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When God Draws Near

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Dec 24

Several years ago, a small group of us from First Church took a trip to El Salvador, not so much to serve but to learn about and to accompany lives that were much different from our own. As part of our travels, we spent 3 days visiting a rural community called La Mesita on the flood plains of the Lempa River. There was a poverty unlike any I had seen. At the time, the community was made up of 86 families, the better-off of whom lived in homes made of cinder blocks with no windows or doors. We bathed out of rain barrels, for there was no running water.

There was no electricity but for what came from a few old car batteries that the families would share. Soccer balls were made of compacted trash wrapped in tape. It was subsistence living at best. Yet what I recall most vividly from the trip were the nights. Maybe it was the brightness of the stars so far from city lights but it seemed that the animals never slept. It would be 3 am by my watch as I would lie there on a makeshift cot in someone’s shed and waves of animal noises would wash over my ears –roosters crowing long before dawn, cows lowing, donkeys braying, dogs barking. It was a strange and penetrating racket. We were there in early November, but the image that kept coming to me, the scene I couldn’t stop recalling, day and night, was that of the Nativity. No question there were holy families all around us, and shepherds too, people beloved
by God. But I think it was the unexpected proximity to all those animals that brought it home to me: the pigs and chickens scampering freely through the houses, the mules on the road. I don’t recall meeting any babies but I was just waiting for someone to introduce me to a Jesus or an Emmanuel, which means God with us. For God was surely there— there in the heightened tenderness towards strangers, there in hospitality even to the animals, there amidst the faith and fearlessness of those families. God was with us amidst the wisdom and clarity about what was real and important, and what of our usual worries and concerns mattered not at all.

I was reminded of La Mesita recently while hearing a talk by Bryan Stevenson, the lawyer, bestselling author and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. I can’t get enough of this guy and I’m not alone. His TED talk has been viewed more than 4 million times and apparently got the longest and loudest standing ovation in TED history. People are already calling him America’s Mandela. There is a consistently hopeful thread in the talks he’s been giving around the country. Virtually every time he speaks, he invites people to ponder the theme of proximity. He says: “If you are willing to get closer to people who are suffering, you will find the power to change the world.” From his own experience working for decades with death row
inmates, he’s written, “Proximity to the condemned and incarcerated made the question of each person’s humanity more urgent and meaningful, including my own.” In addition to encouraging proximity, Stevenson has three other pieces of sage advice he shares regularly. He invites people to understand their social identity, to understand then work to change the narratives that drive us apart. He says to be sure to “protect your hope!” And finally…“be willing to do things that are uncomfortable.”

On a night like this, when the world seems quiet, perhaps we can hear in our familiar story a similar invitation to proximity. In a wider world where God and even hope can sometimes can feel as distant as the farthest star, the Christmas story reminds us, year after year, that God draws near, that God is as close as our breathing, and closer still. God comes close to precisely those places where we are at our most human, most impoverished, most vulnerable, most in need of touch and tenderness and courage. As the story goes, the God of the entire universe takes on the flesh of a baby – an infant holy and lowly – who comes along and shares the hay with all kinds of
friendly beasts. It’s a story about one who grows up to lead by proximity, to lead by staying close to those who are at the margins – lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, even the lonely and rich young rulers. He knows from his baptism what is his social and spiritual identity. He understands that he, and every creature, is beloved and blessed. He finds his purpose in the work of teaching stories and changing narratives so that last are first and the first are last. He protects the very hope of humanity and is constantly doing uncomfortable things - like touching the untouchable – all in acts of tender, divinely-inspired proximity.

Just check out the main action of our story – the entire story is about the power of proximity! With angels hovering around, close enough to hear their songs, Christ is born. The angels say “be not afraid” but we can also hear this as “be not distant…come close.” And the animals and wild things draw near, then the shepherds, magi and surely the townsfolk too, all coming in for a closer look. And this is what we do, too! O come, let us adore him— not from afar, not from a distance. Instead, we all huddle in! We want to get close to the action. We come to the source, to the story, year after year. We can’t wait to hold its light, like a candle in our hands, its love, like a babe or even a precious animal cooing or purring in our laps! There is a great, great power in proximity!

In case you aren’t with me yet, let me try this. In Eugene Peterson’s contemporary translation of the Bible, called the Message, the familiar verse from the chapter of John that we will hear shortly goes like this – “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”

Friends, the great good news is that God is in the neighborhood tonight! Trust me, this is way better than if we were all to learn, say, that Obama and his family were in the square for Christmas and staying next door tonight! Believe me. I saw him and his family at Harvest restaurant a few months ago and it was super cool, but not nearly as cool as this. Too often, we get confused and think that the goal is about proximity to power – instead of the power of proximity itself! And Emmanuel, God with us, is here, now in this neighborhood. On Friday, God was here amidst the warmth of the Friday Café with over 120 guests coming together for a beautiful community holiday celebration. Over at University Lutheran in the midst of our Sanctuary work, God is on the second level of that building where our guest is staying with her two children. She is a woman at risk for not being registered by our contemporary Quirinius. She has taken Sanctuary in a neighborhood church and she hasn’t left the building for 7 months for fear of being deported. God is near and God is here right now. Just as our service started on the other side of the building, we did as we do every day at 6 pm and opened the doors to 14 men who are living in our homeless shelter as they try to back on their feet. God is here and God is near. What’s more, God comes to each of us….as we huddle together in our pews, as we sing, as we receive candle light. In a year of such dreadful news and harsh headlines that aren’t likely to get much better in the coming months, I urge us all to take God’s lead, and that of Jesus, and come closer. Get closer to yourself, allowing more time for self-care and prayer. Get closer to one another, finding time to share of yourself and hear from others how what we are living through is impacting each of us. Tonight with your families or tomorrow with friends at 11 am service, draw close to your loved one and go the extra mile to extend a hug or tell someone you love them. I guarantee you, you will feel more grounded and hopeful when you come away from such encounters. And, counterintuitive as it may sound, get closer to those who are suffering the most.

The practice of proximity in all these dimensions will give you the strength to move with faith and fearlessness, with wisdom and clarity and tenderness. For there is work to do with this gift.

Hear these words from Howard Thurman:
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.

Draw near and let God draw near to you, and believe that this closeness has the power to change the most dogged narratives of fear and division and to bring hope, healing, and joyous song to every human heart.

Merry Christmas!

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