Friends, we are here - on the doorstep of Christmas.
I will be real as your pastor - I was so looking forward to this season of Advent and had mentally prepared all the things I was going to do to make it especially heartwarming and fun and… well, it’s almost over. And it still feels like so many things need to happen between now and Christmas Eve.
It never fails. No matter the hard work or preparation or inspiration to do things differently, to worship more deeply, to get the task list done, to write up the Christmas cards back in November, to be more generous - something always goes wrong at this time of year.
But luckily, I’m not alone. Like this family in Austin, TX, who setup their Christmas decorations in an attempt to win their coveted neighborhood competition, and well, added some extra drama to people’s lives in a way they did not intend:
Watch the clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tyaNQK4oOAQ
I’ve mentioned it before, but National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is one of my faves. I’m not ready for the season until I’ve sat down and watched it. For me, it captures both the beauty and insanity of this time of year in American culture. And really, I can’t get into the spirit of the season without watching this movie.
In this movie, Clark Griswold, described by his co-workers as “the last true family man”, desires nothing else than to have a good old fashioned Christmas - and for him, that means being with family. It means a big Christmas tree. It means extravagant Christmas decorations. It means food and gift giving and memories and gratitude and love. But, since this is a comedy, nothing goes right.
The family gathers from far and wide and go about annoying each other and griping and complaining. The turkey is too dry. Their Christmas tree catches fire. A squirrel gets loose in the house. A SWAT team breaks through the windows. There’s even a sewer gas explosion. On and on.
I think this movie is popular because it speaks to all of our own desires to make this season special and the reality of how difficult it can be. How, no matter our meticulous planning, no matter how thoroughly we think things through, no matter how hard we pray, the unexpected will happen. Our plans will be disrupted. It won’t necessarily be silent and holy and joyful and peaceful.
At the end of the movie, as he watches his Santa Claus lawn ornament hurtle through the air following the sewer gas explosion, Clark finally finds a bit of peace when he seems to finally accept that Christmas is here - messy and chaotic, sure - but it is here.
Maybe this is true of each of us in someway.
Maybe you were looking forward to this season, to the Christmas cards and music, to the opportunities to be with friends, to the fun of gifts, to the sights and sounds of our church gatherings and prayers.
But, so many things haven't gone to plan, have they?
Instead of hope for the future, we have been treated to another chapter in our nation’s ongoing leadership crisis, a crisis that bitterly divides us in a cauldron of fake news and uncertainty and bitter partisanship.
Instead of a fount of joy, too many of us have been stained by grief and heartache, longing for loved ones to be made whole, struggling to navigate dysfunctional and shattered families, overcome by tears and despair.
Instead of experiencing an abundance of love, we are anxious - anxious about the loss of healthcare, anxious about the inability to get a single job interview, anxious about our bills, anxious about our children and grandchildren. Anxious about the Mary and Joseph’s without a place to call home.
Instead of a glimmer of peace in this season from perpetual conflicts around the world, we see more lives uprooted and snatched away by war and violence, protests being squashed, voices crying out for justice silenced.
So despite our plans, despite what we may have prayed here we are - on the doorstep of Christmas - still waiting for peace - looking to the sky for a sign. Looking for God to speak to us in all this mess and chaos.
I think Joseph knew what we were experiencing too, and in fact, Joseph would have felt a little kinship to Clark Griswold.
All the scriptures tell us about Joseph is that he was a descendant of the line of King David and that he was righteous. He came from a royal family, although, there wasn’t a lot royal about them anymore. He was a carpenter, which was honest and decent work, but certainly didn’t put him in the top tax bracket. As a righteous man, Joseph wasn’t perfect, but he followed God’s ways as best as he could, fearing the Lord, living with integrity and honesty. His Twitter account, if he had one, would have been blessedly free of meltdowns and tirades and insults.
So, maybe it’s just my own imagination, but I think Joseph, as he became engaged to this young dynamic woman from his village named Mary, probably didn’t ask for much. He probably didn’t ask God for anything more than a normal, ordinary family and to be able to be the best parent he could be to his future children.
But then the most shocking news came - Mary was pregnant, and she and Joseph hadn’t even held hands yet.
That’s not how this is supposed to work.
After praying about it for a long while and thinking about what would be best for Mary and for him to walk away from this engagement quietly and respectfully, Joseph had one of those hard nights of sleeping, tossing and turning, one too many Christmas cookies in his belly, with the kind of dreams that you can’t forget. I’m going to go on record that I don’t think angels were the soft, white robe, feathery winged creatures like we see depicted around. I think angels were probably terrifying - beings of might - who caused you to take notice, which is why their first words were always, “Do not be afraid!”
That night, the angel of the Lord spoke in Joseph’s dreams, “Look, I know this is not what you planned or dreamed of, but Mary IS pregnant and her child - your child, is special. You will name him Jesus, and he will save your people. He will even be called, as the prophet Isaiah said, Emmanuel, God With Us.”
Can’t you imagine Joseph waking up in a cold sweat and wondering, couldn’t I just have a good old fashioned Galilean Christmas?
Can you imagine the drama set off in Nazareth, the tongues that were wagging, the accusations that were whispered?
Can you imagine the word from cousins and neighbors and friends who were suddenly unavailable during the upcoming wedding celebration?
There's a viral article going around once again reminding us that the original Christmas was anything but silent. There was no symphony orchestra playing softly in the background. There was no room service long ago.
