In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee, to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David. Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you! ”Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean.“Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!” Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.” Luke 1:26-34 (NLT)
Chevy Chase’s character, Clark Griswold, has seemingly lived a life of giving up on perfect but no where does it come to hit home than in “A Christmas Vacation.” Nothing about Christmas goes as planned. In many ways, the movie is a stunning editorial on the effects of today’s consumerism and marketing schemes. Christmas is often a time of painful reminders of family or financial loss. Christmas many times arrives not with the gifts we hoped for but the unexpected we hoped to avoid. Like our tree, Christmas many times arrives upside down.
But then, in truth, this is just where and when God shows up in our lives - when things are upside down. This is the truth of that stable where Jesus was born, we just sanitized. Come on, “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes?” Whoever heard of a newborn not crying? Really? The writer of Luke makes it fairly clear from beginning to end, following Jesus is a real life proposition - it is messy, just like life.
We have an idea that if we do the right thing, the good thing, then good is what we’ll get in life - nothing bad is going to show up. Nothing inconvenient will take place. The idea that Jesus insulates us from life’s difficulties is another one of those mirages. It disappears in the face of reality. This is what Mary’s story brings home to us.
Even though marriage at the time was common for teenage girls, how emotional prepared do you imagine Mary must have been? How theologically formed would you expect a 12-15 year old girl to be when the angel appeared and begin laying out this baby’s messianic ties to King David? Do not be afraid? Yeah, right! We know in Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 1:18-19), her fiance, Joseph, didn’t handle the news all that well when she said, “The Holy Spirit got me pregnant.”
It becomes easy to sanitize the facts of the miracle birth because we know the end of the story but in truth, it only complicates our lives. We then sanitize all of the interactions of God with us, thus creating an unbelievable world of magic and fantasy with no messiness, no complications and no difficulties. This flies in the face of reality of Jesus’ birth, life and death.
Mary, a teenage girl, betrothed in marriage to Joseph – finds favor with God and so what happens? She becomes pregnant out of wedlock. I’m sure you’ve seen the “I’m proud of my honor student” bumper stickers. Maybe you’re like us and have put them up on your mini-van too. The reality is even if your child was making D’s (and I made a few), you still favor your child because the child belongs to you. We miss this important reality, God’s favor can’t be earned. God comes to us in our times of doing right AND in your time of doing wrong. As Pastor Mike Slaughter put it, “You are highly favored by God because you are God’s!”
Christmas is going to come at times when the season in our life is not perfect. You may not feel much like celebrating. But Christmas is more than just another holiday, it is a birthday and it is Jesus’ birthday. When we celebrate it, even out of our weakness and pain, even when everything is upside down, we are celebrating the birthday of one who has known suffering and life’s mess. We remember God DOES know what we go through and he is with in the midst of it all.
Life offers us no promises about staying safe and living comfortably. The Bible offers no such promises either. It is a very real book that does not gloss over or sanitize the realities of how life was and Jesus’ birth makes it clear, it was a messy affair – very much in keeping with reality. I had a great young mom begin attending one of the churches I served. She had a little background in Christianity but had been away for some time. She called me one day very upset. As we talked she said to me, “You didn’t tell me about all this death and violence in the Bible! I started at the beginning and was trying to read it to my daughter and I just had to stop. I can’t read this to her.”
She was right. The Bible isn’t like any other book and it isn’t something which can be picked-up and read straight through. Some of it isn’t for children. Maybe we need to put warning labels on our Bibles. Imagine if the Bible only had the “good stories” and “good teachings?” How trustworthy would this book be if it denied the existence and struggles of pain and inconvenience that we face? Paul, who tells in 2 Corinthians, of being whipped, beaten, stoned, and shipwrecked, is bluntly honest with his young trainee Timothy, saying to him:
“Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,” (2 Timothy 3:12).
Why did God choose Mary to be the mother of Jesus? Because God knew that even when life didn’t make sense, she would choose to continue to serve God. Her words ring clearly even now, “I am the Lord’s servant…May it be to me as you have said (Luke 1:38).” While we have no records of what Mary and Joseph taught Jesus as a boy, surely, he learned this truth.
Have you given any thought to the messy places around us – in our community, our country and our world? What if you did the Christmas present challenge or something like it and intentionally set aside some of that money saved to go to the Christmas offering this year – our offering that goes to those messy places? Imagine what you could do if you gave up on making Christmas perfect and instead, as a family, decided to make a difference.