Scripture: Luke 1:26-38
Which movie is part of your holiday tradition? A lot of people make it a point to watch a specific movie at some point during this season. For some, it just is not Christmas until they watch It’s a Wonderful Life, for others the movie of choice is A Christmas Story, and then for others they just love to watch Elf at the beginning of December. I looked up to see what the most popular Christmas movie ever is, and in doing so I saw a whole bunch of different lists. Some of these were compiled by critics and others were by popular vote. Consistently it’s a Wonderful Life and Elf were at the top. The only other movie that was somewhere in the top five on every list I looked at was National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. It is a little bit different than the other two. The movie is over twenty years old, so I think it is outside of spoiler limitations, but it is probably the only Christmas classic that ends with a SWAT raid and sewage explosion. Do you remember that movie? It follows the exploits of Clark Griswold and his family. Clark seeks to create the perfect family Christmas. He wants to get the perfect tree, the perfect gift, and cook the perfect meal. Of course everything goes completely and thoroughly wrong in the absolute worst way possible. There was one year growing up that my family had its own moment worthy of the Griswold family. That year we went to a Christmas tree farm to get a real Christmas tree. In the ground the tree looked good, but once it was cut it became very obvious that the trunk was a bit crooked and twisted. I remember once we got home, my dad had to use a saw to cut at a slant to balance it all out. Once the tree was finally up, well that is when the bugs came. Apparently, a praying mantis had laid eggs in that tree. The warmth of the house caused the eggs to hatch, and we soon had baby praying mantises everywhere.
I think one of the reasons why Family Vacation is at the top of favorite Christmas movie lists is because we can all relate to it. Many of us have chased after creating that perfect Christmas. We know the stress of trying to get everything just right, and we know the disappointment when it just cannot seem together. We learn that the “perfect” Christmas is a mirage, it is something that is unobtainable, because something will always go wrong or not work like it is supposed to. Yet more often than not, the very next year we strive for perfection yet again. When it comes to celebrating Christmas, we need to give up on perfect. We need a different kind of Christmas. After all the Frist Christmas was anything but perfect, yet God still showed up in this world.
Most biblical scholars agree that Mary was likely a young teenagers somewhere around fourteen to sixteen at the time that the angel Gabriel came to visit her. This morning’s scripture told us that Mary was betrothed, engaged, to Joseph. We do not know for sure, but it is likely that Mary had her own dreams and idea of what her perfect life was going to be like. Like every young woman ever, Mary probably had elaborate day dreams of how perfect her wedding was going to be. She probably thought ahead, hopefully with some level of hope and happiness, when she thought of her future life with Joseph. All of those hopes, dreams, and aspirations came crashing down on one unassuming day when an angel appeared to her. It is no wonder that when the angel appears verse 29 states, “Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be” and then it is no wonder the angel had to tell her not to be afraid. The bible tells us that Mary was highly favored, but we do not often dwell on how this event turned Mary’s life upside down. In Mary’s dreams of a perfect life there were not any situations that involved her being an unwed, pregnant teenager. Mary had the assurance of an angel, but can you imagine how hard it must have been to be her? As she started to show, can you imagine the rumors, the whispers, and the sidewise glances she had to endure? The gospel of Matthew tells us this was so bad that Joseph was set to divorce her and end their engagement until an angel intervened.
One of the big take-aways from this scripture is Mary’s response. She showed more spiritual maturity as a teenager than many people ever achieve. After being told that her life was about to be turned upside down, Mary responded: “I am the Lord’s servant.” It probably did not make sense to Mary why God chose her, but that is exactly why God chose her. Even when life did not make sense, Mary had the faith to still serve God and still say that she is the Lord’s servant. We can learn from this, we should learn from this. None of us have had an angel come to us and tell us to expect a child, but all of us have had the unexpected happen in our life. We have all had life throw us a curveball that we feel like we just could not handle. When life does not go our way, when everything is messy and imperfect, our response should not be to say “why God, why?” Our response should be to say “I am the Lord’s servant.” We should seek to see how we can serve God in the midst of the mess, we can seek God’s will in the midst of the chaos, and we can find how to follow the Perfect God in an imperfect world. We should follow the example of Mary and seek to follow God in spite of the mess. This is what Mary did, not just after the angel visited but beyond.
