Surely, it would be a death sentence.
These were the words spoken to men and women who considered going to the far eastern side of the Island of Molokai in the 1860s.
In 1865, the outbreak of leprosy in Hawaii had become so bad that King Kamehameha V issued a decree that all people with leprosy had to be quarantined, and those with the most severe cases of leprosy had to be relocated to a remote colony on the eastern side of Molokai. Over the next years, over 8,000 people would be forced to relocate there, and it wasn’t a good place to be, well, at least initially.
Under-resourced and filled with diseased people unable to fully care for their personal needs or for the needs of the settlement, the colony soon became a place of drunkenness, disorder, and despair.
Surely, help was needed in the colony. The people had many spiritual, emotional, physical, and material needs that were not being met. But who would go to such a place to provide for such needs. To go into the colony when one did not have leprosy oneself was to sign one’s death certificate.
Even the religious hierarchy of the time knew this truth, and so for example, the bishop of Honolulu was extremely reticent for quite some time to send his priests to serve the people there.
Yet, moved with love and compassion for these people, some Christian workers did eventually move to the colony, and one of the people in particular who went was a man named Fr. Damian. Fr. Damian was a Roman Catholic priest from Belgium who had come as a missionary to the Big Island just a few years earlier. Having heard of the plight of the people in the colony, Fr. Damian knew he had to go. So, he did.
And guess what? Sure enough, as many suggested, his decision proved to be a death sentence. Fr. Damian would eventually contract leprosy himself and would die.
But, here is the important point to made, friends: Fr. Damian didn’t die until he had brought great life and hope to the colony. Fr. Damian lived there for 16 years, and for that whole time, he labored on, helping to uphold laws, upgrading homes, organizing farms, establishing schools, organizing choirs, planting trees, constructing a water system, and of course very importantly providing for the people’s spiritual care.
And all along the way, as he accomplished all these things, he spent time with the people he served. He never kept his distance – he bandaged their unsightly and sometimes disgusting wounds, he shared his pipe with others, and he even ate from the same bowl of food on occasion as was the custom of the people.
Though he was healthy, Fr. Damian did not fear disease. He became like the people in the colony. And eventually he literally became one of them as he picked up the disease, but even this not did not stop him from continuing his work. He did as much as he could for the people until he died.
After Fr. Damian’s death, some criticized him for not being careful enough, for not keeping his distance. Surely, he could have had many more years of fruitful priestly ministry and community development had he not gone to the colony in the first place or if he had at least maintained some distance between himself and the diseased people.
Yet, it was this closeness – it was this decision to truly make his home among the people – that made him so loved and respected, not only among those in the colony, but also among those who were far off. It was this closeness that ensured that his life of love impacted many others for generations to come, and for far more years than the 16 years he lived in the colony, and for far more years than if he had remained on the Big Island and ministered there until he had grown old.
Sure, from one perspective, Fr. Damian’s choice was a death sentence. From another perspective, it was a choice for life. His magnificent act of compassion and sacrificial love – his choice to make his dwelling among the people – brought unexpected, beautiful life and hope and dignity to suffering people for many years to come, and his life still inspires people today. If there was ever an icon of Jesus in the history of the Church, truly Fr. Damian was one.
[Friends, let us pause to pray. Thank you Heavenly Father for life of Fr. Damian. Thank you for the ways that he modeled us to you and points us to you. Now, dear Lord, may we hear from your Holy Spirit so that we may understand the Scriptures we heard today and understand just how much you love us.]
So, friends, today we celebrate the Fourth Sunday of Advent and that means the joys of Christmas are right around the corner, and our Scripture readings appointed by the Church lectionary today point us in this direction – today we heard the prophet Isaiah’s prophesy to the people of Israel about the Messiah who would be born of a virgin and would be called Immanuel, “God with us.” And we also heard the story of the Angel coming to Joseph after finding out that Mary was with child. The Angel told Joseph to not fear and to take Mary as his wife for the baby growing inside of her was of the Holy Spirit and was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophesy. This baby would be named Jesus and would save his people.
And so, with those readings, friends, we know that our long wait for the celebration of Jesus’ birth is almost over. Before you know it, we’ll be celebrating with our church, our families, and our friends, and I don’t know about you, but I am personally very excited about this. Christmas is such a wonderful time of the year.
