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December 16, 2014, 1:26 PM

Letting Go of Perfect

Matthew 1:18-25

18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about[a]: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet[b] did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. 20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus,[c] because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”[d] (which means “God with us”). 24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

Luke 1:26-38

26 When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, 27 to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 When the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” 29 She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. 31 Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. 33 He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.” 34 Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?” 35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. 36 Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant. 37 Nothing is impossible for God.” 38 Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” Then the angel left her.

Letting Go of Perfect

I remember the Christmas mornings of my childhood. They all morph together into this one picture—all soft and hazy and golden.  I would wake up at some ungodly hour, like 4:00 am, and jump instantly from my bed. I would debate with myself about waking up my sister, for about 1 second, and then tiptoe across the hall to her room.  She didn’t like to be woken up as a rule, so I would basically jump on her on her bed and bounce off as fast as possible—to avoid any violence.  Once she was awake and remembered it was Christmas morning so she didn’t want to kill me this time for waking her, we would stand outside our parents’ door and whisper about when to wake mom.

You see, as a dairy farming family, dad was already in the barn milking cows by the time I awoke. No presents were to be opened until he returned from the barn. But if we didn’t wake mom too early, we could have our stockings to entertain ourselves with until he was finished. So we debated about walking mom for several very long minutes before our ever-louder conversation woke her anyway. We would excitedly grab our stockings and open them on the stairs where the window overlooked the barn (to see if dad was coming) and was just a short distance from the tree.

It all seems perfect in my mind; giggling sisters, fuzzy stockings, soft lighting, eager anticipation.  I don’t remember any arguments or fighting, any disappointments or unhappiness. It seems like a dream sequence from some Hollywood movie, all rough edges smoothed away and only perfection remaining.  I wonder if my mother would tell a different story.

It is how we remember the Christmas story as well: a warm, snug, remarkably clean stable; tiny baby, spotless and serene; proud and amazed Joseph, looking down on the peaceful babe; meek and mild mom, looking radiant and rested after a pain-free and quick birth; adoring shepherds, also squeaky clean, well groomed, and reverent; hushed animals looking on, all freshly scrubbed, standing or lying stilly by, all aware of the sanctity of this moment and wouldn’t dream of pooping or peeing on the scene. ‘Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright…glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace.” That is a lovely story to encounter on Christmas Eve as the candles glow and the music fills the sanctuary. But, if that is the only Christmas story we encounter each year, we have missed the point of the incarnation in a very, very big way.

By backing up this Advent and encountering the stories that precede the nativity narrative, we get a fuller picture of how unsettling and imperfect the coming of Jesus is by the world’s standards. The incarnation (that fancy word the church uses to talk about God coming as Jesus) is an interruption—an interruption for our own salvation, but an interruption just the same.  Zechariah is interrupted during a monumental moment in his career as priest to be told he is to be a father in his old age to the harbinger of the Messiah. Elizabeth, too, as she prepared to give birth to Elijah come again—the wild John the Baptist who will eat honey and wild locusts and wear camel hair. 

And in today’s reading and the passage from children’s time, we encounter a dangerous interruption and a less-than-perfect situation.  Being pregnant out of wedlock is a serious offense in first-century Judaism, punishable by death—stoning to be precise.  Mary’s agreement is nothing short of miraculous—to bravely and boldly agree to God’s plan knowing that she cannot prove to anyone that an angel visited her and the Holy Spirit created the child that now grows within her.  She is risking everything. And though Joseph, in also agreeing with this crazy plan, does not risk death, life will not be easy in the small village as he raises a son that everyone knows is not his own. 

Nor is there any perfection in dragging a very pregnant girl on a three to four day journey to Bethlehem, finding shelter among the animals, and giving birth away from home and friends and family.  This is a messy, messy story and that is the point. This is the story of God coming to be with us, to be among us, to take on our flesh and blood, to set up God’s tent right among us. Emmanuel—God with us.  God becomes all fleshy and messy and human. That is the whole point. God is in our mess with us, all the way.

We need to embrace a less than perfect Christmas—to let go of everything being perfect—and let life be life, even in the season of Christmas. Because we all know that no matter how hard we might try, it’s not going to be perfect. Life is messy and hard and painful and beautiful and miraculous and precious. And at Christmas we celebrate that God jumped into that life with us with both feet. God waded in with us, and dwells right here among us—mess and all. God comes in Jesus to guide us through the messes of life, to comfort us in the painful moments, to struggle with us when life is hard, and to rejoice with us in the beauty.

And God calls us to do the same for one another—to wade into the messes of the world and help one another through. This year can we let go a little of trying to make everything perfect, and embrace the messy, hard, painful, beautiful, miraculous, and precious story of two terrified and horribly unprepared people welcoming God-made-flesh into this world in less ideal conditions so that this same God could rescue us all from the mess, and know that this is God’s idea of perfection.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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