Michael Dowling was 14 years old when he got caught in a Minnesota blizzard in the winter of 1880. He toppled from the back of a lumber wagon during the storm, stumbled through the snow for hours, and finally sought refuge for the night in a haystack. Come morning his legs and hands were frozen. Sixteen days later both legs and one arm had to be amputated. But he refused to accept pity or to pity himself. “I won’t be laid on the shelf for the rest of my life,” he said, “I won’t, I won’t.” And, he wasn’t.
Michael Dowling became Superintendent of Schools, Education Commissioner for the United States, President of the Minnesota Bankers Association, Speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives, and a world-wide spokesman for the care of the disabled.
On one of his world travels, he found himself confronted with an extremely bored Sultan of Sulu. Dowling tried his best to penetrate the Sultan’s indifference but to no avail. Then quietly he sat down and removed first his right leg, then his left leg, reached over with his one good arm and removed his other arm and tossed all three on the floor in front of the Sultan. When Dowling reached for his head, as if to remove it next, the Sultan excitedly rose from his chair and begged him to share the secret of his magic. Dowling had gained the Sultan’s attention.
I’m sure that he would have gained our attention, too! And, attention is what our Gospel text for today is all about!
The Gospel lesson says: “Be on guard! Be alert! In other words pay attention! Listen up!
While the world around us tells us to lose ourselves in frenzied activities, to do our shopping early, and plan our activities, the Gospel text is crying: Wait! Watch! Listen up!”
One of my peers tells the story of a time when he did that. It was one of those moments when heaven touches the earth and fills it with awe. He had been riding on a bike trail. It was October, the leaves were at their peak. The sky was a pure blue. He stopped for a moment to smell the earth, hear the gentle rustle of the corn, see the brilliance of the leaves. And then, very quietly, out of the blue of those heavens, he noticed a hawk soaring way in the distance with ease, catching the currents with no effort, gliding, and circling. He decided to stay and keep his eyes on the hawk. It soared with such grace and beauty that he longed to be closer to it. And as if reading his earthbound mind, the hawk made a dramatic downward sweep to the east and much closer to him, as if to say, “I am near; watch!”
To his surprise, there was even more beauty and power to behold. For as it turned to the east, the sun reflected its white head and white tail undercoat and he realized that it was no hawk he was watching, but a majestic eagle.
Now, there are many images for God in the Bible, but one of my favorites is that of an eagle who soars over us, who always sees us, who protects us, and holds us, and lifts us up in soft, strong wings.
This is not the God that people were waiting for when Jesus was born. And so, when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, God came in a way that people weren’t watching for. It was difficult for them to see the soft wings of God descending on them in such a humble way. It was difficult for them to understand that in the quiet of this baby they would find salvation and refuge.
They were watching for a warrior God, like David, to force the nations into peace. They were looking for a hawk, at best. They had no idea what the majesty of an eagle really looked like.
Well, folks, I remind you today that scripture tells us that the Kingdom of God is at hand. Not in hand, mind you, but at hand. And the paradox in all of this is that Christ is already here. Christ came in a humble manger long ago – with one star very solid in the sky, silently pointing the way. Christ came and changed the universe, certainly not with a big bang, but in the soft cry of a child. And Christ comes to us every single day again and again and again. And he says to us, “I am near; watch; I am near, can you see me? Keep alert. Keep awake. Listen up! Don’t find yourself asleep when I come to you.”
And so, when he comes to us every day, we have to be alert, because the heavens don’t rip apart, and the moon doesn’t turn black; rather he often comes as a quiet, subtle eagle turning to the eastern sky, and he often comes gently and lowly as he did in Bethlehem.
You and I are asked to stay awake, to watch so we don’t miss out on the joy of salvation that is right in front of our eyes.
Folks, this is the beginning of Advent and it is truly a holy time … a time when we, as Christian people, are more alert and open to the daily coming of Christ. Truly Christ is here, and we can see him. But we must watch for the healing presence of Christ at other times as well. Every single day of our lives his salvation is near at hand – can you see it?
Sometimes the promise of the Christ child, the refuge of the eagle’s wings, can be seen in our vulnerabilities. When I was a chaplain for Hospice, I was visiting a patient who was dying. As I entered his room, I knew that it would not be long. And, as I did so, I saw that his hands were formed in the stance of praying hands. And as I walked over to the bed, his first words to me were: “I am going to a better place.” What a witness this patient was to me. Christ’s salvation near at hand. Can you see it?
Sometimes the promising presence of the Christ child can be seen in a child. In the Preschool chapel at one of the churches that I have served as Interim Pastor, it was the week of Thanksgiving and I asked the children what they were thankful for. Most of them said their parents, some of them said their brother and/or sister. One of them said “for my alternate parents.” Christ’s presence near at hand – can you see it?
Sometimes the healing miracle of the Christ child, and the quiet majesty of God’s soaring presence, can be seen in the unexpected experience of forgiveness, sometimes in the helping others, sometimes in relationships. Yes, Christ’s salvation near at hand – can you see it?
Jesus says to us in this season, and always, “I am near, watch. Turn your face to the eastern sky. Keep alert, keep awake so you can see my simple yet amazing presence.
- Watch for the healing ways of my love.
- Watch for the joy of new life.
- Watch for the promise of Bethlehem.”