In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
I was standing in line at a drug store a few Decembers ago when I saw a stunning photo of the moon. There, on the first page of a tabloid newspaper, among the moon craters everyone has seen, arose majestically—a golden cross. The headline: “Top secret NASA discovery: a miraculous sign from God?”
Do people around us look for “a sign from God”? I think of the many times Jesus scolded his disciples for not seeing the signs all around them: “Do you have eyes and fail to see?” (Mark 8:18). I think of the words we just heard again, first spoken by an angel and addressed to a bunch of frightened shepherds: “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12).
People who long for a golden cross on the surface of the moon mistake the coming of God’s kingdom for a Hollywood picture. The Kingdom of God described in the Bible doesn’t come with flashy flourishes or gaudy glamor; it comes quietly and inconspicuously. People at the time of Jesus’ birth expected a hero that would rescue them from their misery, but he wasn’t what they expected. John’s Prologue (his very own version of the Christmas Story), puts it this way: “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (John 1: 11-12).
It is Christmas Day. The holiday preparations are over, and Christmas Eve is behind us. But people around us and we ourselves are anxious for real hope that will last beyond this day, beyond New Year’s Eve, into the uncertainty of 2017.
The hope the Bible gives us is this: that God became one of us. The child in the manger is the beginning of a new chapter in God’s relationship with us. He was God, but he grew up to be a man who died on the cross, and overcame death, and rose from the tomb, and became our Lord.
Jimmy, a friend’s six-year old son, wrote: “A long time ago thear was a mangere and thear was a little boy … his name was jeasus the lord. shepherds were thear and anjils wer thear and marea was thear and joseph was thear and atspeshled God.” As Jimmy’s mother helped me with one hard word (“atspeshled” means “especially”), I realized there is a sermon here: The very ordinary and unglamorous lives of Mary and Joseph and the shepherds became “atspeshled”—special—because God was there. Just as people before us did, we must learn again that God wants to walk into our world in ways that we won’t expect.
LITTLE ADVENT SONG
- Come, Lord, to our prideful sphere
with your love’s determined wooin’,
pow’r and wealth to commandeer
lest the peoples go to ruin.
Turn our hate and hostile wrath,
lead us to a peaceful path.
- Come, Lord, to our wealthy land,
you who love the poor and lowly,
that with greed and dullness banned
human hearts might waken slowly.
Use our affluence to carve
ways to rescue those who starve.
- Come, Lord, to our noisy town,
come and bring your silent center,
so those who in anguish drown
might implore your strength to enter
their own course through noise and strife
heading to eternal life.
- Come, Lord, to our solid stead,
as one naked and unguarded.
Just a tent around us spread,
used one night and then discarded.
Those who think they’re safe won’t say
that they still are on the way.
- Come, Lord, to our hearts gone glum,
light from light in full revealing,
lest greed, fear, grief, pain become
tools that serve your truth’s concealing,
truth that e’en in deepest night
will make human lives shine bright.
German original by Hans Graf von Lehndorff, 1968
English translation by Fritz Wendt, 2016
The author of the poem, Hans Count von Lehndorff (1910-1987) was a German physician, poet and pastor. Raised in a wealthy family in East Prussia, he had his first experience with the Nazis when his mother was incarcerated for supporting a Lutheran pastor who had criticized the new regime.
As a young doctor, von Lehndorff became an active member of the Confessing Church, and was aware of the plans to assassinate Hitler through a cousin who was involved. During World War II, he was the head of a small military hospital in Königsberg (Kaliningrad), and saw unimaginable suffering when the Russian army captured and occupied the town.
After the war ended, he was a church musician in East Germany (GDR), but after several decades was able to move to Bonn-Bad Godesberg, where he founded a small clinic and became active in hospital ministry. Von Lehndorff wrote the poem above in 1968; it is a prayer reflecting the horrors of what he had seen during the war, but also the beginning of the Vietnam War (stirring national conversations, mostly among students, about how to maintain and secure peace) and Germany’s “economic miracle”, with its new phenomenon of migrant workers (leading to conversations about justice and income equality).
In the succession of his poem/prayer the poet is asking Christ to come, and to come closer and closer, as if in five concentric circles: our prideful sphere, our wealthy land, our noisy town, our solid stead, and, finally, our hearts gone glum.
- Beginning with a broad general location, the poet asks Christ to come to “our prideful sphere”, our world. As we do now, he and his contemporaries had to learn to tolerate and coexist with people perceived as “other”. Perhaps alluding to the Tower of Babel story, he thinks of human beings as “prideful”. Come, Lord, to our prideful sphere with your love’s determined wooin’, pow’r and wealth to commandeer lest the peoples go to ruin. Turn our hate and hostile wrath, lead us to a peaceful path.
- A bit further in, there is “our wealthy land” where we were born. While not responsible for the place of our birth, we are accountable for how our wealth will influence our interactions with the world. Come, Lord, to our wealthy land, you who love the poor and lowly, that with greed and dullness banned human hearts might waken slowly. Use our affluence to carve ways to rescue those who starve.
- Further in yet, there is “our noisy town”, the polis (Greek for town, but also for citizenship) where we “make politics”, i.e. live together. Our cars, planes, trains and machines are noisy, but our conflicts create noise as well: when people stop listening to each other they lose their center. Come, Lord, to our noisy town, come and bring your silent center, so those who in anguish drown might implore your strength to enter their own course through noise and strife heading to eternal life.
- The next circle brings us to “our solid stead”, the place we call our own and to which we escape. Building our houses so solid that they might “last forever” is problematic when they become fortresses that tempt us to avoid the risk of encountering the world around us. Without ever mentioning Christmas, the “Little Advent Song” manages to put crowded Bethlehem before us, along with stable, manger and animals, and urges us to abandon our risk-averse attitude. Come, Lord, to our solid stead, as one naked and unguarded. Just a tent around us spread, used one night and then discarded. Those who think they’re safe won’t say that they still are on the way.
- The final location to which the poet calls Christ is our heart—that inmost place where we are most alive, where our feelings live, along with our faith. Yet our hearts are also places where we hide, from the world, from ourselves and from God—and places where our emotions often rule in ways others can’t see. Come, Lord, to our hearts gone glum, light from light in full revealing, lest greed, fear, grief, pain become tools that serve your truth’s concealing, truth that e’en in deepest night will make human lives shine bright.
God who became one of us so inconspicuously is still walking among us, very quietly, making our lives special. During these twelve days of Christmas (all the way to Epiphany), may you discover the signs: signs that God is in the thick of your everyday experience.
As people who “still are on the way”, let us pay attention during these holy days: to the people we meet (entertaining “angels unaware”) and to the things along the way that seem slightly “off” (these might be signs). God wants to meet us on the road. Whenever greed, fear, grief and pain are getting the better of you, remember that God’s truth is stronger, now and always. Amen.
Fritz Wendt, M.A., M.Div., LCSW-R, a native of Northern Germany, is a Lutheran pastor, psychotherapist and church musician living in New York City. He works full-time in the Pediatric ER and Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry of Harlem Hospital.