Christmas Eve, 2017
The Right Kind of Trouble
It’s funny how families develop their own Christmas traditions. They vary from house to house, but most families have them. I remember when my kids were little, as soon as we got home from Thanksgiving in Chicago, I’d start digging through all the Christmas boxes trying to find the Advent wreath and the Nativity set and the wonderful Advent calendar.
We’d set the Advent wreath on the table – with brand-new candles if I remembered to buy them, or last year’s half-spent bent ones if I didn’t. The kids didn’t care. Then we’d set up the Nativity. Actually, we had two wood Nativity sets. One was just Mary and Joseph and the baby. The other set was the olivewood creche I brought back from Bethlehem on a trip to the Holy Land early in my ministry. It was a beautiful set, each figure carefully carved, the shepherds, the sheep, the wise men, the camels, the cradle, the child. And Mary and Joseph, of course.
Each year, the stable found a prominent place in our living room. It was empty at first except for some animals, since that’s how the story starts. It actually doesn’t start in Bethlehem, but in Nazareth, where Mary and Joseph lived. And since we had two Marys, we pretended one was Elizabeth, and the other guy was Zachariah, and the other baby was their son John, who grew up to be John the Baptist. In our house in Advent, Mary would go visit Elizabeth and then John would be born, then Mary would go home. When your mom’s a pastor, sometimes the Christmas traditions get a little weird. We had to keep the Bible stories straight. I was kind of a literalist that way.
So Mary and Joseph wouldn’t get to the stable until a few days before Christmas. Then finally, on Christmas Day, baby Jesus was born. The shepherds came in with their sheep and the angels. It wasn’t until January 6 – Epiphany – that the wise men and the camels showed up. After all, that’s how the story goes, right? Kind of complicated, when you think about it. So much coming and going. So many people changing their plans, all for this baby that’s born.
So that was our Christmas tradition. I still have those sets, and I still put them out, though the whole thing goes up at once now. One of the camels is hobbling on three legs , and half the roof’s fallen off the stable, and no amount of glue seems to fix it. But I still put up the Nativity. It’s kind of shabby, but it’s still beautiful, to me at least.
I’ve lived long enough that I know things sometimes get a little broken when you love them a lot. Sometimes things get to be complicated. Sometimes it seems like it’s more trouble than it’s worth. But it’s really not that much trouble, at least not compared to what Mary and Joseph went through, and the shepherds, and the wise men.
Just think of all the trouble they had. Think of Mary, and how tough her life got. Mary was just a young, teenage girl, alone in this world, and expecting. You know, in the Bible it says that Joseph was ready to end their engagement when he found out that Mary was pregnant. You can’t really blame him. I mean, that baby sure wasn’t his. It was only the angel Gabriel that convinced Joseph to stay. Think of how complicated their lives would become. After Jesus was born, nothing was ever the same.
Sometimes things get to be complicated, don’t they? Even for mere mortals like us. Sometimes things happen that turn our world upside down. But sometimes that isn’t all bad, is it? Sometimes, it’s even good news. Sometimes those complications – they end up being good news. Even if it’s a whole lot of trouble.
There’s a novel I love called Plainsong by Kent Haruf - about another set of lives that get turned upside down by a baby. The novel starts out with a young teenage girl, who also turns out to be pregnant. Only Victoria doesn’t have a fiancée who sticks with her, and there aren’t any angels to help her. When her mother finds out what’s happened, she kicks Victoria out of the house. There she is, homeless, bereft, and abandoned.
So she reaches out to the one adult she can trust: a teacher name Maggie. Maggie would keep her herself, but Maggie’s father lives with her, and he has dementia and and it’s not safe for Victoria to stay. There aren’t many resources to draw on– this is a small town – and there aren’t many places to turn.
But Maggie won’t give up on this girl, and she won’t kick her out on the street. So she calls on another family to help. The most unlikely family you can imagine. Two old grizzled bachelor farmers who live out in the middle of nowhere.
They wonder why she’s shown up at their door, so she tells them straight up:
There’s a girl I know who needs some help. She’s a good girl but she’s gotten into trouble. I think you might be able to help her. I would like you to consider it and let me know.
Maggie explains that the girl is seventeen years old, fourth months pregnant, and without a husband, and no place to call home. And it’s not money Maggie is looking for.
All right then, Harold says. You got our attention. You say you don’t want money. What do you want?
