Most of us here this morning probably don’t remember being born, I certainly don’t, even though I am pretty sure that I was there. But there are stories about our births that we have been told. We probably know where we were born, and we likely know some of the circumstances and events that attended our births. If you talk to some folks, they were born in the midst of a raging snow storm, even if their birthdays are sometime in July. Some of us might even have some truly wonderful and gloriously complicated stories about our births. And that is because birth stories are important to us. The birth of a child is always a monumental event, no matter where and when it takes place.
Most of us here this morning were probably well received into this world. When we were born there were tears of joy that flowed freely, and completely without reserve. There were prayers of thanksgiving offered. It was a joyous time for all. It was the culmination of nine months of prayers, hopes and anticipation.
But even if we were not well received into this world by those responsible for our births, our births and our first howls of objection to our new environment were a monumental event to God. God always rejoices when a new child comes into the world. It is good to remember that we human beings are the crowning glory of God’s ongoing creative work. Each of us has intrinsic worth and value. No child comes into this world without the blessing and love and affirmation of our heavenly Father, because God is ultimately the father and the source of every child. God has made this abundantly clear to us in the birth of his own son.
A couple of weeks ago, at the start of our choir’s Christmas presentation, I may have startled some of you. As I introduced our first song, I said this: “While sung in Spanish, the song that we are about to sing is a depiction of the cosmic struggle inherent in bringing a savior into the world, and it is an interpretation of everything that could and did go wrong as recorded in the Gospels.” We might not have given much thought to that.
But stuff did go wrong; tragically wrong. At every step of the way: that truth is clear both the gospel of Luke and in the gospel of Matthew. The powers of darkness had no intention of allowing the light of the world to enter this planet. What we often fail to see in the Christmas story is that a cosmic battle is raging between the powers of darkness and the powers of light. The Christmas is an account of all-out war between the forces of evil and the forces of good. And the battle is not won until Jesus cries out from the cross in unimaginable and inconceivable agony, and says, “It is finished.” The writer of the gospel of John sums it up this way: “All things came into being through him, and without him, not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
In other words, the darkness did not win. God won. But boy, did the darkness try. When the shepherds received the story of Jesus’ birth from the angels, they were told that the birth of the Messiah would bring them peace. At the time of Jesus’ birth there was a kind of peace in the world, but it was not a real peace by any stretch of the imagination. It was a tenuous peace and an artificial, contrived peace. This peace had nothing to do with the heart, and everything to do with the Roman government. The Romans were over-running the world. Some nations were conquered by the devastating power of the Roman military machine, and other nations, like Israel, allowed themselves to be occupied, out of fear of being utterly destroyed. This was a peace born out of fear and submission to the over-whelming power of the Roman government.
Israel, which had once been a mighty and glorious nation, had been reduced by the Romans to a tiny, insignificant, provincial land, with its people living in absolute intimidation. There was grief, not peace in Israel. Grief over what has been lost, and might never be regained, is the deepest grief of all. We know this because we have, ourselves, experienced this grief.
And that grief must have been magnified, when the great emperor Augustus decreed that all of the world should be registered. It is clear from the Scriptures that this invasion of darkness represented a hardship for the people of Israel. It was nothing at all to the Romans, who had the power to decree anything that they wanted, if only for the sake of decreeing something. This registration was a victory for the powers of darkness.
For Mary and Joseph, this registration represented a severe hardship, because it came at the height of Mary’s pregnancy. In Mary’s precarious condition, traveling all that distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem, might very well have resulted in the loss of the baby along the way. The fact that she did not lose the baby was a victory for the powers of light and life.
But of course, Mary and Joseph were no strangers to hardship. Much had gone wrong in their lives. Separately, the two of them had had suffered the near dissolution of their relationship. Together they had both suffered scorn and disbelief from their family and friends. And now, upon arriving in Bethlehem, the two of them have discovered that there is no lodging available in the town, and perhaps not even any sympathy for a couple obviously about to give birth. All of this is a momentary step forward for the powers of darkness, but victories for the powers of light and life.
We would, perhaps, have liked it better if the story of our Lord’s birth had been picture perfect, without all of the problems and without all of the messes. We don’t like messes, but the Christmas story is messy. And it is messy, because any time human beings are involved there is going to be a mess. We are sinful, broken people and we make messes. And sometimes we make those messes wittingly or unwittingly with the cooperation of the powers of darkness.
We seem to prefer a fairy tale. And over the years, much has been done to recreate the Christmas story into a beautiful, lovely, warm and inviting tale that completely disarms it and takes away all of the power that it has to dispel the powers of darkness. In making a fairy tale out of the story of Christmas, we lose what is most important about Christmas. We lose what is real. Christmas is powerless over us if we cannot allow it to be as real and as messy as our own lives. Christmas is the story of our redemption. Redemption is when God takes something that is perfectly awful and turns it into something that is wonderfully good. Christmas is a story of God working in and through all of the messes of this world and of our lives. It is a story of human beings participating together with God to overcome and to vanquish the powers of darkness. Christmas is not just a story of a misbegotten little boy who grew up to become a great man. That’s the version that the powers of darkness promote, and would have us believe. Christmas is, instead, the story of God who became a little boy. This little boy is known as God’s only begotten Son. This little boy grew up, almost anonymously, in an obscure corner of the world. He never was a great man, and he never aspired to it. But he is the Savior of the world who by his life and death and resurrection defeated forever the powers of darkness.
I want to wrap things up this morning by going back to Mary and Joseph. In the midst of their mess, at every step of the way, both Mary and Joseph received constant assurances that this is the way that it was supposed to be for them. Now these assurances didn’t always come at the moment when they would have been most convenient, but they did always come at the right moments, even if they came after the fact, as some of them did. In all of this, Mary and Joseph learned to cultivate a sensitivity to, and a watchfulness for, these divine assurances. This, too, we must learn to do as the stories of our own lives unfold.
And this is where we must declare our own spiritual solidarity with Mary and Joseph. Like them, our own lives and our own stories are so very, very real. We probably won’t have to face the same difficulties and trials that Mary and Joseph faced, but we will face difficulties that are unique to us. The nature of difficulty is that it is rarely a stranger. It is never far from us, always ready to complicate our lives. We wish for fairy tale lives for ourselves. But we know that we live real lives. We live in the wide space between “Once upon a time” and “They lived happily ever after”, and the space in between is always messy. We must learn to depend on God as we travel in the in between space.
It was not easy for Mary and Joseph to always acknowledge that God was at work in their lives, especially during their times of hopelessness. And I know this, because it is not easy to see God at work in the midst of our own times of confusion and fear.
But by cultivating a sensitivity and even an anticipation for God’s abundant assurances, we will hear God’s voice of comfort and strength. We will find peace, even in the midst of our messes. We will know that God is at work in our lives. But more importantly, we will know that we are participating together with God in God’s work of redemption and salvation. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not, has not, and will never overcome it.