Sunday, December 25, 2016

Hard Christmas

Christmas is not hard on kids. Well, there is the waiting. And the wondering what you'll get. And the trying to be extra-good so you get what you wanted. Kids aren't good at patience and waiting. So maybe it's a wee bit hard on kids.

But Christmas is really hard on parents. They're the ones engineering Christmas for the family. They're the ones purchasing presents and paper and trees. They're the ones setting up the trees and cooking the food and arranging for visiting relatives. This was true 60 years ago in Great Britain because C.S. Lewis said that after the hectic season leading up to Christmas, people look less like they've been celebrating and more like they've just had a major illness. They need a holiday to recover from the holiday.

The first Christmas wasn't much better. Contrary to our Hallmark card vision of the nativity, Mary and Joseph had a tough time. First, there was the timing of the pregnancy. Betrothal at that time and in that culture was as binding as marriage but without the sex. Mary was right to be troubled by the angel's announcement. Getting pregnant before actually sleeping with Joseph could get her killed. If Joseph was mad enough, he could denounce her and they would drag Mary out of town and stone her to death. Joseph shows mercy in the solution he came up with, quietly divorcing her, but still the outcome would be bad for her. She would be a fallen woman with a child, damaged goods. She would probably have to leave her hometown and finding another husband would be very difficult. As a single woman with a fatherless child she would be a disgrace in an honor/shame culture, with absolutely no social standing or economic power.

But by not getting rid of Mary, Joseph would lose his standing as a righteous man, a Jew who scrupulously followed the law. There would always be rumors. He would also be seen as damaged goods by the religious community of his small town. Yet as Mary did when visited by an angel, Joseph accepts God's will and does the right thing, despite the personal consequences.

So both Mary and Joseph showed a lot of courage in what they did. But it wasn't smooth sailing from there. The Roman Empire held one of its periodic censuses. Unlike the ones we are used to, this was primarily for accurate tax records. Which means Joseph will have to go back to his ancestral home of Bethlehem. Why? He probably had some family property there. Otherwise, he could have stayed in Nazareth, his current town. But this means at least 3 days travel because the Holy Land is as long as the Keys and Joseph will have to walk it with whatever provisions he needed.

And he is faced with a choice: take his pregnant, due-any-day wife with him or leave her behind. Whether it was to spare her the malicious gossip of a small town, where she may have lost friends due to her condition or whether it's because they loved each other, they decide to travel together. Which means twice as many provisions. And possibly a donkey, though scripture doesn't tell us this poor couple actually used one. So things just get harder.

Once they arrive in Bethlehem, the level of difficulty goes up because (A) housing is a problem and (B) Mary goes into labor. I am reading the excellent book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth E. Bailey. He explains that the traditional translation of Luke 2:7 (“...there was no place for them in the inn.”) is wrong. What it should say is that there was no place for them in the guest room. If Joseph is going to his hometown, where he owns property, he surely has relatives, however distant, there. And by the rules of Middle Eastern hospitality, nobody was going to let Joseph and his wife in labor sleep in a corral. But if the guest room was already occupied, they would have to sleep in the only other room, the main family room. This room was typically built on two levels. As you walked through the door, you would be on the lower level. At night, your animals (a cow, a donkey, some sheep) would be brought in and stay there. Steps from that level lead up 2 or 3 feet to a raised portion where the family did everything, including eating and sleeping. Between the two levels, on the lip of raised part, was a feeding trough or two for the animals. So Mary would have delivered in the family room, raised above the animal stall but one of the feed boxes would have been commandeered for use as a makeshift cradle for Jesus. So, no, they wouldn't have been in a cave or a rickety shed exposed to the elements but, yeah, it wouldn't have been that pleasant, and the animals would be right there, doing their business. Imagine delivering a baby in a studio apartment with a small menagerie looking on and smelling up the place.

So this is how the Messiah enters the world, not in a hospital, not laid in an incubator but in the living room/bedroom of a tiny family home, crowded with relatives and livestock. God wasn't making things cushy for the people raising his son.

Now think about how you would treat your son. Would you have him born in those circumstances? Surely there were some rich descendants of David to serve as parents. Why didn't God put his son in a better environment with more resources available to him?

