In August of 1981 I was driving from Dothan, Alabama to Wellsburg, West Virginia. Somewhere along a lonely stretch of I65 in northern Alabama I pulled over to get something to drink. It was one of those exits in the middle of nowhere with one very small service station. As I was walking back to my car I noticed the smell of something burning. I got down on my hands and knees and looked under the car and there was oil dripping, which is never a good sign. I opened the hood and there was oil everywhere. Oil was all over the inside of the hood and all over the engine.
I’ve never been the most mechanical person, but I certainly knew that had I driven much further all the oil in the engine would have emptied and the engine would seize up. I was stuck, without much of an idea of what to do.
I walked back in the service station, which was one of those one-person operations, and asked the operator if he could take a look at my car. He was kind enough to do so, but he kept shaking his head as he looked at it and making noises that convinced me I had a real problem.
When you see oil everywhere you assume it’s going to be a fairly serious repair. He looked things over for a bit and stood up and said the problem was something like a sensor for my oil pressure gauge. It had blown out and the oil was spraying out of that spot on the engine. Well, of course I had two questions – can you fix it and how much will it cost?
I didn’t have much cash on me; a little more, perhaps, than what I needed for the trip. I had no credit card or other way of paying. What I had was a broken car and a panicked expression on my face.
It was a Saturday afternoon, and the man said he didn’t have the part in his little station but would call someone who might be able to deliver it. Well, now there were two people involved in the repair, and that sounded really expensive. I asked again how much it would cost. He never really gave me an answer, which I took to be a bad sign. He asked, do you want me to call and get the part? I gave a foolish answer. I said yes, which was foolish because I didn’t know what it would cost and if I could pay for it. I answered yes in the hope that something would work out.
He called for the part, which was delivered after a little while. I watched the two of them talk for a few minutes and wondered if they were hatching some kind of plan – let’s really take advantage of this guy. The guy who delivered the part drove off and the service station owner started to work on my car.
Have you been in a similar situation? Or am I the only one who drove broken down cars? It’s a lonely feeling sitting and wondering what would happen.
He finished the work, walked over, and said let me show you what I did. I looked under the hood, trying to act like I knew what I was looking at – oh yeah, there’s the engine. He showed me the new part and explained what it did and I noticed he had also cleaned up as much of the oil as he could. He said he didn’t want me to smell burning oil the rest of my trip. I was happy for him to keep talking about anything but what it was going to cost.
He finally said, I think you’re good to go. With a great deal of hesitation I asked, how much do I owe you? I can still remember the feeling I had in the pit of my stomach, wondering what I would do when he quoted me a really high price. He said, I think five dollars will do it. Five dollars! He had a part delivered, had to pay for the part, put several quarts of oil in the engine, took a lot of time to replace the part and even cleaned up the old oil, and he charged five dollars. I was ready to hug the guy, but was afraid he might charge me more if I did.
Perhaps he was a father who wanted to know someone would help his child if they were stuck somewhere, perhaps he was just a kind person. Whatever his motivation, I was very grateful.
There are times when we feel very vulnerable in life. There are times when we have a very pressing sense of anxiety. There are times we face problems and we don’t know what to do. The world sometimes seems so large, so unkind, and we feel very small and fragile. Those are difficult moments, and it reminds us how fragile and how perilous life can be.
Imagine how Mary and Joseph must have felt at they traveled to Bethlehem. They were forced to pack up and travel because the Roman government decided they wanted to conduct a census. A census is very easy for us; we fill out a form and put it in the mail or complete it online. If we don’t get it done someone will come to our door and ask us the questions. The Romans were not as cooperative. You went were they told you to go, when they told you to go. It didn’t matter that Mary was late in her pregnancy. It didn’t matter what kind of financial hardship it placed upon them as a family. Nothing mattered except they were told to go to Bethlehem to register for that census and they had no choice but to comply.
It was a journey of about 80 miles. They would travel east rather directly south because they would seek to avoid Samaria, where they would not be welcome and may be vulnerable to attacks. At the quickest, it would be a four-day journey, but taking into account concern for Mary’s health it was probably closer to a week’s journey. It was days away from work for Joseph, which certainly imposed a financial burden.
And along the way, questions; many, many questions. What is the purpose of God in these hard to understand events? Why does God work in such unusual ways? How do we see God’s hand in the events we experience?
As we have talked in recent weeks about what shapes our thinking, the birth of Jesus is the ultimate event in shaping our thinking, in shaping how we think about the world, how we think about others, and how we think about God. We are preparing to celebrate the coming of God into the world. What a strange way he chose to enter the world!
Why does God work in such strange ways? Why doesn’t God make himself known in more obvious ways? Why can’t we see and know exactly what he is doing? Why do we have to struggle to connect the dots as we struggle through life?
Skeptics and doubters will rail against God – and even against us for believing – as they ask where is God in the world? If God is really out there somewhere, why doesn’t he show himself in a more obvious way? Where was God, they will ask, on Friday morning as the tragedy unfolded at Sandy Hook Elementary School?
Mary and Joseph lived through the tragic taking of life. Herod was so paranoid about his throne that when he heard of the birth of one who was a king he took the lives of the male children up to the age of two. There are always Herods in the world, tragically, who will take even the innocent lives of children in order to accomplish their twisted purposes and we will always be vulnerable to them.
God came into the world in such vulnerable circumstances to remind us that he walks with us through the vulnerabilities and struggles and tragedies of life. Life is not easy, and it seems to be getting increasingly complicated and difficult. Life has never been easy, and it seems we are at a tipping point from which there will be no return. And I say that as one who is an optimist at heart.
But I hold to the truth that God came into the world as a vulnerable baby, surrounded by a family who felt the vulnerabilities of the time – just as we feel those of our time. And God entered the world in such a way to remind us that he is not unfamiliar to what we experience in life. Whatever we have experienced, God has as well. But God also demonstrates that in spite of our vulnerabilities and struggles in life, faith and hope are the foundations of life.
It is in the coming of God into this world through the vulnerabilities and frailties of a young and anxious couple, into a troubled time, into a difficult world, that we find that faith and hope. And God’s coming into the world reminds us that it is not the Herods of this world or the Roman Emperors of this world, or the mighty armies of this world that overcome. No, it is the power of love.
The poet Carl Sandberg wrote in Star Silver –
... back in a barn in a Bethlehem slum
A baby's first cry mixing with the crunch of a mule's teeth on Bethlehem Christmas corn
Baby fists softer than snowflakes of Norway
The vagabond Mother of Christ and the vagabond men of wisdom all in a barn on a winter's night and a baby there in swaddling clothes on hay –
Why does the story never wear out?
It doesn’t wear out because it is forever a story we need to hear – a story of faith, hope, and love that reminds us God and his love will always overcome.