One night at the children’s play, a baby sister grew agitated. She was at that precarious age of being old enough to walk but not old enough to stay out of trouble. So, while big sister sang, dad let baby sister walk around a bit to get out some energy.
That particular night, the nativity had been set to the side of the sanctuary, out of the way while the bigger children sang their songs and acted out the play. The little girl, toddling around, noticed the nativity. She ran up to it and, with a firm grip, grabbed baby Jesus.
Dad grew quickly concerned and rushed over to put the baby Jesus back; this fragile, beautiful, definitely for display-only, baby Jesus. As he grabbed the figurine back, the little girl shrieked. Having gotten Jesus out of her hand and placed him back in the manger, Dad picked up the toddler who continued to cry, now screaming across the whole of the sanctuary:
“I want baby Jesus!”
I don’t know about you, but this Christmas, perhaps more than ever considering the mess of a year we have had, I, too, want baby Jesus.
For Mary and Joseph, life was messy that first Christmas. We don’t tend to think of it that way because Luke presents the story in an orderly fashion and, indeed, just about every modern depiction of the nativity story I can think of gives us an orderly account. And yet, for them that first Christmas, life was messy.
Let’s hear that account from the Gospel of Luke now.
Life is messy.
But not the way Luke describes Jesus’s birth. That account is orderly and goes this way: they traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem because of the census. A bunch of other people had, too, so there was no room for them in the local hotels. They found a barn and Jesus was born there. Angels showed up to some shepherds who then went to see Jesus. Everybody praises God and goes home.
Those are the facts of the story, laid out in an orderly fashion by Luke.
But imagine yourself in Mary and Joseph’s shoes. Having no choice but to comply with the census, they dutifully return to Bethlehem, the ancestral town of Joseph. This trip was no joke. If you’ve been nine-months pregnant, imagine riding on a donkey along a bumpy road for miles on end. Traveling back then was hard, it was fraught with dangers of being robbed while alone, it was dirty as the dust kicked up on you and everything you owned; traveling was a mess.
But they travel and, when they reach Bethlehem, they’re tired, they’re weary, they’re worn, they’re exhausted and ready to rest. But there’s no rest for them. Luke says simply, “there was no room at the inn,” but undoubtedly Bethlehem had more than one Hampton Inn. They searched all the Hilton properties, all the Marriott properties, they lowered their standards and searched the super 8s and motel 6s, but there was no room anywhere. All they could find was a manger, perhaps a cave on the outskirts of town, perhaps a barn, but regardless, a place where animals were fed and stored. That was the best they could do. Lodging was a mess.
When they finally find a place to stay, we can easily imagine a messy barn scene. Then the rush to create a comfortable and safe place for Mary to give birth. The mess of the birth itself and the resulting visit by total strangers, the shepherds, who probably, at first, frightened Joseph and Mary. The birth was a mess.
If, in our mind’s eye, we place ourselves in Mary and Joseph’s position, we see that this story was actually pretty messy.
Life is messy.
But not just for Mary and Joseph. Their moment in history is also messy.
It’s messy because the Romans have wrested control of Palestine away from local control by the Jews. For years, the Jews had a level of political autonomy under their own governor, the most famous of whom was King Herod. Emperor Augustus deposes Herod’s son and installs his own man, Quirinius, to be governor; a governor who oppresses the people. The Jewish way of life feels under threat as Augustus, through Quirinius, seizes power away from the Jews.
Add to this that the emperor, the most powerful man the world had known who rules over the most powerful empire the world had known to that point, decides that it’s time for a census; which ought to sound familiar since we just had our own census this year. Unlike ours, however, the emperor has two purposes for this census. First, to count the people to correctly apportion taxes. Second and more importantly, the census is designed to count the number of young, able-bodied men who can be forced into military service. Joseph is likely about the be counted as one who could serve in a Roman legion.
For Mary, who’s engaged to Joseph and pregnant with what people assume to be Joseph’s son, this had to be disconcerting. Joseph wasn’t rich; he probably barely eked out an existence as a simple carpenter, so they wouldn’t have been able to easily afford a tax hike. And then imagine Mary’s worry, fear even, that Joseph would be pressed into military service. This census threatens their lives with a mess.
So, at Jesus’s birth, then, the politics are a mess. The census threatens their lives with a mess. Traveling is a mess. Lodging is a mess. The manger is a mess. Everything about Jesus’s birth is a mess. An absolute mess.
