A little late.
This was the sermon from the fourth week of Advent at First Pres, Boonville.
The text is Luke 1:26-38.
Did you ever notice that every time you’re going through some major transition in life, especially if you’re getting married, suddenly everyone you meet somehow magically turns into an expert on the subject? Suddenly, everyone has that one piece of wisdom that’s going to make the whole situation clear. Suddenly, everyone’s got a PhD in wedding planning, right? They think they’re so wise and insightful but they almost always end up being obvious and inane: “Make sure the flowers don’t clash with the bridesmaid’s dresses!” And they all start the same: “One word of advice…”
“One word of advice: don’t pick a DJ who will play ‘Bootylicious’ while your Grandma is still in the room.”
“One word of advice: Kanye West’s ‘Gold Digger’ is not an appropriate song for your first dance.”
Really? Thank you. I don’t know what I’d do without you.
Nobody likes it when people do that, yet everybody still does it. I’m no exception. I get to work with a lot of couples as they plan their big wedding day. And, like everyone else, I’ve got my “one word of advice” for every couple that comes through my office. I like to think it’s brilliant, but maybe it’s just as annoying as everyone else’s. It goes like this: “The key to the perfect wedding day is imperfection.”
When I see these shows like ‘Bridezillas’ and ‘Say Yes to the Dress’, it strikes me that a lot of people out there are obsessed with having “the perfect wedding day”. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t exist. Something will go wrong. Count on it.
On the day that Sarah and I got married, we used recorded music and thought we had it timed and coordinated perfectly. Unfortunately, there was a miscalculation and the music stopped while Sarah was still halfway down the aisle. What do you do then? Start over? “OK everybody, take two! Back to the beginning. We didn’t get it right. Cue bridesmaids!” No, not really. You just roll with it. As long as everybody gets there in one piece and says, “I do,” it counts as a successful wedding. Everything else is just icing on the cake (no pun intended).
You’ll have to excuse me. I’ve got weddings on the brain today because today is my anniversary. Sarah and I got married seven years ago today. But this idea of imperfection being the key to perfection doesn’t just apply to weddings. As it turns out, there’s also no such thing as the perfect car, house, job, family, or holiday (especially Christmas).
People tend to get especially funny about this idea of ‘perfection’ around the holidays. As a society, we’re so doped up on nostalgia during the holidays that we can’t see the forest for the (Christmas) trees. We sing silent night by candlelight around the sweet little Nativity Scene at church. Perfect, right? Actually, no.
Wondrous? Yes. Beautiful? Absolutely. But not perfect. This is an important fact to remember whenever we get down on ourselves because our Christmas, our families, or our lives don’t look like what we see in that warm, candlelit manger. Here’s the thing: those people around the manger didn’t have the perfect Christmas either. In fact, a close evaluation of the Christmas story itself will show us just how ‘imperfect’ this whole experience really was.
At Christmas, we celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation, where God comes to meet us in the middle of the blood, sweat, and tears of our messy and imperfect lives. When we come to the point of being open to the presence of that mystery in our mess, then we can say that we’ve truly understood the meaning of Christmas.
Let’s look at the biblical text. Today’s reading from the gospel according to Luke is usually referred to as ‘The Annunciation’ because this is where the angel Gabriel makes an ‘announcement’ to the Virgin Mary that she is pregnant and will soon have a baby. Mary is from Nazareth, a little hick town way out in the middle of nowhere that was probably less than half the size of Boonville. As we’ve mentioned before, the country she lived in was at that time occupied by the Roman Empire.
Living in a society that was hardly ‘empowering’ to women, Mary’s only hope for a secure future lay in finding a good husband and having lots and lots of male children to care for her when she got old. The price she had to pay in exchange for this security was her body. She was considered to be the property of her husband. Her value as a human being was defined by her virginity. If any man was to make a lifetime investment in her, he would want assurances that he would have exclusive access to her. Any evidence to the contrary (i.e. getting pregnant before the wedding by someone other than her fiancé) would be grounds for calling off the whole thing. The next step would probably be a public execution. Some might even view that as merciful, because it would save her family from shame and spare her from a life on the streets as a beggar or prostitute.
By the way, I should mention that Mary was probably somewhere around 13 or 14 years old while all of this was happening. I’ll let that sink in for those of you who have ever had young teenagers. Mary was an unwed teenage mother with no conceivable future from a backward hick town in an occupied country. Does this still sound like the perfect Christmas to you?
Nevertheless, the angel Gabriel begins their conversation by saying, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” What kind of opening line is that? In the midst of all this mess, knowing the scandal she was about to face, how could this angel have the audacity to call her “favored” and say, “The Lord is with you?” It doesn’t make sense.
We’re not the only ones to notice the absurdity of the situation either. The text tells us that Mary herself was “perplexed” and asking questions like, “How can this be?” Her faith was not blind and unquestioning. She didn’t walk around like some mystical saint with a halo over her head. Mary was a realist. She was just as confused as you or I would be in her shoes.
Nothing about her situation made any sense. The angel’s message went against everything she believed in, morally and theologically. The angel was asking the impossible. Yet, as a voice told Mary in verse 37, “nothing will be impossible with God.” Through the presence of that great divine mystery (which we call “God”) in the messiness her life, Mary encountered infinite possibility and creativity. “Nothing is impossible.”
Her risky response, “Let it be,” opened her up to actualizing this potential in her own life. This openness, more than religious dogma or morality, is what real faith is all about. Are you open to the divine mystery being present in the messiness of your life? To take the risk of disaster and damnation is to make a leap of faith. “Let it be” is a statement so bold and so brave that the Beatles even wrote a song about it: “When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, ‘Let it be.’” “Let it be” was her response to the angel’s invitation. I think John Lennon perhaps understood something of the power in those words.
After Mary had spoken these words, everything was the same yet everything was different. New life had begun to grow inside of her. When the time was right, this new life was born into the world: Jesus (Yeshua, salvation, deliverance, liberation).
Celebrating Christmas is about looking for the mystery in the mess. It’s not about perfection in holiday nostalgia, moral uprightness, or religious dogma. It’s about saying “Yes” and “Let it be” to the limitless possibilities in front of you. It’s about staying open to the new life that is waiting to be born in you.
Be open to the angel’s invitation when it comes to you in your messy life. It might not look like a winged messenger from heaven, but it might show itself in a sudden opportunity to help someone, welcome someone, trust someone, forgive someone, or love someone. When it happens, you’ll know. In that moment, say in your heart, “Let it be” and watch new life grow in and be born through you.
Be open to the mystery in the mess. Embrace the divine possibility in the earthly imperfection and take that leap of faith, saying, “Let it be.”
And have yourself a messy little Christmas.