Delivered at Titonka United Methodist Church this last Sunday, December 29.
Based on Matthew 2: 13-23.
I haven’t been in your town very long, but long enough to know that there has been a lot of loss in your community as of late. Even though we are almost right in the middle of the Christmas season, it sounds as though some of us are wading through rough times, tragedy, or at least cold and uncertainty. And if you are one of those having a hard time finding cause for celebration this Christmas week, just know that you are not alone. Every Christmas story worth telling features a main character who is having a really difficult time, and the Christmas miracle is that God finds a way of breaking in to the story, bringing abundant love and light into our cold and weary world. Now, when I say that God breaks in and brings love and light…don’t mishear me. Even when God shows up…life does not necessarily get easier. In fact, both in my experience and in our sacred scriptures, it’s actually the opposite. When God shows up, things can get unbelievably tough, and at that point we have a choice to make. We either make room for God in our lives, we become part of the Christmas story, in which case things get complicated and challenging…or we choose not to make room…and then things may be easier and simpler for a time…but our lives ultimately become defined by our own story…and the glory of Christmas escapes us.
Truly, it’s the same for every Christmas story worth telling. A Christmas Carol: Ebeneezer Scrooge was a business man at the top of his field. He’s known as a cold, calculating, stingy miser. He would sooner starve orphans on the street and work his employees through Christmas than consider losing any of his money. No one likes him and he likes no one…then, come Christmas, God bursts into his life via 3 spirits who take Scrooge on a tour of his life, during which we learn that his obsession with money stems from a broken heart and a lonely, fearful life. Scrooge had chosen a story that is easiest for him, focus on business, freeze out any vulnerable part of himself, and make his way to the grave without ever being hurt again. Then God breaks into his life and complicates it, warming his heart and sending him running through the streets to care for the needy, and make sure Tiny Tim gets proper medical attention. Scrooge is going to spend the rest of his life caring for Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchet’s family, and countless others in need…his easy life is done now…now he has chosen the grace-filled, complicated life that Christmas promises.
It’s a Wonderful Life features George Bailey, everyone’s favorite down on his luck family man. George is a good guy, he’s a kind and generous family man. But he’s got it in his head that he is only worth what he can provide for his family. He’s got it in his head that the people in his life would be better off with a stack of cash than they would be with him around. And that is almost the story he chooses to tell, he very nearly allows his failures to define him, when all of a sudden: God sends Clarence the angel. Clarence bursts in, shines light on what a world without George Bailey looks like, and George is blessed with a renewed sense of joy and purpose. The thing is, after those credits roll, George is going to have some complicated, tough days ahead, including a law dispute with the well-financed Mr. Potter. George’s life is not going to get easier and for the foreseeable future it will be downright tough…but that’s the complication George has embraced. George has chosen to be part of the Christmas story, which is always full of joy…but also full of tough choices and complicated lives.
It came to my attention a couple days ago that some members of my family don’t like these particular Christmas stories—and just last week my roommate saw A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time and declared it “awful,” for the same reason–they’re just too depressing. Sure, they may end happily enough, but who wants to watch such sad stories…especially at Christmas? And certainly they are right, Christmas should be a time of joy and celebration and uplifting spirits. Earlier this week I’m sure all of you heard our favorite Christmas Story from Luke, the serene tableau in the manger, with animals and people come to worship the new born babe. It’s the stuff of Silent Night, it’s the stuff of pageants, it’s Angels singing on high…it has all the happy, peaceful feelings we want to be feeling at Christmas. And that is good, and that is right. But the Christmas story we heard today in our scripture reading, is ALSO the Christmas story. It’s the part of the story that actually demonstrates for us the difference between choosing Christmas as our story…and refusing to recognize God’s presence…allowing ourselves to be defined by a story of our own.