The vast majority of the people in the world are not wealthy. In fact, Oxfam published a study this year that showed that the earth's 62 richest individuals have wealth equal to that of half the world's population; 62 persons have as much 3½ billion people. The worldwide median household income is just under $10,000. The wealthy have always been less representative of the bulk of humanity.  So if God wants his son to understand how the average human being lives, he needs to put him with a poor family. (And we know that Mary and Joseph are poor because when they go to the temple to make an offering for the birth of Jesus, they give a pair of doves or pigeons, the least expensive offering required by the Torah.)

This difficult Christmas would be followed by a difficult life. Mary and Joseph would have at least 4 more sons and an indeterminate number of daughters. Joseph apparently dies before Jesus sees the age of 30, so for a while he is the family breadwinner. His mother is a widow and Jesus actually makes provision for his beloved disciple to take care of her—and he does this from the cross!

We have this idyllic picture of the birth of Jesus. It was anything but. And his life was not an easy one. And that's a good thing. Our lives are not easy. We deal with financial problems, family problems, disease and death. And Jesus did too. We know pain, both emotional and physical. Jesus did too. And when you are suffering it helps to know and talk with someone who's been there. Which means we can talk to Jesus about whatever we are undergoing and know that he understands and will act out of love to help us get through it.

To return to Mary and Joseph, what can we learn from them? First, when God is asking something of you, have the courage to say “Yes.” But don't expect an easy time doing what God wants you to. It is a measure of God's trust that he gives us challenging tasks. If your 2 year old wants to help you do a chore you give her something very easy to do, something she almost can't fail at. You can ask a 12 year old to do things that require a higher level of difficulty. God trusts us so much that he gives us tasks that require intelligence, persistence, strength and even creativity. As always we have his help but not to the point that we are mere puppets. Instead he extends to us the privilege of serving him as people created in his image.

Secondly, I think what we can learn is you can do what God asks even when you don't have all the resources to do it “properly.” Mary could have said, “Thanks, Gabriel, but I'm barely out of puberty. There is no way I am prepared to raise God's son. Go ask Dinah down the street. She's already married and has done a good job with her twins.” Joseph could have said, “Thanks, but I am not a rich landowner; I'm a carpenter who does a bunch of small jobs to eke out a living. It's going to be a stretch to support a wife. I don't think we could handle a kid at this point. Try Abinadab, who owns a vineyard on the outskirts of town.”

But they didn't. They said, “Here I am, Lord. I'll do it.” And then they made do. Gotta travel so close to the due date? OK. Gonna have the baby in a distant relative's living room with a bunch of animals standing about? Very well. Gotta pick up and move in the middle of the night to Egypt to avoid the wrath of a homicidal, paranoid monarch? Let's get cracking. Mary and Joseph's can-do attitude is an vital one in following God.

Our church is not unusual in being small and struggling. Sadly, most churches, especially in rural setting, are in the same boat. But the original church was a handful of people meeting in an upstairs room. As the church spread it encountered official persecution. They couldn't build churches, so they met in people's homes. They would have loved to have a dedicated worship space like this. For that matter, there are lots of third world churches whose members would weep with joy to have our kitchen. They would be awed to have access to our humble computer. And they would not know what to make of our air conditioning. To them our little church would be a veritable temple.

Our biggest resource is ourselves. We all have brains and education. We all have skills and talents. We all have friends and acquaintances. When we need to, we can think things out. We can draw upon the gifts of our members to do what needs to be done. We can invite people we know to join us. We can do it if we have to. We have to grow. Once something stops growing, it starts dying.

We need to let go of the idea that we can't do anything unless we can do it perfectly. That's a great recipe to not get anything done. As G. K. Chesterton said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” All early attempts are imperfect. Everything needs to be refined as it goes along. Edison had to try out at least 100 different materials till he found the right filament for his light bulb. Dr. Seuss had his first book rejected by 27 publishers before it was accepted. During its first 28 attempts to launch a rocket into space, NASA had 20 failures.

Maybe that's why the angel greeted both Mary and Joseph with the same words—“Do not be afraid.” We mustn't be afraid to fail. We must instead be afraid of saying “No” to God when he is leading us in an unconventional direction. And we have something those famous failures who eventually succeeded didn't: the Spirit of God working in us.

The first Christmas was a disaster. But the person Jesus grew into was a triumph. The world tells us you need to be extraordinary to do extraordinary things. The Bible shows us that's not true. Mary and Joseph did what they could with what they had and, with God's help, that was enough. We need their courage to look at the unlikely task God has asked of us and say, “Here I am, Lord. I'll do it.” 

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