A Dose of Reality
December 23, 2018
When I was growing up my dad was always in and out of the house on Christmas Eve. He was a pastor, so he came home between services to eat dinner. Our extended family lived far away, so it was just us on that night- my mom, my sister, my dad and me. Just on that night we were allowed to eat at the coffee table in front of the fire and roast hot dogs. My dad would eat creamed herring, which I think is some strange Northern European tradition. And we would all partake of the very fancy cheese fondue my mom would make, complete with a Swiss Brandy called Kirschwasser. It was very warm and cozy, and I loved it.
At some point, though, this season of the year started feeling different for me. It’s hard to put my finger on it. I can handle the busyness- there are many who are lonely this time of year and would love the full life I have. Perspective helps. But, maybe it’s the expectations and pressures of the season that begin to change your view as you move into middle adulthood. I’ve made the executive decision to take Christmas cards off of my to-do list, but to be perfectly honest, I still feel guilty about it. For the record, I still like receiving them.
I think what I’ve realized about this time of year is the audacity of what I believe becomes more pronounced at Christmastime, and it seems to make things more complicated. Christmas for me isn’t about decorating gingerbread houses, buying and wrapping presents, or finding the perfect red sweater to wear to parties. Frankly, I wish it was. I would love it to be that easy.
The truth is, I’m more anxious this time of year. I’m deeply concerned about all the corruption and hate I see. But, not paying attention does not seem like a good option, and it’s troubling to have the privilege of being able to choose. And so, here I find myself at Christmastime, conflicted. Trying to articulate why I feel so uncomfortable and how simple traditions just don’t hold up. A tree’s light in my house is beautiful, but it can’t be the only source of light to shine into the darkness.
Call me crazy, or a major Debbie downer, but maybe that’s why we find ourselves here, tonight. Not for the ease of carols and candlelight, though they help, but for the story that brought hope into an equally complicated world.
The first verses of Luke Chapter 2 tell us a lot about what was in the air “in those days.” A decree went out from the Emperor that all the world should be registered. That’s what the story says. It makes for an interesting pageant- the journey to Bethlehem, with Mary on a donkey. The less picturesque interpretation tells us that this registration was like a census. The Roman Empire was trying to keep track of all the people who were taxable. So, the registration has a façade of order to it, but underneath there was fear, control, and exploitation of the poor.
It’s with that level of anxiety fresh in their minds that Mary and Joseph made their way to his home town. Luke doesn’t go into too much detail about Jesus’ birth but makes note of the familiar fact that there was no room for them in the inn. At the time it probably wasn’t unusual that Mary and Joseph had to just stop where they could, but this idea of there being no room for Jesus in the world makes a larger point.
New Testament scholar Martha Moore says that “In the midst of this context of official order and control, Jesus’ birth is utterly out of order. Mary is an unwed mother. Jesus is referred to as ‘her child,’ not named in reference to any father… The birth itself occurs outside of the inn, beyond the boundaries of ordinary social interaction. Jesus’ birth is quiet, understated, without fanfare.” It seems like Jesus’ arrival goes unregistered with almost everyone around until some very unimportant shepherds get tipped off to what has happened.
The truth is, much of the actual Christmas story is resistant to almost every impulse we have at this time of year. The reality of it is doesn’t quite affirm the ways we celebrate. The angels add some flashiness, but who they appear to and what they point to aren’t all that impressive, at least by worldly standards.
I remember one Christmas when I was growing up we had been invited over to a family friend’s house for their annual gathering. It was tons of people, eating and hanging out, having fun. Later, as the afternoon turned into early evening the friend’s dad walked down to the basement as we were all playing new video games, and announced that he had signed up all the kids to go help out at our town’s homeless shelter. They were short on people for Christmas day. None of us wanted to go, but the adults said it would “be good for us.” So, we went and served dinner and helped clean up. But I’m pretty sure none of us felt good after we left. We weren’t thinking, “wow, look at us doing this wonderful thing for others on Christmas.” I remember feeling like it was just a huge dose of reality- the injustice of it all made me uncomfortable, as it should have.
