Silent Night, Holy… $#!&: Miracle Messes - thrive UMC Official Blog

Silent Night, Holy… $#!&: Miracle Messes

  Miracle Messes

Here we are already, in the second week of Advent, preparing ourselves for Christmas.  And I have to tell you that, as a pastor, this is the most bizarre season of the year for me. The older I get the more absolutely baffled I am by the way we approach this holiday (which, by the way, is just a quick way of saying ‘holy-day’).  Because, on the one hand, we’re celebrating this very sacred, and explicitly religious, explicitly Jesus-centered event: Christmas literally means a gathering for the Christ, Jesus. Christ-mas.  The whole reason anyone started celebrating Christmas at all, hundreds and hundreds of years ago, was to institute a celebration of the miracle of Jesus’s birth.  God became a human-being, and that was an absolute historical revolution!  The savior of all humanity came to earth with skin on, so that we could become just a little more divine in the way we love!  We, as a species, were reconciled to the Creator of all things in one particular, unrepeatable moment! Heaven is now a whole lot closer to earth!

This is a big deal, right? It has forever changed the planet in some very, very concrete and historically identifiable ways –which are sometimes hard to appreciate because we missed the before Jesus stuff. So of course, let’s celebrate it once every single year, to remember and remind everyone of how different –how much better life is for our global humanity now. Let’s carve out some time to refocus on how we are still being invited into an ever-deepening relationship with the Source of all life and all things! There is still, even after two thousand years, so much more grace to unwrap in this gift of life.  We still have more freedom waiting for us so that we might take that next step in becoming more fully and wholly ourselves. God had something great to show us, and the show’s not over yet –not by a long shot!  This is tremendously good news, so let’s prepare, and let’s celebrate!

That part I totally get.

But how do we end up responding to this?  How do we celebrate and participate in this highest of holy days?

Just this last week, I had the radio on in my car, when an announcer came on and asked: “how can you tell that you’ve disappointed a loved-one on Christmas?” There’s a soundbite of tearing wrapping paper before a woman’s voice goes: “Oh, a blender?  Gee thanks honey.”  [Whua –whau-whuaaaa…]

As it turns out, according to this commercial, the way to prove your love this Christmas is to buy someone a brand new Chevy pickup at Bob Brown’s Chevrolet’s holiday blow-out sale!

Now, listen, if anyone wants to get me a brand new car or truck for Christmas, I’m not going to complain. But really, what kind of a gift is that?  Now, I know, I know: lots of people get cars for their spouses or whomever, because –hey, it’s just time for a new car anyway, and there happened to be a great sale, so what-the-hey- Merry Christmas.  But isn’t that kind of crappy, if you really stop and look at it for a bit?  Here’s a season of gift-giving; and the ‘gift’ is something that you were going to get anyway?

It’d be like, ‘hey Kristen, I got you this great gift!  It’s really special!’

And Kristen’s like, ‘oh, Jeremy, you didn’t have to get me a gift! But anyway, that’s so thoughtful; what is it?’

And then I give it to her and it’s laundry detergent.

And she’d undoubtedly look at it and go, “Oh, so does this mean you’re doing all the laundry for the next couple of months?”

And I’d go: “nope, I just knew we were about out, and the good stuff cost what we usually pay for the generic stuff, so happy Jesus day! Because that’s how much I love you [and having clean underwear!]!”

Even with a bow on it, it’s not much of a gift, is it?

Or, what’s even worse, is that you do decide to spontaneously buy a car for somebody for Christmas that they totally don’t need.  I mean, honestly, would there be a better way to ruin Christmas for everyone for the rest of your lives?

Like, “Surprise!  Here’s a new truck that you totally didn’t need (because you’re 4)!  For Christmas!”  At which point, everyone in the family who didn’t get a truck will look at their cheap gift and hate you, while the person who did is excited for the time that new vehicles are exciting –like 8 months, tops. At which point they’ll come home in hysterics, because someone door-dinged them at Hy-Vee.

But anyway, then you get to next Christmas, that’s when the bomb hits.  It’s only the next year when you realize you moronically escalated the Christmas-gift arms-race to a catastrophically untenable level.  At which point, you’d better either proceed to show your love with a yacht, then a mansion, then a jet, then a private island, then the literal moon –or just surrender to the fact that you played your ‘extravagant-expression-of-love’ card way, way too early –because the person receiving the gift was not terminally ill.  So that, from then on out, that other person will know you’ll never quite love them as much as you did when you bought them that completely frivolous truck for Christmas 2016, ever again.