Even after she got through the initial months there were still unexpected setbacks, uncertainty, and less than ideal conditions. Things got more and more imperfect. She had to give birth far away from home because of the census. Worse, the best location available was a stable. It is likely that this was inside a cave, but for all intents and purposes it was a barn. Have you all ever been in a barn? Do you know how dirty they are? Do you know how much they smell? That is not a perfect place to have a child. When you get right down to it, the first Christmas was about as imperfect and messy as it could possibly get.
The question is why was it this way? Last week we read a scripture from the prophet Isaiah that proclaimed “unto us a child is born, to us a son is given.” This scripture was written more than 700 years before the birth of Jesus. It was not like Jesus coming into this world was a surprise to God. God had seven centuries to put this thing together. Given all that time to plan, and given the fact that God the Father is the all mighty, all powerful, creator and sustainer of the universe, surely better circumstances could have been arranged. Why, oh why, would God send the son, a beloved part of God’s self, to earth in the most imperfect and messy way possible?
Obviously the answer is because it was by design. Jesus came into this world as a helpless baby in exactly the messy, imperfect way that God wanted him to. The miracle of the incarnation is that Jesus is fully God, that the divine love came down and inhabited the earth. The amazing truth of Christmas is that the Word was made flesh and was born like every other person. Jesus is fully God and fully man. Our lives are messy and imperfect, so it makes sense that Jesus came in a messy and imperfect way. This gives testimony to the fact that even in the midst of our mess, God shows up. Methodist pastor and author Mike Slaughter writes, “Even in the midst of the unexpected, God shows up. Sickness, death, divorce, unemployment. Life gets messy, but in the midst of your mess, God shows up! No matter what you are struggling to overcome, no matter what life issues have come your way, God promises to show up. Christmas is God’s vivid reminder that amid the uncertainty, God shows up to bring you peace, purpose, joy, hope, and wholeness.”
In this morning’s scripture the angel tell Mary, “The Lord is with you.” The resulting nine months were mess and imperfect, but the Lord was with her. The end result of all that mess and imperfection is that Jesus came into this world. I think this speaks to a truth in our lives. If God is with us, then there is always a silver lining. To every mess and setback in life, there is a flipside. There is a way that God is with us in the midst of our situation. For an example to this I only have to think back to my most imperfect Christmas. By most measures of how what would make a “perfect family Christmas”, this one was way, way below the bar. I am not sure if we even got a Christmas tree up that year. Abigail says we did, but I am not so sure. If we did, it was sparsely decorated and that was the only decorating we did that year. Abigail spent all of her December confined to bed rest. I was so stressed and so behind on everything, that I had to, with some embarrassment, ask people of the church to help me with basic things such as raking up leaves. That year is the only year in my entire life that I missed a Christmas Eve service, because I spent in the hospital. By most outsides measurements it was a very imperfect, messy Christmas.
Yet there is the flipside because on Christmas day 2009, we brought home Connor, our first child from the hospital. I was not in church on Christmas eve because I was holding my newborn son in my arms. It was that Christmas, as I held a helpless, infant that I more clearly understood how amazing the miracle of the incarnation truly is. It was on that Christmas as I looked into angelic face of my son, that I began to understand how great God’s love for us truly is. I was just beginning to understand to what meant to love as a father, and on the Christmas I began to understand just how much of a loving sacrifice it must have been for God the Father to give up Jesus to be on earth with us. It was a messy Christmas, it was an imperfect Christmas but it was the best Christmas. It was perfect just perfect.
God is with us, so that means on the underside of all of life’s mess there is a blessing. For some people, this is a hard season because they have endured one too many imperfect Christmases, there are a few too many heartbreaks, and too much baggage associated with the season. Other times our life just feels too messy, too imperfect, too painful that we just can’t even this year. Instead of chasing after perfection some people just say bah-humbug. That should not be our response either. As Mike Slaughter writes, “So when Christmas comes around during an imperfect season of life, and you just don’t feel like celebrating remember; it’s not your birthday; it’s Jesus birthday, and by celebrating Christmas we are celebrating someone else who suffered too.” The miracle of Christmas is that Jesus understands what we have gone through, he understands our mess. Despite that, God is with us. In the midst of the mess, there is still a blessing. May our response be like that of Mary. No matter what life throws us at, no matter how imperfect, no matter how messy may we be able to say “I am the Lord’s servant.” May we be able to celebrate that God is with us.