Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Eve Sermon

NB: Based on a sermon by Eric Burtness and on a story by Max Lucado.

Our first child came 3 weeks early. She made a surprise appearance. We were on vacation at a cabin 45 minutes south of Halifax when Rebekah’s water broke. So we loaded the car and headed back up the highway through Nova Scotia’s patented syrupy fog. I was afraid we weren’t going to make it back to the city in time.

The hospital’s midnight glow announcing that the baby wouldn’t be born in the middle of the Nova Scotia bush was like a heavenly star, the nursing staff a chorus of angels singing their own medical hallelujahs.

18 hours later I was holding a tiny, gooey, miracle in my arms.

That day Macarenas around my frontal lobe each time I visit the Christmas story. I wonder what it would have been like to have been there THAT day in Bethlehem, knee deep in straw and cow pucks, when Jesus was born.

Have you ever wondered that? Have you wondered what it would have been like to be a shepherd, out there in the dark, tending the flock, when angels appears out of nowhere, the glory of the Lord blasts you in the face, and you feel you’ll pass out with fear?

Have you ever wondered what it would have been like to be the three wise men, those astrologers who followed a distant star convinced it was leading them to some king’s birth, then stumbling upon a stable instead of a castle?

Have you ever wondered what it was like to be Mary, visited by an angel, chosen by God, getting pregnant without the requisite physical act, enduring her neighbours’ scornful taunts, before giving birth to God’s own Son who would save people from their sins?

The person I most wonder about is Joseph. I wonder what it would have been like to be him that day when Jesus was born. And part of the reason I wonder about Joseph is because we know so little about him.

Joseph appears at Jesus’ birth, then there’s the story about the holy family 12 years later when a precocious Jesus runs away to the temple. That’s it. That’s all we have of Joseph. We don’t know if Joseph died of old age or died too young, we don’t know how many children he and Mary had; nor do we know what kind of marriage he and Mary had, we don’t know what happened to Joseph after he finds Jesus in the temple arguing with theology professors. In fact, Joseph doesn’t get any lines in this story. He’s the strong, silent type. He doesn’t say anything.

In our Lutheran Book of Worship (or the “Green Book”), in all the Advent and Christmas hymns, Jesus is mentioned 309 times. The angels are mentioned 28 times. Mary 32 times. The shepherds, 21 times. But Joseph? Nowhere. Nothing. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

I don’t know about you but I find that bizarre. But think of the Christmas pageants that churches put on every year. Joseph usually stands in the background, behind the manger, almost out of sight. Radiant beams shine from Mary’s holy face, the shepherds bow on bended knee, the wise men parade to the manger bearing gifts befitting a Messiah-king. But Joseph? Joseph just stands there like a lump, leaning against his staff, trying to stay out of the way.

I should know. I played Joseph one year in the Christmas pageant growing up. When I was asked I thought it was a tremendous honour. But then I was told that my only job was to walk the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Mary down the middle aisle, sit her down, and then get out of the way so not to block the real action. I didn’t even have to look holy because no one was looking at me. Joseph is scenery. A bit player. The piece to finish the perfect family picture.

That’s why I wonder so much about Joseph. He’s a mystery. I wonder what kind of dad he was. What kind of fatherly advice he gave Jesus. If he helped Jesus with his homework. If he arm wrestled with Jesus, threw a ball around, fought with Jesus about curfew, or embarrassed Jesus when he brought girls home.

And I wonder if, at the stable at Bethlehem, as his wife was giving birth to a baby that wasn’t his; I wonder if he prayed to God, “Y’know, God, this isn’t the way I planned it. The baby’s being born in this smelly-old shack. The kid isn’t even mine. And you know how much sheep-dip I’ve had to put up with because of that. But still, God, help me be a good dad.”

Joseph probably didn’t get much sleep that night. He probably lay awake after holding God’s baby boy in his arms, looked around that stinky-old barn and prayed, “God, what ARE you doing with my life? Did I miss something? I thought being step-dad to your Son would be easier than this. I thought there’d be a choir of angels leading us to a big banquet hall. I thought there’d be a crowd waiting for us, cheering us on, opening their doors to make sure Mary had everything she needed to have YOUR baby safely. But instead the baby has cow slobber all over him and I can’t get the stink of sheep manure out of my coat. Did I hear you right? Is this REALLY what you want for me? For US?”

I wonder if Joseph prayed a prayer like that.

Joseph was, of course, a carpenter. He makes things fit. He measures twice and cuts once. He is an engineer. An Intel perfectionist. He doesn’t like surprises. He works off blueprints and likes to see a plan and follow it through. He has a hammer in one hand and a nail in the other. His work and his life are precise, according to a map he can follow.

But this. A stable and a manger. The smell. The dirt. Being alone with a worn out mule. A stack of firewood to keep warm. No bed for his wife. No crib for the baby. Just a pillow from a donkey’s blanket.

Joseph learned the hard way that when God intrudes on your life your whole universe comes apart at the stitching. Do you ever wonder if Joseph prayed, “God, did I miss something? Is this REALLY what you want? What are you doing with my life? OUR life?” I wouldn’t blame him if he did.

I do wonder if Joseph prayed such a prayer. Maybe he did. Maybe he didn’t. But maybe you have. Maybe you’ve stood, or maybe you’re standing in Joseph’s sandals, wondering whether you’ve missed something, wondering what God is doing with your life.

Maybe you’ve stood, or you’re standing sandwiched between what God wants you to do and what actually makes sense.

Maybe you’ve asked God if there’s a plan for your life because things aren’t turning out like you thought they would.
Maybe, on a dark night, you’ve asked your own questions, and questioned God’s plan, wondering why God does what God does.

I think most people pray those prayers and ask those questions at some point in their lives. We all wonder at one point or another if we’ve taken a wrong, possibly life-destroying turn down the wrong road. An empty marriage. A soul-sucking job. An out-of-control kid. The family from Hell. And you ask, “God, did I miss something? Is this REALLY what you want for me? What ARE you doing with my life?”

What about you? Just like Joseph, you probably can’t see the whole picture of what God wants you to do, and is doing with your life. Just like Joseph, you might be worrying about circumstances you can’t control. And maybe you don’t understand what’s going on in your life. And maybe you never will.

We don’t know if Joseph knew what was going on with his life. We don’t know if his prayers were answered or if his questions haunted him to the grave.

All we know is that –somehow - he trusted that God knew what God was doing. So Joseph just did his job - without fanfare or applause. He kept his family safe. He put food on the table. He taught his step-son the ways of the Lord. He counseled and disciplined. He prayed and worried. Joseph may not have been Jesus’ Heavenly Father, but he was his earthly dad.

In other words, at the heart of the story is a good and just man who wakes up one day to find his life ruined: a baby that’s not his, his trust betrayed, his name devastated, his future destroyed. It’s about an honest man who looks at the mess that is his life, a mess he had absolutely nothing to do with creating and believes that somehow God is present in it. With every reason to walk away, Joseph stays put. He makes the mess his own and the mess becomes the place where the Messiah is born. (BBT)

God is still looking for Josephs and Marys today. God is still looking for men and women who believe that God is not done with this world. God is still looking for ordinary people to serve an extraordinary God. God is still looking for people like you, who insist on trusting that “God is still being born in the mess, among those who still believe what angels tell them in their dreams.”

That’s what God is looking for.



Blogger Steve Bogner said...

Very nice sermon. Owning the mess - that's a fatherly thing to do, isn't it? Merry Christmas Kevin!

6:49 AM  

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