December 24, 2015 – Christmas I
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here. (Note that, near the end of the sermon, I misspoke and said "unbroken" when I meant to say "broken.")
Jim wasn’t much of a cook, but he wanted to impress his girlfriend. They had been dating for a while, and he wanted to do something special—something that would convey to her that he was taking this relationship seriously—that he was willing to take some risks for her—and cooking dinner for his beloved seemed to be a good way to get that across. But Jim had almost no idea what to do. So he called his mother. “Mom,” he said, “I want to cook dinner for Margaret.” Silence. “Mom? Are you there?” “Yes, Dear. I’m sorry. I was just so…surprised. You don’t know how to cook.” “I know that, Mom,” he responded. “That’s why I’m calling you. I need your help.”
Jim was under the impression that one of Margaret’s favorite dishes was chicken Alfredo. He’d heard her say that her mom had made it for their family when she was a child and that it was something she always looked forward to when she went back home. Jim explained to his mother that he had already found a recipe on the Internet (uh-oh), but he needed some help pulling it off. They talked through the basics: how to sauté onions and peppers and when to add the garlic, how to make sure the chicken was fully cooked, how to boil water and cook the pasta. The hardest part, of course, would be the sauce. “Cream sauces can be tricky,” Jim’s mother warned. “You want to thicken it without burning or breaking the sauce. If you don’t stir it frequently, it can all fall apart.” “Don’t worry, Mom,” Jim reassured her. “This is really important to me. I won’t screw it up.”
On the appointed evening, Jim had asked Margaret to meet him at his apartment where he had a surprise for her. Curious and a little bit nervous, Margaret pulled up right before 6:30pm. When Jim opened the apartment door, she was floored. “What’s that wonderful smell?” she asked, hardly believing her nose. “I thought we were going out for dinner.” “I wanted to surprise you,” he replied. “Come and keep me company.” She followed him into the tiny efficiency kitchen with the two-burner stove. (Why would he need more than that, he had explained to the facility manager when he took the tour, since he doesn’t cook?) “May I help?” Margaret asked. “No, thank you,” Jim said, trying to be cool. “I’ve got it.”
Slowly and somewhat haltingly, the meal took shape. First, the chicken was browned. (Margaret laughed to herself while Jim turned it every 45 seconds because he was afraid it would burn.) Then, the vegetables were cooked and the salted pasta water had come to a boil. Jim hadn’t thought of a salad, but he did buy one of those pre-packaged garlic bread sticks in the freezer section, and it was heating up in the oven. Finally, Jim went to the fridge and pulled out the carton of whipping cream. He knew this was the hard part, but he felt like he was on track for a great evening—maybe even perfect.
It surprised him a little bit to find that the carton was puffed out as if someone had blown a bunch of air into it. He didn’t remember that when he got it at the grocery store, but he had never bought cream before, and he figured it was nothing. When he opened the carton, though, he immediately knew that something was wrong. A sour, sickly smell escaped the cardboard container carried on the puff of trapped air that escaped as it was opened. He brought it up to his nose for a good whiff and quickly recoiled from the evidently spoiled substance. “I just bought this,” he thought to himself, checking the date. “It’s not expired yet. What happened? Maybe this is how it’s supposed to smell. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t have left it in my car while I went to the gym.” “Is something wrong?” Margaret asked. “No, it’s nothing,” Jim said, not sure what to do. “Should I use it?” he wondered inside his head. “Surely not. But what should I do? Maybe it won’t make a difference. Maybe I can add some extra oregano to cover it up. Maybe she won’t notice. But maybe she will. This could be a disaster. I don’t want to call my mom in the middle of this. I’ll look like an idiot. What about this can of sweetened condensed milk left over from that time Margaret made key lime pie? Would that work?”
Except to the one cooking dinner, it’s funny how the perfect plan can all fall apart when one ingredient turns out to be bad.
Tonight is the holiest of nights. This is the festival of our savior’s birth. This is the night when God breaks through into human history to show us the fullness of his love. This is the moment when God’s perfect plan of salvation unfolds for the whole world to see and celebrate. And that makes tonight a truly perfect night…except that it isn’t.
Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem, but there is no room for them in the inn. A kind innkeeper takes pity on the expectant couple and gives them permission to bed down in the stable amidst the animals. But one unhappy accident follows another, and that very night the time comes for Mary to deliver her child. Instead of having the protection of her home or, at the very least, a room in the inn, she gives birth to the baby Jesus in the same stall where the horses usually give birth to their foals. With no crib or baby clothes, Mary wraps her infant son in some spare strips of cloth and places him in the empty manger, the feeding trough where in the morning the animals will expect to be fed.
Despite these apparent setbacks, God is not deterred. Through an angel, accompanied by the multitude of the heavenly host, God announces the good news of the savior’s birth to the only audience who is still awake to hear it—some shepherds living in the fields with their flock. When the angels depart, and the lowly shepherds race into the city to see this remarkable thing, making these illiterate, smelly, unmannered onlookers the only ones to come and greet God’s own son. This is the long-awaited savior, Emmanuel, God with us, and he is born, of all places, in a barn and adored, of all people, by shepherds. And still God is not deterred.
But the greatest and most confounding mystery and miracle of all is that God would come among us not as he is and always has been but that God would take upon himself the fullness of human nature and be born as one of us. Surely that is where the plan goes wrong. Surely things will fall apart now because, in the birth of Jesus, God who is holy and perfect is joined together with the imperfect, unholy, broken nature that is within all of us. And we know human nature. We know the pain and turmoil that it has brought into our lives and into the world. And we know what happens when you mix a bad, spoiled ingredient into an otherwise perfect recipe. But, this night, that isn’t what happens. In the birth of Jesus, instead of our imperfection spoiling the whole thing, we discover that God’s perfect love has the power to transform us and restore us into the unblemished people God created us to be. This is exactly what God has in mind. This is precisely his perfect plan.
This is God’s dream for the world—not that a perfect people would receive his perfect gift on a perfect night but that God’s perfect love would transform all of our imperfection and finally make all things the way God created them to be. The beauty of God’s plan is that it hinges upon our imperfection. Only a broken vessel can receive the transformative love that God brings into the world this night. Unlike the love that we have for one another—a love that overlooks the mistakes that we make and celebrates even when a recipe goes wrong—God’s love has the power to take those mistakes and make them right—to take our imperfection and make us perfect. That is the good news of this holy night. That is the hope of God’s perfect plan. You are not perfect, but God is. This world is not perfect, but God’s love is. In the birth of Jesus, our savior, God shows us that he has the power to take even the most imperfect of circumstances and make them shine with the holiness of God’s perfect love.