Pastor Leta Arndt Behrens
Sermon Scripture: Luke 2:1-20
1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Here is a picture of this tree we were given so you can see. I can admit, when this came to be with us after we had our own home, there may have been some eye rolling… but there was also laughter. My husband’s best friend walked into our home and laughing said, oh good the ugly christmas tree is here, so it must be Christmas with the Behrens. Now we hang it in the prominent position over the living room fireplace. My husband even made it better with a battery and LED lights so it’s energy efficient now too.
This gift was made with love in mind. It was made with the intention of sharing jewelry that was not worn anymore with the next generation, it was made with a desire for connection and passing on history, a way to tell a story and share treasures of the past. At first it seemed that this ugly tree was going to get in the way of how I imagined perfect Christmas decorations and celebrations and living faith in my home. Now it is a part of our family experience of Christmas, it is part of the ritual and the story we live out, a part of the decorating and the jokes we tell in December. And even more than that, it is a part of how we live into the experience of seeing Jesus in all things—beautiful and ugly, appreciated and unappreciated, the wanted and the completely unwanted.
Let’s take a moment to really consider the first Christmas. Read between the familiar words from Luke with Mary and Joseph and Shepherds and an stable. Combine that with the words we know of Matthew that tell us of Jesus ancestors from kings and immigrants; temples and farms, of wise men more than a year later riding in from afar in under cover, hiding from Herod. And add to that the wisps of our own heritage and imagination–Mary in blue, a stable glowing with warmth, peace and stillness on that night in Bethlehem. In between the angels and the beauty of stars and the sweet embrace of mother and child…The first Christmas, had to be a smelly, chaotic, stressful mess. Perhaps how some of you experience getting to worship this evening!
Honestly, I am not so sure that there was anything ‘pretty’ about the actual birth of Christ.
9 months pregnant riding across a dusty desert on a donkey–not pretty
Being rounded up by the government, sent to a crowded town with long lines and no place to sleep–sounds realistic, but not pretty
Giving birth… well I could stop there. But giving birth in a dark cave like room with the smell of animals, the scratch of hay, and a cow near your head. — really, Mary could not have found that to be a very pretty experience.
Strangers, not loved ones, strangers coming to see and kneel and they are Shepherds, probably haven’t bathed in months and don’t even bring a useful gift, just sheep to add to the mix of animals, another mouth to feed.
The gifts don’t come for a couple of years– Don’t be thinking they were actually there on Christmas night in a timely fashion. And when the wisemen do show up, they bring perfume, really? Ask any new parent–diapers and a casserole, maybe a bottle of wine, those are the real precious gifts, as good as gold.
And yet, this is not the picture we carry around with us on this night. We paint calm–a baby that doesn’t cry, hmm, hmm. We dress it up and put soft colors and pretty glows, bells ringing and choirs carrying up lullabies from angels and bringing a stillness, a pause to the earth. It’s like the facebook version of reality–truth is there, neatly cropped and posted to show the best angle.
Do we create this image because we want to live in denial? Or because we think it’s what it was supposed to be like? Or because we just can’t bear to admit and be present in the fullness and realness of God made human. Maybe it’s a little of these, but really, more than that I believe we dress it up because in all the mess we long to still see beauty and know that it is there. Jason Mraz sings a song rich with meaning called Beautiful Mess and in the chorus he sings, ‘ what a beautiful mess this is, it’s like picking up trash in dresses.’ There is an image of hope for you. Putting on your best, lifting your face high, smiling into the dark and picking up the trash and dirt and mess that is lying all around–this is living in the promise of joy.
Like the ugly Christmas tree reminds my family of laughter and love; the birth of God reminds us that the deepest hope and most profound experiences of light can come from the darkest places. As a community we go those places every day. When I walk there, you walk with me. You stand as witnesses to the picture of hope with your prayers and gifts and presence and when you walk in these places you too are a witness and do not walk alone.
And it is so bittersweet. Just this week alone, together, we have squeezed tight a young person recovering from trauma and filled the kitchen of a 95 year old with song. We have sat in at the bedsides of those who are sick and waiting to go home from medical care and we have prayed for those in accidents. We have sung the words and promises of Christmas to a bar full of strangers. We have been alongside a homeless family in their fear and in their next steps forward. We have filled the ELCA global barnyard with animals and families in our own neighborhoods with food. We have texted prayers for children in pediatricians offices and women fighting cancer. We have sat present at a funeral for a young man who’s connections filled two rooms beyond bursting with tears and laughter mixed together and we wrapped a father in a prayer shawl that to him was the grandest gift of love.
All these things and more happened this week. All these things and the things that are in your life that you fill in between the lines have their moments of feeling like we are surrounded with a mess and picking up pieces to put hope and joy back together.
All these things and more tell the story of Christmas because it is in all these things Jesus promises to come. This is the God we worship this night and always. God did not become human, Emmanuel, to make sure the gifts were perfect or the cookies were done. God came to pick up the trash with us and show us how beautiful it is when we encounter one another face to face, heart to heart, prayer to prayer. My sister sent me a message yesterday of her own thoughts of what Christmas is to her. She said with some tears, ‘when I think of my baby and think of God giving us this baby. God’s own child… wow… that is a whole lot of love.’
There it is, a whole lot of love. May you know this whole lot of love. May you hear that this gift from God is one that is grace upon grace. Love upon love. Hope upon hope. Piled up as high as any stack of presents under a tree and sent with you to light up the world.