Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Luke 2: 1-14)
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place in the guest room.
Now in that same region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
I wonder, friends, what brings you here this night. I mean, really brings you here. I wonder what your heart longs for in this moment, what your life demands, what your soul seeks. I wonder, on this holiest of nights, what word you long to hear.
We have a word for the coming of Jesus into the world: it is Immanuel. It’s one of those beautiful Hebrew words that require multiple English words to do it justice. The word Immanuel means: God-With-Us. God-With-Us. “We must all decide for ourselves whether it is true,” Frederick Buechner writes about Immanuel, “(not) sentimentality or wishful thinking, (but the) wild hope of Christmas.”
This “wild hope,” this Immanuel, comes to be with us on this night. He comes to us wherever we are. He comes to us in the beauty that is life, when all is well and right with the world and well with us.
But what makes his coming the gift it is, is that he also comes to us not just in the beauty, but in the mess. The mess. For as we know all too well, life can get downright messy. Pain, grief, sorrow, heartache, hatred, discord, death, fear – it’s like one mess right after another. And God comes to us in all of that.
Even though we try our very best to hide the mess. Sweep it under the rug and pretend it’s not there. Minimize it, discount it, look the other way. We’re made to think that the mess is too messy for anyone else, too messy to welcome others into. Especially Jesus. We want to be ready when Jesus comes – and we think “being ready” means hiding our mess.
But Immanuel is not God-with-us-when-we’re-ready, is it? No, it’s just God-With-Us. Even in the mess. In fact, the mess happens to be Jesus’ preferred location. After all, it’s where he was born:
Born to two young people who had barely begun their lives together.
Born in the middle of a hastily-made, unplanned, last-minute trip out of town, set in motion by powers far beyond their control.
Born in an animal stable, because there wasn’t any room in the inn.
Born in a manger – which, to be clear, is a rickety wooden structure built to hold the slop that pigs and other animals eat.
Jesus was literally born into a hot mess.
So I wonder on this night what it means for us to fully embrace that. Jesus born not into a perfect world, like the manger scenes we dutifully set on our fireplace mantles every December; but born into a messy world, a world which bears a striking resemblance to the one we’re living in now. I wonder what it mean for us that the son of God comes to be with us in the mess…..
I have shared this story with you before. A little over a hundred years ago on this night, on a World War I battlefield in Flanders, Belgium, German and British and French forces were hunkered down in the mess of muddy trenches some six to eight feet deep in the ground, separated by a strip of land the size of a small softball field. There was a break in the fighting – for the moment. Even the best of soldiers get weary of warfare.
Over in the German trench, two soldiers passed time by fashioning Christmas trees a few feet high and placing lit candles in their branches. Carefully, they set them atop the inside rim of the trench, their light cutting a soft glow in the dark night. One soldier reaches into his torn coat with tattered gloves and pulls out a harmonica. Placing it to his lips, he blows out four familiar notes. Another, recognizing the tune, starts to sing along in this beautiful tenor that cuts through the muddy cold:
Stille Nacht, Heil’ge Nacht….
He finishes the first verse of “Silent Night” and begins the second. But as he does, something unexpected happens. Very unexpected. Another voice joins him, but it is not a voice from his trench. It is coming from one on the other side. He pauses to listen and recognizes the sound of a lone bagpipe, coming from the allied forces, playing the same song. He resumes singing, now accompanied by both friend and foe:
Stille Nacht, Heil’ge Nacht….
And he does not know in the moment what possesses him to do this, but he stands up and steps up out of the trench, out into full view of the enemy, all the while singing. His fellow soldiers look at him incredulously: what is he doing?? On the other side in another trench, a French shooter takes aim, until he thinks differently and lays his weapon down.
He finishes the second verse and there is cheering – not from his side, but the other. He bows his head in gratitude. He can see them clearly now, the French and British soldiers sitting atop their trenches, weapons on the ground. Among them is the bagpipe player, and more with him; and he watches as the one pumps his elbow and blows life into the instrument. Another familiar tune emerges, and our singer lends his voice to it as well:
Herbei, o ihr Gläubigen,
O kommet, o kommet nach Bethlehem!
He bends down and picks up one of the small Christmas trees he’d made. He raises it high like a torch shining light in the darkness. He walks to the center of no-mans land, carrying the lit Christmas tree with him. Soon, the others would join him there – German, British, French. There they would exchange handshakes and personal trinkets and bottles of wine. Christmas Eve in Flanders, Belgium, 1914.
It is a true story – recounted in a major motion picture that came out over a decade ago. But for us, on this holiest of nights, I want you to know that this is more than a story. It is a promise: a promise shared by our own children two Sundays ago. A promise shared in the scripture just read. It is the promise of Jesus, Immanuel, born into our mess.
Born into the mess of our violent battlefields and muddy trenches….
Born into the mess of our fractured relationships and family struggles….
Born into the mess of our politics and religion twisted by a culture of fear….
Born into the mess of our silent pain that screams to be heard….
Born into the mess of our human brokenness and the full weight of it.
That is, for us, the promise of this night, beloved: that Jesus was born into all of our mess precisely because it is where we are. Like carrying a Christmas tree into the middle of a battlefield, singing. It is love that compels God to do such an outlandish thing – a love so great that God became one of us, to be with us, right where we are.
So live into the promise of Immanuel, people of God. Feel its light and love as you light your candles and sing “Silent Night.” Feel it as you wake tomorrow morning and celebrate this “wild hope” with family and friends. Live into it as a new year dawns, a year that will most certainly bring with it joy and light, as well as pain and darkness, the whole mess of it all.
Live into the promise of the coming Jesus – the One who proclaims, in the words of Rachel Held Evans, that:
The powerful have already been humbled.
The vulnerable have already been lifted up.
For God has made a home among the people.
God has made a home with us.
Welcome home, Jesus. Welcome to our mess. Be with us in it now; be with us here forever.
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, 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.