
And 70 to 80 miles represents little more than an hour—
not up to a week!

Second observation (and related unto the first):
when you’re afoot, there’s a greater commitment
both to being where you are and to where you are going.
You don’t have the option of changing your mind and of going somewhere else—
of getting back home in a hurry.
So often these days, we’re not committed to where we are—not really.
Because in a car, we can be here and decide we want to be there—
even if there is clear across town.
We’re not committed to where we are—or where we’re going.
Not like we would be afoot.

Lots of travel in these stories—
lots of commitment.

But no one traveled further than God did (and does) to get to us.
and no one was (or is) more committed to presence.
For God is always coming to us.
God is always committed to all it means to come to us—to be with us.

I’m not sure what you think of when you think of the work of Christmas—
the travail.
The travel can be the travail—even more so if you’re afoot!
Cooking and decorating are work.
So is staying up late to put together this—
wrap that—
trying to hold onto Christmas cheer
in the face of ever growing fatigue and frustration!

In the stories we might think of labor—
Mary’s labor—
the work of bringing life into the world.

Civil rights leader, theologian, pastor, educator Howard Thurman,
wrote a litany, a little premature for us today (chronologically),
but appropriate nonetheless (kairosogically):
“When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.”

The work of Christmas is the work of God—
the work begun so very long ago—
the commitment to be with us—
the commitment to be love with us.
And the work we do in response to God’s work,
that’s our work of Christmas.
That’s day-in-and-day-out, 365 days a year,
the work of living in the way of God—
the work—the labor—the travail of bringing life into the world.

Susie turned me onto Pandora’s Indie Christmas playlist.
Really been enjoying that. And came across Jack Johnson’s version
of Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer.
I know, last week was Christmas music, but bear with me!
You know the song, right? The story?
That differently abled reindeer that all the others made fun of?
Until that foggy Christmas Eve
when Santa came to say, “Rudolf, with your nose so bright,
won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?”
Then how the reindeer loved him,
as they shouted out with glee.
“Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer
you’ll go down in history.”
Jack adds this,
“Well Rudolph he didn’t go for that.
He said, “I see through your silly games.
How could you look me in the face
when only yesterday you called me names?”
Well all of the other reindeers, man,
well they sure did feel ashamed,
“Rudolph you know we’re sorry,
we’re truly gonna try to change”

We are, in fact, on a journey together.
We use that image frequently.
We’re traveling—on a trip,
and we’re working (travailing?)—
working together to get somewhere—
somewhere where everyone is respected and appreciated
and where those who follow in the way of God
are the last to reject and mock anyone—
where those who call themselves of God
don’t laugh and call people names—
don’t not let people join in our games.
We’re working together to get somewhere—
where it doesn’t cost God so much to be with us.
Working together with God to get somewhere where love is definitive.

So, my question for you this morning,
how far will you go for love?
This next year, how far will you go for God?

Will you go so far as to assess your living, and sing out,
“I’m truly going to try and change?”
Will you go so far as to commit to the priority of love?
Commit to being where love takes you?
That’s as far as God comes to us, after all, all the time.
That’s God commitment to us.

May it be our journey together
into light shining and an ever-increasing joy.

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