It was Christmas Eve 1969. I was twelve years old. My family was returning home from the 11:00 Candlelight Christmas Eve service. Our family car was small, so everyone was packed in like sardines. My father was driving. He took us the same route that evening he took every Sunday morning. Everyone was excited about the next day. Without warning, our excitement was replaced with curiosity. We were a block from our home when we noticed something unusual. The air was thick with smoke and the sky was filled with color. There was a yellow haze around the area, only interrupted by the red lights of emergency vehicles. The police routed us around the block as we tried to see what was happening. It was not until the next morning that we got the sad news. A house on the parallel street had caught on fire and had burned to the ground. The loss of property is hard; the loss of lives is unbearable.
The family that died on that Christmas Eve was the Campbell family. The only one who survived was their daughter. She was a friend of my sisters. The investigation revealed Maggie caused the fire. She was the one who lit the candle and left it unguarded. That tiny flame sparked an inferno. Years later, it is still emotional to say. On that Christmas Eve, she lost her entire family, her parents, and a brother. Her brother did not have to die. At first, he had escaped the flames because his bedroom was on the first floor. He returned to the house to save his parents, but he did not return. He was a high school student, who was trying to do the right thing. Memories are such a powerful thing. It has been over fifty years since that tragic night but every Christmas Eve I think about Maggie Campbell. I do not have a clue where she is today but every year on Christmas Eve, I take a second and pray for her. How do you live the rest of your life knowing you caused your family death? The Campbell’s story reminds us that Christmas is not always merry.
Can anyone here relate to that story? Christmas is not always perfect. How perfect is your Christmas going to be this year? Maybe the perfect Christmas is not possible because the pandemic has forced you to change your traditional Christmas plans? Maybe the perfection Christmas is not impossible because you are grieving? The loss of a loved one is never easy. Maybe the perfect Christmas is not possible because some relationship in your life is broken? People file for divorce twelve months a year. People ignore their siblings twelve months a year. People refuse to forgive twelve months a year. Maybe the perfect Christmas is not possible because you are consumed with worry. How are you going to pay for all those student loans? How are you going to get out of debt? The mole on your back is changing. Maybe the perfect Christmas is not possible because your time is running out? You have not lived out any of your youthful dreams. You feel like you have not done anything! Does anyone here feel like they are letting the next generation down? This is the truth. The world demands we have a perfect Christmas. The problem is none of our lives are perfect. All our lives have imperfections. Perhaps, this is the best piece of pastoral advice I can give you. This Christmas give up on perfect. Let us look at our scripture lesson, Luke 1:26-43.
This morning’s text is about a young woman who was living an imperfect life. Her name was Mary, and she was the one God chose to be the mother of Jesus. I would encourage you to forget everything you think you know about her and simply look at the words of the story. Do not think of her as a saint or some spiritual superhero. Just think of her as a person. The words tell us she is going through an incredibly difficult time. She is more like us then you can imagine. Because of this similarity between us and her, she models for us how to survive in our world. She illustrates three things about life, itself. First, she illustrates for us that life is hard. There is nothing easy about life. Second, she illustrates for us that sometimes we need others. She went to her cousin, Elizabeth. Third and finally, she illustrates for us that we always need God.
First, Mary illustrates for us: life is hard. Life has always been hard. If you do not believe me then look at the Nativity, itself. Do not glamorize the story. Do not get sucked into the tradition. I will say it again. Just read the words. Every single person in the story was in a difficult situation. Mary was in a difficult situation. In a time that valued morals, Mary was an unwed pregnant woman. Joseph was in a difficult situation. There was really was no right answer. On the one hand, he has every right to divorce Mary and walk away. The problem is Mary would have been found guilty of adultery. That means she could be stoned to death. How could he live with her death on his hands? On the other hand, if he takes Mary as his own then he brings shame on himself. He is saying he has broken the abstinence law during the engagement. Zachariah and Elizabeth are in a difficult situation. They had no children, and their society demanded many children. They believed the more the children the greater God’s blessings. The fewer the children the fewer the blessings. They had no children, so they had no blessings. If you turn to the second chapter of Matthew, then you find the story of the Magi. They were in a difficult situation. All they wanted to do was worship the newborn king. Do you remember what happened? Their sincere actions lead to the death of two-year-old baby boys and younger. How many mothers blamed them for their son’s death? Do I have to go on? Each one of the characters reminds us that life is hard. Do you know of anyone who has a hard life? Could it be you have a hard life? Do you know of anyone who has ever said, “Life is much easier than I ever expected!” No! Life is hard!
