December 05, 2021
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
It might not be all that appealing, but wouldn’t it be refreshing to write a Christmas letter that’s honest? It can be hard to wish people a Merry Christmas when we are living in a Messy Christmas.
Many years ago when I served as a pastor in England for a year, I attended the installation ceremony for a new District Chairman. That’s a position in the British Methodist Church between our District Superintendent and Bishop. Various leaders in the district offered best wishes and advice. The only one I remember was given by a retired pastor who stood up to share a fable. He said, a little bird was shivering in the winter cold. Frozen and unable to fly, it lay down on a road to die. Along came a cow that stood over the little bird and covered it in manure. Now this may sound like insult added to injury, but this event actually warmed up the little bird, so that it revived and began to chirp from inside the manure pile. About this time a cat wondered by and heard the bird chirping. It clawed inside, pulled the bird out and ate the bird.
The pastor said the fable has three morals: 1—Those who mess on you are not necessarily your enemies. 2—Those who pull you out of the mess are not necessarily your friends, and 3—If you are in a mess and happy, just keep quiet.
I don’t know how relevant you find that advice, but I would say when it comes to the way our world responds to people in a mess, that last moral has great relevance. Many in our world would prefer to remain undisturbed by others who find themselves in a mess. Some say our news has made issues of racial violence worse by giving such attention to it; that it would be better if they would just keep quiet. Some say gun violence like we saw again at a school in Michigan this week gets fueled because of all the attention such events receive. If only they would keep quiet. How many of us feel uncomfortable when we walk past panhandlers and people standing at intersections asking for money? Wouldn’t it be more pleasant if the city could just find a way to remove these people? If only we could get people who are in a mess to keep quiet. Especially at Christmas.
Christmas, of all times, is when we want the messes of the world to go away, if only for a few weeks. Cover the trees and shrubs in twinkling lights. Deck the house with garland. Play Christmas music.
We even tell the Christmas story with this bias. Jesus snuggly tucked in a clean, wooden manger with Mary and Joseph neatly dressed beside him, surrounded by finely groomed shepherds and animals with starlight streaming down. And just for added effect we even put an innocent little drummer boy in there tapping on his drums. I don’t know where anyone got the idea that a boy with drums would add to the serenity, but there you have it. We have tenderized the Christmas story and it could not be further from the truth.
We have tenderized the Christmas story and it could not be further from the truth.
The actual Christmas story begins with Joseph contemplating divorce. Mary and Joseph, of course, were only engaged, but betrothal then was a legal covenant. To break off an engagement required something like our modern divorce procedures, just without the lawyers. The Christmas story is told with the pain and emptiness many modern homes feel where a husband or wife is waiting for the spouse to get home so they can tell them, “I want a divorce.” Not exactly a tender place.
Of course, it would take a heavenly intervention to save the marriage, but even after that, when it comes time for Jesus to be born, where does that happen? In a stable. Have you ever been in a barn where animals are kept? Would you want to have a baby there? And would you want to put your baby in a feeding trough that had cow slobber on it? Again, the Gospel reminds us that Jesus was born in a foul place because they were homeless. Not especially tender.
And to top it off, nearby in Jerusalem, you have King Herod raging away because he has learned that another king was born in his province. Herod was half-Jewish and was put in a position of authority, not by Jews, but the Romans. As long as he maintained peace in Judea they allowed him to use the title King, because Herod was into power that benefited himself. He sought his own glory, so that if anyone threatened that self-glory, he removed the threat. He murdered his wife, his mother and three of his sons. But because of Jewish faith he didn’t eat pork. The emperor said of Herod, that it was safer to be one of his pigs than a member of his family.
An insecure leader who becomes afraid is dangerous for everyone around him. That is why the Bible says that after the wise men came to Jerusalem looking for a King of the Jews, it says, “When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.”(Mt 2:3) And no wonder, because once Herod learned that Jesus was born in Bethlehem he ordered the execution of all male babies in the town.
When we turn the Christmas story into something sweet and tender, we not only depart from what really happened, we depart from our own reality as well. Deep down we know that when we turn Christmas into a warm, fuzzy experience to soothe the hurts of life it doesn’t work.
If you don’t believe me, just ask someone you know who has gone through a divorce recently, or lost a loved one, or lost a job, or had any significant hardship, what is the hardest month of the year for them and what do you think they will say? December.
Mike Slaughter, in his book It’s Not Your Birthday, says, “Consumer-focused marketing and Victorian Christmas traditions have replaced the biblical meaning of “God with us.” In our attempts to create the magical Christmas experience we run ourselves into the ground emotionally, physically, financially, and relationally.” (p20) In all the efforts to turn Christmas into a tidy, tender experience, we’ve ended up making Christmas even harder for people.
But don’t think I am recommending that we skip Christmas. I am not going to be a Krank! I’m just advocating that we stick to the real Christmas story—the one that includes divorce, and loss, and homelessness, and pain, and threat and injustice, and messiness, because that is the world we live in. When we include these realities we let people, who feel that their painful realities just don’t fit with Christmas, know that just the opposite is true. Their very pain that keeps them from wanting to go to parties, or celebrate, or even going to church, is the reason we have Christmas. Christ is found in our messiness.
