Today is the first Sunday of Advent and the beginning of the sacred Christmas season. Advent is a Latin word that means “coming” or “entering in.” As you can see, it’s the root of our word “adventure” or the start of something new. Most simply, then, Advent is the holy time when we remember and enter in to God’s coming to us in the birth of Jesus.
Today I want to reflect on a simple but profound question. When God adventures and comes in person to earth, how does God come? I want to draw your attention to three aspects of God’s coming in the Christmas story.
First, God comes with patience.
In the journey of God’s coming, there are hundreds of years of anticipation and waiting. Think of the prophets who are quoted in the stories of Jesus’s birth.
Isaiah, the prophet who spoke of the Messiah being born to a young woman, lived seven hundred years before Jesus was born. To put this time-span in perspective, that’s more than three times longer than the United States has been a country.
Micah, the prophet who said the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, also lived seven hundred years before Mary and Joseph made their dangerous journey to Bethlehem. Both Isaiah and Micah saw the military invasion of their homeland and witnessed the exile of their people. They suffered traumatizing experiences that seemed to refute that God was coming or that God even cared.
If we zoom in to the story of God’s coming, the young girl that Isaiah prophesied receives a strange visitation from an angel. This divine messenger says that Mary is highly favored by God, that she’s going to have a baby even though she hasn’t had sex, and that this baby is going to be the Savior of humanity. But then there’s more waiting. We don’t even know what these nine months entailed for Mary. But we know that they came with hunger, with exhaustion, with nausea — probably with many anxious questions and times of depression. I wonder if Mary experienced her pregnancy as an eternity or questioned if this promised birth simply wouldn’t happen.
As I reflect on God’s coming, I need to remind myself and maybe you do too: just because it’s not happening now doesn’t mean that it will never happen. I can become so trapped in the urgency and disappointment of the present moment. But God comes in and through patience, across centuries and long periods of waiting. God has a far larger, longer time horizon than I do. When something is delayed, I can go into crisis mode. When a process takes more than a few weeks, months, or even years to work itself out, I can tell myself the story that change is impossible and that my reality will always be like this. But God is patient and accepts the waiting. And God is still coming. The divine adventure is unfolding.
Is there something in your life that you feel like you’ve been waiting for forever? Are you tempted to tell yourself the story that nothing changes and salvation will never come?
Don’t give up. Maybe God is coming tomorrow or next year or later in your life or seven hundred years from now. Advent reminds us that God is coming — but with patience and perhaps a long process of waiting.
Second, God comes with vulnerability.
I have lived many years of my life in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Addis is the diplomatic capital of the continent of Africa and home to the African Union head quarters.
Each year, the AU has its heads of state summit, and you can expect the roads around the AU head quarters to shut down. Police block off the streets from ordinary traffic, and African heads of state are escorted in motorcades with black Mercedes Benzes, Range Rovers, and other luxury vehicles behind tinted, bullet-proof glass. Each year the coming of these leaders struck me as an exhibition of superiority, luxury, and untouchability — the kind of treatment 99% of their people could never imagine experiencing for themselves.
This isn’t how God comes in Jesus. God comes in vulnerability and enters into the same experience that the most impoverished people in our world share. Let me mention just a few examples from the Christmas stories.
First, Jesus grows in the womb of a young, impoverished teenager. Mary lived in a rural area with no access to medical care. Jesus could have easily been miscarried and died before he even arrived.
Add that Mary and her fiancé Joseph lived under Roman military occupation. Emperor Augustus, far away in the glorious capital city of Rome, had decreed that his colonial subjects had to fill out an imperial survey. Think of this as a massive data collection scheme to surveil and secure Caesar’s already crushing power.
This meant that Joseph, Mary, and her unborn child had to walk and, if they were lucky, ride on a donkey for days and days through rugged landscapes from northern Israel down to Bethlehem to fill out this census. They were at the whim of powerful, distant politicians. And the sheer exhaustion and risk of injury during their grueling travel was filled with vulnerability. What if Mary fell?
The danger of being robbed by bandits or abused by Roman soldiers is another layer of vulnerability. What if they got attacked and Mary was beaten or raped? Today in our world, we know that one in three women experiences sexual or physical violence in their lifetime. This long, dangerous journey would have made Mary and her unborn child especially vulnerable to abuse and violence.
Then there’s the birth. One of the most famous aspects of Jesus’s birth story is also one of the most astonishing. Mary, Joseph, and unborn Jesus finally make it to Bethlehem. We don’t know what they’ve been through to get there — maybe physical injuries, maybe violent assaults, certainly plenty of frustration, stress, and exhaustion.