King Herod is defined entirely by his own story. The Roman Empire has installed him as ruler of Israel, and it is good to be the king. When wanderers from the east come through and announce they are looking for a newborn baby who is destined to become the ruler of all Israel, the King of kings, Herod is enraged, he gathers all the sages and scribes and religious leaders he can find. They tell him that this baby will be born in Bethlehem, and when it becomes clear that he won’t be able to find the kid, he orders the death of every male infant in the village. And how does Herod’s story end? Is he celebrated as the greatest king ever? Is he known for establishing some kind of great reform that benefited his people and got them out from Rome’s occupation? Do we even get a sense that he loved his last years of royal extravagance? No. He gets old…and he dies…and his own story comes to define him: A sad king, so terrified by what God was doing in the world, that he committed unspeakable crimes…because it was easier than making room for God. It wasn’t because he didn’t know what God was doing…he was told about God’s Messiah coming into the world, he was told the time and place…and he just wasn’t willing to make room…his power, his ego, his control was more important than God’s project…he chose his story.
Then there’s Joseph. I actually like to imagine Jimmy Stewart playing the part of Joseph. He’s in a tight spot, just like George Bailey, not sure what to do. He is engaged to a young girl who is carrying a child that isn’t his. Does he go through with the marriage, does he send her away, what is the right thing to do here? We can picture him praying, “God, I’m not a praying man, but if you’re up there, if you can here me, what child is this God, I don’t know what to do.”
And Joseph is visited in a dream, he’s told that this baby is in danger, he’s to take Mary and her baby to Egypt and keep them there until further notice. Can you imagine being caught in an already tough situation, praying for guidance…and getting the response: it ain’t over yet. Joseph is a poor carpenter, the odds are pretty good that he’s never ventured far from his home town. And he is told to pack up everything he has, leave behind everything he has known and go to a foreign land…a land he knows best as the place that enslaved his ancestors. And he’s doing this to protect and serve his would-be bride and a child that isn’t his own. “Oh…Mary…” And does Joseph argue, does he question, does he try to find another way out? He does not. He does as he is told, whisks Mary and Jesus to safety…and Jesus, the one child Herod was out to kill, is spared. God’s great project of redemption, salvation, the Heavenly Kingdom coming to earth…it is allowed to continue, it is made possible…because Joseph chose the difficult and grace-filled story of Christmas over his own.
We celebrate Christmas—the story of God’s Light coming to Earth, a baby born named Emmanuel “God with us”—we do that in the darkest days of the year. That’s not because Christmas is all joyous all the time, it’s because the rest of our lives are not. The Christmas story is not one we believe in because believing makes our lives easier…it’s a story we find meaning in because we know how difficult our lives already are. It’s a story of an unwed mother; of a pregnant teenager; of a man who breaks all the rules of his society, exiled from his own home in order to stay with her; of a baby born of divine royalty…birthed among beasts of burden and an outdoor feeding trough. It’s a story about the powers of the world trying their best to stop God’s project of Love and Grace…and God moving all the pieces [from Rev. Paul Shupe] so that ordinary humans protect and preserve Love. Ours is a story of trial and hard work and risk and, yes, a good deal of sadness. But the Christmas Story, among all else, teaches us that when things are darkest, when we are at our lowest, when we’ve had more than we can take…God breaks into our lives, bringing extravagant Love and Grace…and if we are brave enough and dutiful enough to respond to what God is doing here among us…then our lives can get REALLY messy. And they also get infinitely better.
Friends, in the coming days and weeks, remember that we have a choice to make. God has come into our world in the least likely of forms: a poor baby, born to poor parents, in the cold outdoors. God’s love and light breaks into our world time and time again when we serve one another, when we share our burdens, when we are vulnerable, when we are willing to make our own lives a little less easy in order to serve those who are most in need. That’s the Christmas Story, and it is ours to be a part of every day of our lives. This is how God acts, whether we like it or not…this is God’s story. I pray that you are all blessed this Christmas season, if not with love, peace, and joy, may you at least be blessed with Hope…hope that God is once again planning a way to break into our lives yet again…and it is my hope that when God chooses to act…we choose to make the Christmas Story OUR story.