Sermon preached for the Fourth Sunday of Advent at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary. When the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.”
Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen, since I am a virgin?”
The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant. Nothing is impossible for God.”
Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” Then the angel left her.
I always wonder what happened to Mary’s wedding plans.
I assume she had them. She was engaged, after all. And maybe planning a wedding in first-century Palestine didn’t have quite as many options as today, but still, I’m sure she’d imagined what it would be like. Her perfect day. Her celebration.
Most of us build up our ideas of perfect days. Weddings, birthdays, anniversaries. Christmas, more than anything. We all have ideas about what makes a perfect Christmas, some amalgamation of childhood memories and pictures from magazines.
It’s sold to us, actually. Millions of corporations meet their bottom line by hawking images of a perfect Christmas, and just what goods and services will help us achieve it. Three, four, five months of commercials promising that we can purchase our way to the perfect Christmas day.
And a lot—a whole lot—of that advertising is aimed at children, who are even more vulnerable to marketing manipulation. When adults dream about the Christmases they used to know, sometimes I wonder if they’re really dreaming about the Christmases they used to see in catalogs. Was Christmas really ever perfect, or was there just a time we believed it could be?
I was reading an article this week by evangelical author Jen Hatmaker. She is the mother of several children, both biological and adopted, and she was writing about how quickly Big Days—days like Christmas—can fall apart. Jen realized her adoptive kids were having trouble coping with all the noise and chaos of Christmas festivities. She wrote,
Big Days trigger Big Feelings. No matter the extreme (good or bad), it is all INTENSE and triggering. It conjures the most tender emotions, the most volatile responses, kind of like laughing hysterically at a funeral. Of course the reaction seems outrageous, but Big is Big and when a traumatized or sensitive person opens the door to Big, everything is free to spill out. Some folks spend so much energy keeping a lid on their pain and fear and trying to just “act normal,” so when permission is granted to feel all their feels, both ends of the spectrum dump their restrained contents and it is a cluster of hysteria. … Big Days not only produce exceptional emotions (not normal), but everyone else places heightened expectations on the impending (not normal) celebration, and the stress is unmanageable.
Or the opposite. Maybe you (or someone you love) place your own unreasonable expectations on Big Days. Someone might imagine a narrative so impossible, so idealistic, so over-the-top, every normal detour is devastating. The desire to craft the Most Perfect Day Ever reaches a fever pitch, and with the slightest wobble to the plan, that person comes unraveled. He or she wants to control the outcome all the way to perfection, but that doesn’t exist and inner shame trumps it anyway.
Jen’s focus was on adoptive children, but the sentiment holds for anyone who has painful memories around family or holidays; people struggling with PTSD or depression, folks on the autism spectrum, children of divorce or alcoholism, sensitive kids, those who are grieving. Trying to make Christmas perfect just throws into sharp relief how not-perfect other parts of life are, and it becomes too much to handle. And then, of course, other people get frustrated with their meltdowns, and the whole thing goes in vicious circles.
We are imperfect people. Our families are full of imperfect people; we know that and we still love them. But imperfect people don’t magically become perfect just because the calendar says December 25th.
Which is why I find it a relief that the angel Gabriel did not come to Mary and say, lo! make sure everything is perfect.
He really, really didn’t say that.
What he said was Rejoice! The Lord is with you.
The Lord is with you. That’s the promise Gabriel makes. Not that Mary’s life is going to be easy, or fun, or painless. But that God will be with her every step of the way.
And we know how not-perfect Mary’s life was. We pretty up the story for our songs and nativity sets, but Mary had to travel on a donkey nine months pregnant, and then she had to give birth in a barn, and then she had to flee with her family as refugees to Egypt. We don’t even know exactly when Mary and Joseph actually got around to tying the knot. Matthew seems to suggest it was before Jesus’ birth, that Mary was a bride with a baby bump. Luke suggests later, after all the fuss with Jesus, and so maybe Mary danced at her wedding with her son on her hip. However it went down, I’m sure it wasn’t what Mary had dreamed of. Not what her culture had prepared her to think of as her perfect day. I’m sure there was gossip of all sorts, about this baby who wasn’t Joseph’s, about this family coming together all out of order.
But I have to think she didn’t mind. Because Mary got to live life with her God. Got to hold God in her arms, rock God to sleep at night. Got to teach God to study Torah and to pray. Got to be the first to hear his sermons and the first to witness his miracles. Got to see how God would get up on a cross if that’s what would show us, once and for all, that we are loved. Got to spend thirty-three years with God up close and personal in a way that most of us never get the chance.
Mary’s life was messy and complicated and probably nothing like what she’d imagined for herself. But because she was willing to give those dreams up—willing to toss away what was expected of her by her culture and take on what was asked of her by God—she got a first-row seat to God’s amazing, incarnate love.
Y’all, December 25th is just a day. We hang our celebration of Jesus’ birth on it because it had to go somewhere, and the incarnation is very much worth celebrating. But it isn’t worth working ourselves into a tizzy over.
If what you want most is a perfect Christmas, I can’t really help you. But if what you want most is to show your family you love them, you have all year. And if what you want most is to show Jesus you love him, he is here and listening to you every single day.
We’re hours away from Christmas Eve. Just hours. You may have a few more items on your to-do list but if you can—if you at all can—just be present with your people. Sit with them, talk with them. Don’t worry about everything you meant to do or should have done, or what they should have done for you. Don’t worry about perfect. Jesus didn’t.
Jesus did not come to a perfect world. He didn’t even come to make the world perfect.
He came to make sure we knew God is present in it.
That God is always, always with us.
So tonight—Christmas Eve. Tomorrow—Christmas Day. God will be with you. Even if it’s not perfect. Even if your family fights. Even if dinner burns. Even if it just doesn’t feel the way you were hoping it would feel. Even if you sit surrounded by presents and people and still feel all alone.
God will be with you.
And then on Tuesday. On Tuesday when it’s not Christmas any more, not for most of the world. On Tuesday when the Christmas commercials stop playing and the stores put out their clearance signs to make way for the Valentines’ chocolates.
God will still be with you.
Every day, the Big Days and the little days both.
Nothing can separate us from the love of God. That is the promise of Christmas. God’s love is here, on this earth, in our hearts, in our lives, giving us strength, giving us peace, giving us refuge. Jesus is proof of God’s amazing love, love so strong that it wiped away all our guilt and shame. Love so strong that it tore apart the heavens just to get to us.
Friends, I hope tonight is beautiful for you. I hope tomorrow is festive and fun. I hope this Christmas is everything you want it to be.
But I pray—I pray—that whatever happens tonight, and whatever happens tomorrow, and whatever happens in the days that follow, you will know how greatly you—you with your precious, imperfect little self—are loved.
Perfectly, perfectly loved.