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On the Way to the Holy Night: For Yonder Breaks a New and Glorious Morn

(a sermon for December 22, 2019, the 4th Sunday of Advent; 3rd in a series, based on Isaiah 7:10-16 and Matthew 1:18-25)

If it could ever be said that there’s a “forgotten” cast member of the story of Christmas, I think that it would also have to be said that that role easily belongs to Joseph.

Not long ago I came across the work of a clergy colleague on-line who did a survey of all the words contained within the Advent and Christmas hymns included in his congregation’s hymnal.  And what he discovered is that in those songs there were, as one might expect, 309 references made to the Christ Child; also 48 mentions of angels, 31 references to Mary and 23 words about shepherds.  But quite interestingly, he found that in this particular hymnal was no reference at all made to Joseph; not a one!  Well, of course, that piqued my curiosity, so I did a very quick search of our “Chalice Hymnal” and found… only one mention of Joseph (it’s from “Angels We Have Heard on High,” by the way: “See within a manger laid, Christ whom choirs of angels praise; Mary, Joseph, lend your aid, while our hearts in love we raise.”); and even there, Joseph’s sort of an “add on” to the larger story!

Now, granted, if you dig a little deeper into the wealth of Christian hymnody there’s some wonderful music to be found in which Joseph figures prominently – “The Cherry Tree Carol” and “Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine” for instance – and there’s also some wonderful contemporary music out there (“Joseph’s Lullaby” comes to mind) that beautifully seeks to tell the story from Joseph’s perspective.  But by and large, the music of this season tends to cast Joseph in much the same way we see him in the crèche: as a quiet, ever stalwart presence kneeling at the manger even as he’s overshadowed by the likes of shepherds, wise men and farm animals; just another supporting player in the nativity drama dwelling in the shadows of holy light.

And yet… I would submit to you that despite this, shall we say, subdued presence in the Christmas story, it is Joseph, this adoptive father of Jesus, who not only brings Mary and by extension, us, to the manger, but who also by his very example leads us “yonder” to what is beautifully sung in “O Holy Night” as “a new and glorious morn.”  Joseph, you see, is perhaps the singular figure within the nativity story who quite literally takes us to Bethlehem… and beyond!

Now, to understand this, we need to remember that Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, from which our text this morning is drawn, in terms of both narrative and tone, is most definitely different from that of Luke.  Luke’s story is filled with singing angels, adoring shepherds and the baby Jesus born in a stable.  Matthew’s version of events, however, is much more cut and dried, remarkably brief and arguably a far more somber account of things: to wit, after an entire first chapter listing off a genealogy that connects Abraham to Jesus, Matthew begins by simply saying, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.”  No shepherds or angels on high, no “no room in the inn,” no manger, no swaddling clothes – in fact, the wise men don’t even show up until the second chapter – but what follows is, in fact, one of the most essential parts of the story and isn’t it interesting; it’s told from Joseph’s perspective.  And as such, if I might quote pastor and biblical scholar David Lose here, it’s not so much “a story of wonder [as it is] as story of heartache.”

Now, I know that to suggest such a thing runs headlong up against just about every image we’ve ever had about Christmas; make no mistake, there’s heartache in abundance here! Because as Lose also reminds us, Mary and Joseph were real people – very young people, in fact, not to mention impoverished and without any semblance of earthly privilege or power. “In our imagination,” Lose writes, “Jesus never cried, Mary looked more like a blushing young bride than someone who had just given birth, and Joseph is calm, protective and paternal.” And yes, that’s how we might prefer this story to go but in fact, as Matthew begins his version of the story, the whole event is bathed in… scandal.

