When Miracles Fly Thick
If you’ve been around Calvary for any length of time you certainly have heard me talk in sermons about reading books to my kids when they were little. Some of my best memories were made curled up on the couch, holding one or all of them close, and reading: Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia…it never ceased to amaze me how they could sit and listen for such a long time, enraptured by the story unfolding around them, until my throat would get hoarse and I’d have to enforce bedtime. But I know they learned it early, when we’d read short story books, get to the very last page, and they’d insist on hearing it again, one more time, again! Such is the power of a great story.
We’re telling a great, great story this week, and as we prepare I have borrowed a sermon idea from my friend and colleague John Ballenger (whom you’ll get to hear in this pulpit in February). John pastors Woodbrook Baptist Church in Baltimore, and he pointed me to this story by Philip Gulley, a Quaker pastor and writer in Indiana. I’ll tell you the whole, long thing.
I was born deep in the winter. Each birthday my father phones to recount the events surrounding my birth. Our sons are asleep in their bedroom under the eaves. My wife and I are sitting in front of the fireplace; she is doing her needlework and I am reading a mystery. The phone rings. I ease out of my chair, walk to the kitchen, pick up the phone and say, “Hello.”
It is my father. No “Hello.” No “How are you?” Just the same question each birthday: “Have I ever told you what happened the night you were born?”
“I don’t believe so,” I tell him.
“Well, it was eight o’clock in the evening when your mother went into labor. I remember the time because Gunsmoke was just starting. There was a terrible snowstorm. We could barely see the neighbor’s house for the snow. We got in the car to drive to the hospital in the city. Our defroster didn’t work, and I couldn’t see through the windshield. I had to drive the whole twenty miles with my head out the window. It was so cold my face was frostbitten. I ran a red light and a policeman pulled me over and said he was going to give me a ticket. I told him to hurry up because my wife was going to have a baby. The policeman said, ‘Follow me!’ and he turned on his lights and siren and off we went, all the way to the hospital where you were born. Not everyone can say that. That makes you special.
Even when I was a child, my mother would tuck me into bed, kiss my forehead, then leave the room. My father would come in and sit at the foot of my bed and ask, “Say, have I ever told you what happened the night you were born?”
“I don’t believe so,” I would tell him.
He would lean back, close his eyes, and conjure up that memory—the snow and the swirling red lights and the siren’s wail. I’ve hear that story nearly forty times and I never tire of it. Every year I wonder the same things: Will they make it in time? Will I be alright? Of course I will be, because here I am. But the way my father tells the story leaves the outcome in doubt and I never quite relax until the story concludes with me safely delivered.
In my teenage years, when my father and I were at odds, I would remember how he has suffered frostbite to bring me safely into the world … and my heart would soften. I was a skinny kid, the target of bullies. When beaten up and ridiculed, I would take comfort in the fact that I was ushered into this world with a police escort and they were not. It was a wonderful gift my father gave me, that story. He could not give me wealth or fame to ease my way, so he gave me that story and it provided a deep consolation.
My chief regret is that I am not able to offer my sons a similar story. Their births were routine, insofar as a child’s birth is ever routine. We had sufficient time to drive to the hospital. The roads were clear. The car ran smoothly. My wife was unruffled. The doctors and nurses were competent and our children were delivered with a minimum of pain. I didn’t feel a thing.
When my older son turned five years old, he asked me, “Daddy, what happened when I was born?” I didn’t want to tell him the truth—that as births go, his was unremarkable, with only one peculiarity. When he was due to emerge, I was in the hospital restroom reading a back issue of Reader’s Digest. Drama in Real Life. A man ran off the road and over a cliff, where he lay broken and dazed for three days before spelling out HELP with rocks and sticks. Spotted by an airplane, he was rescued and lived to share his dramatic story.
I remember, just as I finished reading his harrowing tale, the nurse knocked on the door and said, “You wife is having your baby. You better get out here.” So I came out and five minutes later, so did my son. That is the truth, though it isn’t the kind of story I want to tell my son. It is not the stuff of legend. So when he asked me what happened when he was born, I kissed his forehead and took my place at the foot of his bed.
“Yours was a very special birth,” I told him. “Quite miraculous. It was the middle of winter. It was snowing. We were sitting in the living room late in the evening. Your mother went into labor. We climbed into the car and made our way toward the hospital. The roads were terribly slick. As we were rounding a curve, we slid off the road and over a cliff, where our car came to rest at the bottom. We were dazed and bruised. Your mother was pinned in the wreckage and couldn’t move, but I could, just barely. I managed to climb out through a window and gather some sticks and rocks, which I used to spell out HELP. The next morning, an airplane, circling overhead, spotted us and we were rescued. We were rushed to the hospital where you were safely delivered. And that, son, is the story of your birth.”
He swelled with pride. He’d had no idea his beginnings were marked with such drama. “Tell me again,” he pleaded.
“Next year,” I told him. “You’ll have to wait until your next birthday.” I kissed him goodnight and went downstairs to sit in my chair. My wife was there.
“What were you and Spencer talking about?” Joan asked.
