Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
I met a kid at tutoring on Monday night. His name was ‘Nottie.’ I had to ask him to repeat it for me. I wasn’t sure I heard it right. ‘Naughty,’ I asked? Barely interested and without looking up, he said, “yes.” Obviously, he was already clued in and a little bored with the topic. His name sounds funny to English speakers. My name, Montgomery, is unusual too. Suddenly I thought of all the ways kids at school might have teased him for something he had no part in choosing. I once asked my parents why they choose my name—thinking that if it had something to do with the Montgomery bus boycott, that would be cool. But no. It seems they just wanted something ‘different,’ that, and my mother liked the actor, Montgomery Clift. I asked Nottie whether his name meant anything in his native language, Amheric. His response surprised me. Yes, he said, ‘Nottie means ‘kissed by God.’
Beautiful. Sometimes a name can express all a parent’s hopes and dreams in a single word. Joseph’s name meant “God will give.” It connected him to Joseph and his multi-colored dream coat. It connected his story to the indestructible promise God made to his ancestors to bless them with abundance throughout the generations.
Joseph was coming into his own. He would have a family, a career, maybe even his own business. Yet, the shock and scandal of Mary’s pregnancy threatened to shatter all his grand expectations. On one pivotal night, because of a single dream, Joseph chose to trade his own good name for one synonymous with disgrace and derision. He would look like a fool to his friends and family. Joseph says yes. And the baby is born: Emmanuel, God-with-us, the promise of Israel. Joseph was kissed by God.
Joseph’s willingness to forsake conventional righteousness, ennobled him. That he changes direction overnight in a dark conversation makes him an Advent icon. As Carl Jung might have said, Joseph was awakened by his dream. As ephemeral as this new dream was, both Mary and Joseph proved willing to turn their lives inside out so that the urgent prayers of Israel could be answered by the birth of a baby whose name would be, “save” (Matthew 1:18-25). (Suzanne, Suzanne Guthrie, At The Edge of the Enclosure, 2013).
It’s well known that Mother Teresa once had a profoundly vivid experience of the presence of Jesus as a young woman. That vision was the beginning of her legendary ministry among the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, India. Years later, near the end of her life, she was asked about it in an interview. The reporter assumed she must have had many such experiences all through her amazing life. Her answer was a surprise. No, she said, it had happened only just that once –and never again. Yet she had lived her entire life in faithfulness to that dream and that is why we honor her. Mother Teresa was kissed by God. Beware the kiss of God.
We love to sing “Away in a Manger?” “Silent Night?” “Joy to the World?” These hymns evoke such warm feelings and teary-eyed tenderness we forget what stress the Holy Family must have been under. Our psalm today is full of lament in search of answers from God. “How long will your anger fume when your people pray?” (Psalm 80:4). In a jam like Joseph, it’s only right he would be fitful and agitated, raise his fist and shout, “Why me, Lord?” What have I done to deserve this? Soon there will be other shoes to drop too. The holy family will flee to Egypt, and King Herod’s desperate attempt to kill baby Jesus will result in the slaughter of the innocents. Call Angel Gabriel. Get him back. This whole thing sounds wrong. Sometimes, we can be right in the middle of a miracle and still complain about it. Do you know that you too, are kissed by God?
Like Joseph and Mary, we stand apart to stand for the whole. We give ourselves to God’s dream for this fallen world. Can we see ourselves becoming like Joseph and Mary? Which dream shall we live by –the dreams approved by the world, or those which God has for us and our lives together?
Maybe you think Joseph and Mary were chosen because they were different—or because they were good—maybe even very, very good? Researchers confirm, over and over, the great majority of us still believe the way you get to chosen by God is by being a good person—that you get what you deserve. We hear this message everywhere playing on an endless nauseating loop. Santa’s coming so, ‘You’d better watch out, you better not cry, I’m telling you why –only good little boys and girls get presents—and all the rest on the naughty list get a lump of coal.
We Lutherans know better. By grace alone is central to who we are. Grace is God’s fundamental driving power, expressed by God’s dogged commitment to bring beauty out of what’s broken. Or, as the great contemporary theologian, Bono of U2 sang, grace travels outside of Karma. Joseph and Mary said yes to God’s preposterous, dangerous, adventurous invitation and that made all the difference. Others would call them naughty. Yet they were kissed by God. They lived by faith alone.
Which brings us to the greatest Christmas miracle of all. I mean, why did God bother with Joseph and Mary at all? Why take on flesh, live among us, suffer and die? Well, apparently, God’s way of being is a call to radical solidarity. Active, practical care is God’s way, not only of deepening relationship with us, but also of making worlds worth living in, including the whole more than human universe. Now that’s quite a Christmas gift.
We live in radical solidarity with all life. We live, not with all the answers, but by faith. The Welsh poet -R.S. Thomas ( 1913-2000) wrote a poem called “The Bright Field” with some good advice for would-be dreamers of God. He wrote:
I have seen the sun break through
To illuminate a small field for a while,
And gone my way and forgotten it
But that was the pearl of great price,
The one field that had the treasure in it.
I realize now that I must give all that I have to possess it.
Life is not hurrying on to a receding future,
Nor hankering after an imagined past.
It is turning aside like Moses
To the miracle of a lit bush,
To a brightness that seemed as transitory as your youth once,
But is the eternity that awaits you.