God in our imperfect Christmas

Last week I took my kids to see Christmas lights at a local park. When we piled into the van everyone was happy. Ten minutes in everyone was screaming and crying. We were stuck in traffic and it would be over an hour before we would actually get to see any lights. How did a tradition that was supposed to bring us joy bring us so much frustration and sorrow?

One of the ironies of Christmas is that it is often all our effort to have a perfect Christmas that actually makes us really unhappy. We’re unhappy because we are trying too hard to be happy. It’s not just with Christmas. The harder we try to be happy the more unhappy we become.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with Christmas cheer or trying to be happy. But we need to see God in our unhappiness as much if not more than we do in our happiness. We need to worship God; not our happiness.

What are the things that are making you unhappy these days? Is it your work? Your marriage? Your children? Your politics? Your in-laws? Your social life? Your finances? The real problem is not your unhappiness; it is the fact that you can’t see God in your unhappiness. Somewhere you stopped being a person deeply loved by God who happened to have marriage problems and you became someone with marriage problems who happened to be loved by God. The change was subtle. It is not as if you stopped believing in God or even stopped believing in the gospel. The gospel just stopped mattering as much to you as it once did. The gospel was not enough.

Over 2000 years ago, Joseph received the crushing news that Mary, his betrothed, was pregnant. He knew that he was not the father so it could only mean one thing. She had cheated on him. Imagine his hurt and his shame. He thought he knew her. He thought she loved and respected him. He had trusted her. There was no way he could trust her again. He could have forgiven her and gone through with the marriage, but the pain was too deep. He decided to divorce her.

In ancient Israel a marriage engagement was just marriage without the marriage bed. Joseph and Mary’s engagement would have looked a lot like a wedding ceremony. Joseph didn’t propose in some quiet romantic place filled with personal meaning. He proposed before their friends and family as witnesses and signed a marriage license. The only way to break off the engagement would be by filing for divorce. When cheating was involved it was customary to make the divorce very public, like the adulterous woman in John 8 who was brought out before the whole town to receive her punishment. Joseph decided not to do that. He decided to have a quite private divorce.

Joseph’s honor must have made the divorce all the more painful. Joseph was not wealthy, or educated, or influential, but he was honorable. He knew right from wrong. He treated others as he would want to be treated. All his hopes for a good marriage were being crushed. He didn’t ask for this baby. But somehow God would use this same baby, the symbol of everything that was going wrong in Joseph’s life, to make everything go right.

One night an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream. Matthew uses an important Greek word translated, “behold.” Today it might be translated, “whoa.” The angel told him, “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. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21)

The gospel was literally impregnated in Joseph’s fiancé. Joseph never asked for this baby. He never could. How could Joseph ask God to come down into the womb of Mary? How could Joseph ask God to become one of us? How could Joseph ask God to go through everything we go through? How could Joseph ask God to become our substitute? How could Joseph ask God to die on a cross? There is no way Joseph could have asked for this. There is no way we could have asked for this. But God gave it. God looked down at all our sin and brokenness, everything that makes us sad, everything that harms us, everything that leads to death, and instead of turning away God got closer. He came down as close as He possibly could to live among us.

In the midst of the crushing loss and shame of divorce God impregnated Joseph with hope. On the outside nothing changed. Mary was still pregnant. The scandal surrounding her pregnancy would linger. Jesus was often referred to in public as Mary’s child instead of Joseph’s child (Mark 6:3). Not everyone bought the story that the Holy Spirit had overshadowed Mary’s womb to conceive the Son of God. But none of that mattered anymore. Joseph knew God was with him.

The gospel impregnates us, taking us somewhere none of us would choose, to show us that life could be so much better than we ever dreamed.

Not everything will go our way in this life. We will not be the people we want to be. People will not be the way we want them to be. Christmas, like our life, is imperfect and it’s ok because God is with us in our sins, our pain, and our failures.