Did you hear what Mr. Marley said about family relationships? He said, “How you feel about your family is a complicated thing. You can hurt them and they can hurt you.” Relationships at Christmas often get messy because the hurts that have been there all year long under the surface tend to bubble up. At Christmas gatherings we often face messy relationships that exist in our extended family because we see people at this time of year that we don’t see any other time, or we are herded into the same house for Christmas parties with people we don’t really get along with. In extended families, or work relationships, or in your network of friends there are probably some people who are not talking to each other. It may be your brother and your Dad who are not getting along. Your wife and your mother in law may have trouble talking to each other. Someone in the past may have said something to your kids that you really didn’t like and you don’t want that to happen to them again. In divorced situations there are all kinds of complications that make holiday gatherings uneasy.
You may get a sick feeling just thinking about seeing a particular person and you dread what will be tense moments at family gatherings or office parties.
There was an elderly man who lived in Phoenix and a few days before Christmas he called son in New York City. He said, “I hate to ruin your Christmas, but your mom and I are going to get a divorce. 45 years of misery is enough. We are sick of talking to each other, and sick of looking at each other. It’s just over. In fact, I’m tired of talking about this now so you’re going to have to call your sister in Chicago and tell her about this because I’m done.” He hangs up the phone and his son calls sister. “You’re not going to belive this. Mom and Dad are getting a divorce.” She said, “There’s no way. They are not.” She hangs up and calls Dad. “Dad, you are not getting a divorce. There’s no way I’m going to let this happen. You don’t do one thing until I get there. I’m going to call my brother back and we’re both going to be on a plane tomorrow. We’re going to be there and get this straightened out. Don’t you do a single thing until you hear from us.” The man says, “OK,” and hangs up. Then he turns to his wife and says, “OK, honey. The kids are coming for Christmas and they’re paying their own airfare.” Well, that might be a mess.
All of us deal with messy relationships of some kind at some time. And, it’s quite possible you will again at this season when you get together with family and friends. Messy relationships are painful, but, of course, they’re nothing new or unusual. When Jesus was born it came about in the midst of a messy relationship.
"This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit." [Matthew 1:18, NLT]
Many of us are so familiar with this story we don’t realize how startling those statements are. These facts so calmly and plainly stated were an emotional IED for Joseph. He did not have all the information we just read. He did not know Mary was still a virgin while being pregnant. He did not know she had never had sexual relations with any man. At that time Joseph didn’t know God was involved in all this. All he knew is that Mary became pregnant. This situation was terribly serious in that culture. Engagement was so serious that a couple had to be legally divorced in order to end an engagement. A pregnancy during the engagement period was socially, legally and religiously the same as adultery. Joseph had a mess on his hands.
If you were Joseph and you knew you had not slept with Mary, you would be sure some other man did. In your mind you would begin to go down a list of guys you think could be responsible for this. You want to rip his arms off. And then you realize Mary has lied to you about her love and broken her promises to you. Pain and disappointment tear you up and you feel like tearing up something or somebody. Maybe you might be the kind of person who just can’t take that kind of rejection and goes off and gets drunk. Or maybe you just leave town and say it’s not your problem.
What’s the pattern of your family in dealing with messy situations? We usually deal with messy situations in 1 of 4 ways. Where are you in this? Some families pretend. When people ask how things are going they say, “We’re doing fine,” to people on the outside but everyone inside the family knows there’s conflict, tension, and anger. Some families explode--yelling, shouting, and tearing up each other verbally. Some of you know this kind of experience. At the end of a day like that there’s leftover turkey on the table and left over carnage in the living room because of all the horrible conversations that have occurred. Some families bury their messes. These families say, “If we have enough food and it’s good enough; if we have enough presents and they’re nice enough; if we have lots of decorations are they’re pretty enough, we’ll just bury the mess underneath all that. We won’t think about our family mess or the relational tension out there.” In this family as you drive home with the kids in the back seat, mom and dad are in front talking badly about rest of family while the kids sit and listen in. Other families try to avoid their messes. They decide to just not show up at parties or family gatherings. You may have some family members who routinely don’t show up to family gatherings because of the mess. Family messes may not just be about conflict. It may be that there is a person whose life is going off in a bad direction and there’s part of you that doesn’t even want them around your kids. You don’t want that kind of influence so you stay away. We all have some messes to navigate.
Since God did the choosing of the people involved in the birth of His Son, it’s not surprising that Joseph was a ‘righteous’ man. This description means that he was known for obeying God’s laws. Respectable people in the community were like this. Joseph was a man of admirable character, but he was dealt a mess. Here he was a righteous man with pregnant fiancé. And soon everyone would know it and assume the child is his and he would no longer be considered righteous. This was a mess for him. If he were a legalistic religious leader, he would do what Deuteronomy 22:21 says and take her to her father’s door and have her stoned to death by the men of the town. Remember, later in Jesus’ life there were men ready to do that to a woman discovered to be an adulterous. Joseph knew the law of God but he also knew the heart of God behind the law. Joseph was not a legalistically religious man but a man with a heart like God’s full of mercy and grace. So...