But when they finally arrive in Bethlehem, there’s no place for them to stay. The motels are booked full. All the rooms are already taken. It’s like they’re the last ones, the leftovers, the most unlucky.
Perhaps you’ve also had an experience like this. You thought the vulnerability couldn’t get any worse and you were ready for it to get better. And then, when it rains, it pours, and the frustration and helplessness just intensify.
This was the vulnerability of Mary’s experience. Without a place to stay, Mary and Joseph end up packing in to an animal shelter, maybe a barn or a cave. And this is where Jesus is born. Remember, we’re talking about how God comes. No hospital. No doctors or nurses. No sterilized environment. No medications or pain killers. No bed.
Jesus, the incarnation of God, is born in an animal shelter, probably with the sounds of cows mooing and chickens clucking, amidst feces. His first crib was an animal feeding trough, little more than a dirty bucket. God comes in radical vulnerability.
But there’s another layer. Soon after Jesus is born, he will be hunted by the power-hungry, paranoid, ruthlessly brutal local ruler named Herod. Herod was notoriously violent. He had his own wife Mariamne executed, then her brother, her grandfather, her mother — all executed. Herod even killed his own sons.
As we’ve seen, Jesus and his family had no special connections or source of protection. And so they became refugees in Egypt, not unlike the few Palestinians who are able to escape Gaza today. The United Nations reports that over 108 million people have been forced to flee their homes in our world. Over 35 million of these people are refugees. And over 40% or fourteen million of these precious people are children under the age of eighteen. Jesus shares this story of fleeing violence, losing home, and being totally vulnerable.
This is how God comes — in the vulnerability of a military occupation, across a long and treacherous journey away from home, in the womb of an impoverished teenager, with no place to stay, and born in an animal shelter under the shadow of a violent empire. At every point in this Advent story, we’re just an inch from things going off the rails and this God-child never being born at all.
God comes to us in vulnerability.
Third, God comes with ordinariness and accessibility.
Notice how ordinary every character is in the Advent story.
As we’ve seen, Mary is a rural, impoverished teenager. She doesn’t have any exalted status or reputation. Unlike the legends that have grown up around her, she isn’t described as having any special lineage or spiritual purity. In fact, because she got pregnant before marriage, we know that Mary was held in suspicion for sexual promiscuity. Unsurprisingly, the Gospel of Barnabas records that Jesus was rumored to be an illegitimate child or “bastard.” In Luke’s Gospel, Mary is simply described as being willing to trust God with the unknown and seemingly impossible: the birth of God’s Child through her.
Joseph, Jesus’s adopted dad, was ordinary too. Apparently he came from Bethlehem, the “city of David.” But Bethlehem was little more than a village; the name means “Bread House” or “Bakery.” And Joseph didn’t even have enough status or connections in Bethlehem to secure a decent room to sleep in when he returned with his pregnant wife. From this perspective, it seems like Joseph was a nobody or even an outcast. We also know that Joseph was spiritually unconventional: when Mary got pregnant before marriage, Moses’s law said that Joseph should report her to the authorities and have her killed. But Joseph had a dream and rejected this religious violence. He married Mary and protected her.
Jesus’s aunt Elizabeth was elderly and childless. In her culture, having no children was seen as severely unlucky or even a curse from God. Until the last moment of her story, she seems like a tragic character very familiar with grief, maybe chronically battling envy of other families, and probably questioning if God had forgotten her or chosen her for special disappointment. So many of us can relate with Elizabeth.
After Jesus is born, his first visitors are lowly shepherds. These were likely bottom-class, rural boys. They spent their lives out in the wilderness with animals. They smelled like animals. They didn’t have access to education. They didn’t have prospects for an upwardly mobile life trajectory.
I’m reminded of one of my former students at the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology. In my course “Theology of the Poor,” I asked my students to share about their personal experiences of poverty. Alex talked about growing up as a shepherd boy in rural Ethiopia. He had a passion for school, but his father told him that education was a waste of time and unnecessary for his life as an animal herder.
When Alex would dare to walk to school and come home at night, his father would refuse to let him enter the house with his books. He told Alex to throw his books away, and when Alex refused, he forced Alex to sleep outside with the animals. With his extraordinary courage and resilience, Alex not only completed primary school. He completed graduate school and is now working to empower impoverished women like Mary in rural Ethiopia.
