Dear Working Preacher,
Do you remember those movies from the sixties, when they would soften the edges of the leading actress — be it Doris Day or Grace Kelly — on close ups? I think we’ve done something similar with Christmas. Our pictures of the holy family are softened, even sepia-toned in their depiction of all that is lovely and fair: Mary in her blue robe gazing lovingly at her glowing newborn, Joseph attentive to both of their needs, shepherds gazing on in wonder, their charges puffy white balls of cotton in the background, and rays of angels’ glory streaming in through the windows of the well-swept stable with strains of “Joy to the World” in the background.
It’s a nice picture, beautiful even, and I cherish it probably as much as or more than the next person. But of course it wasn’t like that. We’ve domesticated the picture beyond nearly all recollection. If you’ve worked on a farm you can probably imagine the stench that accompanied Jesus’ birth. And speaking of the birth, if you’ve been anywhere near the labor room you know it’s not all meek and mild. Mary was probably a frightened teenager, Joseph in way over his head. And the shepherds? These were the undesirables of the first century, the folks on the lowest of the low rungs of the socio-economic ladder.
Now I know you’ve heard realistic re-tellings of the Christmas story before and perhaps used them yourself in order to heighten the sense of your hearers’ appreciation for the depths of God’s love poured out in the Incarnation. That’s a fine sermon, and I’d be glad to hear it this week. But that’s not what I’m interested in just now. Actually, I’m more curious about why we prefer the Photoshopped picture of the nativity in the first place.
I have a hunch it’s because life is hard enough already. Do you know what I mean? Day to day, we struggle to keep pretty turbulent lives in tact, to stem the tide of chaos that too often threatens to overwhelm us at home or work or in the world at large. We’ve had enough “realism” in the news, thank you very much. Can’t we at least come to church for a vision of something that is inherently and undeniably good, pure, beautiful?
I actually think that’s a pretty understandable request. We put a lot of time and energy into managing things, controlling as many of the variables of our twenty-first century lives as possible, and frankly are nearly worn out by the effort. Little wonder we come to church wanting not just a respite from the frenetic pace of everyday life but something more, something comforting and comfortable, something, preferably, warm, cozy, and inspiring. And so we devour Luke’s nativity scene like it’s a kind of spiritual comfort food, chicken soup, as it were, for the beleaguered soul.
Except that that’s not Luke’s nativity scene. Luke knows something about wanting to order chaotic lives, too. In fact, his story begins just there, naming upfront the rulers of this world who were responsible for maintaining — and enforcing! — the Pax Romana. Moreover, Luke sets his story amid a census, the act of ordering — that is, registering, counting, and taxing everyone — par excellence. Yet this is only background for Luke; the main action takes place elsewhere, on the fringe, far away from the centers of power, in a little backwater town called Bethlehem, where a scared young girl and her equally scared husband can’t find any decent place in which to birth their first child and so are forced to take refuge with animals, with only dirty shepherds and their even dirtier sheep to notice.
Why does Luke tell his story this way? Even more, why does God do it this way? I actually think it — this whole story — is an indictment of the order, an accusation against things as they are. Do you know what I mean? Let me try to say it another way: I think that by playing out this redemptive story on the fringe of things, just where you’d least expect God to be, God is telling us that the way things usually are just isn’t good enough. It’s almost like God is whispering to us something that deep down we know already but are afraid to admit, even to ourselves: these lives we’ve so carefully created, this world we work so hard to manage, are beautiful, precious, and wonderful … but also vulnerable, fragile, and ultimately insufficient.
Even the best of lives is filled by measures of regret and disappointment, and if we take even a moment to gaze around us we see how many lead lives that are difficult, painful, and all too short. And so God comes not at the center of the world to straighten things out a bit, but on the fringe to call the orders and structures of the day into question and herald a new beginning altogether. Ultimately, Luke’s story — if we’re willing to listen — witnesses to the simple yet scary fact that God didn’t come in Jesus to make things a little better, a little more bearable. God came to turn over the tables, to create a whole new system, to resurrect and redeem us rather than merely rehabilitate us.
It’s scary because we’ve invested a lot in our lives as they are and it can be down right frightening to give up what we know. But at the same time it’s thrilling because this promise speaks to a place deep down inside each of us that wants something more, something more than a better job or higher income, something more than a more comfortable home or enjoyable retirement. These things may all be good, but they don’t save; often enough, they don’t even satisfy for long. No. We desperately want a sense of meaning and purpose, we desire to believe that there is more to this life than meets the eye, we need to hold onto the hope that despite all appearances we are worthy of love.
And so God comes at the edges of the story and our lives to speak quietly but firmly through the blood, sweat, and tears of the labor pains of a young mother and cry of her infant that God is irreconcilably for us, joined to our ups and down, our hopes and fears, and committed to giving us not just more of the same, but something more. Christ comes, that is, not just to give us more of the life we know, but new and abundant life altogether. For in Christ we have the promise that God will not stop until each and all of us have been embraced and caught up in God’s tremendous love and have heard the good news that “unto you this day is born a savior, Christ the Lord.” No wonder we sing, “Let heaven and earth rejoice!”
Blessed Christmas, Working Preacher. You’ll be busy this Saturday and Sunday! Keep in mind that what you do matters. And know how much I give God thanks for your witness to the grace, mercy, and love that is ours in Christ Jesus.
Yours in the name of this Christ, the child born of Mary and Word made flesh.