December 4th 2016

Jesus for the Broken

Alright, let me start off here with a bit of a warning and a disclaimer.  I’m about to do just a little bit of meddling.  I just thought you should know that from the outset.  But…I’m meddling because I love you.  Also, I’m not pointing any fingers that aren’t also turned around and aimed at myself.  So, if you feel like I’m meddling a bit here, just know that I’m meddling in my own life as well.

Are you curious yet what we’re going to be talking about for the rest of the morning?  Here goes: how many of you have watched a Hallmark movie?  Maybe a better question would be this one: How many folks have never before watched a Hallmark movie?  Go ahead and throw your hands in the air.  Be bold.  If you’re a lady, what’s wrong with you?  If you’re a guy, I salute you.  Okay, I’m just kidding about that last part.  Seriously, though, Hallmark has a pretty big influence and impact on our culture.  We tend to refer to idyllic situations as “Hallmark movies” precisely because that’s what they peddle as a television network.  Even as an entire company that’s the direction in which they point.  What Hallmark sells both in its stores and on its multiple television channels is not a product so much as a glimpse at the life its consumers want.  It’s a life that is simple, easy, more than a bit cliché, and filled with faith (generic faith, of course—we wouldn’t want anything too over-the-top in that department), family, and lots of love.  And not a temporary, cheap love either.  They sell the kind of love you have with your soul mate; the kind of love that is rock solid and may even come at first sight.

Now, on the one hand, it’s nice to escape into one of their movies or TV shows and dream of a time and place where things are simpler and easier than they are now.  This is especially true when we feel like our own lives are spinning out of control.  The thought that whatever our problems are could go away in a couple of hours and end with us resting in the arms of our true love is a powerful distraction from the messiness of real life.  On the other hand, though, too much Hallmark can serve as a worldview shaper that is different from but no less potent than other forms of escapism to which people run when things get hard in our normal lives including, but not limited to, porn, drugs, and social media.  They create a set of expectations in our hearts and minds for how life should go that, frankly, none of us can meet.  Our own lives are invariably way too messy for that.  That’s the reason so many of us—even the guys—lean into Hallmark’s reality: It makes us forget about our messes for a little while and feel like everything is going to be okay.

But you know, Hallmark isn’t the only place that kind of thing happens.  They aren’t the only ones who have sold this image of an idyllic life that could be ours for the taking.  The American church has done that some too.  In a way more similar than perhaps we’d care to imagine, for the past 60 years or so the church has communicated a vision of what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus that has resulted in one of two outcomes.  Either people grab hold of it because they were interested in the cultural advantages of such a lifestyle or else they stayed away from it because they considered themselves too broken to be worthy of the attention and care of that kind of Jesus.  We have created a kind of Hallmark faith that, while nice-looking and roughly resembling life under the most ideal of circumstances, isn’t a very good picture of the way things actually are.  As it turns out, life—even the life of faith—is messy.  People are broken.  Sometimes very broken.

Now, most of the time the general busyness of life keeps us from feeling the pressure of all of this too acutely.  But there are seasons when things start pressing in on us with a little more force than at other times of the year.  We’re in one of those seasons right now.  Hallmark knows this too which is why they invariably release about 1,000 Christmas movies each year that are all basically riffs on the same theme.  The Christmas season is Hallmark’s Super Bowl.  They make tons of advertising money at this time of year because they know people are going to be watching.  They’re going to be watching because they—we—want an escape from the messiness, the brokenness of our lives at a time of year when, because of our cultural conditioning, we most long for the “normalcy” of what Hallmark peddles.  It’s why churches tend to attract bigger crowds at Christmastime.  In our cultural worship of the god Nostalgia, church-going is one of the rituals by which we seek to please this master in hopes that he’ll grant us some of those good feelings we used to have—even if we didn’t really.

