Fourth Advent: The Response of the Imperfect

Luke 2:7-20

December 19, 2021

Advent is a time of self-emptying and preparation: emptying of who and what we have been apart from God in the past in order to prepare to receive the who and what God intends for us to be in the days, months and years to come.  

The emptying is never about judgment of self or others, but rather about a sense of increased self-awareness and the anticipated joy of divine transformation; a transformation sometimes profound and dramatic and other times subtle and slowly revealed. 

But regardless of what we experience during Advent, I am mindful of a quote I recently read:  

Fear of imperfection should never cause us to miss out on life’s wonders.

inspiringquotes.com

So, this last week of Advent, I thought I would focus on two more responses: those of the shepherds and the innkeeper(s). 

The shepherds

The shepherds weren’t exactly high up on the social ladder back in 1st century Israel; they lived on the fringes of society, not only working in the fields but living there as well. Luke 2:8a

Their nomadic lifestyle was typically organized within a fairly closed familial system of shepherds and hirelings: those raised within the system to carry on the ‘family business’ and those hired on to help.

Their social skills were not polished, their economic status humble at best. 

They weren’t considered the most hygienically acceptable of folks, either; shepherding and living in the fields was dirty work. Nor were they the most ‘spiritually acceptable,’ since their lifestyle kept them from adherence to the expected religious observances throughout the year.

In other words, their lives were far from perfect.

The shepherd’s life was a rugged life, a solitary life, a life perfectly suited for that ‘night so long ago’ on the outskirts of Bethlehem.

How so?

As they ‘kept watch,’ over their sheep, they were alert to their surroundings and potential danger to their flocks, even as they ‘kept watch’ for the best watering holes and greenest pastures for their flocks. 

They were tuned in to environmental changes as well, which necessitated an awareness of the location of caves and sheltering spaces from storms.

In their lives of vigilance, the shepherds were ready for whatever might come….even when there were strange beings filling the night sky!

And their first response? 

Fear!  How would they protect their flocks from such a bizzare danger? 

They chose to stand their ground and protect their flocks. They had no strategy against whatever was going on, so they listened perhaps hoping to strategize a plan against this unexpected danger.

But their listening elicited a different response than what they were trained to do.  

They were not to stand and fight, nor run and hide – but rather ‘go and see.’

Leave the fields – leave the flocks – and go and see this new thing that God has done!

Astonishingly, they obeyed; a response counterintuitive to who they had always been (solitary and closed off) and what they had always done (protect their flocks at all cost). 

Their lives weren’t perfect – but their response to the angels was!

So I wonder – 

  • Do I ever seek out solitude and quiet myself enough to listen to God Who always speaks to those willing to ‘be still’ (Psalm 46:10)
  • How do I respond to what I hear in the stillness of listening?
    • Do I continue to stand and defend my status quo?
    • Or am I willing to leave the past behind, ‘go and see’ and participate in this new thing God is calling me to?
    • Am I willing to allow God to change me through this divine calling/encounter?
    • Do I believe God calls all of us, imperfect as we are?

Now, on to the innkeeper(s)

I say innkeeper(s) because surely even in ‘the little town of Bethlehem’ there was more than one!  

In looking at the scripture in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the text doesn’t even refer to an inn or innkeeper – the scripture says, ‘guest house.’  

I mention this difference because hospitality was a very big deal in the Jewish culture ‘back then.’

No one was to turn away a stranger. All were expected to attend to a stranger’s needs. Indeed, according to the letter to the Hebrews 13:2, such hospitality might be an opportunity to entertain angels in our midst!  But this was an exceptional time, and Bethlehem was overwhelmed!  Amid this chaos, both innkeepers and townspeople had come to the end of their hospitality rope – there was no room. Period!  

Still, let’s stick to the traditional interpretation that it was an innkeeper(s) who turned the young couple away, because I think we have unfairly judged those harried innkeeper(s).

Why? 

Because at least one innkeeper took time out of his hectic situation in order to find a place of sheltering peace for Mary and Joseph; somewhere out of the way, somewhere discreet and unobtrusive for them to usher in this new life that would be born. 

The innkeeper’s hospitality and caring might not have looked like what we think it should have, but it was hospitality and caring nonetheless; in fact, it seems to have been a perfect response to an imperfect situation! 

I also believe that, once the child was born and things were a bit more settled, someone – perhaps that same innkeeper – found a house for the young family to inhabit. Matthew 2:10-11.   The solution evolved and became more perfectly responsive to the situation over time.

So I wonder – 

  • Do we do what we can with what we have to offer, or do we prefer to wait until everything is ‘perfect?’
    • Never underestimate how Christ might be born in us in the most unlikely corners and places of our lives. 
    • Never think that how we serve Christ today won’t continue to evolve over time.
    • As we open our hearts in hospitality to Christ in our lives,  serving Him by serving others, it changes us; perhaps not in ways that merit a sentence in the annals of world history (what the innkeeper got), but then, being noticed isn’t the goal; loving hospitality to those that Christ loves in the best way we can is the true goal!

In the scriptural accounts of imperfect people – shepherds and innkeeper(s) – changes in their lives might not be readily apparent, but here’s the thing: the Light has filled the darkness; new life has come, and those imperfect folks had a choice.

  • The shepherds could  – 
    • stand their ground, ignore the light, and once the angels left the sky Luke 2:15 , go back to life as normal 
    • or go and see what God has done
  • The innkeeper(s) had a choice – 
    • Turn the couple away – not their problem/the couple should have thought ahead!
    • Or find a temporary solution, until a better circumstance – an ever-broadening circumstance – could be found for the new family

Imperfect people made the perfect choice!

We, too, have choices – important choices – to make in response to Christ.  

  • will we embrace the light, the new life born of God’s love for us and God’s hope for our future?
  • Or move back from the “God moment’ and back into the solitude of the past/the hectic pace of the past. 
  • Our choices not only impact our lives but the lives of those around us – ALWAYS!

God seeks to bless all – not for ourselves but in order that God’s blessings will flow through us into the lives of others. Our perfect God uses the imperfect – us – to work the perfect and divine will.

  • is this our experience of God?  
  • Is this our experience of our life in the world as Christians?  

As we enter the last week of Advent and approach the miracle of Christmas once again – we are still imperfect, God still has more work to do in us, but God has plans for our lives even while we are still in process.

This is part of the wonder of Christmas.

Come and see.  Leave the past behind and claim the new life that awaits: as we offer ourselves to God as best we can in the present time, perhaps WE become the present God longs for even as we receive the gift of God’s Son. 

And to God be the glory!  AMEN.

Published by Pastor Catharine

Retired ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I have a Master's of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry (with an emphasis on Spiritual Transformation of Community) from Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

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