To begin with, we’re immediately told by Matthew that “when [Jesus’] mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”  Understand that in first century Palestine, engagement was not viewed as it is today – as a romantic declaration of marital intent – but rather, engagement was considered to be “a legal contract, binding in every respect… [it] was essentially to be married with having consummated that marriage or even living together.”  So for Mary to be “with child” now would have been seen as sure and certain evidence that Mary had been unfaithful to Joseph; and, in full accordance with Jewish law, would have been punishable by Mary being dragged out to her father’s house to be publically disgraced and to face death by stoning.  And that, in and of itself, is about as disturbing a possibility as we can imagine; remember this is Mary, the mother of Jesus (!) we’re talking about here!  But even that very real and, yes, very legal possibility aside, imagine the kind of pain and anguish Joseph must certainly have felt at learning this news… once again, Mary and Joseph were real people with real feelings living in a real, not to mention harsh and judgmental world.  Mary already understood what was happening to her, that’s true; and yes, Mary must have worried about how this claim about the Holy Spirit was going to be received in and around the village of Nazareth.  But Joseph… we’ve got to imagine he’s devastated by this turn of events.

But we’re also told that Joseph is a “righteous” man.  In the Greek, the word is dikaios, which means “upright,” “virtuous,” or “just in the eyes of God;” and as such, one who sought to live wholly in accordance with the law set forth in the Torah.  In other words, once Joseph had received this news, according to the letter of the law, there could well have been a rush to judgment for Mary.  But “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace,” Joseph chose the second option, “to dismiss her quietly,” quickly and quietly breaking the marriage contract; in essence granting her a divorce without any public fuss.  So right away we have this new perspective on Joseph, as a man who despite what must certainly have been a deep sense of betrayal and suffering, immediately looks to what’s best for Mary… and that’s just the beginning.

Because just when Joseph is about to bring some closure to this situation, “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’s going to have a baby boy, Joseph, and you’re to give him the name of Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins; and the reason this is all happening this way is because of Isaiah’s prophecy that “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.”  The upshot of all of this is that as soon as Joseph awakes from this strange yet familiar dream, he’s calmed down and we’re left to assume that he’s got some deeper sense of God’s intention with all of this.  And thanks be to God that he did: in the words of Leonard Sweet, at the moment the angel of the Lord appeared “the whole miracle of Christmas momentarily rested on Joseph’s shoulders, awaiting his freely chosen decision to either accept or reject the stunning news of an impending Messiah.”  The good news is that like Mary before him, Joseph said yes, and “did what the angel of the Lord commanded him.”

And a few months later, there’s that so-called registration in Bethlehem, which also not by coincidence was happening just about the same time as the baby was due; which meant that the city was crowded, the inns were full but maybe there’d be a stable out back… well, you know the story.  But first, to quote David Lose once more, “I think it’s safe to say that the months leading up to Christ’s birth was not one blissful baby-shower after another but were fraught with anxiety and concern and flights of emotion..” actually not unlike the kinds of struggle we all face, baby or no, along the journey of life.

Actually, given all of this backstory, I’d like to think that Joseph spent those months getting ready.  It’s been said, you know, that when a woman is expecting (or for that matter, as we’ve seen in our own extended family this year, in the process of preparing for an adoption) her maternal instincts kick in immediately; but for the father, it sometimes takes that singular moment of holding that child in his arms that he becomes a father!  But not so with Joseph: I have a sense that in those days leading up to manger of Bethlehem Joseph was likely spending every moment surveying the landscape, so to speak, getting ready for this momentous, life-changing, world-shifting act of God, all the while trying somehow to comprehend what being the earthly father of the Son of God would actually be for him!

There’s this wonderful moment in the film “The Nativity Story” in which Mary and Joseph are talking to each other about the same things that all new parents talk about: what it’ll be like to have this baby, and how they’ll manage to do everything that needs to be done with a baby; to take care of it, and feed it and clothe it and change it and bathe it.  And Joseph, at one point in this conversation, says, “I just wonder if I can teach him anything.”  That’s perfect, and might I add, a very legitimate fear; and yet, as this incredible story begins to unfold what we discover is that not only was Joseph prepared for the day of his birth he was ready for the next day as well.

In fact, I have to say that these days, when I think of Joseph, it’s not so much the “silent, holy night” in the manger that I envision… in truth, I’m thinking about the next morning as the sun is rising.  I mean, in those moments after the birth itself, after the infant Jesus was wrapped in those swaddling clothes and lying asleep in the manger; when the shepherds had come and gone and Mary was silently pondering in her heart all that happened that night; and when the animals had grown weary of all the excitement and had opted to get some sleep themselves.  I like to think that in those moments after the bright star of that holy night had begun to fade and a new day was beginning, there was Joseph, standing at the gateway of the stable and watching the sun rise over the streets of Bethlehem; just the same way it had done on countless days before, but now in a way unlike ever before in the history of God’s creation.

