One year for Christmas I thought it would be great to decorate our family table in a different way so I had seen this idea on TV and decided to try it. You take apples and take out some of the core and turn them into candleholders. I thought that white candles in red and green apples would look beautiful on the table and it seemed like such an easy thing to do so I tried it. But here was the problem, the candles never stood up straight. Their either fell over or they all leaned one way or the other which meant that wax dripped on everything. The other problem was that after an hour or so the holes I cored out got bigger and bigger and then turned brown and mushy so the candles ended up being even more unsteady and I was afraid we were going to set the table on fire. So, needless to say we didn’t have beautiful apple candle holders that year, but we did have some good apple pie and applesauce!
How many great ideas for the holidays have you had like that? You look for the perfect tree but find it’s either too big or too small or all the needles fall off on December 23rd. Or maybe you start baking everyone’s favorite Christmas cookies and once they are all done you realize you forgot to put in the chocolate chips or vanilla. Or maybe you work hard to try and get the lights on your house to look something like this… (video clip), but what you get instead is something like this… (video clip).
From wobbly apples to lighting disasters, if you have ever had to give up on perfection to celebrate Christmas, then you know something about what it was like on that first Christmas because that was the year that Joseph had to give up on perfection. You see, everything in Joseph’s life was going along really well. He was engaged to a lovely young woman named Mary. Mary was faithful, devout and hard working and she was going to be a good wife and mother. Joseph was going to be able to provide well for his family because he had a good name and a good future as a carpenter so everything looked perfect until the day Mary came with the news. She was pregnant.
Mary was pregnant and the only thing Joseph knew for sure was that he was not the father. Life, for Joseph, suddenly gotten very messy. This was not the way it was supposed to go. Children were supposed to come after the wedding and the children were supposed to be his. That’s how life was supposed to turn out, but now everything has been turned upside down. Life is like that sometimes. It doesn’t take much for our lives to suddenly get very messy. We get the phone call from the doctor’s office confirming the unfavorable test results and life gets messy. We get the call from the school principal about our children’s grades or activities and life gets messy. We go to work and hear the news that the company is downsizing and our jobs are in danger and life gets messy. We come from work to find a note that says the relationship is over and life gets messy. We find out that trusted leaders in our community have failed and let us down and life gets messy and all of these things can happen in an instant and that’s how it was for Joseph, in an instant – with two words – life got messy.
I can’t even imagine what that conversation was like. Umm, Joseph I have some news for you. I’m pregnant, but don’t worry, an angel told me that the baby is God’s son so everything’s going to be ok. For Joseph, everything was not ok. His world had been turned upside down and all he could think about was how to get himself out of this situation the best way he could. In Matthew 1:19 we heard Joseph’s solution. He was basically going to file for divorce. In Jewish culture the betrothal or engagement was legally binding so at this point to end the engagement would be like getting a divorce.
Now according to the law, Joseph could have had Mary stoned for being unfaithful, he could have publically humiliated her which might have helped save his reputation a little bit, but he chose to simply dismiss her quietly because he wanted to keep her, and maybe himself from public shame. While people would certainly talk when the baby arrived, at least this solution would enable both of them to recover from the situation and move on with life. This was Joseph’s way to clean up the mess, but look at what God does. God doesn’t say, let’s clean up the mess, God says, I will come and be part of the mess. Matthew 1:20-23.
It is in Matthew that Jesus is given the name Emmanuel which means God with us, which for Joseph meant that God was in the mess that his life had suddenly become. God was in the messy relationship with Mary. God was in the child that he knew wasn’t his. God was in the uncertain future that Joseph now faced as he would have to help raise that child. God was in the chaos of the angels message which I’m sure didn’t make any sense. God was in the mess, and that is the message of Christmas, that God comes to dwell in the mess of our lives. In the mess of cancer and heart disease, in the mess of mistakes and accidents, in the mess of financial and job insecurity, in the mess of loneliness, doubt and fear – God is with us. When life doesn’t turn out the way we thought it should, it is ok for us to give up on perfection because God is with us in the mess – that’s the Christmas story.
Joseph had planned on a wedding and then children, but when Mary came with the news of a pregnancy God assured Joseph that he was there. Joseph planned on having Mary give birth in her hometown of Nazareth where she would be surrounded by her family, but when the decree is given that all must return to their hometown to be counted, Joseph now had to travel with his pregnant wife to Bethlehem, and yet once again, God was in that mess. God wanted Jesus born in the city of David so the decree and the mess it created was all part of God’s plan. When they arrived in Bethlehem and none of Joseph’s relatives had room for him or maybe didn’t want him in their homes or rooms, God provided a stable. Now think about it, the first place where God dwelled on the face of the earth was in the mess of a feeding trough or a manger – God is in the mess. While our Christmas cards make it look serene and beautiful, the truth is that it was a very messy night in Bethlehem and yet into that mess – God showed up.
