There was a story on the radio that caught my attention a few weeks ago. People in Switzerland were outraged over a recent decision their government made: to remove coffee from the country’s “essential to life” list. That’s right, in case Switzerland ever faced a national emergency of apocalyptic proportion, they had deemed coffee necessary for survival. They’d been stockpiling it for years. But government officials had an enlightened thought recently:  maybe coffee wasn’t essential to life. So they removed it from the list. There was an outcry and the decision, I’m sure you’re relieved to hear, may now be rescinded.

The story got me thinking, what’s on my essential to life list? What’s on yours?

When my kids were young they’d get caught up in messaging from commercials and conversations with their peers about what they thought they needed. (Of course, adults aren’t immune to this!)

I would hear them out… and redirect their enthusiasm: “Put it on your wish list” I’d say. It was an easy refrain to keep me from saying unhelpful things like, “that’s ridiculous” or “never, in a million years!” “Put it on your wish list” wasn’t a yes, but it wasn’t a no either. The wish list never offered certainty but it did foster hope.

I suspect we’ve all created these kinds of lists. Yours doesn’t look the same as mine or like the person who sits beside you. The lists aren’t likely to be written down or on a computer file. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. 

Some of our lists are pretty straightforward — made up of practical things like a certain coat that withstands harsh temperatures or a backpack for work or school.  Some are more ambitious naming places to explore or dreams yet to be realized — sometimes called a bucket list.

And then there are the lists that carry a heaviness — the list of things we wish were true, that should be true but aren’t — finding meaningful work, grieving the loss of a loved one, a terrifying diagnosis, a marriage that’s dissolved, hatred that thrives, a lack of peace, the need for everyone to have a safe place to call home.  

This list is never short. It’s a list that points to the reality of what it means to be human: to live with longing… for something else, something more, something different. Sometimes we’re able to name exactly what it is we long for. Sometimes we’re not. C.S. Lewis described this kind of longing in his book “The Weight of Glory,” calling it Sehnsucht, the “inconsolable longing in the heart for we know not what.” It’s a forward-looking longing, a desire for something that is to come, yet we don’t fully know what that something is. 

This longing is at the heart of the Christmas story.

It had been hundreds of years since the Jewish people had heard directly from God. Prophets had come and gone but God had been quiet for too long. The Roman Empire was calling the shots. Power was used to oppress and divide and destroy. The people were desperate for life to be different. They longed for the future God had promised — a time when, as the prophet Isaiah declared “there would be no more gloom for those in anguish” (Isaiah 9). 

Israel waited and watched for God’s promised Messiah, the One to save them, the One to usher in the way of God, creating a world in which the proud were scattered, the powerful brought down, the lowly lifted up, the hungry filled with good things, and the rich sent away empty. This was the song Mary sang when she heard God’s news that she would bear the Christ child who, with an unexpected kind of power, would change the trajectory of the world — not with pomp and circumstance, but with vulnerability and tenderness, by showing up in places where no one expects to encounter God. In Jesus, hope lives and love wins.

 

Of course, our reality can feel far from this. So we keep singing Mary’s song — in the work we do, in the prayers we pray, in the hopes onto which we hold. And all the while a longing persists: for justice and peace to come into our world, for all humanity to experience love, to feel valued, and to know that they belong. 

Longing is at the heart of the Christmas story: our longing to be loved and belong, (these are things on every person’s essential to life list) and God’s longing to be in a relationship with us. 

For you are on God’s essential to life list. You matter deeply to God, so much so that God chose to set aside divine power for you, to take on the limits of flesh and blood for you, to become human with you so that in your longing you would know you are loved and never alone. 

There’s a story that a former Bethlehem pastor Eric Burtness shares. I may not get all the details correct. But as I remember it, his dad Jim who was also a very educated, highly regarded professor at Luther Seminary, tragically fell down a flight of stairs. He never recovered but before he died, his family was able to gather around him. They sang and prayed. And Jim spoke. Always the teacher, he gave his family homework: form a dinner group. Does that surprise you? His last words may be unexpected but they surprised his family less than those of us who didn’t know him. His family knew that Jim and his wife had been part of a dinner group for more than 40 years — and that community had been a lifesaver through all the challenges and uncertainty of life. 

Every one of us needs to experience love; every one of us needs to know that we belong — sharing a meal with others makes all the difference. It could be everyone’s best next step for healing the hurt — in our world and in our hearts. Seems like sound advice. In fact, it’s a sacred act. 

So let’s start here — at the Lord’s table, where everyone’s welcome and accepted, where we gather as a community bringing whatever we’ve got — doubts, fears, anxiety, grief, strength and courage, tasting together the promise that Jesus shows up for us with mercy and love.

It’s truth worth singing about. So let’s join with the angels in heaven and on earth, giving thanks and praise to God, born this day, for you and for the world God loves.