Second, Mary illustrates for us: sometimes we need others. Look at the story one more time with me. Mary was from the town of Nazareth. In her time, Nazareth had a population of between 100 and 400 people. Have you ever lived in a small town? Have you ever worshipped in a small membership church? Everyone knows everyone else. Everyone knows everyone’s business. Mary is single and pregnant in a small town. Everyone in her life is talking about her pregnancy. She is the hot topic at the well. The story says she went to visit her cousin, Elizabeth. Biblical scholars believe she went for two reasons. First, she goes to Elizabeth to escape the people in her life. Second, she goes to Elizabeth receive some unconditional love. Has there ever been a time in your life when you needed the counsel of someone else? Have you ever been the counsel for someone else? Sometimes we need people. Mary went to Elizabeth. Where do you go? Have you ever gone to visit a relative? Have you ever gone to visit a friend? Have you ever traveled to a counselor or a support group? Do not feel guilty! Sometimes we need people. Life is hard. Sometimes we need people.
Third and finally, Mary illustrates for us: we always need God. Look at the text with me one final time. The angel goes to Mary and tells her she is going to have a baby. Mary knows it is biologically impossible. She has never been intimate with a man. The angel tells her the Holy Spirit will come upon her and she will conceive. What does that mean? It means that Mary’s personal agenda for her life must be discarded. Her personal will means nothing. God’s will for her means everything. Verse 38 is an incredible verse. It says, “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” She sacrificed her dreams and desires for her life for God’s will. Generations later, she reminds us that we always need God. How much of your will are you willing to surrender to God?
One of my favorite Christmas movies is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. You must have seen it because it seems like it has been on every night. It stars Chevy Chase who plays the part of Clark Griswold. (However, I love Randy Quaid, who plays the part of Cousin Eddie. He is such a jerk!) Clark is a good man who wants to bring his family the perfect Christmas. He tries everything but everything seems to go wrong. The Christmas lights do not work. The turkey looks great, but it is dry. The neighbors are annoying. The relatives are weird. How many times have you seen Christmas Vacation? (If you have never watched it then cancel your afternoon plans and watch it. It is on my “A” list, five stars!) Do you know why we love Christmas Vacation so much? The reason is every December we play the part of Clark Griswold. We do our best to give our family the perfect Christmas. The problem is we live in an imperfect world.
In a few days we will celebrate our twenty-sixth Christmas together. I genuinely enjoy spending Christmas Eve with you. Can I be honest with you? There was a time when I ruined Christmas for myself because I was consumed by all the details of the holiday. My attitude about Christmas changed in a single moment. It happened during a 7:00 Christmas Eve service. We were just about to take up the Christmas offering.The ushers came forward and I passed out the offering plate. One of the ushers on that evening was Chic Baber. How many of you remember Chic? I always appreciated Chic because he was such an optimist. I still miss him. On that evening I handed him the offering plates and he dropped one. It hit the prayer rail and it sounded like cymbals crashing. I was frustrated because I was striving for perfection. Chic ruined my perfect service. I was preoccupied by that moment for the rest of the service and was still venting about it the next morning. It was at that moment the person I respect the most I the world saved my Christmas forever. My wife Kathryn said to me, “Russ, it is Christmas. It comes once a year. Enjoy it. Things happen.” And she gave me a kiss and said, “Merry Christmas!”
I am not going to give you a kiss but maybe those are the words you need to hear? Forget about perfection. It only comes once a year. Enjoy it. Things happen. Why don’t we forget about perfection this Christmas and just remember Jesus? David Jeremiah (born 1941) once said, “All the Christmas presents in the world are worth nothing without the presence of Christ.”