I am excited for the lead up to Christmas this year. I am looking forward to our family gathering together and visiting with friends. As we are in Advent and my mind is lingering around expectation, waiting and hope. The Lord has been meeting me here, even in the midst of my own personal challenges. It is here I remember that God meets us in some special ways in the mess of how life can often be.
I don't know why but for some reason I have this hangover from my early religious training - that God abhors a mess. There was a season many years ago that I can remember teaching that the Father actually turned His face away from Jesus on the cross because Jesus was becoming sin (on our behalf) and a Holy God couldn't look on sin. A twisted view of God, to say the least.
The problem is... I don't need that kind of God. You know the kind of God who bails out on you when you really need Him. Those times when you feel so overwhelmed by life, by sin and feel completely helpless in your own darkness. The times where you feel helpless. That even if you thought you could change, that things could get better; you wouldn't know where to start nor where the energy to change would even come from.
Of course, I hope we know that this is not the God of Jesus. By the demonstration of the Incarnation alone - while we were still screwed up - God became fully human in the person of Jesus. He waded right into the muck and mire, the pain and dysfunction and met us there to rescue us.
We attended a really nice live nativity this past week in our community. It was really lovely, and quite moving. The story of Jesus' birth never gets old! As we climbed into our vehicle to return home, my wife turned to me and said "I was struck by how neat and clean our retelling of the Nativity story is. It is all so Christmas Card perfect. But, it does occur to me that this wasn't the case 2000 years ago."
We have a tendency to sanitize some of our beloved stories whether it be a polished cross at Easter or our Nativity. From our vantage we see how things all worked out - how baby was born, who the baby was; the angels, wise men, and shepherds got it. But for a moment, what must it have been like 2000 plus years ago? A young women who finds herself mysteriously with child? Angels were appearing with crazy stories of her carrying the long-past-due Messiah. A husband who knowing his wife-to-be was pregnant by someone else and still choosing to marry Mary.
Imagine getting ready to give birth, and there is no place for this to happen and you are a long way from home. Imagine the stress and anxiety. Imagine the stress and worry of a young father, wanting to care and provide for his wife and soon to be born child. Imagine what it must have been like in desperation to have to give birth in the filthy, odorous feed trough of animals. I can't imagine it as a Hallmark moment depicted in our greeting cards. How many Christmas retellings have you heard that include Herod ordering the extermination of all male children under the age of 2 years of age? A really messy part of the story, for sure!
I guess this is why the picture entitled Jose' y Maria struck me as so profound. A modernized depiction that takes the shine off the story and plunks it down in our everyday commonness. To the onlooker, Joseph and pregnant Mary would have appeared no different to our modern eyes than the couple in the cartoon. Perhaps we have walked by folks who looked like this going into the local 7-11? The commonness should offend our religious piety. Is should pull the pin on the super-spiritual image of the parents of Jesus and re-orients the God-who-loves smack in the middle of creation as it really is.
All this to say, the Holy God has no problem with wading into the mess that human life can often be, and I think we need to be careful about over-spiritualizing Mary and Joseph, and all the stories of people in scripture. We cannot sanitize them to the extent that they cease to be real people, with real fears, anxieties, questions, and doubts. To sanitize them is to make them unreachable for folks like me and perhaps many others, who need a real God, who interacts with real people in real situations. To sanitize these people and their stories may make for great preachin', TV specials, and children's stories but is no real comfort for a very real person trying to walk out this thing called faith in real life. You see, I need the God of the mess as well as the God of order. I need God when things are messy, uncertain and scary. I need Him to help me.
The Good News is no matter what happens God is with us, and Jesus is the guarantee and the demonstration of this truth. I have come to believe that faith isn't so much believing that God will do this, or He will do that. Faith, for me, is in the growing experience that God is indeed good. That He loves me perfectly and securely because of the way I am held in Christ. With the assurance that I am never truly alone, however, and wherever I find myself.