Malcolm Muggeridge, the British journalist who was an avowed atheist and known for his womanizing, came to faith late in life because of the influence of Mother Teresa. Watching her in one of the messiest of places on earth, the slums of Calcutta, he was converted. He wrote of Mother Teresa:
...it is impossible to be with her, to listen to her, to observe what she is doing and how she is doing it, without being in some degree converted. Her total devotion to Christ, her conviction that everyone must be treated, helped, and loved as if he were Christ himself; her simple life lived according to the Gospel and her joy in receiving the sacraments—none of this can be ignored. There is no book that I have read, no speech I have heard, or divine service I have attended; there is no human relationship or transcendental experience that has brought me closer to Christ or made me more aware of what the Incarnation means and what is demanded of us. (https://www.ncregister.com/blog/malcolm-muggeridge-converted-after-reading-humanae-vitae)
In other words he met Christ in a messy place, in a woman who was willing to follow Christ into a messy place. And that story describes the great truth of the Gospel. That’s why the Christmas story has so much messiness in it. God meets us in messy places. That truth alone is powerful. No other religion tells that story of a God who descends to meet us in our ugliness. And there’s certainly power in that story. There’s power in a God who joins us in our hardship. But there’s something even more powerful here, more powerful than God meeting us in our mess, or even that God can get us out of a mess. The deep power of Christmas is that God can redeem our mess.
I read something recently by Philip Yancey. He referenced the story of Joni Eareckson, the young active teenager who dove in shallow water and became a quadriplegic. She experienced anger, severe depression, suicidal thoughts, and religious doubts. Although she had been a strong Christian, she kept turning to God for healing and restoration that would not come. And she didn’t understand. She had always believed that if you just trust God, God will come through for you.
But then she experienced God in her disability, and how God wanted to use her to help and encourage other disabled people. In this she found hope herself. And then I read this wonderful line by Yancey: “Pain redeemed is more impressive than pain removed.”
I believe there is someone listening right now who really needs to hear that. You’ve been asking God to take away your pain, to get you out of a messy place your in, and it seems God is ignoring your pleas, but what if God wants to redeem your pain? What if God wants to meet you in that place to use that in some way that can bring light and hope to other people. Light that can redeem pain is a light that never dims.
In fact I want to stop right now and say a prayer for those who are in very messy places right now, and I know that includes many. I passed a woman the other day in a hallway in the church. Her husband died a few years ago and she also had surgery recently. I asked how she was doing, and I could tell by her hesitation she wasn’t sure how to answer. When she realized I was asking about the surgery she said, “Oh, I’m doing really well. Recouping fine. But, I will say I am entering a really hard month. It’s just very hard right now.”
If you find yourself in a difficult place I want to pray for you right now. In fact, I invite you to pray these words yourself. You might even open your hands toward heaven as you pray and say these words quietly to yourself:
Dear Lord, please redeem my pain. Help me believe that just because you don’t change my painful reality you aren’t working somehow to bring a change I need. Help me to trust that you are still good even when I feel bad, and use me to do good, not because I feel good, but because I want to feel better. I pray this in the name of a baby born in a messy place who died to redeem all the pain of the world, Jesus my Lord. Amen.
Now what we are doing in this series is looking at themes that standout across all the passages in the Bible related to Christmas, and how they reveal the mission of Christmas. And we are focusing on mission opportunities each week. Recently we emphasized another opportunity to help our Afghan families housed at Camp Atterbury. Talk about people living through a very messy year. Well, they are being resettled in homes and neighborhoods. There are 4,000 families still at the Cam with the goal of having them all relocated by the end of this month.
Maria Blake in our church has been leading the team coordinating donation of items people need. It costs about $5,000 to adopt a family for 90 days, and we want to support at least 10 families. If you would like to leave a gift…
Beyond money, Exodus Refugee Immigration, the organization coordinating this work, is needing volunteers to serve on Resettlement teams. These volunteers will be trained to help with the 35 identified needs for families like: food shopping, getting kids settled in schools, connection to language instruction, getting job training and so forth. If you are interested in find out how to be a part of one of these teams just go to the website you see on the screen.
Also, next week our emphasis will be on children and an important ministry we have each Christmas is our Christmas Angel Tree to provide gifts for families in need. We start today making available the wish lists. Listen to one of our more visible St. Luke’s members as she shares about what Angel Tree means to her and her family.
So I encourage you to stop by the Angel Tree in the Narthex after the service today…
Christmas shows us God’s enduring mission to meet people in their messy places. If you are someone for whom life is working pretty well, you aren’t in a mess, guess what? You are a minority. But you also may be someone who says, “You know, I’d like to experience more of God. I don’t know that for all of my comforts I am as spiritually alive as I’d like to be. Then know these two important truths Christmas teaches us: messy places are where God wants to meet us or send us. And often they are both.
So let’s stand as we sing our closing song It Came Upon a Midnight Clear. This hymn of things like speaks of “angels bending near the earth” and ‘peaceful wings unfurled.” But notice how it also speaks of “life’s crushing load,” and “all the weary world,” and “painful steps and slow.” The good news of Christmas comes to a messy world, to messy people, looking for hope. Let us sing…