Then, obviously there’s the bit where we acknowledge, here, very briefly what we all have always known, but like to pretend we don’t, which is that trucks and toys and trees and tinsel have absolutely nothing to do with Jesus, whatsoever.  Here we are, preparing for a party that, in name, celebrates Jesus’s birth, but in practice sets plans that, let’s be honest, Jesus is not invited to.

To those of you who happen to have, or have had, parents: imagine this.  Imagine you’re a kid and it’s your birthday.  And you’ve seen your family planning this tremendous shindig for like two months –they’re shopping like mad, they’re singing a whole genre of hokey songs about you, they’re decorating like MidAmerican lost their billing address. And it’s looking so great, because the night before the main event, they throw this big-time get-together, with everyone they care about and lots of people they don’t.  And there’s candles, and again so much singing, and even this weird little play, featuring other, smaller children recreating your womb-exodus in the hospital, which inexplicably features crates full of puppies!  And the whole ordeal isn’t really your thing, but they put so much work into it, and it was so nice and pretty, and so many people did such a good job of pretending to be happy the whole time that you just knew they were doing the best they could.  It’s like a practice-round for the Main Event, right?

So, early the next morning, giddy with anticipation: you burst into the kitchen like ‘Mother and Father: today is the day and I have arrived, so where are the pancakes!?’ Yet, as you open your eyes, still frozen in a dramatic limbs-splayed pose, jazz-hands and all, when you discover your parents, and family, and loved ones are all …not there. No pancakes.  No Pixar movie.  No awesome toys.  And they’re gone for the whole day.  Maybe they’re gone for like three days.  And when they finally get back, you discover –get this!- that they had gone on a total bender at Chuck E. Cheese without you.  On.  Your.  Birthday. But before that –wait, wait- before that, they had ordered this state-of-the-art programmable animatronic kid on Amazon, who looks suspiciously like you, except not physically flattering at all, and dressed in red, with a ridiculous fluffy white beard.

And what do they have to say for themselves, to justify this insane turn of events? “Oh, of course we love you so much!  That’s why we went through all this trouble! All that stuff, all the songs, all the decorations, that was all so for you. All of it, all for you! Oh, and the robot?  Well, let’s be honest, champ:  you make a lot of messes around the house.  And as it turns out, you’re really –and I mean really– expensive.  And we were kinda hoping (expecting) that you would, at some point, turn around just wait on us, hand-and-foot and take care of our every whim and need and maybe even buy us a truck (for your birthday)!  But you don’t.  In fact, if we’re being frank here, you’re kind of a lot of work instead.  So we got this robo-slave 16,000, minor edition for your birthday to drop the little hint that this is how we think our little parenting arrangement should work!

Happy birthday!

Or, in case you had spaced out and forgot this was a metaphor, this is pretty much what we do when we say ‘Merry Christmas, Jesus!  Now where’s my truck?’

For so many people, this whole Christmas ordeal is always so disappointing and stressful to everyone involved, and yet, we all keep running the same ridiculous routine, year after year, after year. Except, when it just doesn’t have that warm, ineffable Christmas feeling, what do we do?  More lights!  Bigger presents! Christmas songs in October! Christmas sales in July!  After all, what could make Christmas more special and more meaningful than using it as yet another excuse to buy and sell every kind of crap from candy-canes to pickup trucks?

Now, if you’re still not bothered about the whole celebration of consumerism for Jesus’s birthday, let’s just ponder these, for a moment.  This is how America celebrates it’s holy-days.

christmas-cards christmas-booze xmas_2012_promo silencer-night

This morning I wanted to read one last time from the book of Exodus.  And it’s hard to believe, but we’ve spent the last four months looking at a single, ancient story.  It’s the story of a group of slaves being set free. In the beginning, these slaves were almost entirely consumed by productivity.  Their days were spent making cities and feeding the mouths of others –their masters.  And their nights, we’re led to imagine, were spent making babies.  Produce, produce, reproduce, then repeat. Day in and day out. That was the entire content of their lives: productivity.  And this is precisely what makes slavery slavery, in the most traditional sense: that life, with its entire gamut of possible human experiences, was reduced to a kind of assembly-line for stuff.  And this stuff was all for other people.  And in the process, the people themselves became consumable and disposable.  Their good –their worth- was entirely bound up in their ability to create conveniences for others.

Does this sound familiar, to any of you here?