In all this pursuit of the warmth and good feelings we are told are supposed to be a part of this season we ever create a Hallmark-version of the Christmas story.  It’s very sanitized and neat and pretty.  Everybody gets along and has a happy ending.  As the much-beloved song tells us, the baby Jesus didn’t even cry.  Here’s the problem: the real Christmas story was anything but that.  It was every bit as broken and messy as our own lives are.  And if we will dig past the sanitized version we find in most places to get down to the messy parts we will find, not discouragement and disillusionment in the reality, but the hope and joy and even the peace for which we long.  This morning I want to do just that with you.  I want to dig into the Christmas story a bit together to see the brokenness in all its glory, but also the hope we need.

Much to perhaps our surprise if we have always thought of the Christmas story as the original Hallmark movie, the story starts out messy.  Luke tells us about a man and a woman who have longed their whole lives for a child but have found nothing but infertility and barrenness.  What’s more, it’s not like they’ve done something wrong that God would be punishing them.  If you’ve ever walked the painful journey of infertility that stretched on endlessly without any apparent reason you would have found a friend in Zechariah and Elizabeth.  And by the time the angel Gabriel visits Zechariah in the Holy Place in the Temple they are well passed child-bearing years and have resigned themselves to their childless fate.

But then this happens in Luke 1:10: “And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense.  And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.  And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him [that’s Bible-speak for terrified].  But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.’”

Now, this should have been a moment of great rejoicing for Zechariah, right?  I mean, he’s getting a word from an angel there on behalf of God Himself that he and his wife are going to have a son.  Yet this is where the brokenness of the story comes to bear once again.  Have you ever grown so tired of waiting for God to act on your behalf that you grew bitter and doubtful?  Zechariah knows how you feel.  He was too.  And He was a priest—a professional God-truster!  If your faith has ever been shaken and left fragile by the messiness of your circumstances, you are not alone.  So also was Zechariah—the man chosen by God to be the father of the herald of His Messiah.

Okay, sure, but this wasn’t Jesus’ immediate family.  Surely His part of the story went more smoothly, didn’t it?  No way!  His was even worse.  Now, yes, the announcement of His arrival to Mary, His mother, went better than the announcement of John’s birth to Zechariah did, but that was the only smooth part of the story.

You see, when Mary received the word of her pregnancy from the angel Gabriel, she was a teenager.  I had a friend who after a mission trip to Honduras related her shock after a conversation with a local woman who told her that children are considered adults when they reach age 12.  We don’t think like that in the United States and the West more generally, but the notion of extended childhood and adolescence is a fairly recent creation.  For most of human history hitting puberty was the mark, not of becoming a teenager, but of becoming an adult who should be treated accordingly.  As a case in point, Mary was betrothed (which was like being engaged, but on stronger terms) before she got the announcement from Gabriel.

Think about this now: How would you react if you found out your fiancée was pregnant and you didn’t have anything to do with it?  The Christmas story starts with a couple struggling under the weight of infertility and jumps straight to teenage pregnancy and the appearance of rather dramatic infidelity.  Rest assured, even with how sexually libertine our culture has become today, fiancées never turn up pregnant in any Hallmark movies and that’s not likely to change.

So again, how would you feel?  Probably just like Joseph did over in Matthew 1:18: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.  When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit [Joseph didn’t know that part yet].  And her husband Joseph [he was technically just her betrothed, but that’s how strong a betrothal then was—it was all the responsibilities of marriage without any of the benefits], being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.”  Have you ever felt betrayed by someone you love and walked that particular path of brokenness?  So did Joseph.  Now, yes, his reading on things turned out to be false and Mary was innocent of any presumptions of wrongdoing, but prior to that discovery his feelings weren’t any less real.  Let’s put it this way: Jesus was born into what was essentially a broken family.  Mary very well may have even been Joseph’s second wife.  We don’t know that for sure, but it isn’t by any means beyond the realm of possibility.

Well, things resolved with Mary, but then the plot thickened again.  The government got involved in the story.  And can you believe it?  They made things messier and more complicated.  I know, I know, but suspend your disbelief for a few minutes and stay with me.  From Luke 2:1: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered [that is, taxed].  This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.  And all went to be registered, each to his own town.  And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.”  Have you ever had to do something you really would have preferred to not do and which ended up costing you a lot of money because of the government?  Joseph feels your pain.