But friends, do we truly comprehend how wonderful this gift of Christmas is? Do we truly grasp how strange and amazing the birth of Jesus is?
If we have grown up in the church, we may have deep and fond sentiments regarding Jesus birth and the Christmas season in general, but after many years, we may have forgotten how truly extraordinary it is, and how it points to God’s deep, deep love for his children.
So, before Christmas arrives, let’s once again unwrap this wonderful gift – this story of Jesus’ birth – to uncover its extraordinary strangeness and beauty.
Let’s begin with the fact that Jesus was called Immanuel, “God with us.”
Jesus was called “God with us” not because he was some super-in-touch or enlightened human being who reflected God to the world or because he was one of God’s most important prophets who heard from God and told us what God said.
No, Jesus was called Immanuel, “God with us” because he was truly “God with us”. He was both fully human and fully God. In Jesus, God came in human flesh and made his dwelling among his people because he saw the state of humankind and knew we needed his help. In Jesus, God drew close to us, both physically and relationally as he began to experience all that we human beings experience, including our joys, our sorrows, our fatigue, our worry, our hungers, and all those emotions and experiences that are part of human experience.
While that is extraordinary in itself, what is even more extraordinary is that God would even make this choice at all to become human. Wasn’t there another way? For to become human was surely to write one’s death sentence. And when I say this, I of course have in mind the fact that when Jesus grew up, he would be rejected and crucified and would die for the sins of the world he loved, but I also have much more in mind here.
For you see, from the very beginning, God put himself in a very vulnerable situation. For whatever reason, the God of the universe decided that He would entrust his very self into the hands of a diseased people, starting with the obedient, but still fully human Mary and Joseph.
Have you ever thought of the Christmas story in this way?
For example, have you ever considered that when God was born as a baby, that meant he had to rely on Mary and Joseph to feed him, to care for him, and to nurture him. But what if as new parents, they seriously messed up? What if Mary didn’t give him enough milk in the first few days and he lost too much weight? What if he aspirated a piece of food and they didn’t know what to do and he got a high, deadly fever? What if he choked to death? What if? What if? What if? Jesus’ very life rested in Mary and Joseph’s hands.
And even as Jesus grew up and was far less vulnerable, his well-being still rested in Mary and Joseph’s and his extended family and community’s hands. What if, for example, they forgot him and left him in a large city such as Jerusalem to fend for himself? (Which, by the way, we know happened to Jesus when he was age twelve, according to the Scriptures).
You see, by becoming Immanuel, “God with us”, Jesus put himself in a very vulnerable position from day one, and at any point in time, he, the Immortal One who willingly took on mortality, could have died a real death because of the precariousness of the world and the sinfulness of its people.
And even if he didn’t face physical death, surely, he would face many other little kinds of deaths and vulnerabilities and needs and lacks as he lived among a broken people in a broken world.
So why in the world would God do this?
Well, God would do this because He promised to do so. He had told Isaiah and the other prophets long ago about the Messiah who would come, and God is always faithful to his promises. He doesn’t change his mind.
His actions are not conditional on his people’s behavior or anything else for that matter. In fact, from the day that God created Adam, to the time he called Abraham and the people Israel, and to the time of the Exile and the return to the land, God constantly dealt with a rebellious people.
Time and time again, God’s people mistrusted him, were disobedient to his commands, neglected what he had called them to do, and worshipped false idols, yet this never dissuaded God from pursuing his people and keeping his promises he made to Abraham and to the prophets. God is always faithful to his promises. He doesn’t change his mind.
And why doesn’t he change his mind? He doesn’t change his mind because his very character is not one of capriciousness; it’s one of faithfulness. He is not like so many of the human beings he created who do vacillate back and forth on so many things. Because of our experience of other people, we might want to attribute the same kind of capriciousness we experience in others to God, but we are not to do so.
God is always faithful to his promises. He doesn’t change his mind, and he doesn’t do so because his faithfulness is rooted in his everlasting and abiding love for his creation. God absolutely loves the people he created; he loves us.
Despite ours sins, he delights in us. He loves us. He desires to see us whole and fully who he created us to be. He wants to bring us help. And he also desires us to love Him as he loves us. Because of this love, he would go to any length to restore usto relationship with himself and to bring us into wholeness, and that even includes him becoming human.
