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Messy, Glorious Messiah

A Sermon on Luke 2:1-20

A couple of months ago, Heather Nilson (one of our members) – who was leading an adult forum class for the church – delighted me by repeating something that I apparently say quite frequently.

Heather was walking us through the imperfect history of the Lutheran Church’s early years in the U.S., and she offered the class this comment of perspective:

Remember, as Vicar always tells us, life is messy.”

I had not realized that this is my signature phrase until Heather said it, but I am glad that “messiness” is one thing you all hear from this pulpit.

I think I talk about messiness so frequently because I am suspicious of safe, shallow, prosperity Christianity. I don’t think people really need Pollyanna faith expressions that ignore the painful realities of the human experience. I don’t believe we do people any favors when we turn faith into a magic wand that promises to instantaneously vanish all worries and difficulties.

And, on Christmas Eve, I can’t quite believe in a picture-perfect manger scene, with no bloody blankets, and no animal waste, and no exhausted teenager sprawled on the ground wondering what just happened to her body and her world.

It’s not that I want to dwell on the imperfections that might mar the beauty and the joy of our lives or our Christmas, but we can’t ignore them either. I think we all need a faith that can deal with the messiness – with honesty and without fear.

We might have come to worship tonight dressed in our Christmas best, but we all bring some mess with us, don’t we.

Maybe it’s the pain of serious illness or physical vulnerability that has struck several families in our congregation this year;

Maybe it’s strained relationships with family members you’ll be sharing a meal with over the holidays (or not as the case may be);

Maybe it’s economic uncertainty because that job just is not materializing, or you are worried about your health care, or you can’t seem to sell your house, or you don’t have enough saved for retirement;

Maybe the addiction crisis has hit your family, or your own life, and you can’t see a way out;

Or maybe you just haven't been here before, or not in a while, and you're not really sure what to expect, or how things work in this just.

Whatever pain, or heartache, or frustration, of fear you bring with you tonight, it’s OK.

There is space for that here, because the Christmas story makes room for mess.

Consider all of the details in this story that speak to the disorienting, messy reality that accompanied God taking on human flesh:

  • It starts out with a pregnant teenager.

A peasant girl from a backwater town who is in a very compromised position in a culture that treats women as property whose value comes from their “purity.”

  • This girl and her fiancé are then caught up in the greedy machinations of a tyrannical government –

forced to relocate near the end of her pregnancy as part of a grand census taxation scheme.

  • This relocation does not go easily.

The young pair are essentially homeless, dependent on the kindness of distant relatives who have limited space and resources. The only semi-private space available is the bottom-floor stable area used by the animals.

  • And that’s where Mary gives birth.

Childbirth is messy even in the most hygienic, sterile environments, but Mary and Joseph had a room full of animals. God was born as a slippery, howling infant expelled from his mother’s shaking body in a room filled with the stench of manure. It doesn’t get more real than that.

But even in the surreal elements of this story, we are confronted by paradigm-shifting details that ground us in the realness of human imperfection.

  • The first proclamation of Jesus’ birth comes to shepherds:

to people on the margins, not just physically but socially as well. In 1st century Palestine, shepherds were stereotyped as presumed thieves who will probably steal the fruit of your fields, and let their animals graze on your lands.

In fact, they were so despised and distrusted that they were categorically barred from giving legal testimony. Yet this is who God choses to be the first witnesses of the Incarnation.

  • And these shepherds have something in common with the new baby, because they are homeless too.

The story describes them as “living in the fields,” which means they too lacked the security of their own four walls to retreat behind in danger; and they too lacked the roots of a neighborhood to give them an identity.

  • But they become the first witnesses to Jesus’ birth when God rips open the barrier between heaven and earth and the multitude of the heavenly hosts sing God’s praises to lowly shepherds.

Just as Mary rejoiced in the Magnificat that we chanted this morning, God’s preferred form of disruptive messiness is to “lift up the lowly” (Luke 1:52).

God doesn’t need perfection, or power, or Pollyanna optimism in order to show up. The incarnation – the proclamation that God is here, with us – is about God entering into OUR MESS.

This is just about the BEST NEWS that has ever been shared… but part of the reality of our mess is that we don’t always see it that way.

The shepherds’ first reaction to the appearance of the angel in all the Glory of the Lord… was pure terror.

It’s scary for God to show up “out of bounds,” when we aren’t looking for the Divine and haven’t had a chance to fix ourselves up and camouflage our flaws. The glory of the Lord shines a light on all the things we would rather keep hidden in the shadows.

Not to mention, if we are going to be honest about all the problems, then we want our God to be big and powerful – able to right all the wrongs in the world in the miraculous strength of God’s arm.

But the story of the manger is a story about God getting vulnerable - being born as a helpless baby that is totally dependent on others to even survive.

In her imaginative sermon on the incarnation narrative, Barbara Brown Taylor imagines God’s explanation of this plan to the heavenly Council of archangels.[1] In her telling, the angels object to the plan, because it’s too risky. God “would be putting himself at the mercy of his creatures.” It’s not the idea of God-with-us that they object to, but the lack of “adequate safety features.” They suggest modifying the plan to come as a magical baby with powers that ensure God’s safety.

But in Taylor’s imagining, God declines this suggestion. “God thanked the archangels for their concern but said no, he thought he would just be a regular baby. How else could he gain the trust of his creatures? How else could he persuade them that he knew their lives inside out, unless he lived one like theirs? There was a risk. He knew that. Okay, there was a high risk, but that was part of what he wanted his creatures to know: that he was willing to risk everything to get close to them, in hopes that they might love him again.”

The Christmas story is the account of God being willing to risk everything to get close to us. To get close to our reality, mired in our mess, because that is how much God loves us.

This is the good news that amazes all who hear the testimony of the shepherds – the news that Mary treasures and ponders – the news that God has come to live inside our mess. Not in the Temple or the kingly palace; but in a manger, and out in the fields – in the middle of the drudgery of average human lives.

That is where the glory of God shines – revealing our brokenness in an act of deepest love that shows us that our brokenness can never keep us away from God. Because God is WITH US in the brokenness.

Pastor Daryl Ward says of this story that “God not only send the message (of hope) to those who need it most, but he sends it through those who need him most.” And that means all of US. God sends God's message of hope through US - in the mess, or pain, or fear, or imperfection of our lives – perhaps even more than in the joy, and hope, and peace, and love that we strive for – God is WITH US. Emmanuel.

Born right into the middle of our vulnerability and telling us: Grace starts here.

Allelujah, Christ is born.

Christ is born. Allelujah.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, “God’s Daring Plan” in Bread of Angels, Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1997.

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