Rather, Jesus came to a young couple who were likely scared out of their minds
came into a world filled with tyrannical, egotistic, vicious lords and leaders
came into a world of violence and war
came into a world of injustice and grief and trouble
came into a world where children and families were at risk
came into a world where peace seemed a pipe dream…
So can you also imagine the incredible courage of Joseph and Mary as they accepted this strange news with courage, trusting in God?
Can you imagine the peaceful joy that must have overcome them to face the difficult road ahead… together.
Into this mess and chaos, God came.
Christmas happened anyway.
Martin Luther King Jr. summarized the meaning of this gift of peace when he said, “Peace is not merely the absence of some negative force–war, tension, confusion, but it is the presence of some positive force–justice, goodwill, the power of the kingdom of God.”
When the prophet Isaiah dreamed of a leader coming to save the Hebrew people, he said the child would come from a young woman - and he would taste “curds and honey”, a symbol if you remember from our study of the Book of Joshua of the promised land. The Promised Land wasn’t just a literal place, a plot of land, or a singular nation - the Promised Land was an invitation to live fully into God’s abundance, to live into right relationship with the earth and all of humanity in such a way that even the nations of the world came to learn and study war no more.
This is the peace that Christmas offers us - the same that Mary and Joseph no doubt relied upon - the peace of our God who loves us so much to break into the mess and chaos of our lives, into the courts of corrupt leaders, into the dysfunction and violence of our world and families.
An invitation to tastes the "curds and honey” of God’s shalom - of wholeness for me, for you, and for all humanity.
Father Elias Chacour, in his book Blood Brothers, tells the story of the first parish he served in the hills above Nazareth. When he showed up on his first day, the place was a mess. The church doors were hanging off their hinges. Someone had stolen the communion cup. The benches were warped. There was no bed in the rectory for him to get a good night’s rest. And furthermore, the church was divided, seen as untrustworthy, sparsely attended, overcome by conflict.
The one person in charge of keeping the affairs of the charge was a nasty old man who stalked after Father Chacour wherever he went, told him where he was allowed and not allowed, and barred access to the church to certain people in the community who he didn’t like.
And beyond that, in the village, there was strife daily. One family of brothers hated each other so much, that when their mother passed, the brothers couldn’t even be in the same room together. There were violent feuds between neighbors. There were accusations. The people had no use for the church, no longer saw the gospel as good news because it seemed the church over the years had gone out of its way to foment conflict more than seeking peace.
For months, Father Chacour labored courageously, going door to door, knocking on houses, sharing coffee, getting to know the neighbors and inviting them to worship - but progress was slow. Every effort seemed to face resistance. The people were angry and bitter. Many wanted this priest to go back to where he came from.
So finally, Father Chacour decided to do something drastic. Out of the whole year, the only time the church had a large crowd was Palm Sunday and Easter, so that year, on Palm Sunday, they gathered, standing room only, in the little village church. Worship was lifeless. People sang listlessly, not from their hearts. Father Chacour struggled with fear throughout the worship, preaching one of his worst sermons, fearful that what he was about to do could cost him everything.
Finally, at the time of the benediction, Father Chacour, rather than offer parting words, took a deep breath, asked God to give him the strength, and then marched silently, all eyes fixed on him, to the church’s entrance. There, he took a chain and padlock out from a hiding place, wrapped it around the doors, and locked the doors shut. The temperature in the room seemed to rise.
He turned around to address the congregation:
“Sitting in this building does not make you a Christian. You are a people divided. You argue and hate each other - gossip and spread malicious lies. What do our Muslim neighbors and the unbelievers in our village think when they see you? Surely, that you religious is false. If you can’t love your brother that you see, how can you say you love God who is invisible? You have allowed the Body of Christ to be disgraced.”
The anger in the room began to rise. The old man who stalked the priest looked like he was about to explode, but Father Chacour continued, “I have tried for these months to help you, but I have failed. So, now, the only one who can help you is Jesus. Now, I will be quiet and allow Him to give you that power. If you will not forgive, then we will stay locked in here, and I will do your funerals for free.”
Father Chacour said it felt like an eternity passed as no one spoke, as the people stood silently. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. He wondered if he had failed, if it was all for naught.
And then, suddenly, the eldest brother of one of the feuding families rose to his feet. In a shaking voice, he looked out at the church and began to ask forgiveness, for the hatred in his heart, for the violence he wished upon his own family, for the anger he held at the priest. And suddenly, his three brothers, moments before separated by years of distrust and vitriol, rushed to him. They embraced.
Father Chacour said that suddenly, the church erupted into chaos - but not a chaos of fistfights and shouting matches - but of tears, of apologies, of hugs, of confessions, and of forgiveness. Of a glimmer of shalom, peace on earth and goodwill to all. God With Us.
Friends, we are on the doorstep of Christmas, and there is still messiness and chaos ahead. Perhaps the gift you might bring in this season is to embrace the mess and chaos add some of your own. Maybe you don’t need to do anymore shopping - the gift you might offer is peace - to offer grace, to offer an apology, to seek forgiveness, to start again with someone estranged, to embrace the stranger. Maybe it is our call as a church to find the peace God is offering us in the chaos and confusion of our life so we can be a witness in troubled times.
And maybe - Christmas will come. Christmas will happen anyway.
And then, we will be able to sing with joy, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”