This morning as we gather to celebrate the birth of Jesus, I am reminded that his birth took place not in the best of times, but probably in the worst.
As Chris Yaw put it, “It is a tale of an impoverished single mom in a conquered hamlet of some backwater corner of a vast empire, putting her newborn into an animal trough where the fledgling birth announcement was entrusted to village idiots whose only other marketable skills were watching sheep.”Such an improbable and humble tale still captures our imagination 2,000 years later, because God so loved us, that God was born for us in a place that no one expected, in a humble way no one planned. And those events are not lost on us today.
God did not wait till the world was ready, till... nations were at peace. God came when the Heavens were unsteady, and prisoners cried out for release. God did not wait for the perfect time. God came when the need was deep and great… (God did not wait by Madeleine L'Engle )As I though about this, I heard about the death of Kim Jong-il of North Korea, and I was reminded of a story I read about the Korean War. (And it is a Christmas story!)
His name was Brother Marinus, a Benedictine monk, he died at the age of 87 in 2001.Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
But three days before Christmas in 1950, his name was Captain Leonard LaRue, and he received a call to help refugees in need. Captain LaRue was the skipper of a freighter that had been carrying supplies to American servicemen in Korea on behalf of the Navy. About 200 vessels converged on the port of Hungnam, North Korea to help evacuate troops and refugees fleeing from the war.
''I trained my binoculars and saw a pitiable scene,'' Captain LaRue remembered. ''Refugees thronged the docks. With them was everything they could wheel, carry or drag. Beside them, like frightened chicks, were their children.''
The refugees were crammed into the cargo holds of a freighter that was designed for around 60 people to be on board.
''There were families with 8 and 10 children,'' Captain LaRue remembered. ''There was a man with a violin, a woman with a sewing machine, a young girl with triplets. There were 17 wounded, some stretcher cases, many who were aged, hundreds of babies. Finally, as the sun rode high the next morning, we had 14,000 human beings jammed aboard the ship. It was impossible, and yet they were there.''
The ship headed towards the South Korean port of Pusan, 28 hours away. They would travel through heavily mined waters. Enemy submarines were known to patrol the waters. The refugees had little food or water and there were no blankets or sanitary facilities.
But they got through, and the refugee freighter arrived at Pusan on Christmas Eve, only to be turned away, because of the refugees already there. Captain LaRue was told to head for an island, 50 miles to the southwest.
The ship arrived at the island on Christmas and by the next day, every refugee left the ship. Not one person died! And in fact, the number of Koreans had grown by five, for five babies were born aboard that ship.
His ship was decommissioned in 1952 and soon afterwards, Captain LaRue entered the Benedictine Monastery in NJ. Captain LaRue looked back on the rescue as a turning point in his life. As he put it: ''I often think of that voyage. I think of how such a small vessel was able to hold so many persons and surmount endless perils without harm to a soul. The clear, unmistakable message comes to me that on that Christmastide, in the bleak and bitter waters off the shores of Korea, God's own hand was at the helm of my ship.''
The United States Maritime Administration called his feat ''the greatest rescue by a single ship in the annals of the sea.'' (from the NY Times Obituary of Leonard LaRue, October 20, 2001)
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
In the bleak midwinter Jesus was born for us, to set us free and to help us understand what that abundant life truly is. Be it on a ship in war, be in a hospital room or a doctor’s office, in our own homes or even on the street. God comes to us and is with us in the best and worst of times. Go out today, listen to the angles, follow the star, and celebrate the birth that continues to change the world and our lives forever. Amen.