Christmas has been called a time for children, and I think oftentimes children have a way of expressing the meaning of this season in a way that we grown-ups have forgotten. This past week we were setting up a nativity set in our living room when I noticed Alex, who is four, staring suspiciously at the figure of the baby Jesus. It was as if he wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, and instead of picking it up or even touching it he began to ask questions. He asked about where the baby Jesus slept, and whether he had any blankets, and what the baby Jesus wore. “Swaddling clothes” isn’t a phrase that makes much sense to a four year-old, so I explained to him that he was wrapped up in a cloth, kind of like a diaper. As soon as I said it I knew I had made a mistake, and Alex got a mischievous little grin on his face. I could tell that something had just clicked in his mind and I waited to see what he would say. Sure enough, he asked another question that I should have seen coming.
“Daddy,” he asked, “did the baby Jesus poop in his diaper?” It was one of those parenting moments that come at you whether you’re ready for it or not. I decided to answer him honestly instead of dodge what could become a messy conversation. “Yes,” I said, “the baby Jesus pooped in his diaper.” After he stopped laughing he scooped the baby Jesus figure right up into his hand and carefully placed it in the manger where it belonged. From that moment Alex seemed to have a very friendly relationship with the baby Jesus, too. Now he frequently will pick it up and play with it and yes, it’s a set that’s made for children to play with without worrying about breaking anything. Alex’s questions about the baby Jesus reminded me that our lives of faith really begin with honest questions, but more importantly it reminded me that the Christmas story can always get a little messy when you least expect it.
And that is as it should be! Any of the new parents (or even not-so-new ones) among us have first-hand knowledge that the birth of a baby can be an incredibly messy event. Of course new parents can talk about the beautiful things like how peaceful she looks when she’s sleeping, or how cute his little feet are, but those things are only half the story. For every minute of peaceful sleeping there’s a dirty diaper to change at three in the morning. For every moment staring in wonder at tiny toes there’s a pile of dirty laundry or an outfit that has gotten a spit-up makeover. There’s good old fatigue due to sleep deprivation and the reality that daytime and nighttime lose all meaning and sometimes switch places without warning. Then there’s also crying, and burping, and yes, the pooping. A new baby is a wonderful thing. It’s also a very messy thing. Every parent that will tell you about their baby’s cute little face could also probably scream out, “Don’t let the cute face fool you! The whole house has been turned upside down!”
That’s not much of an Advent or Christmas message, is it? “We wish you a messy Christmas” just doesn’t sound right. Christmas should be sweet and merry, simple to celebrate and easy to digest. There should be songs with words like, “Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o’er the plains.” We should turn on the radio and hear, “Away in a manger, no crib for his bed, the little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head.” And again, “The cattle are lowing, the poor Baby wakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.”
What could be sweeter than a baby that doesn’t cry? Or cattle that low instead of moo? My intent here is not to criticize our most beloved Christmas hymns – some of my favorites are the hymns that speak of the surpassing peace of Christ’s birth, a peace that we all desperately need. I do wonder, however, if we too often proclaim the warm and fuzzy message of Christmas, and too often ignore the mess that surrounds it. It’s there if we care to see it. Every account of Christ’s birth in the New Testament is punctuated by some very challenging and extremely messy things.
We can see this in our reading from Matthew’s gospel this morning. In it we meet Joseph and Mary, just before the birth of Jesus. By all indications, up to this point in the text Joseph was living a good life. He was newly engaged, and probably very happy about that. However, whatever dreams he had, and whatever excitement he felt about getting married, it was all dashed when he discovered his wife-to-be was pregnant, and the baby was not his. This was a serious departure from Joseph’s ideal plan for the future.
In fact, according to the letter of the law, Joseph would have been required to dismiss Mary as damaged goods. Any association with her would bring disgrace and shame upon him and his family. That’s how life is sometimes. Sometimes life throws you a messy surprise, and just when you think you’ve got the perfect arrangement for your future nailed down, up comes something unexpected that betrays it, and turns your whole world upside down. When Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant, it must have felt very much like that.