The Christmas story gets harder to hear the more we listen to it. There’s really no good reason that any baby should be born into such instability, particularly when it’s hidden under the veil of order and control. And, of course, we can’t avoid the contemporary comparisons with the way we are treating refugee children in our very own country, or children who are suffering in Yemin. It all makes the story feel remarkably unpalatable at this time of year.
Last week I was talking with a woman named Angelique who is on our staff as the Coordinator of the Senior Center. It’s a program for mostly vulnerable older adults from across the metro area, and they meet in our building twice a week. If you haven’t met Angelique, she is great, and a breath of fresh air. I was selfishly taking her time to talk about my sermon for tonight, and I admitted I thought I was going to depress people too close to Christmas. She said, Sarah, people crave authenticity- you have to tell them the real story. I think Angelique tells the real story with our Senior Center. If you go visit them sometime you’d be amazed at how much fun they have and the support that exists in their growing community. At the same time, many of them face financial challenges; they deal with addiction in their families, and health limitations. Their joy and struggle live hand in hand. There is no veil of order and control, just the real story, of God’s love meeting people exactly where they are.
This is also what happened to the shepherds, on that night so long ago- poor shepherds, probably cold sleeping in those fields. It seems a bit dissonant when we sing about these angels and shepherds in hymns- they were terrified when this group of celestial beings rang out in a chorus. But, out of fear or amazement, probably more like wonder, they discovered God’s love meeting them right where they were. So, they did what the angels told them to and walked all the way to a lowly manger, to meet a tiny baby in it, who was supposed to save the whole world.
Now, I have to pause for a moment here, to give witness to this moment. This is the beautiful part of the gospel but it’s also the hard part, because, the question must be asked: how can this kind of God save us?
I’ve thought a lot about this question. How to make sense of it to those of us who have a lot more than the shepherds did, but who are also not immune to the world’s pain. And also how to make sense of it to those who don’t have any power, who need a God who will take the reigns and usher in those promises of new life.
If we look close enough though we can see it. The power of this moment is its lack of power. It’s the truth, which we desperately need more of. It’s the real story. This is the posture God takes. This is how God’s love stands in the face of darkness- a vulnerable, helpless baby born to unwed, oppressed parents, who calls forth nothing else than nurture and compassion- mostly from us. And all these millennia later we are still telling the story, to try to get ahold of what it means to be humans together, and to try and understand how this big, mysterious God could be understood, at least partly, in a small, innocent babe.
As I’ve gone about my days this Advent season I’ve had such a sense of gratitude for this faith I have. I’m overwhelmed by it. By the courage of the story. It doesn’t affirm the normal Christmas stuff that I sometimes wish I could get more on board with. But, it affirms a deeper longing in me that begs for a God who understands how complicated the world really is. Our God does. And that is what saves me each and every day. That is where the hope lies.
After Christmas Day at home, my family would drive to my grandparent’s house in Michigan. We would join cousins, aunts and uncles, in the tight quarters of their cottage on Lake Michigan, and eventually, we would all join around the table in their dining room for a devotion before dinner. There was lots of wiggles, sweaty hand-holding, sometimes hymn-singing, and many seconds of waiting patiently in silence while the tears choked my Grandpa’s voice as he prayed. He was overwhelmed by God’s love, and the grace with which God understood his complicated, imperfect life.
Jesus is the real story at Christmas. He doesn’t make headlines, but he heals hearts that are broken- broken by what we see and broken by what we’ve done or not done enough of. His love meets us where we are in the messy, complex parts of our lives and in the injustice of the world. He was born out of hope when things seemed hopeless. And his birth saves us, because it’s real, and it calls upon us to love one another. Thanks be to God for the real Christmas. Amen.