As we gather on this holy night/day, it is right to reflect on the strange and difficult year that is past. A year of disease. A year of hardship. A year of demonstrations. A year of anxiety and worry and confusion. A strange and difficult year.
And all throughout this time I keep getting asked the same question – from you, from my friends, from my family – what is God trying to tell us? Is there a message, a warning, a wake up call? What is happening? What are we living through? Is God angry with us? Is God done with us? In this strange and difficult year, what is God trying to say?
Before we get to that question, we ought to go back in our minds to another strange and difficult year. See, “in those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:1-2). From the holy scriptures we know that people like Joseph had to pack up their family and travel to their ancestral towns in order to put their name down for the census. Imagine the hardship and the difficulty. Leaving behind your home, your business; taking your strangely expectant wife on a ninety mile journey by foot just to tell the hated Roman Empire who you are. Imagine the political unrest, the discontent this would have caused among the people. Imagine getting to Bethlehem, and with all the people going every which way for this despicable census, not being able to find a decent place for your wife who must be in labor pangs.
Imagine the shepherds, just trying to get by. Eeking out a life, living on the fringes of society, out in the fields. Imagine how strange for them to see the heavenly host, to hear their songs of praise. Imagine Mary and Joseph, listening to this odd story from these strange men. Imagine the difficulty of those first few hours of Jesus’ life, with all the sights and smells of a barn. Don’t get caught up in the sentimentality of the manger and the swaddling clothes and there being no room at the inn. That all speaks to just how strange and difficult that first Christmas truly was.
And yet, God was made known. Jesus Christ was born, right then and there. That strange and difficult year was precisely the year that God chose to be known in human flesh. God did not wait until things had settled down; God did not linger in the heavenly courts, waiting for an easier time. God chose to be born of the Virgin Mary, to stoop down to Earth, to become human, and to once and for all defeat sin and death right then and there. Even in that strange and difficult year God chose to be with us.
God chose to be with us. Consider it, God does not need us. God does not need to become flesh in Jesus Christ. God does not need us to go to church on Christmas. God exists whether we believe it or not. If God is who we say God is, then nothing is contingent for God. God simply is perfect being. Pure Light. The Almighty. That is the one unchangeable truth of Christmas. Jesus Christ is going to be born whether we are ready for it or not. God simply chose it to be so.
And God wanted to. See, the best part about God is that God wants to be with us. God wills to come among us, to be with us in the good years and the bad. God decides to come in the flesh, in the person of Jesus Christ, to share our mean estate. God does not abhor the Virgin’s womb. God chooses us. Even us. God chooses to be with this species, us humans, though we so readily succumb to disease. God chooses to be with humans, though we lose our jobs, lose our minds, though we grow old, though we are so easily confused by another. God chooses to be with humans, though we are often cruel and unsympathetic to one another. God chooses to become one of us, to walk with us in our anxieties and worries and heartaches. God chooses us though to God, we must be strange and difficult.
So what is God trying to say to us? What does God want us to know with all that is going on right now? The answer to those pressing questions is spoken through the angels to the shepherds – “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. In word and in deed God is telling us that we are loved; that God will do anything – God will even become a measly human – in order to be near to us. Most especially in these strange and difficult times, and in your strange and difficult times. For I know some of what you are going through. Strange and difficult times sharpen the edges on our jagged humanity. The disappointments of this year, the failures, grief, anger, disillusionment – it is in that strangeness and in that difficulty that God chooses to live with you. God is not waiting around for you to get your life sorted out. No, to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
And yet, Christmas does not mean that all our heartaches will instantly vanish. Today is holy, but it is not magic. Our worship here this evening does not mean that everything out there will be put aright. Sadly, tragically, some soul is succumbing to this disease at this very moment. Another soul is down to their last dollar. Another is looking for a quick fix to ease their pain. The strange and difficult times continue even though our Lord has come among us.
Again, this should not surprise us. Jesus’ birth did not put an end to Mary and Joseph’s difficulties, in fact, it probably created more. They now have to care for a newborn child who is laid to rest next to the livestock. Jesus is another mouth to feed to a mother and father far from home. This baby Jesus is another person Joseph would have to put down for the census. They would have to give more uncomfortable explanations about where this special child came from. And then as Jesus grows older, the strangeness and the difficulty only become more acute. This child feeds the multitudes, he heals the sick, the casts out demons, and he is crucified. Yes, Christmas is a sign of hope that God chooses to be with us. Yes, Christmas gives us great comfort in our problems, but it also creates new ones. As well it should – Christmas is a blessing but it is also a warning. For hear again the message of the angels – God is near to us. So God knows everything about us. Jesus is born to us and is close to our brokenness, our diseases, our heartaches; but this also means that Jesus is close to our hardened hearts and our callous lives. For good and for ill, this is the meaning of Christmas. God has chosen to be near.
Tonight is but the beginning of the strange and difficult road that goes straight from the manger to the crucifixion. That child who is laid to rest in Mary’s arms wrapped in swaddling clothes will one day be laid in her arms again, naked and bleeding at the foot of the cross. And yet that is precisely how God is made known to us. In the strangeness, in the difficulty.
So, what God is trying to say to us in this year is nothing new; it is rather very old. It is the same message that begins in the Garden of Eden, goes through the prophets, is heard clearly in Jesus, and continues in our time; the message is simple – God chooses to be near to us. Christmas means that Jesus Christ has come among us; this is good news and it is hard news. As the birth of any child means great joy and great sacrifice. Christmas is hard news because it means that there is no hiding from God. God has chosen to be near to us. So we had better start living like we really believe that terrifying truth. We had better start living like we really believe Jesus is among us. And yet Christmas is a blessing beyond measure. For there is good news of great joy for all the people. God is not far off, God has not waited for things to be better, God is not quarantined from our broken hearts and broken lives. Oh no, the God love and grace has chosen to be near to us, even in these strange and difficult times.