(Luke 2: 1-14)
Have you ever noticed the mess of a story our Christmas story is? I mean, in some far-off parallel universe where everything goes as expected, where everything happens as it should, the story of the birth of Jesus might’ve gone something more like this:
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. But because this would be such a massively disrupting event, forcing people to travel far distances in the coldest season of the year, the Emperor delayed it until the spring, so people would have time to make plans and preparations, and would not have significant life events complicated like, I don’t know, the imminent birth of a child! And so all would go to their own towns to be registered – but months from now; when it would be warmer, nicer for travel.
And so it came to pass that Mary was in the comforts of her home, momma and midwife by her side; husband Joseph waiting in an adjacent room (husband – they were married over a year ago). And while they were there, the time came for Mary to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in the lovely blanket a neighbor down the street made for just this occasion. And Mary laid her baby in the sturdy bassinet next to her bed, a family heirloom.
And there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them and they were terrified. And the angel said, “Do not be afraid! I’m not actually here for you. I’m on my way to share good news with the friends and neighbors of Mary, that unto them is born this day a Savior who is the Messiah, the Lord. Sorry to scare you; I’ll let you get back to your shepherding. Keep up the good work!”
Not the same Christmas story, is it? No, our story is one where nearly everything that could go sideways does. Where the census required people to go to their hometown not sometime in the future but right now. Where Mary, in the final weeks of her pregnancy, was forced to travel the 90 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem on the back of a donkey. Where there was no room when they got there; none anywhere, not a single space; the only shelter they could find was an animal stable that was not vacant. Where her newborn baby was wrapped in “bands of cloth,” which is exactly what it sounds like. And where Jesus was laid in a manger, such a sweet Bible word. Know what it is? It’s a “feeding trough,” certainly containing remnants of the livestock’s earlier meal that day.
It is a mess, our Christmas story. A hot mess. I’ve been thinking a lot about that this Advent. I imagine it has something to do with the year we have had, which in its own right has been a bit of mess. I’ve been thinking about how exhausted Mary must have been, how weary, with everything she faced – the travel, the pregnancy and birth, the realities of living in a world where so much of your life was determined by someone else; where so many things were out of your control.
I’ve been thinking about how weary Mary must have been. And I’ve also been thinking about how weary we are. And not the normal weariness that comes from this time of year: the extra events on our calendar, the increased decorating and preparation, the stress of finding just that right gift.
No – I’m talking about the deeper weariness that comes from constantly wondering, “Am I gonna get it?” And if I do test positive, what happens then?” The weariness of continually altering our plans and then having to alter those altered plans. The weariness of Zoom. The weariness of not being able to gather together, especially on nights like this. The weariness of always having to figure out new ways of doing things. And of course, above all, the weariness and the weight of so many people sick; so many dying.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how weary we are.
And I’ve been thinking about how Jesus comes in that weariness. We have a word for this coming. It is Emmanuel; one of those beautiful Hebrew words that requires multiple English words to do it justice. Emmanuel means: God-With-Us. Frederick Buechner once said of Emmanuel, “we must all decide for ourselves whether it is true – (not) sentimentality or wishful thinking, (but the) wild hope of Christmas.”
This “wild hope,” this Emmanuel, came to Mary and Joseph in the midst of their weariness, in the thick of their hot mess. Everything that could go wrong went wrong that night, everything went sideways. And Jesus was born in the midst of that.
And you know what that is? That is good news. Exceedingly good news! It is good news on any night, good news any Christmas Eve, but perhaps none moreso than this particular one, this 2020 version. I have been thinking a lot about how weary we are. How ready we are for a savior to come. And truth be told, Jesus has been coming to this weary world of ours all along; not just a single night. That “second Advent” we talked about a few weeks ago: the coming of Jesus – where? – into our hearts. That is the Advent we desperately need now. Jesus, coming to us where we are, coming into our hearts. That is where we need Jesus the most.
And it is true that he comes in the beauty of life, when all is well and right with the world and right with us. He comes when there is celebration, when the lights are bright. He comes when we feel the joy of the season, when it all makes sense, when we revel in that “Christmas spirit” that only this time of year can bring.
But friends, what makes Jesus everything he is for us is that he comes to us in our mess. In our weariness. He comes not because all is right with the world, but because so much is not. He comes not because everything is okay, but because many things are not okay. He comes not because everything is in its place, right where it should be. Jesus comes because things are such a mess.
There is so much in our world that needs to change. There is healing that needs to happen. There is sickness that needs to go away. There are chasms that need to be bridged and divides that need to be crossed. And how does the birth of Jesus fit in to all of that? Jesus’ birth doesn’t make sense in some ways and brings it all together in others. The essence of Jesus’ story is that we rise by descending. It’s a mystery, yet it’s simple. It’s easy to talk about and hard to live out.1
And it is true what the hymn tells us: that a weary world does rejoice. And do you know why that is, beloved? Do you wonder how there could ever be rejoicing in weariness?
Let these words from the poet Wendell Berry tell you why and how:
Remembering that it happened once,
we cannot turn away the thought,
as we go out, cold, to our barns
toward the long night’s end,
that we ourselves are living in the world
it happened in when it first happe
might find them breathing there, foreknown:
the Child bedded in straw,
the mother kneeling over him,
the husband standing in belief he can scarcely believe,
in light that lights them from no source we can see,
a morning’s light, the air around them as joyful as a choir.
We stand with one hand on the door,
looking into another world that is this world,
the pale daylight coming just as before,
our chores to do, the cattle all awake,
our own white frozen breath hanging in front of us;
and we are here as we have never been before,
sighted as not before,
our place holy, although we knew it not.2
You see now why that parallel universe Christmas story could never be ours, right? There’s no place for us in that one. No room for our mess, no room for our weariness.
But this Christmas story, the one we have, is one we can bring our mess and our weariness to. We bring it all to Jesus on this holy night. And he is more than happy to make room for it. He knows all about it. It is literally the world he was born into.
So people of God, if you are weary this Christmas Eve, take heart. For Jesus has come to us just as he should. And he has come to be with you, just as you are.
In the name of Emmanuel, God-With-Us, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
1 – https://religionnews.com/2020/12/14/the-weary-world-rejoices/
2 – “Remembering That It Happened Once” by Wendell Berry