Pastor of Decatur United Methodist Church
Growing up, Christmas Eve was a magical time. We would go to my grandparents’ house, my nana and pop-pop. We don’t have a huge family, but, as a child, this time always felt like huge celebration. We kids couldn’t wait to open gifts, the adults ate and drank and laughed, and wanted to get home early. Of course, traditions change, and as pastor, Christmas Eve has become very different for me.
But, several years ago my family experienced a very difficult Christmas. This was actually the first Christmas Hope and I shared as a married couple. My grandmother had been very sick for quite some time. She had a brain tumor and mixed with the treatments the last couple of years had been very difficult. Really the last eight years had been bad, ever since a “shadow” appeared on her brain. This shadow, which later turned into a tumor really affected my grandmother’s personality, causing depression, and later signs of dementia.
The rapid downturn in her health began just two weeks prior to our wedding. Had our wedding been a little earlier in May, perhaps she could have made it. This decline continued for the next six months. We knew this was the end. She was at home, old movies would play on the TV, but we knew that the end was near.
At the time I was working as part time youth director at small church outside of Chattanooga. And on Christmas Eve they had a midnight candlelight service. I was kind of lessons and carols service were different people would read scripture passage and reflection, and then the congregation would sing a hymn.
On this particular Christmas Eve, my mom, dad, uncles, grandfather, and I took turns in my grandmother’s room. Her breath was labored, and we knew it wouldn’t be long. We had already talked the funeral service with pastor, and we preparing for the end. This was the first time that I watched someone die, and on the cold afternoon my grandmother passed as I prayed in the living room.
Later that evening I went to church, read scripture, and gave a reflection as I intended to do. In those moments, I knew Christmas Eve and Christmas day would never be the same.
It almost goes without saying that what is supposed to be the happiest time of the year, is, for so many, the most difficult time of the year. Whether it is a recent divorce, strained relationships in your family, a recent diagnosis, a death in the family. This time of year can be so difficult. And if you lost a loved one around the holidays, this is something you are likely to recall each Christmas, no matter how many years pass.
For some this is the season of a full house, dinner parties, tacky Christmas sweaters, joys and lights, holiday cheer. But for others, the house seems empty, the party is missing a very important guest—an empty chair sits at the head of the table. No one knows just what to say, but the joy is just hard to find. At any moment the grief seems to come like a wave—no warning, but it overtakes.
I know for us, for this congregation, for those listening online, many of you are experiencing this reality very powerfully right now. Perhaps there are people in our midst that just find it too difficult to attend worship right now, because the pain going on in their lives is just too great to face Christmas lights and eggnog.
This pain, this loneliness, this is something I get. I think this is something we all will experience at some point in our lives. Perhaps this pain and loneliness is made worse because you know that your Christmas isn’t going to live up to the ideal perfect Christmas. Perhaps, Christmas for you this year looks nothing like images of Christmas you see in the movies or on television. For whatever reason, perhaps this year Christmas doesn’t look like you think it’s supposed to.
If that is the case. If you are experiencing grief, pain, depression, loneliness, guilt—I think that you are in good company. The first Christmas was not Christmas as imagined by Hallmark, Hollywood, and Coke-a-cola. The first Christmas was full of pain, loneliness, betrayal.
There are different accounts of this first Christmas found in the Bible, but this morning I want us to look at the way Matthew tells the story. We are going to be reading from Matthew 1 beginning in v.18. Here we read:
18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly.
Two people, Mary and Joseph—they were engaged to be married. Today, engagement is more just a time to plan a wedding; there is nothing binding about it, except for the money put down on an engagement ring. But when Mary and Joseph were engaged this was a legal arrangement. It was a legally binding marital stage that lasted from the acceptance of the marital relationship until bride moved to her husband’s household. In fact, the OT law treats this almost as legally binding as marriage. People’s reputations could suffer if it was dissolved. In a sense, it was almost as if Mary and Joseph were already married.
Then he finds out that she is pregnant, and he knows he is not the father. Joseph loved Mary and he wanted to do what was right, but he could not bring himself to continue along Mary as he thought that she was carrying another man’s child.
Can you imagine the hurt? Can you imagine the brokenness of this love? Can you imagine how hard this would have been? As you can see, this first Christmas was not picture perfect. Instead of making a big scene, Joseph decides that he is going to allow Mary to keep as much dignity as she can, so he plans to call off the engagement quietly. A broken heart; a broken engagement at Christmas.
And then Mary, imagine the hurt she is going through. She must be scared that she will left alone to raise a child alone. Surely her fiancé will not desire to raise another’s child. So the first Christmas, Mary prepares to give birth alone, to have an empty table, to be alone at Christmas.
I have to imagine that these characters, Mary and Joseph, know what it is like when you and I experience deep hurt in the holidays. They know what it is like to not have a picture perfect Christmas. Just as you know the hurt; they know the hurt, the pain, the confusion, the uncertainty of the future.
But even in the midst of the pain, even in the midst of the hurt, even in the midst of an imperfect Christmas, God is still working. We see this as Matthew continues to tell the story in verse 20. Remember Joseph is planning to call off the marriage, and here we read:
20 As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit.
What? Joseph must be thinking—Mary isn’t pregnant by another man? I’m not supposed to be afraid of marrying Mary? The child was conceived by the Holy Spirit? The confusion, the uncertainty that he was already feeling, I’m sure that it is worse now. Because this just doesn’t make sense. This just doesn’t happen. Joseph can deal with the grief, but now there is even more confusion.
Then the angel continues:
21 She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:
23 Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, And they will call him, Emmanuel. (Emmanuel means “God with us.”)
In the midst of the confusion, the hurt, the pain that Mary and Joseph were feeling, they get a message that in their baby God will be present with humanity. This isn’t a picture perfect Christmas, but now Joseph is seeing that even in the dysfunction, even in the grief, even in the loneliness God is somehow still working. Not only is God working in Joseph and Mary, but the angel speaks and tells Joseph that God is also working for all of humanity through them. That because of them and their faithfulness to God, the world will experience hope, the world will experience God.
In the darkness of the night, when Joseph thought that divorce was the only option—God shows up and says – in your home is Emmanuel – In your home “God is with us.”
This message that God is with us was not just for Joseph or just for Mary. The message is also for us.
I find that these days most people tend to have most things they need. In the midst of plenty it is easy to think that we don’t need anything else. It’s easy for me to think that I don’t need God. I think that it is easy for many of us, most of the time to not need a savior. When we have things together, it’s easy for us not to need Jesus.
But perhaps, this time of year, the varnish disappears. If you are experiencing hurt, loneliness, depression, disease, addiction, loss, pain during this supposedly happy season, you know your need for a savior. You know your need for comfort. You know your need for way through. If you can’t imagine feeling any different. If you can’t imagine feeling joy, you know you need something. You might not know what that something is. You might not know what that savior is, but you know you need something.
In these moments, I want you to know that God is with us.
God did not come into the world in the picture perfect manner—God did not enter the world through a picture perfect Christmas. God enters the world through pain, through suffering. God even enters the world through your hurt. This Christmas might not look perfect, but my prayer for you is that you listen to God called Emmanuel – The God called “God with us.”
In Jesus God has come near. Regardless of how you feel this Christmas; regardless of the loss or the pain; God is with you; God is with us.
Decatur United Methodist Church
Our hope is that these messages will be relevant in your life and encourage you in faith.