Mary and Joseph were living under “supposed to”. They were supposed to get married -- that’s what betrothal means. They were supposed to have children...but they were supposed to wait until after the wedding. Now that Mary is pregnant, and Joseph knows this wasn’t his doing, he’s supposed to stone his fiancee along with the rest of his neighborhood. But he bravely (or foolishly) opts out of that. And now they’re supposed to go to Joseph’s ancestral home town of Bethlehem (100mi.) to be registered. That’s the rule, the latest supposed to. They are living under a whole lot of legalism. And very little mercy.
You and I live under some pretty big “supposed to’s” also. Not the same -- that’s for sure -- but we can all relate. I think our “supposed to’s” are cultural as well: what we’re supposed to drive, how we’re supposed to dress, how we’re supposed to communicate, what we’re supposed to eat, how we’re suppose to educate our children, care for our parents, retire well -- the list goes on and on. I’m not sure what your specific “supposed to” is, but I’m sure you’ve got one. And even while we boast about living in a free country, we sure can be tied down, can’t we? The number of time’s I’ve heard “I’m supposed to” during these holidays are too many to count. So many obligations, so much legalism...and very little mercy, even here in the church. Pastor, I’m supposed to do this or that.
I guess there’s a sense in which Quirinius is still governor. Augustus is still emperor...
But sisters and brother in Christ, God always makes as way out of no way. God subverts the empire -- doesn’t destroy it (Mary and Joseph peacefully do their civic duty), God subverts the empire, and it turns out: there is a stable open. It turns out, even amid all the legalism and fear, it turns out, there’s a enough room after all.
God makes a way out of no way, and a child is born, in the middle of nowhere. That’s enough. That helpless child born in a barn, wrapped in a rag, visited by shepherds was enough. That’s all it took. “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.” And suddenly “supposed to” is covered with mercy. Like a blanket covering a shivering soul downtown, God covers us through the birth of Jesus. The real gift is here is mercy. Space. Breathing room. Enough.
Christmas is the story of mercy. Room opens up when there is mercy: walls come down, doors are opened, strangers are welcomed.
That’s not a message we’re used to hearing. We’re used to hearing all the supposed to’s.
Think of those shepherds: “Mercy,” says our God. Think of Mary and Joseph, scared out of their minds: “Mercy,” says our God. Think of the immigrant from Syria, the orphan child from Iran, the refugee from Sudan: “Mercy, mercy, mercy,” says our God. Think of the homeless downtown, the jobless around the country, the addicted in our families: “Mercy,” says our God. The prodigal son, the absent father, the promiscuous daughter, the abusive mother. “Mercy,” says our God.
Think of all those with obligations this season hanging over their heads like a cold, dripping towel. Think of the scared Christian, who thinks hell and damnation is looming in their future (and in everyone else’s future) if they don’t keep all the rules: “Mercy,” says our God. To all those living under “supposed to”, who have been their whole lives. I talked to a woman recently, who told me she carries so much guilt and fear, that her shoulders and upper back are always tense, there’s just so much pressure to do it right. “Mercy,” says our God.
We’ll sing this in a few minutes: “He comes to make his blessings flow, far as the curse is found.” We confess this curious line in our creed each Sunday: that Jesus descended to hell, to the dead. And that’s because there’s nowhere Jesus hasn’t gone, there is nowhere Jesus’ love hasn’t conquered. That’s as far as the curse is found! That’s as far away from God as we can get, and yet Jesus covers even the flames of hell with the great blanket mercy!
This is a gift that none of us deserve. This mercy is a gift that doesn’t even make sense: This little baby! This grace-come-down-to-earth. But it is enough. It’s exactly what we need. Don’t let advertisers tell you any different. This child is enough. God has made a way out of now way, and it turns out, there’s a stable open...
It turns out there’s a group gathered [tightly] in a circle tonight. That’s enough. Some of us are confused, some of us are disoriented, some are overjoyed, some scared, some tired, some lonely, some anxious, some hungry, some quiet. But sisters and brothers in Christ, there is mercy for all of us. There is mercy for you. Here in this bread, this wine, this water, this Word. This is enough!
It doesn’t make sense. You’d think we need more. More than a helpless baby, more than just a nibble of God’s body, a sip of Christ’s blood. But this is enough. And even with all the chaos swirling around, even with Quirinius and Augustus still ruling, and all the “suppose to’s” whizzing by, even with the empire still trying to crush us, scare us, sap us, tempt us -- it turns out there’s a stable open.
And this holy child changes it all. For mercy is yours this night, this season, and forever and ever. That’s enough. AMEN.