“A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”

There would be more to come:  the arrival, at some point soon, of magi from the East bringing expensive and very prophetic gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh; the news that Herod wanted to “pay homage” to the new born king even as his minions were seeking to slaughter any and all newborns that might fit the profile and provide a threat to his power; and then, yes, another angel’s message in a dream telling Joseph to get up and take the child and his mother to Egypt to keep them safe.

In other words, the story was just beginning; but in these wee hours of the morning, Joseph was ready for what was to come.

You see, that’s the thing about Christmas: so often, especially given that it comes at the end of a long Advent season of waiting and watch, we assume that the manger of Bethlehem represents the end of the story, when in fact it’s just the beginning of the story of Christ’s coming into the world… the story of light piercing through the darkness of life… of redeeming hope in a culture that seemingly thrives on the threat of hopelessness… of joy unending and triumphant… and of our lives, yours and mine, beloved, changing forever because of this one holy child who grew up to save us all from our sin.

So Merry Christmas, friends… and I hope and pray that it’s everything it should be for you and yours.  But remember this… after it’s all done, our time at the manger, that’s when the work of Christmas and faith really begins:  to, like Joseph before us, walk into the new and glorious morn of Jesus’ birth, and by his counsel start to change this world for the better, making our fervent hope of peace on earth and goodwill a reality for our lives and living here and now.

And in doing so, making sure that…

…our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on December 22, 2019 in Advent, Christmas, Jesus, Old Testament, Sermon, Sermon Series

 

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Round About the Manger: The Ones Who Said Yes

(a sermon for December 24, 2017, the 4th Sunday of Advent; third in a series, based on  Luke 1:26-38 and Matthew 1:18-25)

In almost every nativity scene you’ll ever see they always look, well… perfect: Mary, all calm and bright, with nary a hair out of place and Joseph, looking properly prayerful and stalwart; dutifully, if quietly, about the business of being an earthly father. And then, of course, there’s the baby, all clean and white and bathed in the glow of a warm light that fairly well seems to shine from his bed of hay in the manger; all this as angels in bright raiment hover overhead, while shepherds and wise men come to call with farm animals quietly milling about.

Now tell the truth; isn’t that the image that always comes to mind when we’re telling this story? It’s a beautiful scene of utter simplicity and serenity; a uniquely holy birth amidst what can only be described as joy expressed in deep and resounding quiet, with a peace – heavenly peace – that could not possibly be contained within the stable, but simply had to overflow out into the dark, shining streets of Bethlehem and outward to all of the world.

At least that’s how I like to think of it!

Actually, I’ve always loved how Barbara Robinson, in her marvelous children’s story of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, describes a Mary who is “just right” in our imagination: she’s “all pink and white and pure-looking, as if she never washed the dishes or cooked supper or did anything else except have Jesus on Christmas Eve.”  Any and all gender stereotypes aside (!), that does kind of express how we’ve come to view what happens “round about the manger,” as we gaze intently at this truly “Holy Family” – Mary and Joseph and their precious newborn – kneeling in the wonder, the splendor and the hay!

Of course, anyone who’s ever been involved in or present at the process of giving birth knows that most times it’s not like that at all!  Now, there’s no doubt that having a child is a beautiful and natural thing; but often it’s also a painful and exhausting thing; and hard work, most especially for the mother, but also in very real ways for the father and everybody else involved in the delivery (as the saying goes, they don’t call it labor for nothing!).  What’s more, childbirth is an experience that cannot help but create change in the persons involved in a variety of ways: physically, emotionally, and even spiritually. And the thing is that even though there are weeks and months of anticipation and preparation that lead up to the event, inevitably there comes this moment when the actual arrival of the child creates this new and utterly bewildering reality of life!   I remember this well with all three of our kids, but especially on the night that Jake, our firstborn, came into the world.  I’m holding him in my arms, I’m so full of joy and love and I’m feeling all this wonder in my heart; but all the while there’s this fleeting voice in the back of my head that’s asking, “OK, big shot, now what do you do?”