Now if you are Joseph in this situation, you have two options. The first would be to ignore the fact that Mary is pregnant and take her as a wife anyway. This would go against all societal regulations and likely open Joseph up to disgrace and ridicule. The other option is to dismiss Mary, to do the righteous thing according to the law, and send her on her way. Joseph decides on option number two. He will dismiss Mary, but he plans to do it quietly so as not to publicly disgrace her. That certainly would have seemed to him to be an appropriate arrangement.
But, as we are told in scripture, just as Joseph had resolved to do this, just when he thought he had gotten his arrangement back together, an angel of the Lord appeared to him and said, “Joseph, Son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a Son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
God’s plan for Joseph is to risk ridicule and public humiliation. He must not only believe this outlandish story that he dreamed one night; he must not only take this woman as his wife and risk public disgrace. God also instructs him to name the child! In those days, it was customary for the mother to name a child. In this story, the roles are reversed. Joseph is instructed to name the child Jesus, meaning Salvation, and in so doing he proclaims his faith in God’s purpose for his life. By naming this child, Joseph becomes the first person to proclaim Jesus as Savior. He and Mary together become one of the first illustrations of Christian faith as they journey from one town to another, without a home, and without a place to stay.
What they show us is that faith is often what happens not when everything is rosy and in order, but when everything is a complete mess. We would be kidding ourselves if we gave the Christian faith the sanitary Christmas treatment, choosing to proclaim that faith is made up solely of moments that are beautiful, and non-threatening, and completely unchallenging. No, faith is what happens in the middle of the mess. It’s what happens when the world is dark, and the city is loud. It’s what happens when the war will not end, or the food will not come. It’s what happens when the bank forecloses, or the phone does not ring. Faith is what happens when the voice we long for no longer speaks, or the doctor’s face says it all. Those are the messy, unexpected, authentically human moments of faith that we will all face.
And having faith in those moments doesn’t necessarily mean having the right things to say, or staying strong and keeping the tears from coming, or having all the answers, or having any idea where life goes from here. No, faith in those moments will simply be an act of remembering, and remembering that our God has been right where we are, that God knows our pain and our fear first-hand. Faith will be remembering that our Savior came to us in diapers, and trusted human hands to hold him. And after that he crawled, and he walked. He talked, and he grew. He laughed, and he cried. He loved, and he lost. He rejoiced, and he fumed. He trusted, and he was betrayed. He lived, and he died. Our God dared to be open and vulnerable in all of life’s mess so that we would know that God is present with us in ours.
One of my very favorite Christmas stories is the story of a little girl. She was tucked into her bed one night and was sound asleep until the sound of thunder woke her up. The house was dark. The power had gone out and as the thunder rolled and shook the windows and the lightning flashed behind the curtains she waited, and waited, and waited as long as she could. She pulled the covers up tight but it didn’t do any good. She was terrified. Finally she called out to her mother. After a few moments, the girl’s mother came pacing sleepily into her room. “It’s okay, sweetie,” she said.
“But Mommy, I’m scared,” the little girl said. “It’s so dark.”
The mother quieted and reassured the little girl as best she could, and then said, “You’re safe. Remember that God loves you and God is with you even in the dark.” The mother then returned to her bed but after just a few moments thunder crashed again and the girl called out. Her mother came back to her bed and said, “Sweetie, I told you to remember that God loves you and is always with you.” After several seconds of silence the little girl replied, “Mommy I know that God loves me, but when it’s dark like this what I really want is someone with skin.”
That’s what we remember at Christmas. We remember that the world was dark and messy, and into that world came Jesus. In the birth of Jesus God put on skin so that God could walk with us, and laugh with us and cry with us, rejoice with us and wipe away our tears, love us, and ultimately die for us that we might have hope, that we might know, that we might remember that Jesus, the Christ child, the Savior, “God with us” is here!
Thanks be to God. Amen.