Across the 11 years that I’ve served as your pastor, the Christmas season has wrought a couple frustrating mishaps in ministry.
Along about 2015 came the Great Glitter Debacle. Sparkling bits of tiny glitter were key ingredients in a faith-formation craft project set up for the church youth, and our Fellowship Hall would serve as their art studio. Suffice it to say that the crisp edges of red and green construction paper in no way marked the limits of glitter’s easy spread.
And to this day, if you look carefully, carried there on the sticky, rubber soles of somewhat-smelly sneakers, bits of glitter still gleam in the morning sun, trapped deep in coarse fibers of the carpeting in the Overflow Room, vacuum-resistant relics of the Great Glitter Debacle of Christmas 2015.
A couple Yuletides later, the routine, annual delivery of poinsettias went horribly, fatally wrong. The hard-working delivery person, for reasons still unknown, unloaded all the blooming red beauties into one of the classrooms downstairs, in the basement – and didn’t bother to tell anyone they were there.
When we eventually found the poinsettias about a week later, all the once-thirsty, now-drooping plants were dead, and bone dry was every ounce of their potting soil. Sure wish we’d known they were down there! Oh, well: It is what it is! Thus befell the Infamous Poinsettia Crisis of Christmas 2018.
But those challenges really were no-big-deals compared to Christmas 2022, which in my book of memories forever will remain a red-hot mess of spectacular disarray and remarkable disappointment, upon which I’m not yet mentally ready to lay a witty name. Let’s fill in the blanks.
Faint lines of pale pink and blue, appearing on an at-home COVID test a mere five days before Christmas, marked the start of a long, hard, two-week slog of mask-wearing, self-isolation, and binge-watching Netflix.
With their fall semesters completed, our two college kids – one a freshly minted graduate – had both come home, reuniting with the one little birdie who remains in our nest – for at least a few more months, anyway.
Meanwhile, my wife, Julie, though on vacation from her job, was working overtime in the manse kitchen, baking and blending her usual, seasonal Chex Mix of sweets, indulgences, and delectables. For me, a Christmas Eve service loomed large on the horizon, soon to rise – hopefully without incident – from the ashes of the Great Glitter Debacle of Christmas 2015 and the Infamous Poinsettia Crisis of Christmas 2018.
But this year, for me anyway, there’d be no chestnuts roasting on an open fire. For me there’d be little appetite for salty chips, savory dips, spicy summer sausages, and tangy cheese balls. The family remember-when-ing, and yarn-spinning, and memory-making, would continue without me just a floor below. Standing proudly in the pulpit, as you each lit your hand-held candle, would have to wait for another Christmas Eve. For me, it truly would be a silent night – two weeks of silent nights, as it turned out!
A mere handful of days after our Blue Christmas Service on the final Sunday of Advent, COVID began wreaking havoc on both my body and spirit, sapping energy and fogging thought, depressing spirit and opening wide the floodgates of free-flowing sobs and fast-rushing tears.
A Hallmark, Currier-and-Ives Christmas it was not.
Yet through it all – or at least in a scattering of particularly rich and intimate moments, these I recalled to mind and therefore dared to hold out hope: God’s mercies are fresh and new with every dawn, and the Lord works together unto good in the midst of all things – at least that’s what I tell folks. And apparently time had come for me to walk the walk – with Jesus, with Mary, and with Joseph. And so also, maybe, with some of you.
Thus the Holy Spirit daily pointed me to a biblical ending of the Christmas story that most of us just as soon could do without: the Gospel’s lumps of coal in the stocking that seemingly are the final scenes of Matthew chapter 2, our Scripture lesson for this morning.
Fresh on the heels of Matthew’s heart-warming account of obedient Wise Men following a star and offering the newborn King gifts of gold, frankincense, myrrh, the evangelist’s holy-day party soon ends, and life gets quite messy for Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. And their story becomes quite bloody. Without so much as even a veiled hint of warning, the name of Jesus – Emmanuel, God-With-Us; Dayspring, Desire of Nations, Root of Jesse – becomes synonymous with another, less-glorious designation: “Frightened, Homeless Refugee Running for His Life.”
