The story of Christmas is a story we can cling to when life gets real,
all year long.
Have you ever had a less-than-ideal Christmas? I have. It happened during my junior year of college when I was working my way through school as a security guard. I was a week away from final exams and a month-long Christmas break, trying to figure out how I would miss those four weeks of work and still come up with enough money to pay for my second semester of college, when my boss came up to me. He asked me if I had any interest in sticking around over the Christmas break to work. I would get paid double time, and the work would be pretty easy. I wanted to go home to see my family for Christmas and hang out with my friends, but I really needed the cash so I decided to stay. It really wasn’t too bad most of the time I was there. Most students and faculty were gone and things were pretty quiet. It was just kind of lonely and desolate.
I remember getting done with my shift on Christmas day. Because the cafeteria was closed, I went back to my dorm room, popped a package of Ramen noodles in the microwave, and watched old Christmas movies on TV. I took a little break to go call my parents from the payphone at the end of our hall and wish them a Merry Christmas, and then I came back and just sat there. It was weird. I was used to being with family and friends, exchanging gifts, sharing the Christmas story, and all of the other things we typically think of when we think about the Christmas holiday.
Maybe you’ve had a similar experience, a time when you spent your Christmas away from your family and friends. Maybe you spent Christmas in a hospital ward or overseas on a military post. Maybe you had a Christmas when there weren’t any gifts to be given or received because finances were a huge obstacle. Maybe there was a time when you felt estranged from your family and friends, and instead of experiencing a Norman Rockwell type family Christmas, it felt more like you were standing next to cousin Eddie in National Lampoon‘s Christmas Vacation – a less-than-ideal Christmas.
Our culture does an incredible job of portraying the ideal Christmas. All the cards, movies, songs, displays at the mall, and advertisements portray a Christmas that’s magical. It’s like the holiday song Andy Williams crooned decades ago; it’s the most wonderful time of the year. But our lives often look more real than ideal. In the same way, the story of Jesus’ birth, THE Christmas story, is real – not ideal. And that’s what makes it so hopeful.
The story of Christmas, the story of Jesus’ birth, gives us hope. It reminds us that in less-than-ideal situations when things don’t turn out the way we believed they would, God is still with us.
Take for instance Mary, the mother of Jesus. She had to convince her fiancé, Joseph, the village carpenter, that she had not been unfaithful to him, but that what happened to her was supernatural, that God Himself was the father of the baby she held in her womb. She had to convince her family that when she went to stay with her cousin Elizabeth and then came home visibly pregnant, she had done nothing wrong. She had to convince the Jewish religious leaders in her village that she had not become pregnant outside of marriage (and therefore was not a candidate for being stoned to death according to their law).
The situation also had to seem less than ideal to Joseph. Here was a guy doing the right thing, marrying a young woman from his village, and now she was pregnant. And everyone’s talking about it. And they’re talking about what a sucker he is to believe her story and to stay with her when he could dump her or even have her put to death. He didn’t have her stoned because God spoke to his heart. Although he knew the truth, it couldn’t have been easy.
Then there was the census. For some reason, the Roman leaders decided that right about the time that Mary was due to give birth would be a great time to round everybody up and count them so that they could tax them. Mary and Joseph had to make a ninety-mile journey either walking or at best on the back of a donkey.
I’m not much of an equestrian; I’ve ridden a horse only once in my life. But while I was sitting on its back the thought never crossed my mind, “Hey, you know who would really love this? My wife. And you know when she would probably think it was the coolest? When she was nine months pregnant!” But that’s exactly what Mary experienced unless she walked the whole way. In either case it couldn’t have been a great journey for her and Joseph. The whole event was less than ideal.
The ideal setting for Jesus’ birth would have been a bed in a nice, clean environment with a midwife available and the support of family and friends just outside the room. But that is not the way Jesus came into this world. The Bible tells us that He was born in a stable, in a place where animals were sheltered. A stable became the birthplace of the Savior of the world. Definitely not ideal.
Jesus’ birth doesn’t sound as much like the setting for Silent Night as it does the birth of Samuel Katz, Lillian Braverman, and Dorothy Melnick. They are three of more than 350 children who were born on Ellis Island as their parents emigrated from countries in the “old world” to be part of the new world in America. In the midst of chaos, as thousands of people speaking hundreds of languages and dialects stood for hours and days waiting for the opportunity of entering the country, children were born. Those children became a bridge for their parents between the old and the new. In the squalor of makeshift birthing wards just feet away from people dying from various ailments and the hardship of weeks spent at sea coming to America, these babies were the promise of a new beginning for their families.
Jesus too began life as a refugee. Not too long after His birth, because of threats to His life, Jesus and His parents left Israel and fled to Egypt as refugees. They stayed there because an infanticide was taking place in Bethlehem as Herod tried to eliminate any competition to his throne. As we encounter the refugee crisis in our world today, it should give us pause to think about the fact that Jesus began His life that way as well.
I’m an idealist. That isn’t how I would have written the Christmas story. If I wanted everyone to know who Jesus is and put their faith in Him, I would have given Him a royal birth to elite parents in a significant period of history. My story would be ideal; Jesus’ birth was real.
All these things remind me of something that’s important: Jesus didn’t arrive here on earth in an ideal setting. He came into our real world. He understands the reality of my world. The Bible says that Jesus “was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (Isaiah 53:3). The Scriptures also tell us that Jesus “has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus understands my hurting because He has known real pain. He relates to my struggles because He has experienced real temptation. Christ didn’t come to live in some ideal setting; He came to live in the reality of the world of which I am currently a part.
Additionally Christmas reminds me that following God and trusting Him may cause me to be misunderstood just as Mary and Joseph must have felt misunderstood when they did what God asked them to do. I’ve never had a dream when an angel told me that I should do something, but I’ve definitely had times in my life when I felt God asked me to take a step of faith. And there have been times when I took a step of faith and the people around me didn’t understand it. It didn’t make sense. It went against the grain of culture or expectation. But if it weren’t for Mary and Joseph’s willingness to be obedient in that real situation, we never could have experienced the life that Christ offers to all of us.
The Christmas story also reminds me that life doesn’t always look the way I expect. I’m sure when Mary was a young girl and dreamed about being married someday, she didn’t picture herself standing at the altar pregnant, under suspicion. I’m sure Joseph didn’t anticipate that scenario for his future bride. I’m sure it never occurred to Mary that the best place to give birth to her first child was in an animal stable miles and miles from her home and family and friends.
The story of Christmas, the story of Jesus’ birth, gives us hope. It reminds us that in less-than-ideal situations when things don’t turn out the way we believed they would, God is still with us. In this less-than-ideal situation, Jesus was born as Immanuel, “God with us,” a visible and tangible reminder of God‘s faithfulness to be with us in every circumstance. It’s a messier story than we often portray. There is a lot more uncertainty and risk than we sing about. But it’s a real story. And it’s a story that doesn’t just offer joy and hope during the holiday season. It’s a story we can cling to when life gets real, all year long.