Six years ago, Wanda Dench sent out a group text, letting her family know what time to come over for Thanksgiving dinner. She got her grandson’s number mixed up, accidentally sending the message to a 17-year-old high school senior named Jamal. He thought his grandma had gotten a new phone, so he texted back, and he quickly realized: this was some random lady he didn’t know.
Even so, he asked, “Can I still get a plate tho?”
To which Wanda replied, “Of course you can. That’s what grandmas do – feed everyone.”
And so, Jamal came over for dinner, starting a tradition that has continued for six straight years. Despite covid. Despite Wanda losing her husband to covid. Because a visit from a stranger turned into a friendship — that is now a story slated to be made into a Netflix movie.
An unexpected visitor for the holidays. Somehow that seems appropriate, for Christmas is centered around unexpected visitors. Angels are all throughout the Christmas story, showing up unexpected — telling Mary & Joseph: Surprise! You’re having a baby!
Of course, the shepherds hear the angelic hosts proclaim, but how about the story of Zechariah & Elizabeth? They are an older, childless couple — who also get visited by an angel. Surprise again! They’re having a child, too!
And, while the shepherds are a much better known part of the Christmas story, they only get a dozen or so verses in Luke 2. Z & E, and their miracle son, John, get the better part of chapter 1 — which is 80 verses long! But in 3 angelic appearances, it’s as if Luke wants us to know: it’s not just angels coming for a visit; God himself is coming.
And so, Luke 1 concludes with Zechariah breaking out in a prophesy that sounds a lot like a psalm, where he starts: Blessed is the Lord our God, because he has visited us! We worship a God who has come in the past, and is now coming again, Zechariah proclaims.
This word visit comes up at special times in the Bible — specifically appearing in the Greek version of the Old Testament used by Hellenistic Jews during the time of Jesus.
In Genesis 21.1-2, in the story of Abraham (mentioned by Zechariah), the Greek version, known as the Septuagint, reads: ”And the Lord visited Sarah, as he said, and the Lord did to Sarah, as he spoke. And she conceived and bore to Abram a son in old age, at the set time as the Lord spoke to him.” The Lord VISITS Sarah — a key first step toward God’s promise to make a great family of Abraham.
One of his descendants, Joseph, would be sold by his brothers into slavery, and taken to Egypt. His family eventually joins him there, but right before he dies, we read these words in the Greek version of Genesis 50.24: ”And Joseph spoke to his brothers, saying, I die, and God will surely visit you, and will bring you out of this land to the land which God swore to our fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”
And that “visit” comes true when Moses arrives to lead the people out of Egyptian slavery, described this way in Exodus 4.31: “And the people believed and rejoiced, because God visited the children of Israel, and because he saw their affliction.”
At very key times in Israel’s history, God shows up, God visits, God ACTS. And in Luke 1, Zechariah says: God is at it again! And he visits us, Zechariah says in Luke 1.68, with redemption. And two times in Luke 1 Zechariah tells us that God is compassionate. In verse 72, God shows mercy and compassion. In verse 78: salvation and forgiveness come because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the Rising Sun comes to us from heaven.
God can’t stop visiting His people! He did that in the OT. He did that through Jesus. And where we need him most; he is still in the business of meeting us there and pointing us home.
One of the most popular Christmas songs is I’ll Be Home for Christmas. First sung by Bing Crosby, it has been recorded by over 100 artists, musicians as diverse as Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Brad Paisley, the Osmonds, Twisted Sister, and, of course, Elvis. According to Wikipedia, it’s a song written from the point of view of a soldier stationed overseas during WW2, who’s longing to be home with those he loves.
There is something powerful about this time of year, where most of us have a longing to be, in some sense, home. Maybe it’s not a coincidence, for Christmas is the clear message that God wants all of us to be Home. To be brought in from the wilderness of our wanderings, from being exiled away from God, no longer at war with our Creator and with his creation — but HOME, with him, and with each other.
Isn’t it interesting that some of our secular culture’s most beloved Christmas stories tell the story of a hard-hearted character, lost in the wilderness — whose eyes finally are opened? Simply saying their names describes who they are: Scrooge and Grinch.
Of course, you know what happens to both of them. Scrooge comes down from his Ivory Tower, and joins with Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim & family — in their home. And Boris Karloff’s Grinch sleds down off his icy and isolated mountain to join all the Whos of Whoville — sitting with them, together as one big family, at the table, where he even gets to carve the roast beast.
Isn’t it interesting how some of our culture’s most popular Christmas stories point to our need to be saved from ourselves, to be redeemed — to belong, to find our place, to come home?
When Zechariah says in Luke 1.72 that God remembers his covenant with his people, he’s not saying: Wo, God almost forgot! I think it’s more like a reminder that, in Jesus, God shows the full extent of his covenant. A relationship that brings salvation; one that rescues us from a life wrapped up in getting the right stuff; from life wrapped up in ourselves, from the entanglement of our sin & our struggles -– to life wrapped up in His arms, and as a part of His Family.
One of the interesting things about Jesus’ coming to earth, his Visit, is that we really have no idea the date of Jesus’ birth. An early Christian, Polycarp, who was born only 40 years or so after Jesus died, didn’t know the date — but he didn’t let that stop him from picking a day. He said: Jesus must have been born on a Wednesday.
Why Wednesday? Because, Polycarp noted, when you read Genesis, you see that the sun (S-U-N) was created on the fourth day. And so, not knowing the date Jesus was born, Polycarp suggested that it must have been the day when light first broke through.
In fact, as it turns out, that’s basically the reason why we celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25 — for that was the day in Roman society when they held festivals that celebrated the Sun. On one of the darkest days of the year, everyone was looking for a way to celebrate light.
And so, early Christians said: On such a dark day, in deep December, we are going to celebrate the coming of the Light of the World — the S-O-N, whose coming has brought eternal light into our deepest darkness. And ever since, we have celebrated December 25 as the day of the greatest Christmas visitor EVER: Jesus, who has come, bringing redemption, freedom, rescue, Light & Life.
So, this Christmas, whether we are in the nursing home or the nursery; in the hospital room or the waiting room, we have a God who visits us there.
Whether you open the door at night to an empty house or a house full of hurt; whether you keep turning to an addiction you can’t shake or a sin that can’t satisfy, we have One who has visited us with freedom.
Whether you are young and you think you have plenty of years to pursue what matters; or you’re somewhere in the middle wanting to make sure what you do matters; or you’re closer to the end, and you’re wanting to focus what time you have left on what matters most — what matters most is that you have a place to call Home.
And because Jesus has come, and visits us with mercy, grace, compassion, love, Light, and Life — through Jesus, and with Jesus, and with his people, we have a place to call Home.