Whitewashed. Every nativity scene you have ever looked at has been whitewashed. Clean, golden hay is evenly spread on the ground. Mary kneels looking peaceful and calm in smooth-flowing baby blue. Joseph stands tall and strong and proud. On one side shepherds walk with angels reflected in their eyes. On the other side the Magi journey with a star in theirs. Angels serenely hover above it all. Everyone and everything looks tranquil. You can hear the orchestra softly playing in the background. You can frame it with twinkling lights and sparkling tinsel. It looks that way because it has been whitewashed. But when you open the Bible, the Word of God strips away the whitewash.
A teenage girl sleeps. The messenger from God abruptly wakes her, announcing, “Congratulations! You are to be pregnant! God will be the father! Your baby will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
She immediately has a vision of her son lifted up in Jerusalem, wearing a golden crown and a royal robe, with a regal sign over his majestic head, “The King of the Jews.”
But first she will have to explain this to Joseph. First she will be the unmarried girl with the baby bump. She knows how her mother talks about girls who are pregnant before they are married. She knows what the old ladies in town say. She knows few will believe it was the Holy Spirit that came upon her. She knows what she will be called. She knows what her little boy will be called.
And yet she says, “Yes.” She answers, “Here I am, Lord.”
Why does she do that? Why does she respond that way? Why does she do that?
He’s resting in a chair for a moment when his fiancée opens the door. She walks in, obviously nervous, with her hands over her belly. She can’t make eye contact. She can’t stop pacing. She can’t stop fidgeting. Finally, she just blurts it out, “I’m pregnant, but it’s not what you think. See…”
But Joseph has already jumped up and turned away, furious. She’s what? He can’t forgive that. All his hopes and dreams for their relationship now seem naive. His future is shattered. He can hear what his family is going to say: ‘Tramp.’ He can hear what his buddies are going to say: “She stepped out on you, Joe.” The only answer is to ditch her. The only answer is divorce.
And so a messenger from God appears to Joseph too, saying, “She really is pregnant by the Lord. Will you still take her for better and for worse, in good times and in bad?”
And he says, ‘Yes.’
Why does he do that? Why does he respond that way? Why does he do that?
It’s the worse job there is: 24-hour days, 7 days a week, 365 days a year; in the middle of nowhere; can’t take a vacation; can’t go out to eat; not even your sheep. Even if someone can’t get any other job, they can start as a shepherd immediately. It’s just a few guys and a bunch of blurting sheep, all day, every day, with nothing to break up the monotony.
Nothing, that is, until a messenger from the Lord appears to them, to the lowest of the low, ten miles outside of Hicksville, saying, “Today a Savior has been born for you.”
“For you. You’ll find him in a manger.”
“In a what?”
“A manger. Yeah, I know. Just go. Now.”
And they go.
Why do they do that? Why do they respond that way? Why do they do that?
They are not even believers. They are not even saved. They do not go to worship. They are astrologers. They don’t study the Bible; they study the stars. They are not from Israel, but Babylon.
And yet God uses their ridiculous trust in the stars to draw them to trust in Him. He says, “You want to follow stars? Try this one. See where it takes you.”
And so they follow the Lord’s guide. They spend days leading into weeks, weeks leading into months, months leading into years, trailing along after a star, guiding them to the King of the Jews, to a ruler they do not serve, to a God they do not believe in.
Why do they do that? Why do they respond that way? Why do they do that?
Mary does what she does,
Joseph does what he does,
the shepherds do what they do,
the Magi do what they do,
because not everyone lives by the motto: “If it feels good, do it;”
not everyone lives by the creed: “If I like it, that’s the way is;”
not everyone lives under the banner: “It’s my way or the highway;”
but people of faith live under another banner: “If God asks, I will do it;”
“Where God leads, I will follow;”
“Where He calls, I shall go.”
Those who live by “If it feels good, do it” will be quickly forgotten as common. But those who live by “If God asks, I will do it,” well, their stories get repeated over and over,
in candlelit country churches,
in worn Bibles read in worn chairs,
in the hushed words of the persecuted missionary,
in the bright lights of the big city mega-church,
in pageants with kids wearing parents’ bathrobes,
in every time and every place, for the last 2,000 years, where the story of Jesus’ coming is told, we hear of Mary and Joseph, of the shepherds and the Magi, and the response of the hearer is, “If God asks me, I will do it, too.”