Or maybe how about this: Ladies, if you have endured the journey that is being pregnant (including those who are there now), did you ever have to endure a season of draining travel or have a really big project forced on you when you were in the 8-9-month range?  When we moved here Lisa had to travel halfway across the country by herself when she was 8-months pregnant with Noah.  Admittedly, I don’t have any idea what that feels like, but Mary did.  What’s more, while she was there in this place totally separated from all of her family (who may or may not have come around to her pleadings that she hadn’t been unfaithful to Joseph), having to stay in a cave that doubled as a stable (which would have no doubt been great for her mood even without all the wonderful odors of a stable all of which were no doubt being picked up by her pregnancy-enhanced sense of smell), her contractions start and here comes the Savior of the World.  Look, giving birth is messy in a hospital.  She did it in a cave.  With goats and oxen as her bedside staff.  It was loud.  It was gross.  It was smelly.  There were no drugs to be found.  She probably had some interesting things to say to Joseph (though, incidentally, he was shielded from the charge that he had done this to her).

And then as she and Joseph were recovering into what had become their little sanctuary burst these shepherds.  In our Hallmark retellings of the story we think, “Awwwe!  Shepherds!”  We’ll all say it together here in a couple of weeks when our littlest kiddos fill out the nativity scene for the kids’ play.  I mean, come on, what could be cuter than a handful of munchkins toddling down the aisle in oversized bathrobes and sticks?  But these weren’t “awe shepherds,” these were, “oh…shepherds.”  They stayed on the outskirts of town because nobody wanted them in town.  They were smelly, untrustworthy, uncouth social denizens.  The last place you wanted to see these guys was barging into the room where you just had a baby a few hours before.  Have you ever had to endure unwanted guests?  Have you ever had to tolerate someone who was the last person you wanted to see at that particular moment?  Mary and Joseph know exactly what you mean.

But if you thought this was the end of the brokenness, you thought wrong.  Jumping back to Matthew 2 we see the arrival of the wise men.  Given some story cues that come a bit later, most folks think they arrived somewhere in the neighborhood of two years after Jesus was born.  Do you know where they found the little family?  Of course you do: Bethlehem.  But think about this now: Why were they in Bethlehem?  Because Joseph had to go there in order to be registered and pay a tax.  More to the point, Bethlehem wasn’t home.  For them to still be there meant one of a number of possible things had gone wrong.  Perhaps the government was moving really slowly (I know, you can’t imagine), but I’d place my bet somewhere else.  Maybe Mary experienced some kind of complication from the birth that made travel impossible and she was still recovering.  Here’s another thought, though, that bears some reflection: Perhaps things were bad enough with the folks back home in Nazareth that they couldn’t go home.  Have you ever had to go on a kind of self-imposed exile because of a broken relationship?  Mary and Joseph just may understand where you’re coming from.

Of course, the visit of the wise men, as nice as it was, only served to draw the attention of the capricious and paranoid tyrant who ruled over the people.  Herod perceived this baby king as a potential threat to his reign and intended to deal with it quickly and violently.  But, because the wise men didn’t follow through on his instructions to return from their visit to tell him exactly where the child was, he couldn’t rely on a surgical strike to get the job done.  Instead, he had to carpet bomb the problem to make sure it was eliminated.   And so we have the gut-wrenching tragedy of Matthew 2:16: “Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he has ascertained from the wise men.”  Have you ever experienced a senseless tragedy that simply defied rational explanation; a tragedy that was entirely beyond your control and was inflicted by someone else or even no one else?   All of these mothers and fathers who were unwitting participants in the Christmas story know exactly how you felt.