Through absolutely no fault of their own, Jesus and his exhausted parents stumble hard over a long string of raw, dark nights that relentlessly eclipse the family soul, each flicker of heavenly light snuffed out by the vise-like constriction of gut-wrenching uneasiness and deep-seated fear – whipped up like a vile witch’s brew by Herod’s genocide of little boys and the Holy Family’s stealthy, angel-fueled escape to Egypt.
Cooped up by COVID – like Mary, earlier in her story, pondering all these things; for me, pondering the muffled chords of holly-jolly merriment rising from the living below me, I couldn’t help but feel sweaty, anxious moments overcoming this weak, vulnerable, still-wet-behind-the-ears family – when bumps in the night and gravelly crunches of sinister footsteps make Joseph jump and conjure dreaded encounters with boogey men lurking under children’s beds.
I couldn’t help but imagine long, fitful nights of tossing and turning, the sleep of heavenly peace proving elusive for Mary and Joseph.
I couldn’t help but picture flashes of Mary arm-cradling her newborn son, quietly weeping bitter tears of shock and dismay, fed with the kindling of fears known and unknown, real and perceived.
Matthew punctuates his plot with icy snowballs of harsh reality that hit us where it hurts. Nevertheless, be of good courage and listen now with eyes and ears, heart and soul, for the Word of the Lord, as you gingerly step into the after-Christmas experience of life for Mary, Joseph, and their Holy Child of Bethlehem.
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said,
“Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”
Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” 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.”
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.”
Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.” (Matthew 2:13-23)
A couple days before a COVID test came back positive, thus beginning my self-imposed exile of illness, a per-chance personal devotion would prove no mere coincidence.
Through the pen of author Sarah Young and her book “Jesus Calling,” writing in the first-person voice of Jesus, here’s what turned out to be accurately prophetic, immensely helpful, and incredibly comforting:
“When you are plagued by a persistent problem – one that goes on and on – view it as a rich opportunity. An ongoing problem is like a tutor who is always by your side. The learning possibilities are limited only by your willingness to be teachable.
“In faith, thank Me for your problem. Ask Me to open your eyes and your heart to all that I am accomplishing through this difficulty. Once you have become grateful for a problem, it loses its power to drag you down. Quite the contrary, your thankful attitude will lift you up into heavenly places with Me.
“From this perspective, your difficult can be seen as a slight, temporary distress that is producing for you transcendent Glory never to cease!”
With equivalent thanksgiving for Tylenol, antibiotics, inhaled corticosteroids, and fifths of Christian Brothers brandy, I’m also strangely grateful that God allowed me to fall ill. For it facilitated a far-flung journey of different perspective, stumbling along right behind the Holy Family, amid a winter of discontent and dis-ease. That virus I so faithfully tried to avoid ended up, by God’s grace, being the Jesus-dubbed “tutor” who for two weeks remained by my side in full teaching mode. This is what I learned:
That such terrible, awful things happen to the innocent – and have always happened to the innocent – is the very reason why the Son of God becomes Emmanuel, God with Us. He comes, so that the day will come, when there’ll be no more deer-in-the-headlight stares from the refugee, the terrorized, and the trafficked; the displaced, the battered, and the bulled; the jobless, the unwanted, the unloved; the outcast living on the edge, the lost and alone going nowhere; the sick, and the dying, and all those other poor souls who hunger for an end to it all .
Jesus comes, so that the day will come, when there’ll be no more hopeless, blank, glassy-eyed stares from scared, homeless children who – even when they look to mom or dad for comfort – see only their own terror reflected back from their parents’ eyes.
As the song goes, there’s no place like home for the holidays.
And few other times of the year are as tied with going home, or with being home, or with Norman Rockwell-like homey-ness as Christmas is.
So maybe why Matthew’s Christmas story makes us fidget and squirm with the itchiness of a heavy, wool, turtleneck sweater is because Matthew confronts us with our own homelessness, which by the Holy Spirit intimately and inextricably binds us to the homelessness of God in Christ Jesus.
