Finding God Between the Lines
The Christmas story is probably the most well known of all the gospel stories: Mary and Joseph, shepherds and kings, angels and innkeeper. We delighted to see our children acting it out earlier this evening. And you probably know that the story we tell is a composite, made by taking pieces from Luke’s gospel, and pieces from Matthew’s. The other two gospels of Mark and John don’t tell it at all. We piece it together and flesh it out and pass it on.
The actual stories in Luke and Matthew are quite bare bones. There’s so much left for our imagination between the lines. Some of which we fill in, and some of which maybe we just don’t think about.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.
This is saying that the mighty Roman empire that had conquered virtually the entire known world around the Mediterranean was imposing a registration system (for tax purposes) on all its occupied territories. Not only were peoples being invaded and subjugated, they were also to be counted, sorted and made to pay. This isn’t like a benign census for demographic purposes: this is oppression. This is harsh politics, setting the scene for Joseph and Mary’s trek to Bethlehem.
Joseph went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged, and who was expecting a child.
There’s so much between the lines here: Joseph’s agony on discovering his betrothed was pregnant, and knowing he wasn’t the father; Mary’s bafflement at how this could be; their conversations with each other in this crisis; the reassurance of angels. And then the knowledge that they’d have to travel a significant distance at this late point in the pregnancy. This isn’t just political now, it’s deeply personal. It’s laden with human emotion. And they’re just kids! What were their parents thinking and feeling?
And she gave birth to her firstborn son, and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn.
A manger is a feeding trough, it’s not a little crib. They were probably in a cave, where animals were penned in at night, not a scenic little stable with fresh straw. What a nightmare for first time parents far from home. Like refugees. Like homeless people on the street getting by as best they can.
There is so much between the lines. And so we create pieces to fill the gaps, and we imagine, and often we make it pretty and holy and spiritually lovely. When in fact the story is political and personal and painful and messy.
I believe, however, that God is right in those places, between the lines. God doesn’t stay on the surface of the story, but shows up in the mess and pain underneath.
We don’t know what actually happened. We have mythological stories that have been shaped and polished. None of the details can be historically verified. But the story proclaims the truth that God is with the unmarried mother and the terrified fiancé, and God is in the midst of an oppressed people, and with peasant shepherds living rough, the lowest of the low. Mythological stories contain profound truths. And the truth is often between the lines.
Where is God between the lines of your life? – in the pain of your life? in the messiness of your life? in the places where you feel lost and confused and helpless? We all have those places, underneath the put-together appearance we present to the world. There is so much between the lines of the stories we tell about ourselves. We know that, and God knows it, and God is there.
Perhaps that’s why Christmas can be such an emotional time for people. I often see quiet tears in church at Christmas services. I know some people dread this time of year, because in between the lines of their lives is the darkness and suffering that can rise to the surface.
But I believe that that’s precisely where God is.
I believe God meets us here with words of love and reassurance.
Like the prophets of old who proclaimed God’s message of hope and peace in the midst of turmoil, we gather here year by year to proclaim that God is with us, comes close to us, shares our griefs and burdens, in the gift of Jesus.
Jesus grew and embraced his purpose to bring light into the darkness, and salvation (healing/ wholeness) to the broken and hurting. He chose to go between the lines of people’s lives, asking piercing questions, seeing to the heart, refusing to turn his back on the outcast. He gave the most disreputable people second chances. He held out hope to those who had given up on themselves.
And he still does. On this Christmas night we celebrate the birth of this man who is God’s light, God’s imprint, God’s message of love made flesh. If you’ve ever allowed him to come into the secret places of your life, between the lines, you’ll know his grace and goodness. You’ll know that quiet inner astonishment that comes from experiencing healing and good news when you least expected it.
The Christmas story is our story, not just Mary and Joseph’s centuries ago. It’s about us when we’re in crisis, far from home physically or emotionally, afraid, needy. And the message of peace, light, trust, joy is for us too.
Unto us a child is born. And his name is God with us.
O come, let us worship.