“Ahh, Christmas Eve, the stuff of perfect memories.” you think to yourself. The family gathered ’round, the fabulous food, the wonderful company, the joy, the cheer, the peace on earth and good-will among men … So where is it? Your sister and brother-in-law are in the living room arguing again. Uncle Larry has had too much eggnog and has started in on his regular set of off-colour jokes. Grandma is in the corner trying to shelter herself from all the noise and the fury of your darling children running around like little whirling dervishes, screaming and fighting over the latest toy. Your husband said that the turkey was too dry. You couldn’t eat the vegetables because they turned to mush as you were getting everything ready. The oven broke down and the pies are still frozen. So much for getting in the spirit and making things just right. Now if only you can get through the gift exchange you can call it a night and cut your losses. Just then you hear a bark and a howl as the cat and dog scare each other under the tree. In a flurry of claw and fur the tree comes down with a crash and the baby starts to cry. Merry Christmas everyone.
“Ho, ho, ho? No, no, not for everyone” Our fictitious story is both an expose of the painfully obvious, and a much needed reminder at this time of year. “The holidays are technically supposed to be this wonderful, joyous, relaxing time. And for most people it doesn’t end up anywhere near that,” Hamilton psychologist Dr. Karen Rowa was quoted. “The stress of preparing for the big day – in fact, the entire holiday season – brings out the worst in many families. The holidays are loaded with expectations (often unrealistic) – of oneself and others – leading to strain within families. Christmas has a way of highlighting every little dysfunctional and difficult relationship.”
But at least we can put that sort of thing aside for an hour or so, and all go to church where family relationships are always better. Right? Ho, Ho, Ho … No!
(18 ) “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.” says St. Matthew’s gospel. And then he goes into an account of a good man finding out that his wife is pregnant, but not from him. It is a Christmas tale of family heartache and misunderstanding, good people caught in a bad situation, a tale of expectations shattered. Were you disappointed when you heard it? Did you find yourself thinking “Where are the shepherds?” “What about the angels and the manger?” “Where is the beautiful family Christmas story we all know and love?”
It is still there – this is Christmas after all, and even the most dysfunctional families get a little reprieve somewhere in the press of the holidays. But if you want to get to the serene and holy story of the happy family in the stable you have to get past all the problems of real life first! Christmas is a holiday for families, but real families … families that bicker and argue, families that harbour hurt feelings and disappointments … true-to-life, honest-to-goodness real families – not picture perfect fairy tale families, like you only see on Christmas cards.
(18-20, 22-23) “When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit … All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us).
Christmas is the story of how a loving and perfect God became part of our broken and hurting family. It is not really the story of Mary and Joseph, or of shepherds and angels. It is the story of Immanuel – God with us – and how He has come miraculously. For here is a story you won’t find anywhere else. 800 year old prophecies being fulfilled. The creator being himself created. A virgin with child, a pregnancy without the prerequisites, a birth in a stable and a manger for a crib, angel hosts, heavenly choirs, and adoring shepherds, a mystery star in the heavens leading men from the east to come and worship an infant. It is a story which on the surface seems too incredible to be true, but which has rung true in the hearts of billions every time it is retold. This story is a miracle that still brings a small measure of peace on earth, and goodwill among men and women, who otherwise are so often frustrated and frazzled by the pace of life and expectations not met. It is a story that brings broken and hurting families back together.
But Christmas is also the story of how Immanuel has come with a purpose. (21) “She will bear a son,” the angel said, “and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” And this is without a doubt, the most important part of the story for each of our families today. This little child, of miraculous origin is here for an even more important reason than to make this evening warm and fuzzy for our families. He has become one of us to save us from our sin. That’s what his very name means Jesus – Jeshua – Joshua literally means “the Lord saves!” This Immanuel, God himself come among us in infant flesh, is here to save us from our sin.
It is precisely what we just finished singing only a few minutes ago in the second verse of What Child is This. “Even as he lies silent in the manger this child is pleading for sinners.” The process of our healing has begun, already this night. This is a baby on a mission. This is a new-born life with a very specific purpose. And it will not be finished until, as the verse continues, “He will be pierced by nail, and spear, he will bear the cross for me and for you.” (LSB #370 v.2) This is fullness of the gift of Christmas – a Saviour who died for our sins to defeat sin, death, and the devil once and for all. A Saviour who rose to life on the third day to bring life and healing to those who are broken and hurting. A Saviour who is God and man, who has come to restore us all to the heavenly family of our God and Father. Immanuel has come to save his people.
But who are his people? How far does the family extend? Am I really included? For the answer I direct you only a few short verses before our text for tonight. There Matthew begins his Gospel with the genealogy of Jesus. And it is a family line full of both good and bad, Jew and Gentile, people from all walks of life, all social strata. It is a family tree full of crazy uncles and dysfunctional relationships, full of open sinners and people wholly undeserving the honour of being a part of this Holy Family. These are the people he came from. These are the same kind of people he has come for. These are his people – you and your family (each and every one of them) – are his people.
Remember this dear friends – Christmas is the story of how Immanuel has come for You! (1 John 4:9-10) In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
Christmas is not about reliving a perfect memory, it’s not about being something or someone other than what we normally are. It is not about getting in the spirit and making things just right. For God has already done that for us, conceived in the Spirit, to come and make things right between us and God. True Christian joy – true Christmas joy – is both solemn and serious. It runs deep – through manger and cross and empty tomb. It knows suffering and sorrow and fear. It bears up under the stress and strain of family life, because it also knows that Jesus has come to be part of our family. And in him our family will be made whole once again.
So this Christmas let the turkey dry out and the vegetables turn to mush. Let the squabbles run their course and the children run wild. For our family is greater than this, and Christmas is more than these things. It is about Immanuel – God with us – God a central part of each and every one of our families. Therefore let us join together as the family of God in proclaiming: “Glory to the new-born King: Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!”