Advent 4A, Dec 18 2016
St John’s Episcopal Church, Kirkland
Who here has set up their nativity (or at least started too if you leave out the baby until Christmas day)? When I was a little girl we had a plaster nativity set that had been my Grandparents when my mother was growing up. The figures were tiny, maybe 9” tall, they were molded plaster painted and gilded with gold (most of which was long worn away). I thought it was the most beautiful and elegant thing in the world. There was Mary, with her glorious blond hair, pink cheeks, and her perfect blue robes and perfect sky blue veil over her head. She was kneeling with her hands clasped and a beatific expression on her tiny painted face. And there was Joseph, tall and strong who sort of leaned forward with a look of awe and wonder on his face. I always cuddled him right up to Mary so he was peering over her shoulder at the manger. They were perfect, the perfect couple, the perfect family, the perfect moment.
Except of course that if a little girl plays with an antique plaster nativity it’s likely to get broken and by the time I was 12 or 13 Mary’s nose was chipped off, and Joseph’s head had been super glued back on. A plastic donkey had been added to the plaster cow and the wise men were in truly rough shape from repeated falls on their slow journey around the house to the manger. And probably that’s all for the good.
Because whoever painted that little nativity had apparently never read a single bit of scripture.
How many of us (and I won’t make you raise your hands for this one), have an image in our heads of the perfect Christmas? Mine has a gorgeous real tree decorated with thousands of tiny white lights and only the prettiest and most perfect hand blown glass ornaments and beads all in a coordinating color scheme. None of those beat up old ornaments from when we were all kids, this thing is magazine perfect. And of course the house is clean (which when you are remodeling or have kids seems like it will never be true again), and there is a real fire going in a real fireplace with stockings hanging from the real mantel. And there are shining packages under the tree and perfectly coiffed family and friends laughing and talking, eager to start exchanging the perfectly chosen gifts for one another all while nibbling one of the 26 dozen different varieties of elaborate Christmas cookies that I hand made.
And right about then folks, the wheels come off. Because of allergies, our tree is fake. The ornaments are a motley mix and brave a cat every year, the packages (well let’s just say I tend to rip paper better than I wrap with it), and I don’t actually even have a kitchen right now to boil a pot of water to say nothing of making cookies. My family, like yours probably, is complicated, and often far flung. The holidays tend to make the difficult folks even more so and it all feels a little bit like a looming failure, until we read the Gospel today and I heave a sigh of relief.
The first Christmas was at least as messy as the messiest Christmas you can remember. I mean at least my worst Christmas didn’t have someone showing up pregnant, and her fiancé not being in on that little surprise. We have become so used to the idea of the incarnation, and the adorable Christmas pageants that sweep all the awkward bits under the rug that we do a disservice to ourselves. Matthew doesn’t pull any punches. The holy family doesn’t look a thing like any of my beloved nativities.
Today we have to assume they are on their way to Bethlehem, tired and grouching at one another (you try riding on the back of a donkey up and down hills while vastly pregnant and see how pleasant you are), out of money, and both near either tears or shouting they’re so tired. To heck with the census, they’d have left just to avoid the whispers back home. It could have been worse, Mary could have been stoned or her father could have quietly “disappeared” her to save the family’s honor, because adultery is taken pretty seriously in this world. I’m guessing husband and wife aren’t very comfortable with one another at this point in their lives.
God doesn’t use the perfect, God is not Martha Stewart. God has worked through people as flawed as Moses and David for heaven sake. Through foreigners and prostitutes and murderers. Through families so messed up that they sold each other into slavery, or literally sent their own kids into the desert to die. The details of Jesus’ birth and lineage vary, but one thing is for sure: Jesus comes from a long line of very human, very flawed people. From folks who by any measure were messed up and broken. His Mom was the subject of gossip, the sort of embarrassing girl who Luke says traveled by herself to see her cousin and help her with her own pregnancy (unheard of!). Who sang a prophetic song about the breaking of empires, and the destruction of the powerful. She was a wild eyed visionary without a shred of decency or propriety, no surprise she raised one just like her.
But that’s all a ways off yet. Today our nativity scene looks like a family that started on the rockiest of footing: and out of that will come, God promises, holiness and salvation. The angel’s words to Joseph promise that from the rockiest of starts, will come something worth hanging onto. That God turns shame and anger and confusion inside out and coaxes from the mess the first shoots of love, and a different way of living. If your preparations aren’t perfect, well you’ve got good company in Mary and Joseph. Maybe even you have a good example. We are not a Martha Stewart people, we are Mary and Joseph’s people. Wild eyed and optimistic, scandalous and confusing.
As the longest and darkest days of the year approach may you have the wild eyed hope of Mary, who believed in a faithful God against all odds. May you have the quiet patience of Joseph to put off how things have “always been” and trust God is doing something new. May you let go of perfect. God is doing something new in the messiness of our lives. May we recognize the incarnation in the messiness of the world around us, that the God we can trust, would come continually into our lives to sanctify and share them in all their messiness.