I want something improbable, she says. That’s what I want. I want you to think about taking this girl in. Of letting her live with you.
They stare at her.
You’re fooling, Harold says.
No, Maggie says. I am not fooling.
You know, it kind of makes me wonder: is that how Mary and Joseph felt, when God asked them to be the parents of Jesus? Is that how it went for them, too? Did Gabriel have to tell them, “No, I am not fooling”?
Oh, I know it sounds crazy, Maggie says. I suppose it is crazy. I don’t know. I don’t even care. But that girl needs somebody and I’m ready to take desperate measures. She needs a home for these months. And you – you old solitary men need somebody too. Somebody or something besides an old red cow to care about and worry over. It’s too lonesome out here. Well, look at you. You’re going to die some day without ever having had enough trouble in your life. Not of the right kind anyway. This is your chance.
The two old men are silent for a good, long while.
Heck, Maggie, Harold says at last. Let’s go back to the money part. Money’d be a lot easier.
Yes, she says. It would. But not nearly as much fun.
Fun, he says. That’s a nice word for what you’re talking about. More like pandemonium and disruption you mean. Jesus God.
That’s about right. I’m not sure if it’s a curse or a prayer, but that’s it. Jesus God.
You know, we’ve heard this story of Jesus so many times, so many years. We’ve set up the Nativity time after time. We know how it’s going to go. We know about everybody who’s going to show up, and what everybody’s going to do. We know this story by heart. We can tell it till the cows come home.
But that very first Christmas, when Jesus was about to be born, nobody knew what was coming. What it would it look like, how it would be. What would be required of anyone, because of this child. Nobody knew the disruption, for Mary, for Joseph, and shepherds, and wise men, for the world.
And it is a disruption. You let this child into your life, and nothing is going to be the same.
You know, I think we treat Christmas as if it’s like going to visit a baby in the hospital – this is somebody else’s baby – and then you get to go home again, and everything is just as you left it. As if all that’s being asked of us, is that we come worship the baby Jesus, without it causing any trouble in our lives. But then we’ve missed half the fun. All the fun, really.
See, I think one of the worst things we can do to ourselves is to pass up an opportunity like this one. We’re being offered the opportunity of our lives. To let our lives get disrupted by this child, and the needs of somebody else. Someone besides ourselves, and our own little insular world.
When Maggie comes calling to ask for their help, those two old bachelor farmers, they have every reason in the world to say no.
Look at us, Harold says. Old men alone. Decrepit old bachelors out here in the country seventeen miles from the closest town which don’t amount to much… even when you get there. Think of us. Crotchety and ignorant. Lonesome. Independent. Set in all our ways. How you going to change now at this age of life?
I can’t say, Raymond says. But I’m going to. that’s what I know….
Now, are you going to go in on this thing with me or not? Cause I’m going to do it anyhow, whatever.
Harold turns toward him.
All right, he says. I will. I’ll agree. I shouldn’t, but I will. I’ll make up my mind to it. But I’m going to tell you one thing first.
What is it?
You’re getting [awful] stubborn and hard to live with. That’s all I’ll say. Raymond, you’re my brother. But you’re getting flat unruly and difficult to abide. And I’ll say one thing more.
This ain’t going to be no… Sunday school picnic.
You know, I hear the Christmas story, and I think God is offering us the same kind of challenge as Maggie gave those old farmers. I think God is sending an angel to us, asking if we’ll take him in. If we’ll take in this baby Jesus, with all the disruption that gives us.
Sometimes I think Jesus came to give us comfort, and comfort is just what we need. But if we’re honest, it isn’t that simple or sweet. I think if we’re going to take Jesus in, it’s going to make our lives complicated, and it won’t be a Sunday School picnic. It’s going to bring some trouble to our lives.
I think of God warning us, “You’re going to die some day without ever having had enough trouble in your life… Not of the right kind, anyway.”
Jesus brings us comfort and joy… and a whole lot of trouble as well. The kind that makes us get out of our little, safe worlds and see the needs of someone else. The kind that stretches us beyond our own comfort, to worry about the comfort of others. The kind that could bring us fun… and a lot of complications, too. The right kind of trouble, that leads us to love, knowing full well that things may get broken when we love that much.
That’s God’s offer, I think. So what do you think? Will you say Yes?
Rev. Karen Chakoian