Who’s coming to dinner?

photo: Martin Malina
“Who’s coming to dinner” – audio sermon by Martin Malina

When I was a child, a cherished Christmas Eve tradition in our family was setting an extra place at the dinner table — an extra chair, plate and cutlery. We also decorated this place setting with fresh boughs of evergreens to make it special. 

After all, Jesus was being born into the world this special night. We had to make room for him in our house since there was no room for Mary, Joseph and the Christ child in the inn at Bethlehem that first Christmas. And, my parents suggested, you never knew who might actually show up at our door. Would we find it in our hearts to let them in and serve them a Christmas Eve dinner?

There was a part of me that didn’t believe anyone would show up. After all we didn’t advertise. We didn’t put out a sign on the front lawn announcing: “One free dinner, come at 4pm, first come first serve”. No one actually knew we did this. It was merely an in-house ritual, something to stimulate our faith, to make room in our hearts for Jesus and make us think about the true meaning of Christmas, of Christ coming.

Another part of me secretly hoped someone actually would show up — an unexpected visitor, someone we didn’t invite but who came by anyway. Would they be homeless? A traveller journeying through town, looking for a place to eat a hot meal on a cold, winter’s night? Or, would it be a friend, someone in the neighbourhood just stopping by? 

And, then, how would we react? Would they like the food, or have any dietary restrictions? How would we adapt on the fly? Would they stay long? Would they come to worship later in the evening, or go home after eating? Would we become best friends for the rest of our lives? 

All those possibilities. All these thoughts swirled in my mind. This part of me actually wanted to experience the tradition, and mean something concrete beyond the personal reflections. Deep down I wanted someone in the flesh to show up. That would be cool.

Well, today is not Christmas Eve. On this last Sunday in the church year a month before Christmas, we celebrate the Reign of Christ or Christ the King Sunday. 

To celebrate the reign of Christ, nevertheless we first need to be clear about who we are actually celebrating and what kind of reign, or rule, Christ is all about. 

There seems to be some confusion among those who first encountered Jesus in the flesh, back in the day.

In pronouncing verdict over Jesus, Pilate needs clarity. In the Gospel text for the Reign of Christ Sunday this year, Pilate asks Jesus point blank: “You are a king?”[1] You don’t look like it! Your kingdom is not of this world? Well, then, who are you? 

Earlier, the disciples had been in discussion with Jesus about his identity. It is obviously unclear to the general populace. “Some say John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the prophets.”[2] Repeatedly Jesus presents as someone not easily recognized, pigeonholed, defined, nor understood. And people ask over and over again: “Who are you?”[3] From a human perspective, and even as people of faith, we may honestly struggle with this question from time to time. If it was challenging for those who met Jesus in person, then what about us, some two thousand years removed from that primary experience of the early disciples?

We have to deal with our expectations more than anything. And our expectations may not always be in line with the God of the Gospel. 

So, what kind of God is coming to you, and to me? 

If anything was clear to me about our tradition at home on Christmas Eve, it was that I was missing something. My expectations were not in line with what I actually experienced. The empty plate was not filled. The empty chair remained vacant throughout our Christmas Eve dinner. 

Ought I be disappointed? Was Jesus not coming? Was there no stranger around to knock on our door and receive our hospitality? Was the effort in vain, a wasted ritual?

There was something about my expectations that was amiss. Would the disconnect and dis-ease I felt after dinner somehow spill over into the Christmas Eve service later on, I wondered?

Maybe the problem starts with what image of the Messiah we hold in our minds and hearts. Is our image of God in Christ Jesus fuelled more by notions of earthly power and kingship? If so, that image might need some dismantling. 

For, in Jesus Christ, we meet a God “who is not armed with lightning bolts but with basin and towel, who spewed not threats [and lies] but good news for all, who rode not a warhorse but a donkey … In Christ, God is supreme, but not in the old, worldly sense: God is the supreme healer, the supreme friend, the supreme lover, the supreme life-giver who self-empties in gracious love for all. The king of kings and lord of lords is the servant of all and the friend of sinners. The so-called weakness and foolishness of God are greater than the so-called power and wisdom of human regimes.”[4]

As was often the case so many years ago, the little country church where I was confirmed was packed with Christmas Eve worshippers. When the lights went down and the candlelight was passed, the sanctuary became bright with the joyously expectant faces of worshippers reflecting the flickering light. 

As I surveyed the room around me singing “Silent Night”, my eyes stopped on the face of one person. In the far corner of the back pew, I recognized someone I didn’t expect to see there. It was Rick, my public school friend. He went to another church, but not one that normally held mid-week Christmas Eve or Christmas Day services. Just then I remembered that I had invited Rick to come to Christmas Eve service several weeks earlier, even before Advent began that year. 

After the service, my brother and I invited Rick back to our home for a short visit that we enjoyed as he waited for his ride. Later I wondered if my school friend was the surprise visitor for me, the Christ, who came to our home that Christmas Eve. Not someone I expected — not anyone who fit the figments of my imagination, neither celebrity nor unknown poor — just an ordinary friend who surprised me by his gracious presence.

Who is Jesus whom we praise this day, who comes to reign in this world, who comes to you with love, at the end?


[1] John 18:33-37

[2] Mark 8:27-30

[3] John 8:25

[4] Richard Rohr, “God’s Supremacy in Love” Daily Meditations (www.cac.org, 22 October 2021).

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