Shivering, wet guests file into the fellowship hall. It is cold and raining on the Thursday before Christmas. Two hundred homeless people have come to church for chicken spaghetti.
I pass a marker around my table. We fill out nametags. I try to quickly learn the names — John Henry, Bill, Cornelius, Tom, Kevin, Mary and Joe.
On a cold night just before Christmas I am sitting with Mary and Joseph. Mary is young and weary. Joseph is bewildered. His jacket is two sizes too big.
Joseph says, “I hate to ask, but do you have twenty-five cents I could use for the bus? I’m a quarter short and too tired to walk.”
One of the occupational hazards of being a preacher is that you frequently find yourself in situations that shout, “Here comes a sermon illustration! Don’t miss this!”
I imagine that Mary and Joseph are from out of town. They need a place to stay. I know it is too much to hope that Mary is expecting, but that would be so sweet. I am thinking, “If I ever have a column due right before Christmas, I am going to send Baptist News Global the story of Mary and Joseph coming in from the cold, coming to church just before Christmas.”
I start asking questions. The story is not the one for which I was hoping. I am disappointed to learn that Mary is not with Joseph. She is with Kevin. Mary has not been with Kevin long and gives the impression that she and Kevin might not make it to Christmas together.
Joseph is looking for a place to stay, but it is because, as he announces to everyone within shouting distance, “A year ago, I went on a drinking binge and my grandmother kicked me out of the house.”
The story no longer seems like part of a Christmas column, but Joseph keeps talking. He is in a job-training program that lasts six months. He had not had a drink for five months when, as he put it, “I got too much money in my pocket.”
When his caseworker found out what had happened Joseph was sure that she would kick him out of the program. He was amazed when she gave him another chance.
Joseph is determined that he is not going to let down the one person who still believes in him. It is not the sentimental story for which I was hoping, but it sounds like God might be in it.
God is with us in more ways than we have imagined. God is with us when we sing Joy to the World with a joy that comes from deep inside, when like the Grinch our heart grows a few sizes, and when the ghosts of Christmas remind us that Tiny Tim does not live that far away.
God is present even in the midst of horrific tragedies, in the care we offer broken people, and in the longing we feel for a world where children are safe.
God is present when we think more about what others have done for us than about what we have done for them, when we move past what the world owes us to what we owe the world, and when we see that other people are just as real as we are.
God is present when we love children who are challenging, when we care for parents who do not want to be parented, and when we do something kind for the ex-husband without getting credit.
God is present when we cannot think of any reason why anyone would want to be our friend but find our friends are there anyway, when we choose not to offer thinly veiled criticism, and when we laugh — especially when we wondered if we would ever laugh again.
Much of the time we do not notice that God is here. We are so used to hearing what we expect and remaining deaf to what we most need that it is hard to break the habit. But if we listen with hope, then we may hear God speaking.
Legend has it that when Joan of Arc was on trial, the archbishop began, “Do you claim to hear angels?”
Joan replied, “Why, yes. Don’t you?”
The archbishop was amused: “No, I don’t.”
“What a pity that you are an archbishop and you cannot hear the songs of angels.”
What a pity if we hear the story of Christmas and do not recognize that God is with us.