Adjusting to the New Reality? (A Sermon for Advent)

We live in a world where we are able to make changes, making all kinds of adjustments to all kinds of things to suit us. It might be changing homes, a job, career, the furniture, cars, or the tv channel. Sometimes, however, we must adjust to the way things are. There are things we cannot change or adjust, but rather we must adjust to. The pandemic has been one of those things for most of us. For some it is a medical diagnosis or the death of a loved one. There is nothing we could have done.

Which is God? Is God a notion we get to make adjustments to according to our desire and perceived benefit? Or is God a reality we must adjust to?

Keeping that question in mind, let’s go back to the first Christmas. Let’s see if everyone adjusted.

Herod

Herod did not adjust. Upon hearing from the magi that there was one “born king of the Jews,” he wanted this baby destroyed, worried that people might come consider this child to be the true king. Herod knew that he was king of the Jews only because the bigger power of Rome said he could be. He had no right to that title otherwise. Herod was paranoid of losing power.

Does concern for power keep us from adjusting to the reality of God?

The Religious Leaders.

The religious leaders were able to tell Herod that the messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, just down the road from where they were, in Jerusalem. So why didn’t they go? If anyone should have taken an interest in the possibility that the messiah had been born, it is the religious leaders. But they didn’t go. Why not? We can just imagine their conversations around the water cooler: “What do you make of those magi?” “You mean those foreigners who have nothing to do with us, with our God, and our messiah?” “Yeah, the messiah will rescue us from foreigners, right!?” “Aren’t they astrologers? They don’t know our Scriptures!” “How could these guys possibly know anything about anything? What could we possibly learn from them?!” “Nothing!”

And so the religious leaders of the day missed the biggest event in the history of religion, in fact the history of the world.

Does pride in what we think we know about God keep us from adjusting to the reality of God?

Joseph and Mary

For Mary and Joseph, a pregnancy was a reality that they had to adjust to. Mary’s baby bump was no mere figment of her imagination. She really was pregnant, and the baby really was not Joseph’s.

There would have been a great temptation to not adjust. In fact Joseph at first did not and could not. He required the visit of an angel to change his mind. Why? The whole thing would have seemed crazy, and to Joseph, Mary would have seemed crazy.

Perhaps we sometimes imagine that young women like Mary were hoping to be the one to experience a virgin conception in fulfilment of Isaiah 7:14:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.

Isaiah 7:14 (NIV)

In the original languages, the word virgin can also be translated young woman which is how some translations have rendered it. Perhaps more importantly, when you read through the full prophecy of Isaiah chapter seven, we find that it is a prophecy that would have been fulfilled in Isaiah’s day. The sign wasn’t that a virgin would conceive, but that what God said would happen back then would happen before a newborn child could discern between right and wrong, that is, in a few years. Therefore no one in Joseph and Mary’s day were expecting a virgin conception, including Joseph and Mary. To the Christian looking back it all makes sense, as does Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14, but to Joseph and Mary, this pregnancy would have been unexpected, crazy, and terrifying!

Joseph was clued in by an angel. Would anyone else have had that help?

Does worry about what people think of us keep us from adjusting to the reality of God?

Where do we find ourselves in the Christmas story?

Are we like Mary and Joseph who were able to adjust to the new reality of this baby named Jesus?

Whatever people may think of us, the reality of this baby points us to the reality of the opportunity for reconciliation with God, the reality of the better way of Jesus in the way of love, and the reality of a better future. This baby points to the reality of God’s love. The idea of the Creator of the universe coming to us in a strangely-conceived-baby-laid-in-a-manger might seem crazy at first glance, but can we, like Mary and Joseph, let God be God, and let Him love us?

Or are we like Herod and the religious leaders?

If we were to attempt to adjust God to make God better, to change God so that God would be a better God for us, it can’t be done. If we think it can, then perhaps we have a faulty notion of God. The God who is, the God who has revealed in Jesus that the divine is for us and not against us, is a reality we cannot change, but a reality worth adjusting to, and worth celebrating.

Herod and a Ruined Christmas.

