Sometimes arriving at the manger on Christmas Eve feels a bit like just barely sliding into home plate. When little ones are around, you have scurried about, making sure their tights and bowties are on, while trying to squeeze in one last family picture while everyone still looks nice. By now, you have probably served or been served a meal, purchased and wrapped gifts, prepped or cooked food for tomorrow, sent out cards, decorated the house, and run countless errands. And none of that includes the four hundred things that will be done in the next twenty-four hours. Arriving here and semi-put together is a minor victory, with the promise of a peaceful, beautiful hour of worship, before preparing for the chaos to resume tomorrow.
The unfortunate thing is that the story of tonight is not all that much less chaotic. Though we sing songs like Silent Night or Away in a Manger, or though we exchange cards with pastoral, peaceful settings, nothing about that night is silent. And I am pretty sure the little Lord Jesus makes lots of cries. The chaos of the holy family is not unlike the chaos in which we sometimes find ourselves. Remembering how scandalous Mary’s pregnancy and relationship with Joseph are, the chaos continues as Emperor Augustus sends out a decree that forces a very pregnant, uncomfortable Mary away from her hometown to the crowded city of Bethlehem. Before they can secure housing, Mary goes into labor. Not only is she dealing with the drama of delivering a child for the first time ever, she is delivering without so much as the comfort of a home. And then, just as they are trying to figure out nursing, and soothing, and the fear and wonder of parenting, along come some rowdy, likely filthy, shepherds, who have also not had a silent night. In fact, they have heard the terrifying chorus of the heavenly host and been told a most preposterous story – so much so, they gather up their livestock and come to see.
With all the chaos of our own lives, and with all the mayhem of that holy night, why do we do it? Why do we come to church at all? Maybe we come to church on this night specifically because on this night, more than perhaps any night ever, we find the wonderful revelation that God can take the messy chaos of life and make our mess holy. You see, as much as we love tonight’s beautiful story, what happens this night is beyond the chaos of registrations, no vacancies, angelic revelations, and messy encounters with strangers. In order to understand the enormity of what is happening tonight, we broaden our scope. Tonight’s event – the nativity of our Lord – is the culmination of a much larger story. The story started when there was no earth or humankind, when God formed the earth from the formless void. When we first sinned against God and were cast out of the garden, to when we kept sinning and God flooded the world, to our deliverance from the hands of pharaoh and our arrival in the promised land, to our sinful desires for a king that led to the eventual confiscation of our land. We are a people who have been oppressed so many times and rescued so many times we can barely count. And in that rollercoaster of a relationship with our God, as we failed time and again, God, who never gives up and never cedes love, does something unheard of: takes on human flesh, comes to us in the form of a vulnerable child, with the plan of redeeming us forever and granting us eternal life.
Maybe we come to church tonight because tonight is about God’s unending, undying, unfailing, uncompromising love for us. Despite centuries of chaos, disobedience, and failures, God shows up tonight in a mighty way. Despite the chaos of the times and of this night, God shows up among the outcast. Despite the chaos of our own times, in our seeming inability to tend to those most outcast, God comes once more to redeem us. We come to church tonight because we long to grasp the enormity of God’s love for us, the extents to which God will go for us, and the hope which only God can give to us.
But the news is even better than that. I do not believe the beauty of tonight is in trying to find a holy moment, where God’s love speaks to us in an otherwise chaotic life. In fact, you might not find that moment tonight because despite the fact that you were physically able to get here, your mind may still be somewhere else. The good news is that is okay. The deep, lasting peace of this night is not found in a single church service (though I must say, the service certainly helps). The deep, lasting peace we are looking for comes from the reality that we do not find God’s love and peace in spite of the chaos of life. Tonight teaches us that God hallows the chaos of life.
Based on our standards, God should have placed this precious child – the God incarnate – in the wealthiest, most well-guarded palace, where a person of great wealth could have given the baby everything the baby needed. A person of power could have protected the child, brought honor to the child, raised the child up to assume the power of a Messiah. If we had something so precious, we certainly would have worked to find the best of what we have to protect that preciousness. And yet, God takes on flesh in an unmarried, inconsequential woman of little means. God takes on flesh amidst the common people, being born in the lowliest of estates. God takes on flesh and announces the news not to kings and rulers, but to shepherds – those disregarded by society as being of little import. From the very beginning, the extraordinary thing God does is done in the midst of the ordinary – worse yet, among the marginalized and outcast.
God takes the mess of life: our divisions, our stratifications by class, gender, and race, our subjugation of the poor, our inability to refrain from sin, our messes and chaos – and God makes our mess holy. God sanctifies our chaos, reminding us that in the midst of chaos, God is present. In the midst of chaos, God is doing a new thing through us. In the midst of chaos, God is love and makes us agents of love. I cannot promise that the chaos will not try to overtake you when you walk out the church door tonight. But just like you will find small glimpses tonight of the overwhelming love God has for you, you can find God present in the chaos of life too. God is continually breaking through, birthing in you Christ’s light and love, using you to make room in the world for the Christ child, using you to announce good news of great joy for all people. If that doesn’t break though the chaos, I don’t know what will! Amen.