Every night during these first weeks of January, I notice more houses in our neighborhood that have turned off their Christmas lights. (There’s always that one holdout…the person who keeps their lights on until Valentine’s Day…a bold decision that I respect!)

And this week I’ve noticed a lot of Christmas trees out on curbs, waiting to be picked up to begin their next life as wood chips and compost.

The beautiful, new lights in the trees of Central Park have been turned off.

After the festive and joyous season of anticipation and celebration, the month of January can feel, to be honest, like a bit of a downer. The homes in our neighborhood feel dark. The space in our living room where the tree stood just a week ago feels empty, and our Christmas music playlist has been removed and we’re back to listening to our standard, 80’s music.

In truth, a lot of time and energy goes into “cleaning up Christmas.” We take it all down, we put it all away, we clean it up, and then we hunker down and wait for spring.

We’d like to think that 2,000 years ago, life was easier for Joseph and Mary once their child was born. They had no tree to take down, no used gift-wrapping paper to throw away and no lights to be unplugged, wrapped and put in the garage. No, there was just a newborn child, a child who was the Savior, a child who would change the world.

But that doesn’t mean that it was easy. They had to flee to Egypt to avoid the anger of King Herod. They had to figure out how to be a family together, and Mary and Joseph had to figure out how to be a parent to the Son of God. I’m certain it was messy, even a struggle. But at the end of the day, they had their son, and they had the promises of God to cling to.

And to be honest, life for those who follow Jesus today can be messy as well. We find ourselves in difficult situations where we have to discern God’s will for our lives, and for the world. We have to find the courage to stand up and speak out on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves. We have to learn to respond first with grace and hospitality, not with judgment or frustration. We have to learn to live as God calls us to live.

It is not easy. It can be messy. And we often fail. But at the end of the day, what are we left with? We have the Son of God, the Savior. And we have the promises of God, to which we cling.

God promises to be with us in the midst of the mess. And God promises to welcome and forgive us, even when the mess overwhelms us, and we fail to follow. And that is the real gift of Christmas.

The Rev. Todd Buegler is the senior pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Owatonna.

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