"Joseph, her fiancé, was a good man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly." [Matthew 1:19, NLT]
Though Joseph was likely to be incredibly upset about this mess, he gave grace rather than rage. He was not worrying about his own reputation, but he was concerned about hers. Instead of getting even he gives even more to her.
Why would God bring Jesus into world in such a scandalous way that looks so sinful and wrong? As far as any person could know, Mary should be executed according to God’s law. Why would God do this? Maybe it was for us to understand that in this sinful world where messy relationships are common, we could see what a truly good person is--not legalistic or judgmental, but knowing God’s law and knowing when to give grace. God is always full of grace toward us. If He gave what we deserve, we wouldn’t be here.
When we are angry, or frustrated in situation where someone has apparently done something ungodly, we have this decision to make. Am I going to respond as a person of grace or judgment? In every mess it’s the same. In every conversation we have the same decision. Who am I going to bring to this? Am I going to bring Christ-like grace or am I ready and will even enjoy finding what’s wrong with this person? Who are you going to bring to the mess? Judgment or grace? This is a tough position to be in. If you have been in the judgmental position (and I have certainly been there at times) it really is kind of intoxicating. If I can sit back and find things wrong with others in a self-assured way it feels good. It especially feels good if people’s lives are going in negative ways I’m not tempted in. It’s easy to feel superior. Most of us jump to judgmentalism easier and quicker than to we do to offer grace. It’s tough to say, “I know what they did is wrong, but I’m going to love them anyway,” especially if the wrong they did has been done to me. This is the pivotal decision in messy relationships. This attitude is probably at the core of the messes in our families. It’s tempting to think, “Why don’t they just get it together?” The question we need to ask ourselves is: Who are you going to take to the party? Are you going to take the yucky version of yourself that enjoys finding stuff wrong with other people? Or are you going to take Jesus to the party? Are you going to take the attitude and spirit of Jesus with you? Who will you take to the relational mess at your Christmas gathering?
Like most performers country music star Travis Tritt used to play in out of the way small bars back in his earlier days before he made it big and became famous. A lot of those places were fairly dangerous. Often there would be drunk patrons and the smallest thing would set them off. Someone would spill some beer on them, or someone would bump into them and a fight would break out right in the middle of his performance. There would be people just going at it. These people would be right on the verge of a fist fight and Travis found this amazing way to keep the peace. He said,
“The song ‘Silent Night’ proved to be my all-time life saver. Just when bar fights started getting out of hand, when bikers were reaching for their pool cues, and rednecks were heading for the gun rack, I’d start playing ‘Silent Night.’ It could be the middle of July. I didn’t care. Sometimes they’d even start crying standing there watching me sweat and play.”
What are you going to bring to the party? When you bring Jesus to the mess, something transformational can happen. You might start by asking, “What has been the relational pattern of God with me?” You might think of the mess that we’ve created here on earth and how God has related to us. How has He responded to us? What does He do with us? In our worst moments He gives us even more. He gave His Son. He has spent time with us. He has died for us. He has given Himself away because He loves us. He has spent all past history working out a way so He wouldn’t have to judge us. He came up with a solution we couldn’t come up with on our own. How has God dealt with you?
There has been a study that reveals that there is a particularly ugly thing that 25% of us will do this Christmas. Do you know what it is? Tell your neighbor what you think it is. We will re-gift. Why? You know. A couple of hours before a party-- oh no. We were supposed to bring presents to this party. There’s no time and no way to stop anywhere to get something now. So you go to the closet and see what you got last year. Right? It happens. It’s really embarrasing when a person opens a Christmas gift and a wedding card falls out. Why would someone give away a present they had been given? It’s because they didn’t like it. It’s on their least valuable gift list.
I want to suggest to you that the way to respond to messy relationships is the practice of re-gifting. What if you re-gift not the worst thing you’ve received, but the best thing you’ve ever been given? What if you re-gifted the things that are most valuable to you?
"Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you." [Ephesians 4:32, NLT]
Jesus’ followers are called to give as good as we’ve gotten. Re-gift this same outrageous, undeserved gift you’ve been given. If you are a follower of Jesus, you have received an amazing forgiveness--undeserved. Re-gift this to the messy relationship. You have freely received grace, freely give grace to others.