Life is messy.
The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, one of our country’s greatest, sat down on Christmas, 1864, to write his poem, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” His poem begins this way:
“I heard the bells on Christmas Day, their old familiar carols play, and wild and sweet the words repeat of peace on earth, goodwill to men.
“And thought as how the day had come, the belfries of all Christendom, had rolled along the unbroken song of peace on earth, good will to men.
“Till ringing, singing, on its way, the world revolved from night to day. A voice, a chime, a chance sublime, of peace on earth, good will to men.”
A beautiful sentiment written by one of America’s foremost poets. But Longfellow’s language quickly turns dark as he recounts the horror of the Civil War, the deaths of hundreds of thousands, the caustic division, the hopelessness so many around the country knew. Christmas, 1864, was one of the deadliest moments of the war, with Richmond under siege and much of Georgia burning.
Then, he receives news that one of his sons is severely wounded and in a military hospital in Virginia. For Longfellow, this brings home the suffering of the Civil War, leading to a dark turn as he continues his poem:
“Then from each black, accursed mouth, the cannon thundered in the south, and with their sound, the carols drowned, of peace on earth, good will to men.
“It was as if an earthquake rent the hearthstone of a continent, and made forlorn, the households born, of peace on earth, good will to men.
“Then in despair I bowed my head, there is no peace on earth, I said. For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.”
Life is messy.
Today, we might be tempted to echo Longfellow’s sentiments, for we see much reason to think that hate is strong. There are wars and rumors of wars, there’s much violence and destruction around the world, just as there’s been in years past.
Today, there are caustic and divisive politics. We are not at war with each other in the literal sense, but sometimes our politics certainly feel that way.
And too many of us, like Longfellow, are counting the empty seats at our Christmas dinner tables, whether because of families who are not visiting or loved ones who have passed away over the course of 2020.
Then, for some of us, our health is a mess, something we’re actively managing, trying to create order, trying to bring it into line, but so often, bringing order to our health seems elusive. Rather, healthcare, whether the system or simply trying to keep ourselves healthy, is a mess.
For some of us, our finances are a mess, something we try to hide and manage ourselves. We’re intent on keeping up appearances, buying things we shouldn’t, doing things we shouldn’t, so that we can look like we’re financially healthy. But, the reality remains, our finances are a mess.
For some of us, our families are a mess. We have relatives who seem to exemplify that “hate is strong,” or others who simply cost us small fortunes. We also have relatives who worry us constantly, or who keep making the same wrong choices. Even though we might could use help, we keep all this private, lest others realize that our family is a mess.
For some of us, we’re a mess on the inside, just trying to keep it all together. Old insecurities arise, our emotions seem to control us, and we struggle to keep up a happy face and appearance. We try to keep private our internal turmoil, lest others realize that we, on the inside, are a mess.
Life is a mess, and while we try to hide it, while we try and act like it’s not there, while we try and fix it ourselves, if we’re honest this afternoon, we know that our lives are messy. This year, perhaps more than any other year that we can recall, we know personally just how messy life can be.
And so, while each Christmas, we say peace on earth, good will to men, we are all too well acquainted with Longfellow’s words: “and in despair I bowed my head, there is no peace on earth, I said, for hate is strong, and mocks the song, of peace on earth, good will to men.”
Life is messy.
Jesus himself lived a messy life. He was born into a chaotic, smelly, impolite, politically unstable, mess. And this was not by accident. God could have chosen to send Jesus at any time in the history of the world. It could have been at a much more orderly time, it could have been in a much more orderly way. God could have rolled out the red carpet, wrapped the baby in the finest of cloths, announced to the literal entire world with all the heavenly hosts the arrival of the child, and brought the rulers of the world to his palace to see the new god-king. God could have made Jesus’s birth the most orderly, beautiful, pleasant, polite, stable, birth imaginable.
But Jesus was born into that chaotic, smelly, impolite, politically unstable, mess, because God had a message to send to the world for all time and to us on this Christmas Eve; a message especially relevant on Christmas Eve of the year 2020: I want to be a part of your mess.
Life is messy, but God sent Jesus to come into our messes.
Jesus came into the world to be with us, to be among us, to be Emmanuel, God with us; to be God with us in our messes. God came down from on high to enter into our story, into our lives, into our messes.
