Thursday, December 26, 2019
Picture perfect. . .
St. Luke's Christmas story is sort of like the Lord’s Prayer – it is so familiar that we don’t want anybody to mess with it. We don’t want a modernized account but the old words of the old story. There is great comfort in this. The words and the story are like an old friend – whether said by the voice of our pastor or a parent or even Linus in Charlie Brown’s Christmas. But hidden in that familiar story maybe a few surprises we might just have missed.
We all know Mary rode on a donkey to Bethlehem but you will not find that in Scripture. They did not go to Bethlehem willingly but obediently – because none other than Caesar Augustus had demanded it. The reason for it all was not pious but money – the Roman treasury depended upon a good count for taxes to be levied. Yes, taxes paid to an oppressive government by a people who were not citizens and had few rights before the law. There was no inn or hotel in which some stranger sent a pregnant mother about to deliver into the cold of night. Mary and Joseph were looking for lodging among family and instead they got to sleep with the animals and laid the newborn Son of God on the straw of the animal’s food bin. Mary was in great peril during childbirth and so was her Son in great danger of not living to see His first birthday. The shepherds were not nice people but lived on the fringes of respectability and watched their flocks by night because theirs was a dangerous life amid real predators who wanted to eat their sheep. The shepherds were not happy to see angels but were terrified by their encounter with God’s glory in this night. As quickly as they could they retreated back to the sheep.
You are not here tonight because you live a picture perfect life or because you live in a picture perfect world. You locked your cars in the parking lot because we live in a world of thieves and even now you are wondering if your house and gifts are safe. You live in a world ruled not by the smartest or the most moral of folks but those who got elected. You pay more taxes than you want and you fear the folks in Washington are wasting your hard earned tax dollars. You live in a world of people who have no place to sleep – whether pregnant or not, where families still turn their back on their own family members, where neighbors are a pain to live with, and where women still die in child birth and babies are killed in the womb because it is not a good time to have a kid.
You are even now sitting in church with people you do not know and are not sure you want to be too close to. You wish you could see the glory of God but that glory would not comfort you and it just might leave you mute like it did old Zechariah when he met the angel. So instead you are left with making the best of what you have. Merry Christmas. Bah, humbug. We wish that Christmas came in a perfect setting when Jesus was born because if it did for Jesus, then we just might have hope for at least one perfect Christmas along the way – one Christmas without an argument with spouse or kids, one Christmas where you are not rushed to get to church and then to get home, one Christmas where the meal takes as long to eat as it took to make, one Christmas where you actually get what you want, one Christmas where people actually are thankful for what you gave them, and one Christmas in which it was not a race to pack up the decorations and get back to work and the normal routine of life.
It did not happen for Jesus. It will not happen for you. But this is not bad news to offend. This is good news. That first Christmas was no picture perfect story book night. It happened in darkness. It happened in danger. It happened because of sin. It happened in the shadow of death. There was nothing quaint or peaceful then anymore than there is something quaint, peaceful, and wonderful today. Christ did not come for good memories or great meals or wonderful evenings. He was born for all that is wrong with us and with our world. He was born for darkness, the Light to enlighten us and He was born for sin, the Savior to redeem us.
God is not interested in making Kodak moments to preserve in our minds. God is interested in redeeming a sinful people from their sins and delivering us from the kingdom of the devil into His kingdom. He is not interested in giving us a feel good moment but in saving us from the inadequacies of our attempts to fix things and from our attempts to mask death’s reality and make it normal. As the carol says, “In the deep midwinter.” That is, Christ was born in a cold and dangerous world for a people who live in a cold and dangerous world. As Shakespeare might have said the Gospel, He came in the winter of our discontent to save and redeem us, poor sinful creatures.
That is what makes this night so great. It is darkness but in the midst of darkness the Light of the World shines. It is cold but in the midst of the coldness, Christ warms us with the fire of His love. It is a world of rejection and danger but Christ has come with the welcome of the Father and the promise of hope. It is a world of lies and legends but Christ is the only reality stronger than death and He is come to steal us back to Himself with the price of His own blood. It is a world of uncaring and ungrateful people but Christ is here to show us the compassion of God for the unworthy and to teach us to give thanks no matter what the circumstance.
Christmas is not an amusement to make us happy or a distraction to make us forget the things that are not good. It is the reality of the God who is there for you when you need Him most, who comes though you deserve nothing of His kindness and grace, who does not wait for you to know enough to ask or to have enough courage to request Him, but because it is His gracious and loving nature to save us. That is what you need to hear tonight. Every Christmas is a disappointment. Absent families, families who fight, the loss of those whom we love, the ingratitude of the receivers and the pride of the givers, the coldness of a crass world where money reigns, the sighs of disappointment over leaders you thought would make a difference but everything is still the same, the darkness that offers everything but rest, the pains of childbirth, the pains of children, the pains of parents. These are the context for every Christmas.
But it is for this context that Christ has come. Not for picture perfect people and lives but for the wreak of our lives in a sinful world. For our Lord was not simply born in our flesh but has come to redeem us from our flesh. He was born to rescue us – not in the least from our selves and our disappointments and our bitterness over all the well planned memories that go wrong. The shepherds had to be told to go to Bethlehem where they would meet the good tidings of great joy in the birth of a Savior and the reign of peace in their hearts while the war rages on around them! Now I am telling you the very same thing.
There will still be darkness, there will still be troubles, there will still be trials, there will still be disappointments, and there will still be pain and loss. But Christ is here. He has not abandoned us even though we have wandered from Him time after time after time. His grace is sufficient for our all our needs. His mercy is bigger than our sin. His hope is strong enough on which to hang all our hopes and dreams. His life is stronger than death. His peace still passes understanding. He will not quit. He will work for us and hold us accountable until that day when finally the dark breaks that no night can overcome and we meet Him face to face.
This is His gift. This is Christmas. Don’t tie up your heart and mind in knots over all the things that wrong. Look at Jesus. We deserve nothing of His kindness and yet He will grant us all things, what eye has not seen or mind has not dreamed or heart has not desired – more than we can ever imagine. All He asks of us is to believe in Him and from this faith will come the answer to our tears, the answer to our fears, the answer to our sins, and the answer to our death. Let us join with holy Mary in pondering this instead of filling our minds and hearts with all that is wrong. And then, with blessed Mary Mother of our Lord and St. Joseph the Guardian of our Lord, we will learn holy peace and joy in the Savior who is born this day in the city of David, even Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.