Monday, December 23, 2013

It took place in this way

Matthew 1: 18-25, NT page 1 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. Sermon I love to carry up the boxes from the basement that contain all our Christmas decorations. These boxes are not touched and are hardly thought of during most of the year, but every December I love to open up these boxes with my family to unpack the special things they have inside. You wouldn’t necessarily know that any of these things were special upon first glance, but of course they are. There’s a little wreath my mother knitted when I was a child and that she gave Sara and me to put on our first Christmas tree in our first apartment. There are new ornaments that our daughters Lily and Cece have made at preschool with glitter and felt, and there are old ornaments that my wife Sara made with those same materials when she was just about their same age. There’s also a nativity scene that we unpack from those Christmas boxes that Martha Boone gave us, and Mrs. Boone, in her infinite wisdom, gave us two baby Jesus’ for this nativity so that our girls wouldn’t have to fight over just the one. In some ways this is absolutely the height of irony. It would seem to most people that the baby Jesus in the nativity shouldn’t cause conflict, baby Jesus is supposed to bring peace on earth and not disputes between siblings, but sometimes it is better to face facts – baby Jesus, maybe his birth especially, has an effect on people that is often more conflict than peace. It’s true. I’ve seen it, having been to Walmart more than once this December. And yesterday, because I’ve been trying to tackle a home improvement project, I drove to Lowe’s on James Campbell twice, and each time was impressed by just how many people were rushing from one store to the other, rushing with such urgency that I noticed four wreaks. The people standing outside their cars didn’t look filled with joy. Their expression was not so much peace on earth as how am I going to pay for this on top of everything else, and that’s a sad reality this time of year. There’s a look on peoples’ faces in Kroger as well. It’s not panic exactly, but as they go from aisle to aisle, you can tell what they’re thinking. They’re worried about dinner – high stakes dinner – dinner where everyone will gather at one big table with placemats and cloth napkins and unrealistic expectations. They’ll be expecting perfectly smooth mashed potatoes, buttery yeast rolls rising just enough, and turkey. There’s a Christmas turkey that I’ll never forget at a Christmas table several years ago. It wasn’t store bought, but had been shot not long before it was served. It looked perfect on the outside, and only as it was carved did anyone realize that Uncle Al knew enough about killing turkey to kill it himself but didn’t know enough about killing turkey to have cleaned it properly. There was grass still in the craw, and thinking of things that should have been cleaned properly before they were cooked reminds me now of some chitlins I had with Ron Neal last week, but more than that I think this turkey also acts as a symbol for Christmas – sometimes we anticipate so much that reality becomes a notorious disappointment. The baby Jesus is to be born, but like his reproduction in the nativity that we unpacked from that big Christmas box, sometimes the birth of Christ causes more conflict, more anxiety, more pressure than peace. For this and many other reasons it’s important to remember that “the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child.” Can you imagine that? Maybe you can – after all, it happens more often than you might expect. For Joseph, this news of Mary’s pregnancy was no doubt a shock, and more than a shock, it’s a horrible disappointment, possibly a heartbreak if there was real love between them – this new reality that she was pregnant and the baby isn’t his. But Joseph isn’t a cruel man, if anything, his kindness towards this woman is profound, for while it was his right under the law to have her humiliated publically or even killed, Joseph instead decides to have her dismissed quietly. I don’t think anyone could have asked for anything more than that. He’s a good man – because while he could have acted out of his anger or his heartbreak, dismissing her loudly and cruelly, exacting the same hurt on her that he believed she had exacted on him, instead, what he could have done loudly he seeks to do quietly and with compassion. An ideal has been destroyed – his expectations are shattered – but still, Joseph is a kind man and wants to act kindly which is miracle in and of itself. He’s like a child who doesn’t get anything that he want’s on Christmas, but still he is nice about it, still he thanks Santa Clause and forgives him for his mistake, assuming that his letters weren’t written clearly or there was some kind of confusion at the North Pole. He looks under the tree and sees nothing but educational toys and politely smiles anyway because he is a kind young boy, not wanting to appear ungrateful or rude. Could any more be expected? Certainly it would be nice if more people acted this way, certainly being quietly disappointed would be an improvement to being loud and rude and classless, but the Lord requires even more of Joseph than kindness, the Lord expects him not only to be kind, but faithful. The Lord expected him to see that more than his disappointment and more than his failed expectations were at work so many years ago. The Lord expected him to believe that it is when everything does not go according to your plan that God’s plan unfolds. This is a hard lesson for you and for me. So often it seems that Christmas is the time when everything is supposed to be right in the world – that Christmas should be the one day when everything is perfect – when the children are happy, when the family gets over their grudges, when everyone settles down to watch It’s A Wonderful Life with a perfect fire in the fire place. No one should have a drinking problem on Christmas. No one should get divorced No one should be fighting, and I’m sure that Joseph was thinking that Mary should not be pregnant – but it’s here that he is an example, for rather than throw up his hands proclaiming that “Christmas is ruined,” instead he remains faithful – and it is in this way that the birth of the Messiah took place. And it’s that same thing that is required of you – to be faithful enough to believe that Christmas can survive a roast turkey still full of her last meal. To be faithful enough to believe that Christmas can survive some harsh words and some damaged relationships. To be faithful enough to believe that when your plan falls apart, God’s plan holds a broken world together – for the birth of the Messiah took place this way – not the way Joseph wanted it to – it took place this way. I was thankful to talk with Lucy Scotty Kuykendall this weekend. As the wife of an obstetrician and as the mother of another, Lucy Scot has heard more incredible stories of childbirth than most. She’s heard many stories of men in the delivery room who took one look at the baby and realized only then what Joseph was told in a dream, and while there have been those who walked right out of the delivery room or fainted on the spot when faced with this harsh truth, more often the birth of a child is such a profound thing that even the most betraying details become simply details. I pray that the same will be true for you this Christmas. I pray that in witnessing the birth of the Christ child you will realize that nothing else – not the imperfect turkey, not the senseless arguments, not the un-received gift or the broken expectation will matter so much as the birth of a child. Joseph managed to do what so few people ever achieve – to look at life and to accept it for what it is rather than what you had wished it would be. He witnessed the birth of a child and realized that nothing else really matters, for this child, “he will save his people from their sins.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

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