A sermon for the 4th Sunday of Advent, Matthew 1:18-25
Perfection. Perfection is constantly hanging over our heads, sitting in the back of our minds, reminding us that there is a little bit better, a little bit more that we can be. Often when we speak of Jesus, we speak of him as the only perfect human being, and then we talk about how we’re called to model our lives after that perfection. Sure, we say, we cannot achieve that, but we may as well try to, because that is what Jesus has left for us. Perfection then begins to spread out into the other areas of our lives, permeating our understanding of what is expected, what must be accomplished and achieved, in order to experience happiness, in order to experience satisfaction with what we are doing. As Krista and I continue to prepare for the arrival of our own child, I can’t help but notice that there are quite a few opinions on what constitutes a perfect birth, and trying to satisfy all of those opinions is practically impossible. Further, as this tends to be a season for engagements, you see couples’ thoughts turn to the planning and execution and lifelong striving for the perfect wedding and marriage. And, even more directly in this season, we attempt to create the perfect Christmas, a house with 25,000 imported Italian twinkling lights and a perfect tree for the living room. These are just a few of the areas that push us towards perfection, but I think that it is within these areas that we may find something else entirely.
The perfect Christmas is such a cultural touchstone that one of the best Christmas movies deals directly with this concept of perfect. Clark Griswold is the embodiment of every American father who wants to gather family around, share his heart of gold, the “last true family man” another character calls him, he pulls out all of the stops for the Griswold Family Christmas. And of course a lot goes wrong, in hilarious ways, and we sympathize with Clark, because we too want to see perfection in our Christmas celebration, knowing that rogue squirrels, flammable gas fumes, over-cooking the turkey, and forgetting to turn the switch on for the outlet, will most definitely get in our way. And yet, we still strive for that impossible goal of perfect. I have very high standards for Christmas trees. I have no problem traversing all over Spokane to find just what I’m looking for. The lights (white lights only thank you) and ornaments must be placed just so. Not to brag, but our tree is usually perfection. Except this year, our tree has already died. One week out from Christmas we had to find a new one. We theorize that the fireplace must have dried it out too quickly, but our perfect Christmas tree is no more, a replacement tree will have to do the duty and, at this point, it’ll be nice but it won’t be perfect. You may find perfection in Christmas putting undue stress on you this season, perfection in giving the perfect gift, perfection in creating the perfect dinner, the perfect pie, the perfect outfit for the holiday party. And there it is, perfection hanging over us, asking us to be a little bit more.
Marriage too has this threat of perfection-attainment that cannot be attainable in terms of our societal understanding, even if we are truly experiencing the perfect marriage at home. For the perfect marriage should not be beholden to social norms. Understandings of who is the breadwinner, who is in charge of the household, the finances, how a couple chooses to go about family planning (including not desiring children), all of these decisions and actions taken within a couple should not have to meet a set of societal standards, and yet that is exactly what multi-billion dollar industries are based on; from the perfect ceremony, through the perfect 3 bedroom 2 bath 2 car garage home, to the perfect little family of 2.3 children. We are tasked with achieving a sense of perfection that most of us have no interest in. It’s not that we don’t want to be perfect, but rather that our understanding of our relationships and our marriages are perfect, just not the perfect that society expects. And, when they aren’t perfect, it’s not a failure. It’s not an excuse to cut loose, divorce due to “irreconcilable differences”, and try again with someone else to achieve society’s version of perfect. When your betrothed comes to you and lets you know that she has conceived a child through immaculate means, you don’t leave her in shame. Rather, imperfection is an opportunity to seek what perfect truly looks like for you and your partner and your family together.
And, it is in our marriages, we often come to a crossroads when we decide whether or not to have children. If we decide to have children, then there are a number of different perfects that weigh on you. This past week we attended our first set of baby classes, focused on delivery, and one thing that really stuck out to me was the hospital’s motto: your birth, your way. This motto is a statement that the only perfect birth is the birth that you, your body, and your baby allow for. Your birth plan is a great starting point, but ultimately birth has to be itself nearly perfect for that plan to followed to a T. And the instructor made a point of saying: that’s ok. The only perfect birth according to them, is one where mom and baby are delivered through the process with as little harm as is possible. And I found this to be pretty radical because of the birth industry that exists, the friends and family telling us how they did it, what they know, the idea out there that one can plan for everything about a pregnancy (which I have found to be radically untrue) and eventual birth, pushes us to expect an unattainable concept of this perfect birth, but that is simply not possible, because our perfect this time won’t even be the perfect next time, let alone the perfect that is expected by the various different approaches.
These specific areas of perfection are present in my mind this week in particular because of baby classes, the impending holiday, a spate of new engagements and weddings added to my calendar this past month, but also because this is what is at the heart of the gospel today. Here we have a man in Joseph who has an understanding of his life. He didn’t have Christmas to worry about, but he had a certain understanding of his impending marriage. He had an understanding that his wife will not be pregnant on their wedding day, particularly since the two of them have not laid with each other. And yet this societal understanding of perfection, is completely upended. And Joseph responds expectedly, even nobly, in deciding to make a quiet break from Mary. But then an angel of the Lord appears to him. This angel tells Joseph that from this imperfect situation, something miraculous will happen. Joseph is even given a name to give to his son, and yet, not his son. And Joseph again responds expectedly (I mean, who says no to God, outside of Jonah of course) but does so in a way that embraces the imperfectness of this situation. Embraces the fact that people will talk. That whispers will be heard. That perfection cannot be attained in this birth, in this family, and yet it is through this imperfect setting that the only true example of perfection ever in this world will emerge.
The focus on perfection in this imperfect world is a distraction from what is really at work in this world, and furthermore keeps us from seeing the perfect in the imperfection that exists in our lives. As the Griswold Family Christmas descends into utter chaos and the SWAT team comes crashing through the windows and doors, the family truly comes together at last, and the perfect family Christmas is realized in the most imperfect way. As we strive for our own perfect family Christmas’ this week remember that perfection is really only about carrying on those traditions we hold dear and all of the fluff around it is simply decorations meant to distract others from our imperfections, when it is those very imperfections that are what create our own reality of perfect. In marriages and births, we will find that we do not meet society’s understandings or definitions of perfect, but if we take the example of Joseph here, if we take the example of the holy family in general, we will see that perhaps it is only through what others may deem as imperfect that the reality of perfection can arise.
This week, strive for imperfection. Strive to live into the imperfection that is your crazy wonderful family, your Christmas celebration, your marriage, your nuclear family (including planning for kids, having kids, or never having kids). And when you are happy and filled with love and joy in that imperfection, realize that this is the perfection that we actually must strive for, the perfection that is actually attainable, rather than the false perfection that stands before us always just out of our reach.