What do you think—as you heard the Christmas story read just now, did it sound like a Hallmark card?
We might want it to be. The world of advertising has done a great job of managing our expectations, packaging this story as if it were neat and tidy: Christmas cards with cozy fireside scenes, families gathered in perfect harmony.
But the Christmas story we just heard starts out not with cozy fireside scenes but with emperors and governors. People with names like Augustus and Quirinius. This is government. And government, as we well know, is not neat and tidy. Otto von Bismarck, German Prussian leader of the 19th century, once said that laws are like sausages: it’s better not to see them made! Having worked four years for two congressmen I know this is true. Not neat and tidy!
Even so, government’s job is to keep things orderly, under control. In Palestine 2000 years ago that included a census. But this was no mail-in form. It was nothing so convenient as the doorbell ringing and spending a few minutes answering questions from some stranger. No, for Mary and Joseph and everyone in the land, this was a big production. It was disruptive. Everyone had to pack up and travel to their hometown to be registered.
Many of us pack up and leave this time of year. It’s reservations, and shuttles, and flights and maybe hotels. But in the first century there were no online reservations, no pre-printed boarding passes, no heated jets to get travelers to their destinations. You couldn’t call ahead to book a place to stay. And, there were animals to provide for. Not something as simple as boarding the dog or cat at the local kennel, either. No, these were pack animals, sources of transportation that you had to take with you. Not very Hallmark. Not very restful.
In the case of Mary and Joseph it was really not restful because here they are, away from home, registering with the government, all the hotels are full. They’re forced to camp out, not in a Good Sam RV Park, not in a KOA with hot showers—but in a barn! Not very neat. Not very tidy.
All that would be inconvenient enough but now pregnant Mary is ready to give birth. Babies, as we know, don’t book reservations. They don’t call ahead to see when might be a convenient time to show up. No, they come into the world when they’re ready, not when we are. The Christmas story reads: While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son. It’s easy to read; it’s nice poetry. But wait a minute! Childbirth? That’s messy. Painful. Dangerous.
But into this messy scene angels appear and of all people they choose, they appear to shepherds, rough people who live way down at the bottom of the social ladder; people who, given their line of work, have a certain odor about them. Not exactly Hallmark.
It’s an unusual cast of characters. It’s a strange story. It’s a mess. But into this mess is precisely where God chooses to come.
Now, I don’t know about you but if Christmas is all about the fulfillment of some ideal expectations then, I guess, check me off the list. Because my life doesn’t fit that description; my life is not neat and tidy and never will be. I don’t know about you but my life’s a mess. I don’t mean it’s a disaster. I just mean, it’s messy, it’s risky, it’s complicated—it’s human.
In fact, as strange as the Christmas story may be, my life is a lot more like that than the Hallmark version! My life includes everyday things like responsibilities to the government and paying bills. There are family relationships, job, unexpected difficulties; unexpected people show up. There is danger, pain, mistakes, tragedies, and…glimpses of the supernatural. That’s one of the great things about my job, is to see glimpses of the supernatural in the ordinary.
Into the messiness of ordinary life is precisely where God chooses to appear. But, that doesn’t necessarily set well with us, does it? God, could you maybe tidy things up a bit? Like, my life, for instance? Or, those other people? Especially when loss strikes, when tragedy happens, God, do you think maybe, make it a little more like Hallmark??
But no, the angel appears to the shepherds and makes a different kind of offer. Scared and confused as those shepherds were, the angel said, “Do not be afraid; for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”
Good news! Great joy! For kings and governors? Yes! For those at the bottom of the social and economic ladder? Especially yes! For everyone in between? Yes! All people. Even you. Even me!
Into our world, even in the most unexpected way, as a helpless infant, God comes into our world. Not neat and tidy. God says yes to our mess.
This is a story we need to hear now, more than ever. To us, as to the shepherds, God’s messengers say, “Don’t be afraid,” even when there’s plenty to be afraid of. The world has many answers for our fear; the world has many answers for how to make it more neat and tidy: more financial security, more law enforcement, more guns.
God has a different answer. The angel said, “For see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” To what extent do the solutions that promise to take away our fears bring great joy? Another way to say it: When you’re afraid, where do you turn? And, does it pass the “joy” test?
Is there something more to life than the neat and tidy lives we long for, or settle for, and the solutions we think will make that happen?
If God has said yes to our mess—has even come among us as one of us—then regardless of our circumstances, God is with us. Whatever danger, pain, fear, loss—there is one who walks with us, who loves us without any strings attached, who sustains us, and who empowers us to be Christ for a world in need. In terms of your expectations of Christmas, whatever you came here with tonight—and whatever you leave with—nothing can change the deep truth of the Christmas story, which is:
God has said yes to your mess! God has said yes to our mess! In ways both great and small, God is with us!