Earlier this week, I received an email from the religion writer for the Washington Post. Normally, Michelle is busy writing December articles about church’s hosting live nativity scenes or a congregation’s annual Christmas coat drive. This year’s angle is different, however. This year, Michelle wanted to know about people in our congregation who are doing things differently this Christmas. She wanted to know about traditions coming to an end, money not being spent, or people celebrating Christmas differently due to the current state of affairs. The article dancing through her mind was more about darkness instead of light. It was more about what we don’t have instead of what we do have. This Christmas is different.
Normally at this time of year, my phone calls with my mother are some of the happiest calls all year. My mother loves Christmas. There are some years when she has had a Christmas tree in every room of the house. She carefully budgets for Christmas each year, making sure that she has money to buy everyone a gift. She goes out of her way to share Christmas cheer. But the phone call this morning ended with tears instead of joy. The store she owns on Main Street has sold 25% of what it had sold at this time last December. Instead of neighbors stopping in to say “Hello,” Hospice workers are coming in the house to check on her husband, making sure he is comfortable as he nears the end of his life. And, not all of the family is home this Christmas – it is the first Christmas in my entire life in which I have not seen my mother. This Christmas is different.
Some of us who gather here tonight are hurting. We, too, have experienced loss this year. We have lost a love one. We have lost a job. We have lost a portion of our salary or investments. We have lost some of our physical mobility or quality of life.
Others of us know people around us who are hurting. Christmas cards have been printed with messages of factories closing, the help fund at the church being depleted, people losing their jobs, and others losing their houses. It seems as though the pain is tangible – you can almost see it in the faces of some of the individuals. This Christmas is different.
But is it really all that different?
The more I examine the Christmas story found in scripture, the promises of a Messiah given to us in Isaiah, and the conditions into which this one was born, the more I realize how this Christmas, our Christmas in 2008, is a lot like the first Christmas.
The words given to us by the prophet Isaiah during the month of December are some of my favorite words in all of scripture. Isaiah has an uncanny ability of offering hope when everything seems hopeless. The community to whom Isaiah preaches is dominated by fear. Things are changing. The nation of Assyria has become a stronghold, clamping down on Judah, the northern kingdom of Israel. In a matter of no time, the kingdom will come tumbling down, making its occupants captives of a new king and very different kingdom. War is being waged. Families are being torn apart. Homes are being burnt to the ground. Lives of a few and the livelihood of many are coming to an end. Things are dark, dreary, messy.
But into this mess comes a word from the wilderness. Isaiah comes to the people walking in the darkness of change, anxiety, fear and uncertainty, telling them that all who are in darkness have seen a great light. A light is shining upon the land of deep darkness. Their burden is being eased as the bar across their shoulders is being broken. The soldiers trampling over the land are being stopped in their tracks as their clothing and boots are burned. The darkness is giving way to the light – the light that comes with a child promised long before the child was ever born.
Isaiah tells all who will listen that a child has been born for us. A son has been given to us. Authority rests upon his shoulders. He is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. This one is bringing about a new kind of kingdom. This one is coming into the mess and is turning the mess upside down. This one will rule with justice and righteousness.
But what about us?
What about we who gather here, acquainted with pain of our own or the pain of those we love?
We gather in the shadow of a window that for me tells it all. There was a baby born in the most humble of ways. All of the hotels were booked long ago. No friends or relatives were nearby. The only shelter to be found was a barn – a borrowed barn. The place on which to lay the baby once he was born was not a sterile bassinette covered with clean, white sheets. The only thing that could be found was a manger – a mechanism made for cattle; not a baby. But it was into this mess that Jesus, the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace was born. He came into a mess – a literal mess – on the night he was born. And, he never forgot his humble beginnings.
He spent his entire life breaking into the messes of the world – into the messes created by people who had done everything wrong and little right. He cleaned up that mess. As Titus tells us, he gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify a people who will be like him. He went into the mess of broken relationships, teaching people to go out of their way in order for reconciliation to happen – in order to bring back together that which had been separated. He told us to not forgive just one time but 70 times 7 times – making sure that the mess really was cleaned up. He went into messy homes and messy neighborhoods. In fact, he much preferred to be with those who had little – little clothing, food, shelter, health care, friends, family, respect. He touched the mess, he redeemed it, he made people whole once more, and he taught his followers to do the same – to spend time with people at the bottom, in the mess. And when the mess had really gotten out of hand, he borrowed a messy animal and rode through the streets of Jerusalem, ending the week on a cross where he died a very messy death. And it was this death that turned the mess of the world upside down once and for all – promising that while we all will die – we all will live.
We have made Christmas into a holiday that was seemingly designed for us. We light up the city and neighborhood with bright lights, spending more on energy this month than we normally spend. We rush around the shopping malls and stores, seeking out the perfect gift for our friends and loved ones. We send cards to people – some of whom we only communicate with at Christmas. And, we tell others what we want for Christmas – thinking that Christmas is our birthday and not the birthday of our Savior. But maybe, just maybe, the things we have been forced to let go of this year have gotten us closer to the original, messy story. Maybe our letting go of some of the traditions has enabled us to see how much we really have and how what we have is enough. Maybe our not walking in without a gift has pushed us to give more of ourselves – sitting, listening, waiting, and watching. Maybe our not being where we normally are this Christmas enables us to see and sense more of what really happened at Christmas – a baby being born far from home with nothing that the mother anticipated having at the moment of birth – nothing clean, no friends, no family, only a few strangers looking in. Maybe the spot where the person we love always sits but who is no longer with us will be filled – filled with the presence of one who longs to bring comfort. Christmas, the true meaning of Christmas, is messy.
And, I would give anything to be able to stand up here tonight and tell you that the mess is ending. I would love to be able to say that the stores on Main Street will stop closing, that your job is safe and secure, that you will find employment in the New Year, that your friend or family member will be cured of cancer, that your mourning, broken heart will stop hurting, that your home will be refinanced before you lose it, that you will be reconciled with the one from whom you are separated, or that you will have love in your life at this time next year. I wish I could offer you a pie in the sky – telling you that your wishes, your dreams, and your desires will all come to fruition. But this is not the promise of Christmas.
The promise of Christmas is that one has come who knows about mess. One has come who knows about pain and sorrow. One has come who knows about betrayal and disappointment. One has come who knows whatever it is that we or our loved ones are experiencing. One has come. And this one promises that no matter how dark the mess might be, the light has never been overcome by the darkness. This one knows our mess. This one longs to sit alongside of us in our mess. This one longs to be present – to be Emmanuel, God with us…in the mess.