If you’re labored to keep Christ in Christmas, and remembered the “reason for the season,” and, with most of the decorations taken down and packed away for another year, now take on the work of Christmas for still another year, then you’re going to have to wrestle with the truth that the Word of God Made Flesh becomes homeless for the sake of your homelessness and mine.
Which really is good news, because the muscular left hook of evil that punches hard the Holy Family is the same evil that pummels you, me, and every other part of the Body of Christ like a ton of falling bricks, disrupting our lives and qualifying each of us for refugee status. God the Father knows the helplessness of those homeless times, because God the Son – Emmanuel, God-with-us – has firsthand experience with helplessness and homelessness.
So, in those horrible moments when evil has you and me on the run, the Christ – Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-Us, opens wide the gate of shelter from the storm.
From the beginning, Jesus has been with God.
But then, for a time, Jesus wasn’t “with God” but rather “with us” — Emmanuel, God with us!
Elsewhere, the Gospel distinguishes Emmanuel as God “pitching his tent among us.” Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-Us, comes on a kind of divine camping adventure in desolate, boundary waters far from home. And obviously, when you camp, you know you’re not home. Camping is temporary, often a little inconvenient, sometimes wet and waterlogged,occasionally even risky and dangerous.
And that’s what Jesus does for us. He leaves the comfort of his true home in the full glory of the Creator and the Spirit and pitches his tent here, in this world, in our neighborhood – making himself homeless for a while and thus opening up the way to an eternal home for us all.
Hard as it is to hear and wrap your head around – much as it throws a wet blanket on the parties and kills the holiday buzz, the only way life can ultimately triumph through the work of that little Child of Bethlehem is if first sin and death are met squarely and head on. You really can’t unwrap the joy of Christ’s advent without also ripping off the Band Aid of Christ’s sorrow. Jesus’s long-anticipated arrival – smack-dab in the middle of such suffering, sin and death — is the only hope we’ve got for now or any time soon.
The Lord’s advent here on this earth – into this life chock-full of those many things that vex and annoy, grieve and hurt –tells us that it is not angels and heavenly realms whom Jesus chooses as neighbors. Jesus comes down to dwell particularly so among all those folks who weep without end – all the Rachels past, present, and future whose lives are nothing more than a never-ending streams of bitter tears.
As a new year begins, we take a deep breath in grim reflection and anticipation of all that can, did, and will go wrong in our lives and in the world.
Until Christ comes again, we know it won’t all get better. There’ll still be glitter debacles and poinsettia crises, war and threats of war, insurrections and uprisings, rampant gas-lightings and festering injustices.
But if that Child of Bethlehem is who Herod and those Wise Men dimly suspect he just might be, then hope endures through even the darkest of times. The end of the story is life. The end of the story is resurrection! When we’ve cried ourselves out in this old world, there will be One who will wipe every tear from every eye.
It’s not always a wonderful life in the here and now, but it surely will be so in God’s what-is-to-come – all thanks to Mary’s baby boy! And so, with full assurance of that good news of great joy for all people, through every dark night of your own soul, you can proclaim with the cherubim and seraphim forever and always:
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill to all.
Those are my holy lessons of COVID.
It surely wasn’t a favorite teacher of my own choosing, and I’ll still continue to wash my hands regularly and don a facemask appropriately. In no way am I advocating for you to start licking doorknobs in hopes of becoming sick and having a spiritual awakening like mine.
What I am urging you to do is to be still, and to let God be God in the midst of your trial and tribulation, and indeed expect, one day, one way or another, that Jesus the Christ unexpectedly and surprisingly really will work together unto good. And it’ll be no Christmas mishap.
Ancient words, ever true. It is what it is – until it isn’t . In, with, and through Christ.
Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message during worship on Sunday, January 15, 2023, at First Presbyterian Church in Waukon, Iowa. Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by M. Eugene Boring, Scott Hoezee, and Sarah Young inform the message.