“I was telling him about the night he was born,” I answered.
“Did you mention how the nurse had to get you out of the restroom because you were reading that story in Reader’s Digest?”
“Indirectly,” I answered.
My birthday came a few weeks later. My parents invited us for Sunday dinner. We were seated in the dining room. I said to my father, “Tell me about my birth, about the policeman and the snow.”
“What policeman?” my mother asked. “What snow?”
“The policeman who escorted you and Dad to the hospital the night I was born. Remember? It was snowing and the defroster was broken and Dad got frostbite from driving twenty miles with his head out the window.”
Mom said, “It wasn’t snowing—it was unusually warm that day. And he wouldn’t take me to the hospital until Gunsmoke was over. It was his favorite show, you know. He almost named you Festus.”
I looked across the table at my father. He smiled, winked, and said nothing. It was all a story—no snow, no policeman, no frostbite, no siren, no swirling lights. But it was my story, true or not, and I was grateful for it. I did not have wealth or fame or muscles or good looks to ease my way into this world. But I did have my story. My father gave it to me. It was his gift to me, bestowed with love, and I treasure it.
Later that night I was sitting in our living room. The phone rang. It was my father. “Say, have I ever told you what happened the night you were born?” he asked.
“I don’t believe so,” I answered.
He spoke of blowing snow and running a red light and how he got frostbite. He told me about the policeman who pulled him over and the police escort with the swirling lights and the siren. “Not everyone gets a police escort,” he pointed out. “That makes you special.”
These are the stories passed from father to son. We have no wealth to bestow, no fame to offer. We have only these legends to remind our children that on the day they were born, the ordinary was suspended and the miracles flew thick.
Many, many years ago, deep in the winter, a husband and wife rode a donkey through a freak blizzard in the Middle East. The woman was great with child and was completely bundled up riding on the donkey, but the father got frostbite where the wind swirled through the opening in his hood that he needed in order to see where they were going.
There was no room for them at the inn, but the innkeeper escorted them through the howling wind to a stable, and there, under a flashing, red “NO VACANCY” sign, the mother gave birth to her baby boy without assistance and wrapped him in swaddling clothes.
Overhead, a new star celebrated in bright glory, and shepherds and the wise men made their way to the stable as angel chorus ran through the night.
And whenever and wherever this story was told, with whatever details with which it is embellished, in the suspension of the ordinary you knew that this one was special. This baby boy, born in these circumstances, miracles flying thick, was special.
And he was, wasn’t he? A long awaited answer to prayer. For through the years HELP had been spelled out—written large in the broken lives of God’s daughters and God’s sons—written large in the pain of the human condition and the plight of the natural world—a desperate plea from a world spinning out of control—sliding off the way things were supposed to be—sliding off the way God had envisioned. HELP was spelled out amidst the wreckage of how things are.
And ushered into the world, in and through this baby boy, was the possibility of salvation—the possibility of reconciliation and transformation and redemption.
And mothers and fathers passed the story along to daughters and sons—a story told with all the hope broken lives could rally—with all the love that beings shaped in the image of God could muster—a story told with every scrap of imagination that human creativity could draw upon when confronted with the divine. All this to convey the absolute importance of this story—the utter significance of the story we tell, with variations every single year.
And so every year—every day—every time we hear this story—this story of Jesus—this story of our world caught in a place where miracles fly thick, we wonder the same things: will it all work out? Will love overcome apathy? Will everything be alright? For we heard the words of Mary predicting salvation—the mighty brought low and the hungry full. But the way the story is told leaves the outcome in doubt, and we never quite relax because, let’s face it: the story is not over yet. The salvation ushered in by the birth of Messiah is God’s dream for the world, coming to be right here and now.
So this year, hear the story again. When evil intrudes, when salvation seems far-off, when we are at odds with God…when we doubt that the birth of a baby could change much of anything, much less our suffering world…may we remember the story of how God came to earth to bring us salvation…and may our hearts soften.
Because, it’s a wonderful gift we have, this story. It’s here to provide a deep and abiding consolation. This is our story, and we are grateful for it. We may not have the priorities of this world that lead to wealth and to power, but we do have our story. God gave it to us. It is God’s good gift, bestowed with love, and we treasure it.
Every year around Advent, we start singing the few Advent hymns we have, and we throw in Christmas carols because there are so many of them—so beloved—and never enough time to sing them all. We decorate, and we bake. We thoughtfully and joyfully plan gifts for each other. And Christmas comes and Christmas goes. Gifts go from being anticipated possibilities to the latest possessions. It’s back to work. Put away the Christmas music and the Christmas decorations.
But the story, the story of God come to earth suggests that Advent and Christmas are not about particular days of the year commemorating historical details of an event long past.
Our story reminds us that we live all our days as Advent, expecting and anticipating the coming birth, and living with eyes wide open to see God among us right here and now. Salvation for a world desperately in need of a miracle or two or three, God’s stubborn work to use us to tell the story, to usher in the healing of this world, to imagine a time when the ordinary is suspended and the miracles fly thick.