To use this as a take-home service for Christmas Day, follow the red.
I have a stupid tree this year. It looked so great at the lot, the guy held it up and it was glorious and full, the perfect tree. We debated between two, and finally chose this one for being even more perfect than the other one.
But we got it home, and it turns out it doesn’t sit right in the tree stand. It has this thick branch too low down but hacking it off would leave a huge bald spot on the bottom so we left it on. And it was too tall, so we had to saw off the tip of the top with a meat knife and jam the star on the sticky, prickly nubs. The lights just didn’t go on well; they are clumped in some parts and missing in others, and a few days after its arrival it became the setting of an epic stuffed animal battle so there are bent branches and still the occasional stuffed dog or hamster forgotten deep in the branches. But even if all these things were fixed, it turns out that the trunk itself has a weird bend in it, so it leans dramatically to the side no matter how much time we spend rearranging it, and we’ve spent far too much time rearranging it.
Usually this time of year I love getting up in the early morning and turning on the tree. I will sit by the fireplace, the room lit by the tree’s soft glow, and feel peaceful and hopeful. This year I wake up and sit with my coffee glaring at this belligerent mess, brazenly slouching against my wall like it’s trying to pick a fight. I wanted to love this tree, even ironically, but I can’t muster anything but irritation for it. It is not cooperating with my plans.
Apparently I expect Christmas to make me feel cozy, sentimental and serene. But to be honest, I’m not sure Christmas can take the pressure this year. And my tree leans defiantly in my constant sightline as an irksome reminder that things are not quite right.
Today people are going to sit around not quite perfect trees, eating not quite perfect food, opening not quite perfect gifts, having not quite perfect conversations. And between the joyful moments of laughter and connection, for lots of reasons, lots of people will also be feeling mixed up, anxious, and sad, and then they’ll chide themselves for not being in “the Christmas spirit,” even though the weather isn’t really in the Christmas spirit either.
Christmas is not cooperating with our plans for it.
But guess what? Neither does the first Christmas, actually.
And neither does God, almost never, in fact.
So let’s step out of a shallow dependence on holiday cheer, and into a different story, one that has very little to do with a jolly version of Christmas contentment - God’s story of deep darkness pierced by unquenchable light, of expectations thwarted and salvation glimpsed, of love born into in a tense and weary world.
Read Isaiah 9:2-7
Write on a bit of paper, Where do I want God to come in? Collect and set aside.
(Read Luke 1:26-38)
We all belong to God, and we all belong to each other. This isn’t trite and shallow: a plea to “just be nice,” or a campaign slogan lying in a muddy puddle under people’s departing feet.
It is the very lifeblood of it all.
And it looks like this: Mary, Don’t be afraid; You belong to God. So does the whole world and everyone in it. Because this is so, God is coming to share life with us, to set us free from everything that tells us otherwise. And you, Mary, are going to be part of this. Don’t worry about how it will happen; it will break every rule, because God loves to do impossible things. And because belonging to God means we belong to each other, you wont be alone - even now, in fact, your impossibly old and undeniably pregnant relative is part of this too.
(Read Matthew 1:18-25)
And then there is Regular Joseph with his regular life, comfortably stretched out before him, predictable and planned, now suddenly shattered. She is not mine after all, and I am not to be hers. Dear, brokenhearted Joseph, resolving to quietly, in the least harmful way, sever ties, pick up the pieces and start over.
Don’t be afraid, Joseph. Don’t be afraid to belong to her. God is coming share life with us, to set us free from everything that divides us from God and each other. And you, Joseph, are going to be part of this. God will come as a helpless baby in need of belonging, and you are to love him as your own son.
(Read Luke 2:1-7)
A hugely pregnant Mary and a stressed out, worried Joseph make the trek to Bethlehem, one little, inconsequential family among the masses, traveling under orders of a powerful empire that dominates the people’s lives. But when God’s celestial army assembles, instead of wiping out the oppressive enemy in the blink of an eye, it forms a giant choir, and belts out God’s persistent, undermining promise of peace on the whole earth to all who belong to God and each other, into the stunned and terrified faces of simple shepherds in a nowhere place. Don’t be afraid, the angels will joyfully holler. You are going to be part of this too! Go and see!
God doesn’t play by the same rules as you and I do. The world wants strength; God comes in weakness. The world values status and power, God chooses the ordinary and unnoticed. The world praises shiny and slick, God prefers broken and real. God chose to come in scandal and shame instead of honor and admiration.
Nobody in the Christmas story got to keep their armor. Their illusions about where their strength or purpose or value or identity come from have to die, because really belonging to each other means that all that separates me from God and from others has to die in me. It means all that buries my true self and yours, all that makes me feel like I have to earn my esteem or defend my worth, and all my reliance on things in the world to guarantee me security and stability, that dies. It all gets taken away to make way for the real. Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, Shepherds, Magi, all of them get reduced to their simple humanity before they are brought into the Kingdom of God with the words, Now Don’t be afraid!
(Read Luke 2:8-20)
A different story is unfolding, even now, within and through your life, this life, this world. In this reality, everything seems upside down; shepherds become preachers and virgins are mothers, and in a dark and smelly stable, with no doctor or place for them in the inn, the God of the universe lays aside invincibility to be born as a defenseless human baby.
The Kingdom of God is here, grown up Jesus will later say, It’s right here. Among us, within us, between us. Hidden and backwards, it comes in weakness, asking us to let go of all that we use to protect ourselves from our most basic humanity and divide us from each other. God’s Kingdom is seen when we step out of our strength and stand with someone else in their brokenness. When we name our own brokenness and need and let someone stand with us. That’s where Jesus already is, already has been, always will be. That’s where we can feel that primal and permanent belonging, to God and to each other, that we were made for and are returning to.
Sometimes we call it love. And nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Darkness is real, but Love is the deepest reality and the final word.
(Take out the papers you wrote at the beginning. Read them one at a time, For each one, say, "God is with us in this." Or, "Into ______ God has come. Response: God is with us.")
Right into the very mess of it, God comes.
Into a tense and weary world braced for worse, God comes, thwarting expectations and upsetting plans, threatening power with undermining peace, and piercing the darkness with unquenchable light.
This is the story you belong to.
Now, don’t be afraid.