Pardon the delay in getting this posted.

Spoiler alert: Christmas doesn’t go well. That’s the premise of just about every Christmas special you’ll find on TV between now and the end of the season. It falls apart because nobody likes the protagonist, or because the wrong kids show up to be part of the Christmas program, or because everyone is just working too hard to make it seem perfect, or because someone is too greedy to let anyone else have any comfort and joy. Except it doesn’t fall apart, because Christmas is saved by an apprentice angel, or some ghosts, or spirited family togetherness, or – gasp! – the Christmas story itself (the one about Jesus).

It turns out those specials know more about Christmas than we might think. Many of us are so familiar with the story from Matthew and Luke that we don’t notice how poorly the whole thing goes. The emperor, who can do this sort of thing, tells the entire empire to get up and travel to their ancestral cities to be registered and taxed. A woman gives birth in a barn. She’s not married to the child’s father, and her explanation of how she got pregnant in the first place is pretty suspect. Not long after the birth, the whole family has to run for their lives. Okay, there are singing angels, adoring shepherds, and venerable guests from far away, but you can’t redeem a fundamentally malfunctioning story by adding some special effects and cameo appearances.

This story took place against a backdrop where the world seemed to have fallen completely apart. God’s people lived in the land they had been promised, but they suffered under a succession of empires that oppressed and terrorized them. The prophets told of future rulers who might speak to the people on God’s behalf, but it often seemed no such leader was coming. Religious people debated how to honor their covenant with God, whether by clinging to obsolete forms and structures or by rewriting the covenant into new codes and habits. We celebrate Christmas in the winter, not because this is when it happened, but because it took place in a world whose prospects were late-December dark.

Christ comes into this world, where things have gone so wrong that we can hardly imagine what new light could shine, and that birth creates something new. It indicates and embodies God’s powerful intention to redeem the world, to set us free from the shortcomings, rejection, and failed aspirations that prevent us from living in real joy and peace. Jesus comes among us to break down the walls we perceive between ourselves and God, between ourselves and each other. This story begins in confusion, proceeds through grace, wisdom, rejection, and death, but ends with renewed and unending life. In a big way, it doesn’t end. The story continues in our life as the church, and even when the Bible tells of Christ’s return and the end of history, it speaks not of an end but of a new eternal reality.

Christmas never went well. It hasn’t from the beginning, but God has drawn beauty from the mess of that story. It’s gone terribly in our own lives, from time to time at least, and we’ve come out of it with stories of God’s faithfulness in the worst of times. Maybe this would be a good year to share those stories with our children, grandchildren, and friends. Your testimony of grace can help highlight the grace present in someone else’s story. Your own memory may strengthen and balance you for the inevitable troubles and disappointments that accompany this time of year. Most certainly, God will continue to create something good and joyful in the most unexpected ways. It seems that trouble and sorrow are the medium for God’s best work.

Christmas will not go well. Thanks be to God.

In Christ’s peace,

Nathan

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