Life for Jesus was always messy. His three years of ministry were full of messy encounters, troubled relationships, deceit and questioning, defamation, financial troubles, and eventually trial, betrayal, and execution. He faced political strife, disease, and fears, too. Nothing about Jesus’s earthly ministry was nice and pretty and neat. It was a mess. Life for Jesus was a mess.
And so Jesus knows that life is messy. He has firsthand experience and so he can empathize with our messy lives. He knew all the messes we mentioned before: health, politics, family drama, financial troubles, internal turmoil, and death. Any mess we might bring to mind on this Christmas Eve, any mess we might be dreading because we know it’s waiting for us at our dinner tables or when the bills come in, any mess at all that comes to mind, Jesus can relate to it because Jesus lived a messy life; he’s intimately acquainted with our messes.
So let us, on this Christmas Eve, choose boldness; a boldness born of courage. Let us admit that in our lives, we have messes: family drama, financial troubles, health issues, personal insecurity, disease, and death. Let us confess to ourselves that our lives are messy. Indeed, all of us can relate because none of us have escaped the messiness of this year.
2020 has been a mess. 2020 has made a mess of all of our lives.
And no matter how messy our lives, no matter how messy our finances or our health or our families or our relationships, no matter how messy 2020 has been for you, God wants to be a part of your mess because God wants to be a part of every aspect of our lives, especially the messiest of parts.
God sent the baby Jesus to say to us today: life is messy and I want to be part of your messes.
So on this Christmas Eve, on the day before you receive your gifts, give God a gift: give God your messes.
The power of Longfellow’s poetry comes through in his honesty. He’s not afraid to tell God that this declaration, year after year, of peace on earth, good will to men, feels like a lie. Hate seems to be winning, mocking what God sent Jesus to do on earth. Longfellow gives God the gift of his messes by being emotionally honest with God when he says:
And in despair I bowed my head, there is no peace on earth, I said. For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, goodwill to men.
Longfellow isn’t afraid to get real with God. And when he does, he’s able to end his poem, one begun in a hopefulness that then dashes that hope against the rocks of despair; he’s able to end that poem with these words:
“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep. God is not dead, nor doth he sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.”
Longfellow found his way out of his mess only because he was honest, open, and forthright with God about his mess. That’s what, on this Christmas Eve, it means to give God our messes.
It means to get real with God.
And that’s our task on this Christmas Eve: give God the gift of your messes by being emotionally honest with God.
For when we do, when we choose the hard work of vulnerability before God, choosing to be emotionally honest, we discover the healing that we seek.
God’s love, born in a manger so long ago, came to the world to redeem our messes. That’s the promise of the Christmas season: that God came into our mess to clean it up by offering us redemption from our sins and from the ways evil causes messes in our lives and in our world. God sent Jesus to be our clean-up crew.
We simply need to get real with God about our messes. We have to stop trying to control and fix those messes ourselves; we must admit to God that we need help. We must tell God exactly what’s happening in our lives. Tell God even the hard things that are hard to give up. Tell God the hardships you know, the challenges you face, the unsolvable problems, the broken relationships, the financial worries, the deep-seated insecurities, the vanity, the hopelessness, the depression, the fears of geopolitics and the pandemic, the seeming lack of peace on earth, good will to men; all of it; tell God about all of those messes.
For when we do, we find the healing we seek. We find God coming in, through the baby Jesus, to clean-up our messes.
This Christmas, we have the opportunity to present God our messes. So speak to God as you would a friend, giving God the gift of that kind of emotional honesty. When you find a quiet moment alone, tell God all about your messes. Don’t hide things away in your soul, as if God doesn’t already know about them. Be emotionally honest with God, even if that means telling God some unkind things. Use normal language. That kind of honesty, even brutal honesty, is how we open the door of our hearts for God to come in with the clean-up crew, healing our messes.
And if you struggle to find the words, if speaking to God as a friend is challenging, start with the words of the toddler who spoke prophetically to a whole congregation; just say to God,
“I want baby Jesus!”
Life is messy. An emotionally honest prayer life brings healing to our messes.
So this Christmas Eve, give God the gift of your messes. Jesus is waiting to receive our gifts so the he can heal them.
Then, you will know the healing Longfellow found: “then pealed the bells more loud and deep. God is not dead, nor doth he sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; Amen.