But the story doesn’t end there, for them. Through a completely unexpected miracle, they’re set free. They escape from the land of their masters, into the wilderness.  They’re given the chance –perhaps for the first time- to make some things for themselves.  They’re given the chance to really make something of themselves.  But what they discover is that they’re still not free, because they haven’t yet learned how to love and relate to the people around them, nor have they learned to love and relate to the god who gave them their life and freedom.  And so they messed things up.  And their greatest mistake –the mistake these not-quite-entirely-freed slaves make, over and over again, is that they settled for a cheap imitation, instead of fully investing themselves in the real life as it confronted them.  They tried to take a shortcut to getting what they wanted from the heavens. They made for themselves a golden calf, which is something like a gaudy, communal teddy bear that they could give their gifts to when they were afraid, to feel in control.  But the truth is that we are not in control.  We’re not supposed to be in control.  The only thing we need is one another, and the gift of God’s presence with us.

We pick up our final reading from the series in the 34th chapter of Exodus.  There’s still a lot more to the story, and I hope you’ll read the parts we didn’t cover together, by yourself.  The text says this:

34 The Lord said to Moses, “Cut two stone tablets like the first ones. I’ll write on these tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke into pieces. Get ready in the morning and come up to Mount Sinai. Stand there on top of the mountain in front of me. No one else can come up with you. Don’t allow anyone even to be seen anywhere on the mountain. Don’t even let sheep and cattle graze in front of the mountain.” So Moses cut two stone tablets like the first ones. He got up early in the morning and climbed up Mount Sinai, just as the Lord had commanded him. He carried the two stone tablets in his hands. The Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him, and proclaimed the name, “The Lord.” The Lord passed in front of him and proclaimed:

“The Lord! The Lord! a God who is compassionate and merciful, very patient, full of great loyalty and faithfulness,         showing great loyalty to a thousand generations, forgiving every kind of sin and rebellion, yet by no means clearing the guilty, punishing for their parents’ sins their children and their grandchildren, as well as the third and the fourth generation.”

At once Moses bowed to the ground and worshipped. He said, “If you approve of me, my Lord, please go along with us.[a] Although these are stubborn people, forgive our guilt and our sin and take us as your own possession.”

10 The Lord said: I now make a covenant. In front of all your people, I’ll perform dramatic displays of power that have never been done before anywhere on earth or in any nation. All the people who are around you will see what the Lord does, because I will do an awesome thing with you.

 

This is, and always has been, our great good news: that God is here, present in our midst, more powerfully close than we could ever imagine.  And God plans to do ‘an awesome thing’ with us.

Now, most of us   –even as Christians- don’t think of the Exodus story when we think of Christmas, but we should. Because the birth of Jesus is simply the next dramatic stage in that same event.  It’s still about God being with us, it’s about God showing God’s self to us, so that we can be set free into a new and fertile land, to become a renewed and fertile people.  But this time God didn’t just call a guy named Moses…

If you’ll turn with me in your Bible or Bible app to the Gospel of Matthew, we’ll kick off the reading for our new series: Silent Night, Holy… [crap].  We’ll begin our reading in the first chapter, starting in the 18th verse.  It says this:

18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly. 20 As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:

23 Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, And they will call him, Emmanuel.[a]

(Emmanuel means “God with us.”)

24 When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife. 25 But he didn’t have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus.

 

“You will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from…their sins.”

“And they will call him Emmanuel –‘God with us.’”

Brothers and sisters, this is what Christmas is about: God being with us.  It’s about God, through the intervention and incarnation of Jesus, saving us from our sins.  It’s about God doing something awesome with us. Empowering us and setting us free. Creating brand-new stories in each fresh moment, of good news.  And we’ll unpack this a bit more in the days ahead, because this sin-saving business and these gospel testimonies may not quite work like most of us imagine they might. So hang on. And be present too.

But in the meantime, my challenge for you all is this: look for the holy in these holidays.  Because it’s there, somewhere, buried under the sales and selfish expectations. I promise. It’s there, hidden behind the forced smiles and the farce of social decorum, even in the meat-markets of shopping malls. It’s there in an unwed couple, with the baby they didn’t create together.  It’s there in the miracle of new life in the womb, and in the miracle that they stuck it out together.  It’s there –it’s here- in people. God is here: with us and in us, moving with the tremendous energy we church-people call the “Holy Spirit” –at all times, even if we don’t notice it.  It’s holy and beautiful and special and unrepeatable and divine.  But at the same time, it’s also so very ordinary and messy and it takes so, so much work, and is so tragically human.  And this –this, brothers and sisters- is the new miracle we celebrate in Christmas: that glory and mess live together, side-by-side and intermingled.

Holy crap indeed.  Holy crap as an exclamation, because it truly is amazing if you look deeply enough.  But holy crap too, because our portrayal and celebration of that which is holy so often a stinking waste.  Because we make the gift the thing, when it’s really the people and the presence of God.

In the days ahead, may we learn to turn around.  Let’s pray.

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