A young couple who were shopping in a store were frustrated with their experience. They were separated a little distance from each other and their conversation could be overheard. The wife picked up a hand carved wooden ship. By their conversation any person nearby could tell they had been at this process for a while. Across the aisle the wife said to her husband, “Honey, what about this for your father? Maybe this would be ok.” The husband grumbled something and walked over to where she stood with the model in her hand. He picked up the carving, turned it over and looked at the price tag when he responded, “Agh, $35. My Dad’s not worth $35.” Can you imagine the relational mess which got to that point? Some of you may have a thought something like that about some member of your family. “He’s not worth a phone call.” “She’s not worth an invitation to the party.” “She’s not worth the time it would take to reconcile the relationship.” “He’s just not worth it.” It’s a mess. What if you decide to apply the re-gifting idea? There’s a really good chance that somehow along the way your parents hurt you--maybe deeply. There’s a real chance of that--and your brothers and sisters probably didn’t bat 1000 in all good relationship with you either. But here’s a question you need to ask: How long are you going to let that hang over their heads? How long are you going to make them pay a price for what they’ve done? At what point do you look up at a blood stained cross and see, “I was forgiven for a mountain of moral and relational debt before God. Based on that I am deciding to be free with my forgiveness. I can give it away. I’m going to forgive the people who’ve hurt me even if it was just yesterday. I’m going to re-gift that forgiveness.” I know in some cases the offense has been extreme and it’s going to take more than a few words to fix it, but the spirit you bring to the relationship is critical to the opportunity for healing it.
Jesus grew up and taught God’s message and lived God’s message. In Jesus’ life we get to see how God thinks and acts and treats people. Here’s one thing He taught.
“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect." [Matthew 5:43-48, NLT]
A way to understand that statement of being perfect might be to say, ‘You are to be good in the Joseph sense of good.’
According to Jesus’ message, if there were a continuum....on one end there are people you love and who love you....then people who annoy you....people who are difficult to be around...people who don’t like you...people who want to harm you... and then your enemies.
Anybody can love those who love them back. Even terrorists love their own. Even the mafia. The mark of Jesus’ followers is loving people on the other end. Certainly every messy relationship falls somewhere on that line. Jesus calls us to love. Re-gift this kind of love and generosity--undeserved favor to them. What would it be like to do that? It might be to actually talk to that person, actually give them encouragment, and actually serve them somehow. When you love like that you are acting as a true child of God. We all were at one time God’s enemies. We all are until we open our hearts and lives to Him and gratefully accept what He has done for us. Here’s one more gift we can re-gift to our messy relationships...
"For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” [Matthew 20:28, NLT]
Jesus didn’t just do little helpful things. He was an extreme servant. He gave His life away. What if we take this attitude into messy relationships? When you head to a party or gathering you know is going to be tense and awkward and there may be conflict and maybe hurt feelings, what if you take the position of a servant while there? Find ways to serve people--especially those with whom you may be in conflict. For some of us it may be instead of heading quickly away from table but staying to help with the clean up. If you need to get out of there--go outside and rake leaves or shovel snow. Ask if there’s something you could do that would help. Approach the uncomfortable or tense event with the idea of serving--even in your conversations with people. Ask how someone is and mean it and really listen regardless of how offensive that person is. You will decide who you bring to the party. You can bring Jesus to the party and when you do, you can’t imagine what might happen.
Several years ago 3 guys started driving cross country from CA to DC for a Promise Keepers Men’s Conference. On their way out of town as they started this trip, they drove by a homeless man and stopped to invite him to go with them. As they talked to him about where they were going and what they were going to do when they got there, the man said he could never go to such an event. He said 16 years earlier he had walked away from his family and just abandoned them. He hadn’t talked to any of them since. The guys who were talking to him said, “You know what.? Although we haven’t literally abandoned our families, we have left them alone and let them down in all kinds of ways. We have caused relational messes. This conference is all about finding Jesus’ forgiveness and help for these things and learning how to grow in that.” So the guy agreed to go with them and as they drove across the country the homeless man told them he was originally from Alabama. His new friends suggested that when they got to the conference, they would try to find a group from Alabama so he could at least be with people from his home state and would have something in common with them. Well, thousands and thousands of men were going there and the likelihood of making that happen was questionable, but wouldn’t you know as they walked up to the crowd, the first group they met was a group from Alabama. It was just unbelievable, but as they began talking with each other, this man found out that this group was actually from his very hometown in Alabama. And, you know who one of the people in that group was? This man’s son. As you can imagine both the man and his son were overcome with emotion and wept openly. They prayed together and right there began the reconciliation of their relationship. After the conference, that homeless man went back home to Alabama with his son. You just cannot imagine what tremendous things will happen when you bring Jesus to your messy relationships.
“His preaching will turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers. ” Malachi 4:6, NLT]