The one thing the deception of the wise men did accomplish was to give Joseph and Mary enough heads up that on the prompting of a divine dream they got out of town.  In fact, they fled the country.  They became political refugees and immigrants fleeing the violence of their home country.  There are a few of those around the world today are there not?  There are more internally displaced persons and other refugees of varying classifications around the world today than there have ever been in the history of the world.  Our world is awash in politically- and religiously-motivated violence.  In our own nation we are in the midst of a contentious national conversation about how we should approach this crisis.  It is an incredibly complex problem that doesn’t have easy solutions regardless of what the various sides of the debate declare.  As followers of Jesus, though, we cannot forget that in one of our foundational stories—the Christmas story; the one we like to think was all nice and neat and happy—this particular form of brokenness is an unsettlingly prominent feature.

The family would eventually return home—their actual home instead of their adopted one—but let’s not think that was easy for them.  They had now had their lives turned upside time after time and in more ways than they cared to count.  And at the end of it all here they were in the place they were most likely to be judged and rejected by the people whose embrace they longed for so dearly—another place of brokenness from which perhaps they would understand the situation you find yourself facing.

Brokenness upon brokenness upon brokenness.  This is no Hallmark tale.  This isn’t the peachy-keen idyllic Christian life of which the American church has been a broker for the better part of three generations.  This is life.  Real life.  It’s messy.  It’s hard.  It’s filled with pain and loss and rejection and death.  From an outsider’s perspective there doesn’t seem to be anything about it that is desirable.  And yet, this is the Christmas story.  This isn’t some well-written scripted drama, this is the story of the God who created everything we see and don’t taking on human flesh and coming to earth in order that He might take on Himself the burden of our brokenness from sin, bear it to cross, see it killed with Him in order to fully break its power over us, and then return to life to give us the confident assurance that there’s more to life than what our eyes see here and now.  Not even the happy endings of a million Hallmark movies can come close to the joy of what our God has for us if we will receive it.

In taking on that brokenness, though, He had to enter it.  And as we’ve seen this morning, enter it He did.  But in entering it He did not simply experience it, He brought redemption to it.  He brought redemption to the couple struggling with infertility.  He brought redemption to the person whose faith has been shattered by the disappointing direction life has taken.  He brought redemption to the teenager who finds herself pregnant as a result of some hard choices that she and the guy have made.  He brought redemption to the husband and wife who are at odds because of a loss of trust.  He brought redemption to the family who has gotten lost in the systems of the state and are paying the price for a politician’s inability to see the consequences of his policy prescriptions.  He brought redemption to those who are feeling tossed and turned by a move—whether expected or not—and are facing the challenging of rebuilding life in a new place.  He brought redemption to the mom who is hassled and harried and stressed out from the craziness of life.  He brought redemption to the man who is overburdened with circumstances beyond his control.  He brought redemption to those who have been rejected by their family and friends because they simply don’t understand the road they are traveling.  He brought redemption to us when we have been rocked by unexpected, life-altering tragedy.  He brought redemption to the refugee and the immigrant, to the persecuted and the hated.  He brought redemption to those who have gone back home to try and rebuild their lives again when everything has been turned inside-out.  He brought redemption to you.  He brought redemption to me.

The real Christmas story is not nice or neat or pretty.  It’s nothing like you’re going to find on the Hallmark channel—even though, I really do enjoy 85% of their movies and TV shows.  It’s not going to bring back warm feelings of your childhood.  It’s not idyllic.  It’s better than that.  It’s real.  It’s about the Jesus who overcame everything in order to come to you and me and everybody else in the world no matter how big their brokenness may be.  No matter how big your brokenness seems, Jesus came for you.  Hear that well.  If you forget everything else we’ve talked about this morning remember this one thing: No matter how big your brokenness seems, Jesus came for you.  He came to redeem you and give you life.  Not the life you’ve always wanted, but the life He made you for.  It’ll be messy and you’re going to have to give up much of what you want and desire, but it will be good.  It’ll be good because it’ll be the life that is truly life.  Jesus came to give it to you.  No matter what.  No matter how big your brokenness seems, Jesus came for you.  Merry Christmas.