Have you ever felt the pressure to be perfect (or the pressure to appear to be perfect, even if you are not)? This pressure comes down on us in many different forms. For some, it might be related to performance at work or at school. For others, it might be the pressure to have a perfect body. It might also be the pressure to live up to a strict moral code or to be the perfect churchgoer.
For some strange reason, I think many of us have this vaguely-defined idea in our heads about what it means to “have it all” or “have it all together.” We tend to think that if we want to be accepted, then we have to be acceptable according to some outside standard of beauty or performance.
I’d like to test this theory this morning as we examine the lives of two people whose lives were far from perfect. The first is Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah the priest, and the other is Mary, who we all know as the mother of Jesus.
Elizabeth, we know, was a good-hearted person, but she had a problem: she was getting on in years and she couldn’t have children. While this can be devastating for families in any place and time, it was doubly-painful for women in first century Judea. The most pressing concern for people in that society was the welfare of their nation as a whole. They thought of themselves as the chosen people. The most important thing, then, was to keep the chosen people going. Anything that interfered with that process was most troubling. So, if a woman was unable to bear children, people would see it as a sign that God had rejected her as a mother of the Jewish nation. It wouldn’t have mattered that Elizabeth and her husband were honest people with good reputations, most people would assume that they had committed some kind of unspeakable act that brought this dreadful curse upon their family. The village rumor-mill would have concocted all kinds of tantalizing tales of speculation over what that act might have been. According to Jewish law at that time, Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, would have been well within his rights to divorce her because of this. Elizabeth, because of her inability to have children, was certainly an object of shame and ridicule in the time and place where she lived.
Elizabeth’s life and family were about as far as one could be from perfect in first century Judea. Yet, even in her old age, after all hope had been lost, the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, and informed him that they could soon expect the arrival of a son, who would be named John. What’s more is that this was not to be any ordinary baby, but a prophet who would prepare the people of Israel for massive change.
As painful as the stigma of childlessness must have been for Elizabeth, it put her in the perfect position to help her cousin Mary, whose period of shame was just beginning.
As her story opens, Mary seems like she has it all together. Biblical scholars estimate that Mary was probably about 13 or 14 years old at the time. This was the typical age for young girls to get engaged in that society. They believed that women should start having children as soon as they were biologically able. We read elsewhere in the New Testament that her fiancé, Joseph, was a kind and just working man who loved her very much. Mary’s entire life was in front of her and things were looking pretty good.
Than an angel named Gabriel showed up and informed Mary that she was about to have a baby, just like her cousin Elizabeth. It’s ironic that the very news that took away the disgrace of Elizabeth would heap disgrace upon Mary. While Mary herself knew that she had committed no indiscretion, she had a hard time convincing others of that fact. Even Joseph didn’t believe her at first! Not only could Joseph call off their wedding, but he could have her legally put to death as an adulteress for fooling around with another man. As the weight of this news settled upon Mary’s shoulders, she packed up and made a hundred mile journey on foot as a lone, unwed, pregnant teenager to the only other person she knew would understand: Elizabeth.
Elizabeth knew what it was like to bear the disgrace of the community for no good reason. Furthermore, Elizabeth also knew what it was like to be pregnant for the first time under unusual circumstances. And so, sure enough, it was Elizabeth who was the first to greet Mary by speaking a blessing over her pregnancy. Elizabeth was the first to realize that Mary’s baby was a miracle, not a mistake. She said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” In Mary’s darkest hour, when the rest of the world was ready to reject and stone her, Elizabeth called her “blessed.” This blessing must have had a profound effect on Mary. In the text, she immediately breaks out into a song of praise, just as if this was some kind of Broadway musical. In the song she sings, Mary says, “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed”. The support and acceptance she received from one person was enough to transform her entire experience of pregnancy into one of blessing.
During the next three months that Mary stayed with Elizabeth, the two women became a support network for each other. Each of them was God’s gift to the other in the midst of messiness and chaos.
We can see the miracle of Christmas working itself out in their lives, but it looks nothing like we would expect in polite society. We learn from Elizabeth that miracles don’t just come to those whose lives are seemingly perfect or put together. We learn from Mary that miracles don’t necessarily turn our lives into inspirational success stories. The message here is that ordinary miracles happen in the midst of ordinary life, however painful, broken, imperfect, or messed up it may be.