Now some of you here tonight might be living out the perfect Christmas. You’ve watched the classic movies while sipping hot cocoa and wearing matching reindeer sweaters. You have perfect gifts under the tree. You have perfect meals ready to eat. You look perfect. Your house looks perfect. You’ve been getting along with everyone, nobody has gotten on your nerves, you have not even butted in front of someone at the checkout, or cut them off in the parking lot. If you are living the perfect Christmas, thank God, but it is not biblical.
The biblical Christmas is God coming to a bunch of people who are far from perfect:
to the teenage girl with a baby bump,
to the ticked-off guy suggesting divorce,
to the hicks yearning for a better job,
to the foreigners who aren’t even believers —
to a ragged collection of losers,
to them God comes.
And yet the actual expression on their faces in the nativity scene is not a holy peace, but confusion. They wonder why there is no royal reception, why there are no shouting trumpets, why banners are not being unfurled, why the doors are instead slammed in their faces leaving them in a stable instead of a castle. So the poor couple are left to a barn reeking of sweaty people, dirty animals, fresh manure, and urine-soaked hay, embarrassed that this is the best they can do for their precious little one, and the virgin screams in pain as she gives birth, her new husband awkwardly, timidly holding out calloused hands. The shepherds turn up and look around wondering where everyone else is — if they were invited to the birth of the king, certainly the important people should be there. The heathen Magi slowly, confusedly make their way carrying the only presents for the baby, downright weird ones at that: not a cute outfit or simple rattle or soft blanket for the baby, but gold for a king, incense for a priest, and myrrh for a sacrifice. All of them are confused, all are asking questions, “Can this really be it? Is this right? Why isn’t God here? Why isn’t God in this situation?”
Meanwhile, lying in front of them, not on a palace crib wrapped in purple silk, not in a cozy warm bed with flannel sheets, but in a filthy, faded, splintered trough, atop a pile of dusty straw glazed with cow-drool, there lies Jesus, the Son of God, the Savior of the world.
And in that moment, God says, “Remember this. Remember this moment. Tell others about it. Write it down. Celebrate it. Sing about it. Remember this moment.” Because if God can come to Mary and Joseph, to the shepherds and the Magi, if He can come to them in their situations, then He can certainly come to you in yours.
For some of you are not living the perfect Christmas, but
some of you are giving gifts wishing you could afford to give better,
some of you wince in the mirror yearning to look more like the people in the magazines,
some of you wish you could take back what you said and undo what you’ve done,
some of you have bodies screaming in pain,
some of you love someone who won’t be calling,
some of you desperately yearn for the clouds of depression to pass,
some of you are in dead marriages with only a bank account and a roof in common and divorce seems reasonable,
some of you are watching your kids not only grow up but also grow distant and you don’t know what to do about it,
some of you want to make a huge impact in the world but you are stuck in an unknown town,
some of you know a good meal and a shining bow will not change the diagnosis,
some of you are staring at an empty chair and you can almost see the person who should be in it,
some of you are just trying to get through the night without any fights or arguments,
some of you know things are far from perfect.
If any of that applies to you, you can feel at home in the biblical Christmas.
For Christmas is not a celebration of our perfection, but a reminder that we all disappoint ourselves, we all disappoint each other, and we all disappoint God. Christmas brings out the loser in each of us, the part of us desperate for approval and acceptance and for everything to be better than it really is.
The Christmas promise, however, is that our situation doesn’t need to be better than it is for God to act mightily in it. God can enter any situation, no matter how messed up, and transform our brokenness into a stage for his glory.
We all prefer the nativity scene cleaned up nice, covered with a little whitewash, with Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the Magi as noble and polished and tranquil as can be, framed in twinkling lights and sparkling tinsel and quaint nostalgia and forced smiles, but don’t do it. For heaven’s sake, don’t do it. For Christ’s sake, don’t do it. Leave it alone, as it is in the Bible. Leave it dirty. Leave it messy. Leave it stressful. Leave it awkward. Leave it filled with real, broken human lives. Leave it as God intended it to be.
Then watch Jesus enter into the messiness of real, broken human lives. Watch him give healing to the sick, purpose to the aimless, hope to the frazzled, new life to the otherwise dead. For the only way to be pulled out of our brokenness is for Jesus to enter it, just as it is.
Let us pray.
Here we are God. You know us just as we are. You know our hurts. You know our faults. You know our fears. You know our ambitions. You know the coldness of our hearts. Thank-you for coming on that night so long ago. Come, Lord Jesus, this night. Cast out from us anything that is not of you. Fill us with your Holy Spirit. Send light and truth and peace and strength. Use our broken lives to reveal your power over the darkness of this world. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.