Christmas, and the In-Between

This is the reflection I gave at our church’s Christmas Eve service last night, for those who’d like to read it. I wish you all a happy Christmas, and peace in the in-betweens.

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You are one half of an infertile couple. For years, you’ve prayed that God would bless you with a child. It seems a good request, a simple request; after all, you’ve been obedient to God, pulled up stakes and left everything behind to follow Him. In return, God’s made some nice-sounding promises about creating a great nation from your line. But the years keep passing, one after another after another, your body wrinkling, sagging, aging past the point of possibility. Sometimes you wonder if God has forgotten you – or maybe you didn’t quite understand Him correctly?

***

You are a prostitute, surrounded by the indestructible walls of a large oasis city. Perhaps you feel trapped by both your profession and your location. There’s not much time to think, though: Your family depends on you. But sometimes you go up to the roof of your house and look out over the city wall, and you think back on all the decisions – some that you made and some that you didn’t – that got you to this place.

***

You are a young widow, left without husband or children in a culture where both are essential to your security and worth. Out of a sense of love and duty – and perhaps lacking better options – you’ve chosen to accompany your mother-in-law back to her hometown. The people here despise your own people group: They deride you as the offspring of an ancient incest. In order to support yourself and your mother-in-law, you become a migrant scavenger, following the field laborers to pick up any grain they’ve left behind. Your back aches, your legs ache, and sometimes you ask yourself whether you’ll always feel like an old rag left out flapping on the line.

***

You are the youngest son in a family with seven older brothers: Seven older brothers who are tall, handsome, and brave. While your brothers go out to the glory of the battlefield, you’re left behind to tend the livestock, to fetch, carry, run errands. As you spend hours in the pasture, watching the sheep graze under the hot sun, you keep a sharp eye out for predators, you write songs in your head, and you wonder whether anybody will ever notice you – whether there will ever be anything special left for you.

 

These are the situations in which we first meet four well-known Biblical characters: Abraham the father of many, Rahab the harlot with a heart of gold, Ruth the model daughter-in-law, and David the future king. These characters have something in common: All are ancestors of Jesus, part of Matthew’s list of Jesus’s lineage.

If you’ve spent time in church or Sunday School, you may be familiar with the happy endings of each of their stories:

How Abraham and his wife Sarah miraculously had a son, Isaac, when Abraham was 100 years old – 25 years after God first promised to make Abraham a great nation.

How Rahab helped two Hebrew spies who were scoping out Jericho, so she and her family were the sole survivors when Jericho’s walls came tumbling down.

Rahab would became Ruth the Moabite’s other mother-in-law, after Rahab’s son Boaz spotted Ruth gleaning in his field and married her.

And David, the runt of the litter, got picked out of the whole lineup of his brothers, chosen by God as Israel’s king.

We may be so familiar with the happily-ever-after aspect of these stories that it clouds our reading, and we view the hard parts through the lens of the coming joy; we like happy endings.

But tonight, I’m not as interested in the happy endings as I am in the in-betweens. I’m interested in the long years of waiting: the helplessness, hopelessness, and just plain boredom that each of these people must have experienced until God graciously delivered them from childlessness, prostitution, destitute widowhood, and overlooked little-brotherness.

And I’m interested in the years that followed, in what happened after happily-ever-after. Because their happy endings weren’t the end of the story: There were still diapers to change, meals to cook, dishes to wash, livestock to tend, heartaches to endure, countries to run.

What got them through the years of pain and the years of mundane? What gets us through them?

The fact is, we spend most of our lives in the in-between. There are moments of amazing grace, of miracles, of salvation. But these are often separated by years of waiting: helpless, hopeless, bored. There are diapers to change, meals to cook, dishes to wash, livestock to tend, heartaches to endure, jobs to do. We have Christmas — and we have the other 364 days of the year.

But here’s the thing: Abraham, Rahab, Ruth, and David were always part of a bigger plan – a plan that dwarfed their own personal happy endings. The baby, the deliverance, the wealthy husband, and the kingdom weren’t the most important things after all – the most important thing was that each of these people was getting the world a little closer to Jesus, adding another branch onto the family tree of our Savior.

So, what does this have to do with you and me?

When Jesus came into the world, he made it possible for God to adopt all of us as His children. Paul writes in Romans 8: “Those who are led by the spirit of God are sons of God….The Spirit himself testifies that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ[.]”

In other words: We’ve been grafted into Jesus’s family tree. Those who follow Jesus are the continuation of his lineage, the extension of the story that began with Abraham, Rahab, Ruth, and David. Our lives may feel helpless, hopeless, or boring; we may be waiting for our happy ending, we may feel stuck in our mundane daily life, but our lives are being woven into the tapestry of God’s great plan to save the world – His plan that began with Jesus and continues through us. We are part of a story so much bigger than our own.

And the best thing is: We already know that this bigger story will have a happy ending.

The most repeated phrase in the Bible is one that echoes throughout Jesus’s birth, spoken by angels to his mother, father, and a rag-tag gang of shepherds: “Do not be afraid.” In her book Unwrapping the Greatest Gift, Ann Voskamp writes, “All fear comes from thinking that somewhere God’s love will end.” Abraham, Rahab, Ruth, and David trusted in God’s love, which enabled them to leave behind what was comfortable and known, and to take the brave steps of faith that would eventually lead them to their happy endings. God’s love never ended for them: it was there through both the soaring and the mundane chapters of their stories, and it continued on through the generations that followed – all the way down to us.

This Christmas Eve, may we sink into the wonder of this realization that we are heirs of Abraham, Rahab, Ruth, David, and Jesus himself. Let’s commemorate a joyous birth together as family: The birth of this God-child, who is both the miraculous start of God’s great happy-ending plan, and at the same time is a baby mired in the mundane and in pain – a displaced infant on the rough outskirts of an empire who will need to be fed, to have his diapers changed, to become a refugee fleeing genocide.

And the other 364 days of the year, may we live in the knowledge that all the diapers, all the meals, all the dishes, all the heartache, all our days and nights – all of these things matter, because they are all part of our stories, which are all part of God’s great story.

May the assurance of His endless love give us peace and courage, not only in happy endings, but in the in-betweens.

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