You may have the kind of Christmas that is not Christmas-card-perfect. There are a great many things that can be the “ruin” of Christmas. We fret over things like finding that perfect gift, or having the perfect family gathering around the perfect Christmas dinner enjoying perfect relationships. Reality may stay from those ideals. For others, Christmas is ruined by grief. There is one less setting at the table. Christmas may not be Christmas-card-perfect for you this year.

You would not be the first to have a ruined Christmas. Herod ruins a perfect first Christmas for Mary, Joseph, and many others as we discover from a Bible passage we often associate with Christmas:

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:16–18 NRSV)*

Christmas is ruined. However, was it even a Christmas-card-perfect Christmas before Herod’s killing spree? Rumours would have been swirling about Mary and the legitimacy of this child. Remember that Jospeh needed an angel visitation to be convinced. Bethlehem was an ancestral home, but Mary and Joseph were hardly home for the holidays. There was no room at the inn. There was no family gathering, in fact the first to show up were complete strangers. Meanwhile Mary and Joseph were bringing a child into a rather unsettled world. Roman power is in the background, indeed it is why they end up in Bethlehem. When Rome spoke, Jews jumped. At least, according to the Romans. Jewish people-power is in the foreground. Herod was stuck between Roman leaders, for the Romans said he could be king, and the Jewish people, many of whom were saying he ought not to be king. These were dangerous times and revolution hung in the air. Thanks to Herod the Christmas story ends with Mary and Joseph forced to flee to Egypt as refugees with their baby. Thanks to Herod the Christmas story ends with the grief of many mums and dads who lost their babies. The first Christmas was anything but Christmas-card-perfect. Herod made sure of that.

How do you define the perfect Christmas? Is it the perfect family with perfect people with perfect lives gathering for the perfect dinner, carrying out the the perfect family traditions, enjoying perfect Christmas baking while opening perfect Christmas gifts fetched from under a perfectly decorated tree? A lot of that stuff doesn’t happen for a lot of people at all, never mind perfectly. For some people, “Merry Christmas” is met with “I think I’d rather give it a pass this year.” For many people Christmas is a hot mess. Life itself just gets too messy for Christmas.

What really makes for the perfect Christmas? Christmas is not the celebration of sentimental moments that are free of mess. Christmas is the celebration of the moment God stepped into our mess. Every year around Christmas we mention Herod. Herod reminds us of the mess God stepped into through Jesus. So if your Christmas is messy and less that Christmas-card-perfect, celebrate God who steps into our mess. Let’s focus, not on the celebrations themselves, but on Him Whom we celebrate.

Herod ruined Christmas for himself. Look again at Herod. How was his first Christmas? Herod was self-focused. Herod was paranoid of losing a throne he did not belong on. Indeed historians tell us that Herod was so paranoid he had his favourite wife and some of his own children killed. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Herod was troubled by the news from the magi and indeed sought to destroy the one “born king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2). Herod knew he was king of the Jews thanks to Roman benevolence, but not by birth. It is no surprise that such a self focused person as Herod would have trouble celebrating the birth of Jesus. Nothing ruins Christmas like a focus on oneself, and one’s own power. Such a self-focus causes us to reject, rather than celebrate, Jesus.

God stepped into a messy world that first Christmas. But Herod was too self-focused to notice. God steps into our mess, but if we insist on being front and centre, if we insist on being the hero of our story, we won’t notice. We try to be the hero when we try to fix every problem. We try to be the hero when we act as if life can go on without God in it. We put ourselves front and centre by trying to put God in our debt, as if He owes us something. When we think of Santa Claus, we may think we are owed not a lump of coal, but a good gift, for we have not been naughty, but nice. However, the original Saint Nicholaus gave gifts, not because he owed the help to anyone but because people needed help. His inspiration was Jesus. God will never be in our debt, but He will give us the gift of eternal life, not because we are owed it, but because we are in need of reconciliation with Him. Christmas could have turned out very differently for Herod had he thought about himself less, and thought about God more.

If we are really focused on the birth of Jesus, rather than on the celebrations themselves, or on ourselves, then Christmas can never be ruined. No one can ever take away God’s Christmas gift to us.

*(The magi were most likely not included in the manger scene we envision in Christmas scenes. They likely arrived later. However, they are very much part of Jesus’ infancy so we traditionally associate them with Christmas.)