So can you imagine, then, what it must have been like for Mary and Joseph?  This sweet, romantic, bucolic image we have of them to the contrary, the truth is that here were two people who had a great deal working against them: to begin with, they were young (so very young; Mary was no more than 14 or 15 years old and Joseph only a year or two older than that); they were dirt poor and under the thumb of an oppressive Roman government; and not only that, they were engaged but unmarried and expecting, and thus facing the scandal that such a thing would create.  And add to all this that now, thanks to a government edict of taxation, they were both far from their home and trying in vain to find a place to stay in Bethlehem where Mary could have the baby in safety and perhaps some comfort, only to end up having it all happen in the squalor of a stable surrounded by farm animals.

Doesn’t sound quite so sweet or romantic when you think of it that way, does it?

But this was, in fact, the scene of his birth, the “little Lord Jesus” of whom we sing: a tiny, helpless child who was the very light of the universe all wrapped in human skin; ever surrounded by two altogether ordinary people (actually, from the world’s point of view, maybe less  than ordinary people!), two people in whom and through whom God was doing something extraordinary, even as they themselves must have wondered why they were there in the first place!

Max Lucado addresses this beautifully in his book In the Grip of Grace: “He whom angels worship nestled himself in the placenta of a peasant, was birthed into the cold night, and then slept on cow’s hay,” Lucado writes.  “Mary didn’t know whether to give him milk or give him praise, but she gave him both since he was, as near as she could figure, hungry and holy.  Joseph didn’t know whether to call him Junior or Father.  But in the end he called him Jesus, since that’s what the angel had said and since he didn’t have the faintest idea what to name a God he could cradle in his arms.”

“Don’t you think,” Lucado goes on to ask, “[that] their heads tilted and their minds wondered, ‘what in the world are you doing, God?’ Or better phrased, ‘God, what are you doing in the world?’”

Think of it, friends, as that same utterly bewildering reality of life that hits at every new parent sooner or later; but this time it’s hitting on a divine scale… which, when you think about it, pretty much what Christmas is!

For you see, within and beyond the beautiful and peaceful scene depicted at the crèche is this incredible story of God doing something that thoroughly confounds our human sensibilities; which was for the divine to come to us, and to be born and live among us just as any child would do… with everything that entails!    How incredibly wonderful and strange all at the same time that God would become a real, living and breathing, laughing and crying person; knowing every one of the joys we experience in life, but also willing to take on the hurt and the pain as well. What an amazing and yet bewildering thought that the almighty would even deem it suitable to step into the harsh realities of our lives and living, but in fact does it again and again, today, tomorrow and all through our lives, so to understand who we are and how it is that we feel!

But such is this divine love that comes to earth in the midst of a Bethlehem’s manger.  Incredible, isn’t it?  Incredible that out of the harsh reality of his birth a new reality in the world was created; incredible that this was the family that God chose to bring forth this child of love into the world and then to raise him up to be the man he would become; incredible that this one who was called “son of God and son of man” saving the world from its sin would be brought into the world by two young, impoverished and ultimately powerless people who literally had nothing else to give except to simply say, “Yes.”

But the good news is that that was more than enough.  Mary and Joseph said yes… yes to God!

Every year as I return to this nativity story, I’m newly amazed that even though at the very beginning she was no doubt confused and scared at what the angel is saying to her, and that she even dares to ask this heavenly visitor, “How can this be,” still Mary identifies herself as “the servant of the Lord,” saying “let it be with me according to your word!”  And not only that, what’s just about the next thing she does? She sings!  “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!”  Mary sings with joy to overflowing for the blessings in her life and in her womb and in her world by the grace of God almighty!

And then there’s Joseph, who legally and socially had every right to turn away from Mary in this unexpected and life-changing situation, but who was not only, as scripture tells us, “a righteous man,” but also loving and compassionate, a “man of incredible faith” who paid attention to dreams and angels and did what needed to be done for the sake of Mary, the child and ultimately, the world.

We might well wonder as we look upon the nativity scene why it was that God chose this family to bring his only son into the world; what the criteria must have been for becoming the most significant foster parents in human history… well it seems to me that with Mary and Joseph, first and foremost it was that they said yes!

