(You can listen to a podcast of this message here.)
Looking back, one of the reasons I rejected faith in God and especially the church when I was a young adult was that I thought Christianity had nothing to do with the real world.
The churches my parents took me to when I was growing up were nice. Everybody wore their best clothes and smiled their biggest smiles and was on their best behavior. They didn’t seem to have any problems or to share any of the doubts I had.
Christmas was especially nice. The manger scenes were so perfect with their pristine Mary’s and Joseph’s in what must have been the cleanest stable in history. Even the animals in the manger scenes were shiny and sparkling. No, Christmas didn’t seem to take place in anything approaching reality.
The baby Jesus was nice. “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he made.” It didn’t seem like he did other normal things real babies do – like poop and pee and . . . projectile vomit.
Church, Christmas, and Jesus were not like the real world at all. As I got older and more aware that the world is often not very nice, that dirt and disappointment and death are a part of life, the church – and especially the nice Christmas story – didn’t seem to have lots of relevance to reality.
When I was 25, my dad died and I made what I thought was my final break with the church and with God. I can remember going to the midnight Christmas Eve service that year to make my mom happy, but I sat there sneering through the celebration of something that seemed to have nothing to do with my father’s suffering during his long illness and his much-too-young death.
It’s possible to be in church on Christmas Eve and to be surrounded by nice and feel like you’re the only one struggling with the whole thing because of what’s going on in your life or what’s going on in the world. It’s easy to feel like everyone else seems to have no trouble feeling the joy – and probably had all their Christmas shopping done by Thanksgiving.
If you’re feeling like that this evening, then I want to assure you that you’re not the only one. I know there are others here experiencing life challenges and doubts.
And I want to apologize to you on behalf of the church. We’ve made the reality of Christmas into a slick sentimental story. We’ve made it about petty annoyances like whether the clerk at Wal Mart says “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.” We’ve managed to make Christmas both sentimental and small.
But Christmas – that first Christmas in Bethlehem 2000 years ago – was neither sentimental nor small. It was nothing less than God breaking into human history. God became one of us . . . it’s about INCARNATION, which literally means God became meat . . . flesh.
That first Christmas was not about warm feelings by the Christmas tree or finding just the right gift or Christmas card platitudes.
That first Christmas . . . it was about REAL LIFE.
Thank God for that! I don’t know about you, but when I’m really struggling, when I’m hurting, when I’m deeply grieving, sentiment and sentimentality just doesn’t cut it.
Sentimentality may cheer you up for a while. But that’s only temporary. What we NEED is something lasting, we need to be CHANGED from the inside out.
We need something real, something radical, even something dangerous . . . to challenge the real world realities of death and disappointment.
This evening, I invite you to strip away all of the tinsel we’ve piled onto the manger. Underneath, we will indeed find something that is real, radical and . . . and dangerous.
What, you don’t think Christmas is dangerous?
Why else would these four words pop up over and over in the Christmas story? “DO NOT BE AFRAID.”
When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to tell her she’s going to be pregnant with God’s child, those were his first four words. “Do not be afraid.” I don’t think that’s just because it was scary to have an angel show up all of a sudden. The message Gabriel had to tell Mary was absolutely terrifying – “You’re going to be God’s mom.” Don’t you think the idea of giving birth to God was at least alarming for the young teenager Mary probably was? Not to mention the fear of what her family would say when she was suddenly pregnant without being married. And then there was the fear of what her fiancée would say . . . or do. He had the right to have her stoned to death for her apparent adultery.
For Mary, Christmas was definitely dangerous.
When Joseph found out Mary was pregnant, he planned to divorce. But an angel appeared to him in a dream and said, guess what, “DO NOT BE AFRAID.” “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” The idea of being God’s step-dad had to be pretty intimidating, don’t you think? What else did Joseph have to fear? Public humiliation and ridicule for marrying this apparently adulterous woman. Suspicion that he is actually the father of this illegitimate child. But God asked Joseph to put all that aside.
For Joseph, Christmas was surely dangerous, if not bodily then it was dangerous to his standing in the community – and in his own family.