Here in the nostalgia of the secular holiday season, it can be easy for us to get caught up in illusions of having the perfect family, the perfect gift, the perfect Christmas dinner, etc. Too often, the Christmas story itself gets presented with all of the messy parts carefully removed. For example, you walk by a beautifully crafted crèche sitting on a church lawn and see the newborn Christ lying in a manger, but do you ever think about what stables really smell like? Not very good. In fact, they stink just about as much as our own messy lives sometimes stink.
The world into which Christ was born was this world, the same one we live in now, only two thousand years ago. As Eugene Peterson writes, God “took on flesh and moved into the neighborhood”. Your neighborhood, just as it is. As we draw to the close of this Advent season, we are not just preparing to celebrate an event that took place “once upon a time”; we are preparing to celebrate the good news that Christ meets us right here in the midst of our messy and imperfect lives. And what’s more is that our messiness does not prevent something good, beautiful, and miraculous from being born in us and through us.
Mary and Elizabeth knew that. They accepted it. What’s more is that they accepted each other in the midst of their mutual messiness. That, more than anything else, is what put them in the perfect position to witness the miracle of the first Christmas. They were a safe place for each other, a community of acceptance.
When I dream about what it is that our church is meant to be and do in this community, I think about Mary and Elizabeth. I dream about a safe place, a community of acceptance that is truly open to all and reaches out to the world in love. I dream about a church of people who are so accepting of themselves and their own mess that they can’t help but be gracious toward the messiness of those others who come looking for a place to belong.
There is so little of that in the world today. Every authority figure, from teachers to bosses to the police car in the rearview mirror, seems to be looking over our shoulders, just waiting for us to mess up at something. So, we mind our P’s and Q’s, dot the T’s and cross the I’s, and make sure to keep an eye on the speedometer. On a less official level, we also feel like we’re constantly being evaluated by our peers for what we wear, what we drive, how we look, and who we know. That pressure is enough to drive us crazy.
Sadly, our churches are not immune to this judgmental tendency. In fact, we’ve developed something of a reputation for it over the years. Too many churches have turned the gospel of Christ into just another system for judging people based on dogma and morality. Too many churches have become houses of exclusion rather than communities of acceptance.
But our Presbyterian heritage teaches us that we are saved by grace: the unconditional love and unmerited favor of God. There is nothing we can do to earn our salvation or get ourselves on God’s good side. Not a single one of us has any grounds for looking down on or passing judgment over anyone else, even if we disagree with their opinions or disapprove of their behavior. We are all sinners, saved by grace, loved by God, and welcome in this church.
This faith in grace as unconditional and unmerited acceptance is the biggest gift I believe our church has to offer our local community. Ours is a church of grace, a community of acceptance: “open to all and reaching out to the world in love,” as it says in our church mission statement. We have many neighbors in this town who need to hear this good news. Their hearts are yearning for a place to belong, a place where none are judged and all are welcome. We can be that place.
What we need to do in order to help that dream come true are three things:
- Accept ourselves as we are. We are not perfect. We never will be. We are full of faults and fears. We don’t always live up to the values we espouse. We need to recognize and accept this messiness in our own lives. We need to get comfortable in our own scarred and wrinkled skin, knowing that we are loved in spite of our many messes.
- Extend that grace to others. When you are able to accept yourself as you are, it’s only natural that you gradually start to become more tolerant and accepting of other people. Their successes no longer threaten you. Their failures give you no pleasure. Their opinions were once the yardstick by which you measured yourself, but once you’ve stopped measuring yourself, you don’t need the yardstick anymore. You are free to see and accept them as they are, faults and fears included.
- Spread the good news. Let folks know about us. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people from places all over this country say to me that they’re looking for a church like ours. I refuse to believe that none of these people live in Boonville. Souls here are hungry for acceptance and a gospel that really is “good news.” Our job is to share that good news with them in word and deed. Just as you’ve often heard me say before: “Preach the gospel always, use words when necessary.”
This Christmas, don’t worry about finding the perfect tree, the perfect gift, or the perfect ham. Instead, focus on cultivating this kind of self-acceptance based on your faith in the immeasurable, unconditional love that holds us from birth to death and beyond. This acceptance of self and others is ultimately what makes for a happy home, a growing church, and a merry Christmas.