That’s important for us to know; especially now as on this Christmas Eve Day we draw ever close to the manger and the miracle of the holy birth; for you see, it turns out some of the most important lessons of this season come from those who were the first to say “yes” to that birth in the first place.

Friends, above and beyond everything else we bring to this time of the year, the whole point of Christmas is that God comes.   “To you is born this day… a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”   That’s the promise of Christmas, a gift of God’s power and love that’s in fact every gift we will ever need to fulfill every longing we may ever have.  It’s the gift of forgiveness, and healing, and restoration and eternal life all wrapped up in the person of Jesus Christ.  As Jack Hayford has put it, “It will take a lifetime to unwrap the essentials [of this gift] for our present, and an eternity to unfold the glories for our future.”   But it starts now… by first saying an emphatic yes to the gift itself, letting our hearts embrace the Christ Child for today and letting him grow with us into the year ahead; accepting God’s presence in Jesus be the solid reality of our lives, and that place where all our hopes for tomorrow are placed and secured!

Think for a moment of the Christmas gift that goes unopened.  Think of the disappointment and sadness the refusal of that gift creates in the giver, and how much less the recipients are for not having had experienced the joy and the wonder that comes with the gift.  But think also of how much deeper the relationship between the giver and those who receive becomes when that gift is received with a whole heart and with great joy and thanksgiving; indeed, in the giving and the receiving there’s a relationship that cannot help but grow and deepen, and life – and the world – changes because of it!

Well, such is the gift of Christmas that’s now offered to us in Emmanuel, God With Us.   When that gift is not received by an open heart, then Christmas remains just another holiday, another opportunity for revelry and gift-giving that’s comes and goes with the 25th of December.  But… when we say “yes” to God’s gift to us of a Savior and Christ is born again in our hearts, then Christmas – true Christmas – becomes the centerpiece of each new day; a way of life and living that is forged in an ever deepening relationship with the Lord girded in love, and joy, and peace, and unending hope.

I hope and pray on this day before Christmas that in the same way that those two who first knelt before the manger bed, you also will say yes to God’s gift.  It’s still a gift, as much now as it was two millennia ago; and it’s still good news, as fresh and as real as the here and now in which we live.  For unto you is born this day is a Savior; one who comes to us so that he might lift the burden from off of our shoulders; one who comes to wipe the tears from our eyes; one who comes to assure us once and for all that we are not alone in this world, and that there is truly hope and joy unending.

And the beauty part?  All we have to do is say yes!!  So say it… Say yes!!   Let our souls this day magnify the Lord!  Let our spirits rejoice in God our Savior, for truly God has looked with favor upon us and has sent us a Savior!

Yes… Yes!   YES!

Merry Christmas, dear friends, Thanks be to God, and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on December 24, 2017 in Advent, Christmas, Jesus, Sermon, Sermon Series

 

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Sing We Now of Christmas: To Show God’s Love Aright

rose-in-snow1(a sermon for December 14, 2014, the 3rd Sunday of Advent; third in a series, based on Isaiah 7:10-16, Matthew 1:18-25 and “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”)

I suppose, if we’re going do this right, I should tell you up front that as beautiful as this song of Christmas is, in fact “Lo, How a Rose” is filled with errors; or if not errors, at least a fair number of uncertainties.  To begin with, biblically speaking the “rose” of this song is a reference to the “Rose of Sharon” from the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament; and while traditionally “the Rose of Sharon” is thought of as one name for the coming Christ (as is “the lily of the valley”), when you turn to the 2nd chapter of Song of Solomon it becomes very clear that the verses of scripture from which this comes is in fact a love song – a romantic love song (albeit a spiritual one!) – and what’s more, sung with the voice of a beautiful woman!

And then there’s the assertion that “Isaiah ‘twas foretold it, this rose I have in mind,” which is fine except that there is no mention anywhere in Isaiah of roses; and for the most part, when flowers are spoken of at all, it’s usually in the context of them perishing in the harsh sands of the desert, which is not exactly the image we have in mind!  The connection to Isaiah, of course, is the passage from the 11th chapter, in which “a shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of its roots;” and while that’s a powerful image in and of itself, a twig growing out of a stump is not quite the same thing as a rose blooming!

