(Christmas Eve, 3:30pm)
“Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest.”
Those may be familiar words. You might use them gathered around a table for a feast on this day. Maybe you pray this in your home every day; it’s great as a simple and regular way to share faith in your families and attune your lives in gratitude toward God.
Yet for how good and how common those words can be, still they strike me as odd. Even Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol is labeled at one point as the “founder of the feast.” Even that stingy bugger gets credit for being a provider at the table, but when we pray—to Jesus, to God our Creator, who gives us all that we have and are—for some reason we don’t return credit where it’s due. Instead of recognizing this preeminent and most fundamental of hosts, we say, “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest.”
Besides that backwardness, I’ve been pondering that prayer for our Christmas celebrations. Think about this: what do you normally do in preparing to receive guests? At my house, I clear away stacks of old mail, and sweep the fluffy clumps of cat hair out of the corners, scrub the grime off the bathroom, and turn up the heat above my eco-conscious high of 62°. Acacia is better at making bedrooms look congenial, turning on lights and thinking where suitcases will go, cutting flowers or setting out photos, plus shopping for ample foods and drinks. Maybe your house, too, has lately involved preparations of vacuuming and dusting, decorating and baking, rearranging and wrapping.
And then, finally, welcoming. I love that moment when the car pulls up outside our house, and our dog is excited, and we go out to meet our guests and invite them into the house.
So, I’ve been wondering if that’s how God is welcomed. We may pause to pray “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest,” but even that seems like mild preparation or expectation. I mean, Santa Claus gets notes and milk and cookies. In Jewish families at Passover, Elijah has an empty chair waiting with a glass of wine. So what about Jesus?
That seems exactly the issue as we hear Christmas story from Luke, recounting the details of a young woman’s pregnancy. She and her fiancé were forced by those in power to travel far from home, perhaps on a bumpy donkey ride, over mountains, and past the haunts of roadside bandits. They got to Bethlehem and found no place. No friends or relatives. No room for rent, no hospitable stranger. Not even a homeless shelter. They ended up hunkered down with the livestock.
And that’s when the moment came for them who were expecting—another, special moment of arrival. Even if a trip to the hospital, with medical staff, antiseptics and anesthesia are benefits of childbirth in our modern time, still this came with no a bed, no blankets, no assistance or care from others.
And then this baby was laid in a manger, in the feedtrough where the sheep kept looking to munch hay. That was the only place to receive him, as those in homes and inns went about life, enjoying supper and company, savoring warmth and comfort. Baby Jesus was not welcomed as a guest to be cared for. His coming was pretty much ignored.
His arrival was neglected and unvalued…except by some shepherds. Yet, for that, just imagine what you’d think if some guys who’d been camping out in the wilderness surrounded by barnyard animals and their poop suddenly wandered in to join your holiday gathering, much less to meet you in the labor and delivery room. The one upside was that their odor, rather than being a distraction or annoyance, would’ve fit right in at a cattle stall.
Poor baby Jesus deserved so much but hardly had a birthday party. That may make us feel sorry or maybe ashamed. We may ask ourselves what we would’ve done, had we been around Bethlehem in the year zero. Or we feel we need to do more now, really to celebrate well, as if we’re proving to Jesus that we can do better.
In that way, we could easily turn this into a morality lesson: realizing Jesus was left out in the cold, and by analogy seeing Jesus in our neighbors, we try caring for the suffering. That might mean we especially ought not leave other babies out in the cold. I feel I should’ve had a more useful solution for Chrissy, who came a week ago looking for help because she and her four children are sleeping in a parked car.
Or, reminded that Jesus arrived as an unwanted outcast, displaced from his home, needing a safe place while a violent military was controlling his homeland, we might have reason to follow social media memes that highlighted for us how we’re treating refugees, to imagine those displaced people in Jesus’ boat. We might also harbor disappointment at how quickly that unresolved crisis has been fading from the news and our minds. Those may be honest and kind embodiments of our faith and may even have life-saving importance.
But we also have to recognize that Christmas isn’t about shoulds and oughts. If this were assessed by what we’re supposed to do, how well we’re prepared, what it means to welcome outsiders and whole-heartedly pray “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest,” then partly at least we’re fooling ourselves, because we missed it.
This isn’t about preparing a cozy nursery for Jesus or only guilt and shame at failing to make progress or what’s necessary and right to do next. Because Jesus came. He came without a baby shower or a nurse’s specialty care or a society that valued him or even a bed. Yet he came just the same.
So rather than this being a lecture, trying to tell you what to do or what you did wrong, this story is telling us about God. It’s an amazing thing to keep repeating year-after-year through the generations, to tell that our God would come this way. God does not wait for you to tidy up, to get your house in order, to make things ready and pretty, to be all Martha Stewart-y. God doesn’t wait for the plate of cookies or the door to be opened, or the to-do list to be completely checked off.
This disregarded God who was born in a barn, this God who goes on to be found on a cross, this God is the God who would still be with you in your life. See, God doesn’t wait for all to be merry and bright, for the table to be set and the stockings hung with care, for those who are nice and not naughty.
Jesus comes exactly because our world is hurting, because our lives are messy, because you need him. Unnoticed, even as an uninvited guest, still he comes to your life, and the angel’s song is again the message for you: Jesus, your Savior is born! He comes to establish peace, to set you free, to give you life, to fill you up with joy. He’s making room for all that in you! That’s a lot! You’re welcome.