Since I’m locked away in a hospital awaiting surgery this Christmas Eve, here is the sermon I would have preached this morning.
Photoshop is a wonderful invention. A few years ago my father-in-law decided to take a family photo for their annual Christmas card. Every effort to use the self-timer failed miserably and comically, with someone looking away or blinking or having the kind of pained expression one has when subjected to the interminable process of trying to create the perfect Christmas card photo that says “we’re all so happy together,” when we all want to run screaming from the room. Our niece and nephew were toddlers at the time and some of the photos of them were hilarious. They had no patience whatsoever for the whole endeavor and simply did not understand the concept of a self-timer. The best we could do was to get them to “say cheese” with Granddaddy standing at the camera clicking immediate photos, and they were still bad of at least 50% of us.
In the end, Bill took the best of the lot and decided to photoshop himself into the set. Only by the time he got around to taking a picture of himself, the lighting had changed as the afternoon drifted towards evening. He ended up needing a flash for his photo. And as it turned out, the camera placement was a little different, so the angles were all funky. The result is what we have affectionately called the “Worst Christmas Card Photo Ever!” Bill’s face shines from the flash, everyone else has shadows. His body is shorter and more squatty than he actually is in real life. His leg somehow magically appears to merge with the arm and leg of the sofa on which the rest of the family is sitting, and we all, him included, look like the very next thing that was going to happen was to murder the photographer.
Has anyone else had a similar family experience, questing after the perfect Christmas card photo, trying to get the kids to sit still, even if just for a fleeting moment to capture? The quest grows even more intense with professional photographers, but at least they have more tools for perfecting. They can’t change a kid’s face turned sideways or scrunched up for a good cry, but every time they offer to blot out blemishes or scars or even stray hairs, all to give us the “perfect” photo.
The only thing is, none of us are perfect, are we? Alistair has a little birthmark on his neck. To blot it out as a “blemish” would make it less Alistair and some image perfection of him. He’s not a perfect kid. We’re not perfect parents. Why do we need a perfect picture? When I think back on that crazy Christmas family photo, it is one of my favorites because every single one of us is showing personality. It perfectly captures our imperfection.
Why do we try to project perfection for Christmas? Why do we want other people to see our lives differently than they really are? Perhaps it is because we feel like we need to have everything together, even when we don’t. We go to great lengths to get the perfect Christmas present and wrap them in pretty paper that will immediately be shredded. We decorate our homes so that everything is in its place and fuss over meals to make everything just right.
But life just isn’t perfect is it? As soon as someone walks into a room it has a way of getting messy. Kids or grandkids still fight with one another because that’s what siblings do. Work is still stressful and getting along with in-laws is always a challenge. We try to pretty it up, but I haven’t met a perfect family yet, and that includes the holy family.
Think about it. Mary was an unwed teenage mother. It was scandalous. Joseph wanted to put the whole thing behind him quietly, but then some angel got involved and suddenly he decided to embrace the whole messy situation. Then the emperor decides he needs a census and commands everyone to their home town. And of course this happens when Mary is in the ninth month. So off they go to Bethlehem, at least a ten day walk for them. When they arrive no one wants to take them in because of her “situation,” until they are finally offered space in the barn by an innkeeper. This king is born amidst the mess and manure of the stable, surrounded by animals. His first cradle is the cow’s feedbox. The first Christmas was far from perfect, unless you want to call it a perfect mess.
Here’s the good news, Jesus came into the mess of our world in order to redeem it. He was born into the chaos and violence and darkness of our world in order to transform it. Jesus doesn’t need us to clean up our lives to welcome him. He comes into our messy lives in order to save them. So have yourself a very messy Christmas, and don’t forget to leave the barn door open, because any family photo that is taken with the Christ child is always going to have a little manure in the background.