Let us pray: No matter where we find ourselves this Christmas Eve, we make our way to the manger to worship. We leave behind our burdens and fears, come just as we are and rest in the incarnate love of God. Visit us this night with angels, give us ears to hear the chorus of good news of great joy for all people, grant us the courage to leave what we know in order to encounter heaven come to earth. May the coming of the Prince of Peace hush the din of violence, quiet in us any voice but yours and render all creation lost in praise. Amen.*
*Adopted from this prayer.
God Among Us
Am I the only person who’s exhausted now that it’s almost Christmas?
Yeah, I didn’t think so. There’s just so much to do: sermons to write, presents to buy and wrap and send, dinner to plan and cook, traveling and hosting, decorating and cleaning, Christmas cards to send, cookies to bake… I know I’ve forgotten something, and it’s stressing me out.
We all just expect so much out of Christmas. We’ve seen so many Christmas commercials that have made us cry–ah, the beauty of the season!–have so many ideas of how Christmas should be, so many memories of childhood that we’d like to recreate. We have so many traditions that we’d like to hold on to, so many new ideas that we’d like to try.
The people of Israel also had some expectations, about who this Messiah, this Savior, would be. They knew that someone was coming, that God would send someone. The prophets were pretty clear about that, after all. They knew that God was going to do something miraculous, that God was going to save the people. They knew a few of the signs around that, like that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. But this story we read today really wasn’t it. They expected someone powerful, and therefore probably rich and famous. They expected someone respectable. They expected someone who would take up a sword and kill as many Romans as necessary until Israel was a free country again.
Instead we have an unmarried virgin who is somehow pregnant–yeah, not so respectable. We have a family sheltered in a stable because there was nowhere else for them to go, a baby laid down in a manger. We have a baby who is certainly not going to be picking up a sword any time soon.
We all know the story. We’ve all seen nativity scenes this year, glowing in our neighbors’ yards or in someone’s house, on a Christmas card or an advertisement. And so the rough edges of this story are all worn off. And that familiarity makes it hard for us to see that this is actually such a strange, shocking story. Not only is a virgin mysteriously pregnant, not only do angels come and tell complete strangers to go visit the exhausted mother and her newborn baby, but also, that baby is not only the awaited Messiah but also God.
None of that is what anyone expected.
Mary did not expect an angel to come and tell her she was going to be the mother of the Son of God; she expected to get married and live a perfectly normal life. Joseph did not expect his fiancée to get pregnant, but even more he did not expect an angel to come and tell him, “Stop freaking out, it’s all good. Mary is telling the truth, that baby is the Son of God, and you should definitely marry Mary.” Mary did not expect her first child to be born in a strange city, while she was surrounded by strangers, and not even in a proper house to boot. The shepherds, who, you know, are the kind of people that everyone ignores in the street because they’re dirty and just a bit strange, did not expect to be the very first people who hear about this miracle. They didn’t expect angels to come to them with wonderful news.
Honestly? Faith in this story, sure, it looks like believing God, but mostly it looks like being able to say, “This isn’t what I expected at all, but let’s go.”
Isn’t it always? “I didn’t expect you to tell me that, God. Let’s see where it leads.” “I didn’t expect to see you there, God. What else are you doing there?” “I didn’t expect you to tell me I have that problem. What should I do about it?”
Because let’s be real. The kind of God who was born in a stable to an unmarried teenage mother, announced to the weird loners–the kind of God who thought to be born as a human at all, when everyone thought of God as untouchably holy and so unreachably far above us–the kind of God who loved us so much that, “I’ll be right down to be with you” seemed like the only way to go–that kind of God is going to just keep surprising us. We can learn the creeds or memorize Bible verses, baptize all our kids and be at every church function, and God can still surprise us. There is always more to learn. God is not really interested in what we think God does. At all.
But God is interested in us. God loves us. That’s what we’re celebrating: that our wild, unpredictable, holy God loves us enough to reach out to us, to come and speak to us from an actual human mouth, to do every single possible thing to save us. God is not lording it over us, unconcerned over our little ant-like lives. No, God is with us, everywhere and always. God is with us.
And that is worth celebrating.