THE PLACES OF CHRISTMAS: UNLIKELY PEOPLE
I Samuel 16:6-13 – Luke 2:1-7
The Rev. Helen Havlik
Advent 4 – December 23, 2018
This year during Advent we’ve been looking at the places of Christmas. These places are more than our personal roots and memories. In fact, we find our place in the biblical story of a God who created Eden and then came to live with us. We humans disrupted paradise, which led first to our displacement and then to our longing to find our way home. Generations passed as God continued to care for the children of Adam and Eve, including claiming the Israelites as God’s particular people. Solomon built the first Temple in Jerusalem, where God dwelled on earth. But that wasn’t the end of the story—in Jesus we meet God in person, thanks to some unlikely people in unlikely places. I’m reading from Luke 2, beginning with vs. 1. Hear these words from the book that we love.
Hedwig Eva Kiesler was born in Vienna in 1914. One hundred years later, she was inducted posthumously into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for co-inventing and patenting a telecommunications method known as “frequency hopping.” During World War II, she and a partner, George Antheil, used a piano roll to shift among 88 frequencies, which was intended to make radio-guided torpedoes harder to detect. Fortunately, Kiesler was on our side! This technology was a forerunner of Wifi—thank Kiesler for your bluetooth and smart phone! The military liked the idea—but they never hired her to help put it into production because they said she would be more useful selling war bonds and entertaining troops. In fact, most people at the time would have been shocked to learn she was an inventor who also worked with Howard Hughes on his aeronautics projects. To the public, she was the actress Hedy Lamarr, who Louis B. Mayer of MGM studios, labeled “the world’s most beautiful woman.” True enough, but she also was a self-taught high school dropout whose frequency hopping invention is worth an estimated $30 billion today. (Pamela Hutchinson, “Hedy Lamarr—the 1940’s ‘bombshell’ who helped invent wifi,” Guardian, 3/8/18) She spent the last years of her life living in a small town in Florida.
You also may never have heard of Oseola McCarty, born in Wayne County, Miss., in 1908. McCarty quit school in the sixth grade when her aunt became ill. After that, she earned her living as a washerwoman in Hattiesburg. A frugal woman, she saved most of her money—which amounted to nickels and dimes set aside over many years. After arthritis forced her to retire in 1994, she made national news a year later when she turned her life savings over to the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg. People in the development office were surprised when she walked in the door asking to set up a scholarship fund for low-income students. What could an obviously poor black woman have to offer? How about $150,000? McCarty’s inspirational generosity touched many people. Before she died in 1999, according to her New York Times obituary, she “flew on a plane for the first time in her life and laughed out loud when the food did not fall off the tray… She stayed in a hotel for the first time in her life, and before she checked out, she made the bed.” (Rick Bragg, The New York Times, 9/28/99) She also carried the Olympic Torch for the 1996 games through part of Mississippi, received the Presidential Citizen’s Medal from President Bill Clinton in 1998, and was awarded an honorary doctorate from Harvard University. When she died, she was still living in the little house in Hattiesburg her uncle had given her.
Unlikely people, unlikely places. We know the story of Abraham Lincoln, born in 1809, in a backwoods pioneer cabin near Hodgenville, Kentucky, who grew up on the Illinois frontier in abject poverty, lost his mother at age 9, taught himself to read from borrowed books, worked as a rail-splitter, storekeeper, postmaster, surveyor—and eventually a lawyer before entering Illinois politics and finally becoming one of the greatest US presidents. Unlikely people from unlikely places. Like David, son of Jesse, who didn’t even bother coming in from the field when Samuel the prophet went to Bethlehem looking for a new king. Israel’s first king, Saul, had not worked out as Samuel had expected—almost from the moment of Saul’s anointing things had gone terribly wrong. Saul certainly looked like a king—he was taller than anyone else, he was clever, he was a great warrior. But he didn’t do what God told him to do. And so God sent Samuel to visit Jesse the sheep farmer from Bethlehem who paraded all his sons for Samuel’s inspection. And God said no to each one until David. He was the least of his brothers—attractive enough but not the one Samuel would have picked. And yet he was The One. Did Samuel know that David’s great grandmother was Ruth—another unlikely person from an unlikely place, a foreigner who ended up in Bethlehem because of a famine in her native Moab? Remember how she and her mother-in-law Naomi, both widowed, were stranded without any means of support, far from Naomi’s original home? Remember the famine that drove them back to Bethlehem—which literally means “House of Bread”? By the time Samuel arrived in Bethlehem, he was old and discouraged and wondering what would become of God’s people if God was displeased with Saul. He may not have known David’s family history, but God certainly did. Bethlehem might have seemed like an unlikely place to Samuel, but that’s where he found Israel’s greatest king.
And then there are Joseph and Mary—unlikely people from an unlikely place (Nazareth) on their way to another unlikely place (Bethlehem). Joseph may be descended from David, but it’s clear from what we read here that he and Mary are hardly royalty. She gives birth and lays her baby in a manger—a feed trough. If this baby is so special—and Luke gives us plenty of reason in Chapter 1 to think that he is—why wasn’t there room for them anywhere else? What’s God thinking anyway? If you were planning to save the world, wouldn’t you pick the tall guy, yes, a guy like Saul, the one from a well-known family with a real Harvard degree, not just an honorary one? Wouldn’t you want someone who could navigate the corridors of power with confidence and skill—who knew all the right people and could glad hand with the best of them? Except would he listen to God? Would he take his cues from the creator of the universe, humbly accepting his place in the grand sweep of history? Trusting in the Spirit to guide his saving work? Even so, a peasant baby? A king like David, a prophet like Samuel? Unlikely.
But as the Apostle Paul told the Corinthians: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God—who is the source of your life in Christ Jesus.” And so a woman known more for her beauty than her brains invents Wifi, a washerwoman endows a scholarship, a rail-splitter becomes a great leader. What other unlikely things is God doing here and now with unlikely us?