It’s the 4th Sunday of Advent and even we members of the Advent police who try to hold out on humming Christmas carols until the night of December 24 have been loosening our grip some. Advent focuses on preparing, of course, so you can’t just sit on your hands and wish those cookies to bake themselves; we don’t have wands to help us do that. If we want the holidays to be special—to be perfect—then, by God, we’ve got to get ready. It’s only 7 days away, so the time is now.
And our Gospel lesson shows the shift too. If you were paying close attention to the gospel reading, you’ll see it slipped in Matthew’s full birth story. It’s contained in a single verse. Joseph takes Mary as his wife, she bears a son and Joseph names him Jesus. That’s it in it’s entirety. Not much, I know, which is why we like Luke’s better with the donkey and the manger and angels and shepherds, the one we’ll hear next weekend. We’ll get there, I promise, but first we have to talk about Joseph and the lead up to Jesus’ birth.
Mary and Joseph are betrothed, promised to one another with initial vows already taken that they would be faithful to each other for the rest of their lives. They haven’t yet been married—similar to our engagement process—but unlike our day, they cannot back out without significant cultural and legal ramifications. But that’s the furthest thing from their minds anyway. They are over the moon for each other, and imagining the life they will have together as Joseph works in the simple carpentry shop and Mary caring for their home. Soon enough children would come in to the picture. They envision the connections in the community with neighbors and relatives gathering for celebrations and parties and watching their children at the equivalent of the local soccer field. They’ll have a simple life to be sure, yet it will be filled with love and joy and contentment.
But one day that all goes south. Mary turns up pregnant before the marriage, and Joseph knows the child she carries is not his. His dreams become nightmares as the simple life he hoped for becomes exponentially more complicated and shrouded by a scandal. The perfect image in his mind gets obliterated, and he tries to figure out what he should do to just put this all behind him and move on as best he can.
He has two real options, according to the law. He can have Mary stoned to death, but that doesn’t sit well with him; her loves her. He can’t do that. So he chooses Option 2, divorcing her, breaking their betrothal which would result in her never being able to marry any one else since she would be seen as tainted. Matthew tells us Joseph wants to do this quietly, not making a big show of it, to lessen the impact on Mary as much as possible, because he loves her.
Last week I got a text from my brother reminiscing about my mom. He wrote, “Today would have been the day. Legs crossed, coffee in hand, talking to [her sister] Joyce when she realizes that there are only 15 days to Christmas. Then the sprint to be sure she got everything for everybody by the 24th.” Christmas at my childhood home embodied frenetic extravagance, Mom wanting all of us to have a joy-filled experience on Christmas morning. This included not only the massive shopping trips to our local mall, but deep cleaning the house and often beginning home improvement projects in mid-December. There was the baking dozens and dozens of cookies, and enlisting all of her children to wrap gifts—sometimes even your own without knowing it since gifts were often placed in nondescript boxes. We had to help put up decorations and plan the holiday meals for 20+ guests. She wanted everything to be perfect.
I am my mother’s son. While I don’t wait until December 10th to begin preparing for Christmas—this working on the holiday thing means I can’t procrastinate—I want it to be perfect. I actually contemplated beginning a painting project at the rectory this weekend—coming off a week with three concerts and a gymnastics meet and with four sermons to preach over the next 8 days. I’ve got cookies to bake—many of them my mother’s recipes—and decorations to put up. There’s an image in my head of how it is supposed to be, and I want to create that image for my family.
And try as I might, I won’t make it. It won’t be perfect—the new game under the tree will need batteries that we don’t have on hand, or the cookies won’t taste like I remember, or most likely I’ll be tired from the late night service and falling asleep on the recliner. The pristine images won’t become reality no matter how much I long for them to happen.
Perhaps you can relate. It’s a common enough experience, I suspect—at least I hope I’m not the only one who struggles with this—wanting the “perfect Christmas.” And instead of finding it, we see the ways in which we have failed to achieve it.
Failure. Oh, it’s lurking there in the background in the Christmas season. From buying that sweater a size too small to burning the spritz cookies, or forgetting that favorite decoration or something else. And we can recognize that’s exactly what Joseph is feeling too. He had selected the perfect woman to be his bride, but it all turned out wrong, and so he decided he had to divorce her.
Until that dream. An angel comes in the cover of night to him as he slept with a heavy heart and a restless mind. “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” The angel tells him, as Prof. Aaron Klink puts it, “‘I know this is not what you expected Joseph, but it is going to be OK. God is about to do something wonderful despite the fact that according to Jewish custom and law you are in a rather socially unacceptable situation.’”
Proc Klink continues, “That is the message … this [story] brings—that unexpected things, things outside of convention can often be wonderful signs that God is at work. Amid all our less-than-perfect-Christmases, the Christmas trees that are not quite as perfect as we want them to be, the lives that are not as perfect as we want them to be, God does something new.”
But to get there we have to let go of our perfect images and trust that God will do that new thing. It’s called grace and redemption. A light that breaks in to our world, that breaks in to our hearts.
But it means we need to realizes that our preconceived ideas of perfection are actually quite harmful. That perhaps, perhaps in the midst of the less-than-perfect we are able to find life—an unexpected life, to be sure, but one with much more depth and feeling. Seeing that it’s not about the decorations as much as time with each other. Or that the change in plans due to the unexpected hospitalization leads to a closer relationship.
I think one of the marks of discipleship is simply to do this, to let go and trust that God is at work even in the less-than-perfect lives we live. In fact, I think we need to realize that God only works in that milieu. Mary getting pregnant before the wedding. Joseph wanting to divorce her. Tromping off to Bethlehem where the only place they can find is a barn. The Son of God born amongst donkeys and cows. A savior who himself will face a cross. Again and again God works in ways that boggle our minds—that would never be components of our perfect dreams—and through them brings grace and joy and peace to our imperfect world.
So on this last Sunday of Advent, as you struggle to get it all done and be fully prepared, may you know that you don’t have to be perfect. May you see in the less-than-ideal the signs of God’s Spirit beginning to do something new. May you find peace—and with it—the true meaning of Christmas, that a savior will be born who will be called Emmanuel, God with us, and that God remains with us no matter what. And may you know deep in your soul that what we need most to prepare for in the remaining days of Advent is our hearts and to have them ready to receive with joy the birth of this child who showers us with his love. Amen.