If you are looking at your life today and it has not turned out the way you wanted it to, or the way you thought it should, if you are up to your knees in… well, in the manure and mess of life and loss then believe it or not – you are experiencing Christmas because that is what Christmas is all about. Christmas is not about perfect tables, trees, lights and gifts; it’s about giving up on perfection and allowing God to come and dwell in the mess of our lives. And here is what we need to remember, when God shows up he doesn’t always make the mess go away – he doesn’t always clean it out or clean it up, he just promises to be with us through it all.
Many people have this mistaken idea that once we make the decision to follow Jesus that everything in our lives should become perfect and if it’s not perfect then somehow we have failed. Either we don’t have enough faith or God doesn’t really love us or our sin is too great for God to really forgive, so if life isn’t perfect we think either we have failed or God has failed us, but none of that is true. The truth of the Christmas story isn’t that God makes the mess of our lives go away; the truth of the Christmas story is that God comes to dwell in the mess of our lives and he comes to give us the strength and power we need to just make it through.
Think again about Joseph. After Jesus was born, things didn’t go smoothly. While both Mary and Joseph had been told that this child was to be the Messiah and the son of God, the only people who came to welcome him were a local band of shepherds. Even though Mary and Joseph had been faithful in all God asked them to do to bring Jesus into the world, it was just a few years later that King Herod issued a decree that all baby boys born in Bethlehem should be killed so now Joseph had to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt. Again, sometimes the Christmas story is so familiar that it keeps us from seeing the deeper truth for our own lives, but think about it. The mess for Mary and Joseph continued AFTER Jesus was born.
The mess for Joseph and Mary continued AFTER they had said yes to God and AFTER they faithful moved forward trusting God and AFTER they accepted Jesus into their lives which tells us that God doesn’t always make the mess of our lives go away. God’s love for us and God’s favor upon us doesn’t mean that everything will be perfect, God simply says he will give us the strength and power to make it through. So if our lives are kind of messy today, if things aren’t the way we thought they should be, if we are disappointed, discouraged and depressed by the circumstances of life – then the truth is that we are experiencing Christmas. If our lives today aren’t perfect, then we need to give up on perfection so we can grab hold of Jesus, who came to be Emmanuel – God with us.
As I was thinking about how Christmas is the celebration of God coming to dwell in the mess of our lives, I realized that the entire Biblical story is God running to the mess of our lives. When Adam and Eve made a mess of their lives and turned from God’s will, God didn’t run away from them. In fact, God went out to find them in the mess they had created. When the world was messed up with sin in the days of Noah, God didn’t destroy it all but ran into the mess and saved Noah and his family and worked through them to reestablish his kingdom. When God’s people were living in the mess of slavery God heard their cry and rescued them. Every time people made a mess of their lives by turning away from God, God never turned away from his people – he heard their cry, he saw their mess and he reached out to be with them and to save them. I believe the same is true today.
God not only sees the mess of our lives, but he sees the mess of our world and God hears the cry of those in need, and while many today may ask, where is God? I believe God is right there but maybe even more important I believe that God wants us to be right there. God wants us to be his presence in the mess that surrounds us. God wants us to be his hands and feet that offers help to those in the mess of hunger and pain. God wants us to be his ears that will listen to those that are in the mess of loneliness and confusion. God wants us to be his mouth and a voice that offers words of grace and hope to those who are feeling hopeless. God wants us to be his heart that not only beats for but offers an unconditional love to a messy world. So as we go in Jesus name we need to give up on perfection because the mess may not go away – but through us and in us God is there.
As we continue to make our way to the celebration of Christmas, I want to invite you to give up on perfection. Don’t look for the perfect tree, don’t try and set the perfect table, and don’t make sure every light on the house is in perfect sync – give up on perfection and experience the presence of Jesus. And if your life is looking pretty messy and uncertain right now then be assured that you are experiencing Christmas and trust that the gift of Jesus is with you. And may this message be the gift we share this Christmas.
Experiencing Christmas ~ Give Up On Perfection.
1. What imperfect circumstances will you face this Christmas? What mess are you and your family dealing with right now? As you give up on perfection, re-read the story of Joseph found in Matthew 1:18-25. What would it look like for you to experience God’s presence and power in the midst of your mess? How can God use your struggles to help others?
2. An angel spoke to Joseph to tell him that God was in the mess of his life. How will you open yourself to the word of God? Bible reading? Prayer? Worship? Sunday School?
3. What mess (problem) in our community or world is God calling you to enter? What can you do before Christmas to help be Emmanuel (God with us) for those in need?
One way to experience God in the mess of our lives is to join the Take 5 Challenge. For the next 3 weeks…
• Take 5 minutes each morning to pray.
• Take 5 minutes each evening to read the gospel of Luke.
• Find 5 ways you can give that will make a difference.
• Find 5 people to encourage and help