That aside, my real problem with this hymn is the very idea of it:  I mean, a rose blooming in the dead of winter?  It just doesn’t seem likely; at least not in this climate!  I’m no horticulturist but even I know what happens when plants get left out overnight in the frost; even the heartiest of flowers will succumb to the cold and darkness.  So to say of this rose that “it came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter when half-gone was the night;” blooming even given the harshness of the world around it; well, that would be… miraculous!

But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it; the spiritual truth of these familiar words we sing every Christmas season, a beautiful message of hope in the midst of a dark and cold winter.  For just as this flower, to quote words of the song that aren’t included in our hymnal, has “fragrance tender [that] with sweetness fills the air [and] dispels with glorious splendor the darkness everywhere,” so this “Rose of Sharon,” who is the light that shines in the darkness and is the true beauty of Christmas – this one who was “true man, yet very God” – saves us from sin and death, and lightens every burden we bear.

This rose that blooms – the evidence of spring arising out of the dead winter, with life bursting forth from the most unlikely of places – is a sign of God’s love and of the sure and certain hope he gives to us and to the world; but ultimately, you see, it’s a sign that points to something even more remarkable in God’s plan: and that was the birth of a baby; a baby born in, of all places, a stable somewhere in the shadows of some small backwater village; a birth attended by only a precious few, and which would happen, relatively unnoticed, amid the darkness of a silent, holy night; save, of course, for the light of a star overhead and the angels’ glorious proclamation to shepherds, and indeed, the whole world that this baby was, in fact, “the Messiah, the Lord.”

An unlikely happening?  Most certainly… not to mention a strange set of circumstances for a Savior to be born!   But that’s the funny thing about God’s signs; very often greatest ones of all are those that seem to us to be the least likely!

Consider our reading this morning from Isaiah.  We’re all familiar with the prophecy in this passage of a young woman bearing a son who shall be named Immanuel; but what we don’t often hear about in this passage is how Isaiah brought this prophecy to a weak and rather wicked king of Judah by the name of Ahaz.  You see, at this particular point in its history Judah was surrounded by foreign armies and was quite literally facing its own destruction;  and given all this Ahaz is worried, fearful and quite honestly, concerned for his own well-being, all of this despite the fact that Isaiah had already brought to him God’s assurance that his kingdom would prevail.  But in fact Ahaz is so unconvinced of this that God actually invites and encourages Ahaz to ask for a sign as to the certainty of the promise:  ask for anything, the Lord says, “Be extravagant.  Ask for the moon!” (The Messsage)

To his credit, Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign, not wanting to put the Lord to the test; but to God’s credit, he offers up a sign anyway; that of “a young woman [who] shall bear a son,” and of a child who will know “how to refuse the evil and choose the good.”  But even after this, Ahaz is skeptical; and we’re left with the sense that even with the incredible news of heaven and earth colliding, this king of Judah is far too wrapped up in worrying about what his enemies might be planning to even notice.

It seems short-sighted and more than a little self-serving, but friends, I have to say that I understand it. What we have here is a ruler wholly focused on worldly matters, fixated on his own struggles for power and of the very survival of his kingdom; here’s a man whose back is quite literally against the wall, and here comes Isaiah in the midst of all of this bringing the Lord’s word about… babies?  Frankly, I can understand why Ahaz might be less than enthusiastic; because this wasn’t the kind of sign he’d ever have anticipated; moreover, it didn’t seem to be the kind of Messiah the people of Israel should be looking for.  But this was the sign that God provided!

christthesaviormanger02Truth be told, sometimes I wonder if Joseph thought the same thing at first.  As the story is told in our reading this morning from Matthew, we already know that when Mary “was found to be with child” Joseph had resolved to “dismiss her quietly” so not to expose to public disgrace; but then, of course, the angel appeared to Joseph in his dream and all that changed.  Still, you still have to wonder if Joseph was asking what all of this really meant; not just to him and Mary, but also to the whole world.  Surely, his head must have been spinning to think of just how much was hinging on the two of them becoming parents to this tiny, helpless infant who was no less than God come to earth!