That phrase – “Do not be afraid” – is heard twice more in Bible’s Christmas accounts. An angel says it to John the Baptist’s father, and another angel says it to the shepherds outside of Bethlehem.
But do you know who had the most to fear at Christmas? Who Christmas was most dangerous for? God. God in human skin – Jesus. Jesus who lowered himself to become like we are . . . like we WERE when we were born. God became a baby who needed a diaper change, who was hungry, who cried, who couldn’t walk or talk, who was totally dependent on his mother and father for everything, including protection.
That Jesus was born in a real animal stall, not like the one in our manger scenes! The “floor” was mud. Flies buzzed around. It stunk of manure. Jesus was born into the real world. Soon his family would have to run away and become undocumented immigrants in Egypt because King Herod would want to kill him.
And after the holy family escaped to Egypt, King Herod would slaughter all the children under two years old in Bethlehem. Because King Herod was afraid.
This is not just a nice story.
And 33 years or so later, the Roman authorities would be so terrified of Jesus that to get rid of him – they thought – they would put him to death on a Cross.
The life of Jesus, that begins in the reality of the manger, is a real story that happens in a real world. Bad stuff happens in the real world, and it didn’t stop happening when Jesus was born.
And the truth, the truth that I missed growing up amongst all the nice, but that Jesus is a real-world Savior in the midst of the difficult and challenging realities of life.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that being nice to each other is a bad thing. I’m not saying we should never be sentimental about Christmas or about what it means to us. But what I am saying, hopefully loud and clear, is let’s not lose the reality of the story, let’s not pretty it up until it is just another story, a sort of fairy tale.
There’s pain and disappointment and death in the world. Only a real Savior – not the perfect, quiet, clean baby in the manger scenes, not the idealized surfer dude in many of the paintings of him as an adult– only a real and radical and dangerous Jesus can overcome sin and death.
Jesus who suffered the same things we go through –he got hungry, he got cold, he lost friends to death, he cried . . . and yes he also laughed and went to parties and had some good times.
Jesus was one of us. Think about how radical that is for a moment . . . God – infinite in power, able to be everywhere at once – contained in skin and bones and muscles and blood vessels and organs like yours and mine. As vulnerable as you and I . . . especially as a baby.
Only God could have come up with something so, well, real and radical and dangerous. God in a manger!
Jesus, who was born as an oppressed minority in an occupied land,
Jesus who was an immigrant,
Jesus, who surrounded himself with the poor, the sick, the marginalized and the “untouchables,”
Jesus who was criticized by the religious for hanging out with sinners,
Jesus who treated women with dignity and respect,
Jesus who taught his disciples to love their enemies, to give without expecting anything in return, to overcome evil with love,
Jesus who suffered,
Jesus who wept,
Jesus who – while hanging on a Roman cross – said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
That’s who God is! Real. Radical. Even dangerous.
A God who doesn’t care if you haven’t gotten all the decorations up and all the Christmas shopping done.
It took me years of rejecting the church and rejecting God to realize the reality of who Jesus was and is.
Now, I want to close by speaking to those of you that are where I was spiritually a few years ago. You might be here this this evening because you’re making someone in the family happy, or because it’s tradition, or because you’re curious. You may be here, like I got back into church, because your girlfriend or boyfriend made you. No matter what’s brought you here tonight, I’m glad you’re here!
What I’d like to say to you is this – please don’t dismiss Christmas – or Jesus – as too nice for the real world. If you’ve gotten that impression, that’s our fault, not Jesus’s. Check out what the Bible really says about Jesus, find out what he really said and did and who he hung out with and who he challenged. Because that’s God there in that manger, a God who loves you so much that God did something real, and radical, and dangerous – he became like you, and died like you will, and then rose again . . . all to restore God’s relationship with you. All because God loves YOU. And what God asks in return is not that you DO anything to earn that relationship – because you can’t – but only that you REALIZE how real, how radical, and yes, how dangerous (because it will shake up your life!), is God’s love for you.