Jesus’s first visitors were shepherds like Alex familiar with this poverty and struggle. They were the kind of young people who are first to be driven away from the bullet-proof entourage of luxury vehicles and shiny political head quarters that require special connections and VIP badges to enter.
But with Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in their animal shelter, these shepherd boys had free access to the newborn God-child. No guards. No titles. No badges. No dress code. None of this was necessary. In the humble obscurity of the animal barn with completely ordinary people, Jesus was accessible to other ordinary people who are usually the first to be excluded.
After his birth, Jesus was also visited by the Magi or “wisemen.” These were likely astrologers from Iraq or Iran. Most orthodox religious folk would have seen them as suspicious foreigners, heretical pagans, and dangerous enemies. They were what we might call “sorcerers” or “fortune tellers” today. Matthew’s Gospel very cleverly says that they followed a “star” to find Jesus. Matthew is alluding to a text in scripture that said God’s star ruler would come and destroy the pagan foreigners (Numbers 24:7). Significantly, the leader of the Jewish revolt against the pagan foreigners a generation after Jesus was named Bar Kochba or Son of the Star.
But like Joseph, these Magi were open to unconventional spiritual revelations that they couldn’t fully explain or defend. And they made a dangerous journey to follow the star. And like the shepherds, they had full access to Jesus. Their foreignness, their paganness, their cultural-religious-political “enemyness” was not a barrier when God came. They were welcome. In fact, it’s possible that their generous gifts helped sustain this impoverished family, especially when they became refugees in Egypt. Matthew tells us that these blessed pagan foreigners protected Jesus and refused to report his location to power-hungry Herod, which enabled Jesus to escape.
Notice that Herod seems to be the only elite person who has the foggiest idea that Jesus was even born. Otherwise, Jesus was completely unknown, overlooked, and only visited by totally ordinary or even unwanted guests — dirty animals, smelly shepherd boys, and suspicious foreign enemies. All had access and were welcome.
This year, as we enter into Advent once more and ponder the coming of God to humanity, how does God come to us? What is the way of God’s adventure?
God comes with patience across long stretches of time when it seems like nothing is happening. God comes with vulnerability through dangerous, frightening journeys. And God comes with ordinariness and accessibility to the most unlikely and unwanted people.
If I could put this in one word, I would say that God comes with radical solidarity. The word the Gospels use is “Immanuel” or God-with-us.
God enters into the depths and fullness of our real human experience — our agonizing waiting and fear that change will never come; our painful vulnerability and anxiety that the things we cherish will simply fall apart; our underwhelming ordinariness and experience of being unknown, overlooked, and oppressed by the more powerful.
Advent is the announcement of divine solidarity, of Immanuel, of God-with-us. Advent whispers that God is coming in all of our experiences of waiting. God is coming in all of our experiences of vulnerability. And God is coming in all of our experiences of ordinariness.
If you feel stuck and things seem to be taking too long to change; if you’re vulnerable and things seem to be going off the rails; if you’re an ordinary person who doesn’t get the special invitations or an othered person who gets the suspicious looks, devaluing labels, and violent persecution — you’re part of the Immanuel story. God is still coming for you, in solidarity with you.
It seems to me that the Advent story is God’s embodied, incarnate way of saying, “There’s no part of the human story that I’m not willing to enter into. I am present with you, even when you least expect it and are most sure I’m absent and you are alone.” Here I am reminded of Dorothy Sayers’s words in her essay “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged.” Sayers wrote,
“[F]or whatever reason God chose to make man as he is — limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death — God had the honesty and the courage to take God’s own medicine. Whatever game God is playing with God’s creation, He has kept His own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from humanity that He has not exacted from Himself. He has Himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair and death. When He was a man, He played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worth while.”
This is the gospel of Advent, the good news of God’s coming. When God comes, God fully enters in to our patience, our vulnerability, and our ordinariness. As we grieve the horrific violence unfolding in Jesus’s birthplace today — with 1200 Israelis and others murdered and taken hostage by Hamas, with over 12,000 Palestinians murdered by Israel’s retaliation, and millions of people displaced and suffering — we hear this whisper. God is still with us, still bound to us in unbreakable solidarity, still present in all of our agonizing waiting, vulnerability, and ordinariness.
And so Advent is God’s invitation to trust and to bear God’s presence like Mary did two thousand years ago. Today we are invited to say yes to God’s presence in our waiting, yes to God’s presence in our vulnerability, yes to God in our ordinariness. God has come and is still coming to us today.
In Jesus and in each of our lives, God is Immanuel — God-with-us.