There’s this wonderful moment in the film “The Nativity Story” (one of the better film depictions of the Christmas story, in my estimation), in which Mary and Joseph are talking to each other about the same things that all new parents talk about: what it’ll be like to have this baby, and how they’ll manage to do everything that needs to be done with a baby; to take care of it, and feed it and clothe it and change it and bathe it.  And Joseph, at one point in this conversation, says, “I just wonder if I can teach him anything.”  That’s perfect, and  might I add, a very legitimate fear; especially considering that Joseph has suddenly been cast into this role of an adoptive father charged with raising up the very son of God!  You have to wonder, even with all the prophecies and dreams and angels’ songs that had led him to this time, if Joseph didn’t wonder, why me?  Why us?  Why now?

Again, on the face of it, it all seems a pretty unlikely scenario, but therein lies the beauty and the purpose of God’s plan; that this child, this birth, this coming of this Messiah simply didn’t seem to make sense by the standards of the world.  That the whole of Israel’s history; that all the prophecies foretold from days of old; that the sum total of human history should all hinge on a young girl saying yes, she’ll be the handmaiden of the Lord, and on a husband who would not walk the other way; and on the chance that the two of them would find themselves in a dark, damp stable in Bethlehem on one particular holy night that divinely chosen from the foundation of the world (!)…

…well, we may still not wholly understand why, but it was, if I might draw from the words of our hymn again, truly “to show God’s love aright, [that] she bore to men a Savior when half-gone was the night.”

It was a sign; what you and I would a miracle: a miracle of divine proportion planned and laid out for centuries before it actually unfolded in all its glory.  That’s the thing we need to remember, you know, especially as we draw closer now to Christmas; that all those wonderful things that make the story what it is – the angels’ chorus; the shepherds out abiding in the fields; the shining of a star in at a unique place and at a preordained time; and the magi who traversed across the miles so to discover where that star would finally rest – none of it was happenstance.  It was all part of God’s plan and purpose; the miracle workings of a miraculous God.

It seems like every year about this time we’re presented with some newspaper or magazine article, or maybe a documentary on television that seeks to get to the “real story” of Christmas; and inevitably this will include some “expert” whose role it is to challenge the biblical account of the nativity; to give some sort of scientific rationale for the star shining over Bethlehem, for instance, or to call into question the possibility of a “virgin birth.”  But lest we think that this is something unique to our post-modern age, in truth this is nothing new: there have always been “King Ahazes” in the world, people who remain skeptical as to God and his promises, and who will do everything they can to analyze, disseminate and perhaps discredit any truth to the story; and again, truth be told, there are times that even we might count ourselves among the skeptical.

But friends, despite such intense scrutiny, the truth of our hope and our faith endures at Christmas and always; and our proof comes down to those incredible and world-bending signs that God has provided to show his love aright; in the assurance we’ve been given again and again throughout history and continuing throughout our very lives: that yes, in God all things are possible.

This needs to be our focus as we draw near to Christmas, as it should be always. As Walter Brueggemann has put it – quite beautifully, I think – the first thing we need to notice as we move in these last days to Christmas “is that the expectation of Jesus… is outside all of our normal categories.  Our business is not to explain this text [in Matthew, or Luke, or Isaiah, or anywhere else].  Our business is to be dazzled at Christmastime that something is happening beyond all of our calculations.  This is a baby and a wonder and a gift that is designed to move us beyond ourselves.”

Not a bad prayer for you and me today, beloved; that as God’s unlikely and miraculous signs of joy and love begin now to unfold, we may truly be dazzled by it all, and moved by the sheer divine determination of it. Indeed, in these next couple of weeks, let us pray that God might again richly bless us in showing “his love aright” by the birth of the child; in the multitude of the heavenly host singing his praises, as well as through the wonder of the shepherds as they fairly well run to see just what’s happened.  And let us pray (and sing!) that as “earth receive(s) her King,” we might wholly receive him as well; and that in this our joy will be “to the world,” because we know in all certainty that “the Lord is come.”

So “let heaven and nature sing…”and us along with it!

And thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2014  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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