God in the Middle of the Mess

  • Luke 2:1-20
  • Vespers, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago

I will admit to an inordinate love for Christmas music. I’ve been known to extend the playing time of my Christmas CDs well into February. On Christmas Eve day, at about 10:00am, I am generally glued to the to radio to listen to the year’s live broadcast of the festival of lessons and carols from King’s College, Cambridge. Even my decision to attend St. Olaf College was probably unduly influenced by its world famous Christmas Festival. I love the old songs, and the new ones, about baby Jesus and shepherds and stars, kings and stable animals, joy and love and peace on earth.

But the song of the angels at Christmas, “peace on earth,” is dissonant with the sounds of the world around us. A few years ago, I came across a very different Christmas song, one that recognizes this dissonance. U2, the Irish band, tucked it in the middle of their album from 2000:

Heaven on earth,
we need it now
I’m sick of all this hanging around
sick of sorrow, sick of pain,
sick of hearing again and again
That there’s gonna be peace on earth

Jesus, this song you wrote,
the words are sticking in my throat
Peace on Earth
Hear it every Christmastime
But hope and history won’t rhyme,
so what’s it worth?
This peace on earth.

I can think of no better way to say it: those words—peace on earth—stick in our throats. Our hopes for the world do not fit, do not rhyme with the facts of the newspaper, or with our own messy personal lives. And so we sing peace on earth with a note of pleading. Please, God, make it so.

Is this too pessimistic? For this one day each year, maybe we could, maybe we should just ignore the mess, and enjoy the day. In fact, I don’t want to send anyone home with indigestion due to a downer of a Christmas sermon.

But, buried deep in this story of Jesus’ birth is the reality of a God who comes to us where we are, a God who joins us in this world, a God who comes to us in the middle of the mess.

In reality, Luke 2 does not present a particularly warm fuzzy picture of Christmas. The story is full of the downtrodden, displaced, and disenfranchised.

Caesar, the greatest dictator of the age, decides he needs a more accurate picture of his possible tax revenues. When you control the entire known world, it’s easy for some sources of revenue to fall through the cracks. From the comfort of his Roman villa, he makes a decree—inconvenient to everyone else in the known world. Every man must go to register in the town of his ancestors.

For one man, the inconvenience takes on biblical proportions. Joseph has just survived the scandal in Nazareth of new wife who is unexplainably far along in her pregnancy. He has to travel all the way to Bethlehem. It’s a point of pride in the family that they are descendents of the greatest king Israel ever knew—David, of Bethlehem. But this journey is hardly full of pride. He decides to takes his greatly pregnant wife (biblical proportions, again) with him to register in Bethlehem. She’s nearly due, but maybe this will be better anyway, a way to avoid the gossips of Nazareth.

But the trip goes horribly wrong. By the time they reach Bethlehem, Mary is in labor. Walking for three days will do that to a woman who is great with child. And Bethlehem may be Joseph’s ancestral village, but no distant family member is willing to take them in. So much for Middle Eastern hospitality. There’s not even space in the local inns. And so they must hunker down in the first century equivalent of a Motel 6 parking garage. No local midwife comes to help, and Mary gives birth with cattle and donkeys attending. They wrap the baby in rags and make due with a cow’s feed box for a crib, and say a prayer that all concerned will make it through the cold night.

In the middle of the night, the doors open, and the visitors stream in. Their visitors are not happy relatives, or the innkeeper’s wife, but shepherds, known by all to be unclean, unkempt, and unscrupulous. And these ones, apparently a touch insane as well, muttering about messengers in the sky, and peace on earth. There they all are, cramped into a corner of a barn, amidst the cows and the muck, in the middle of the mess.

This week, Mary, a pastor friend of mine, was reflecting in her online journal about the idea that Christmas is primarily a family holiday. That idea makes her nervous, she says. She writes:

It narrows down the Christmas event to Mary and Joseph’s experience in Bethlehem. What about the angels? The shepherds? The many who heard the shepherds talk about it and wondered what in the world they were talking about? The Christmas event was not about Mary and Joseph gazing down in wonder at their son. The Christmas event that took place in a smelly sheep cave on the outskirts of that little Judean village was about me and you and President Bush and Martin Sheen and Florence Nightingale and Ghandi and Mao Tse Tung and the Lost Boys of Sudan and Fidel Castro and my favorite three-year-old boy who loves to bop the angel on the top of his creche because then it plays Away in a Manger and he can sing along.

Then she points out that the reality is that family and Christmas can get messy, anyway. Family at Christmas is a mixed blessing for many, and even a misery for some. If Christmas is about family, she says, we are missing the one who is in the middle—Jesus, who even as a baby attracted a mixed bag—a too-young mother, an unsure father, shepherds and sheep, cows, and a surly innkeeper. And in the middle of it all is this baby, Jesus. The point of it all is not about Mary and Joseph and the child. It’s about the child himself, God with us in the middle of the mess.

This story is not just a sweet tale to tell in the middle of winter, not just about mothers and babies and angels. In the gospel of John, the same story is told with a cosmic focus. John describe the birth of Jesus from behind the scenes, using poetry that sends shivers down the spine when you realize what it actually means:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being In him was life, and the life was the light of all people…And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-4, 14)

Contained in that baby, fragile as any other newborn, vulnerable to the whims of innkeepers, weather, and dictators, was the grace and truth of God. This Jesus was not just any child, but God with us, the creator of the world come down to live among us.

But this Jesus, like any baby can only cry or gurgle, cannot open his mouth to speak, to explain, leaving the shepherds to make what sense they can about this good news of peace, leaving Mary to simply store away the memories of his birth and ponder them in her heart.

And leaving us with the angels’ words, “peace on earth,” sticking in our throats. God is here, but the world is still messy. How can we understand this?

From Jesus’ silence as an infant, we do not get a clear message or explanation. That silence can feel drown out by the rest of the season. In an article in Slate magazine, Jack Miles (who wrote God: An Autobiography) reflects on this silence of Jesus in the Christmas story. He makes this rather odd, but relevant comparison:

In the madness of the holiday season, the Christmas story is, for me, like a toddler lost in the roar of a shopping mall, its meaning like a penny in the toddler’s pocket.

The idea of the story easily becomes lost, covered over by the rest of the season—songs and gifts, shopping and parties, and even idealized families. And because the central figure, a baby, does not interpret the story for us, it’s easy for the story and its meaning to get lost in the shuffle.

Perhaps, on this night, we are not supposed to ignore the world. We know all too well that it is messy. At 7:00 on a Christmas night, many of our reasons for being here remind us: travel plans that were not perfect, family dinners interrupted, absence or estrangement from those we have loved, or simply the need for shelter to keep us warm. We know we will open the newspaper tomorrow and be reminded that all is not right in the world.

And yet, at the center, is this baby Jesus. Silent, without explanation, but still present, in the middle.
And perhaps this is all we have to know as we celebrate this birth.
The word became flesh and lived among us.
God is with us, God is here, in the middle of the mess.
However quiet, however many questions we have, it is still good news.
Thanks be to God.