Yes, our world is diseased – it is wracked with sinfulness and brokenness and death, but God does not fear our disease.
So, 2000 years ago, Jesus chose to be born and to dwell among us even if that meant signing his own death certificate.
He willingly chose to make his dwelling among us, starting out by being a vulnerable baby dependent upon human beings for his very life, and then living among his people for 30-something years, drawing close, touching their diseased bodies and healing them, teaching them, showing them compassion, and proclaiming the Kingdom of God. He labored on for many years with his disciples at his side until the day he was killed on a cross.
Yes,his time on earth was just a blip in history, and his years of ministry were even a tinier blip, but his life was so impactful that it has reverberated throughout time and throughout the world and transformed billions of people.
For in coming as a human, Jesus drew close to us so that now when we experience sadness, pain, loss, fear, anxiety, or whatever emotion we experience, we know that God gets us. He’s been there.
And he now walks besides us in these difficult times. Even if no one quite gets what we are going through, he gets it. Even if no one else comes alongside us to listen to us or comfort us, Jesus does. Jesus comes. Jesus listens. Jesus takes up residence in our hearts and becomes our Immanuel. Long ago, when Jesus gave his Holy Spirit to the Church, He promised he would draw this close to us, and as we know, God always keeps his promises.
But not only that, friends. In coming as a human being, but one who was also fully God, Jesus endowed great dignity on human flesh, and he merged our mortality and disease with his immortality and health. Thus, in his birth, death, and resurrection, Jesus swallowed up that mortality and disease, opening up the possibility for eternal life with him for all who believe.
So, friends, have you ever doubted that God loves you? Or have you ever felt that God only loves you if you do the so-called right things? Well, then take a look again at the history of God’s relationship to Israel and to our strange and amazing Christmas story which tells a compelling tale of compassion and sacrificial love. Hold on tightly to the truth these stories tell hat God’s love for you is faithful, fearless, vulnerable, sacrificial, unconditional, everlasting, and willing to go to any length.
And then friends, through the power of the Holy Spirit, allow this love to deeply abide in your hearts and then to overflow back towards God and towards others in our diseased world.
But remember, as you love God and others, it will come with a cost, for true love is costly and often inconvenient. It may not cost you your life as it did with Fr. Damian and countless other Christians throughout time who have followed in the footsteps of Jesus and loved God and others well, but it will cost you in some significant ways.
Think again back to the passage on Joseph we read today. When Joseph showed his love for God by obeying the Angel and by taking Mary as his wife and Jesus as his son, Joseph signed himself up for a thousand little deaths as people would misunderstand him, lose their respect for him, and treat him in ways that would heap on the shame.
Mary too would face these thousands little deaths, and then thirty-something years later, her heart would be utterly crushed when her son was crucified before her very eyes.
Now, you could say that from one perspective that Mary and Joseph’s decision to love and obey God was to sign up for a life of thousand little deaths, a life of difficulty and pain.
However, from another perspective, one could say that Mary and Joseph’s decision to love and obey God was a choice for a life – a life of joy and abundance – to allow God to use them in his plan to bring eternal life to the whole world, and to also take on the amazing privilege of nurturing and loving Jesus, God in the flesh.
Can you even imagine the great laughter and joy and love that was experienced in Mary and Joseph’s home as they raised Jesus? What a beautiful gift from God that Mary and Joseph received.
So, friends, as we end our Advent journey and prepare for Christmas day, which is just a few days away, will we truly embrace the truly strange and amazing story that Jesus’ birth is? And will we truly accept – perhaps for some of us for the first time – that God’s love for us is faithful, fearless, vulnerable, sacrificial, unconditional, everlasting, and willing to go to any length.
And then will we too like Mary and Joseph and Fr. Damian and countless Christians throughout the centuries receive this beautiful gift of the Christ-child, allowing his love to abide deeply in our own hearts, and then sharing this costly love with a diseased world?
Believe it or not, friends, just as God entrusted Mary and Joseph with his very self, God now entrusts us with his message of love, compassion, and eternal life. God trusts us to be his vessels.
Let us therefore be these vessels. May God help us. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.