Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve 2013 Call to Worship

I am Joseph.
Welcome to my story,
                    Your story,
                             God’s story;
For don’t we all come to this place,
          At this time,
                   And wonder?
Who was this son of mine?
          Who is this Son of God?
What is this night
We celebrate,
                    And contemplate?
          All ye who are faithful.
          All ye who are curious.
          All ye who are hopeful.
          All ye who anxious.
          And like me,
                   Be captured by the mysterious wonder of God.


“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.”

I always hoped for a son.
Someone to carry on the family tradition,
          Someone who loved wood as much as I,
                   Someone with the imagination to see and then create,
                             Someone with whom I could work side by side.
 I had hoped one day to hang a new sign over the shop.
          It would proudly proclaim, “Joseph and Son”.
                   People would come from near and far
                             To celebrate the wonders we would create.

But now,
          With this strange turn of events,
                   What am I to think?
                             What am I to do?
                                      What am I to become?

I always hoped for a son,
          But I wanted him to be my son.
I always hoped for a family,
          But I wanted it to be my family.
Suddenly I am told he is God’s son.
Suddenly I am told he is for the good of God’s family.
Suddenly I am supposed to understand.

I always hoped for the Messiah,
          Almost as much as I hoped for a son of my own.


“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. She will bear a son conceived by the Holy Spirit. You will name him Jesus for he will save his people.”

“Do not be afraid to take Mary for your wife?”
          Easy for the angel to say.
But what will the neighbors say?
          She is “with child” and I am without an explanation.
My soul is in turmoil.
          I am angry,

“You will name him Jesus for he will save his people.”
This vision,
          This angel,
                   Perhaps this illusion,
 Promises salvation.
My reputation is ruined for the salvation of his people.
          Is this a trade off?
                   Is it a joke?
                             Is it a cruel nightmare?
                                      Or is it God’s eternal dream?

Can peace come to Jerusalem?
          Can peace come to my very soul?

O Come,
          O Come Emmanuel.
                   Bid envy, strife and discord cease.
                             Fill the world, and my soul, with heaven’s peace.


“A virgin shall conceive and bear a son. His name will be Emmanuel.”

Do I love her?
          With all my heart!
Do I believe her?
          With all my soul;
but my mind is still a bit confused.
I am a simple man and this is no simple matter.
If God chose her,
          Then God also chose me.
I am not worthy.
I work with my hands.
                   I take that which is broken and make it whole.
                             Why choose me?
                                      Why not someone more laudable?
                                                Why not someone more faithful?
Do I love her?
With all my heart!
Do I love God?
          I fear God,
                   I worship God,
                             Sometimes I avoid God.
                                      But do I love God?
                                                I honestly don’t know.
Can I love God’s son?
          I would love my son.
                   I will love Mary’s son.
                             But that is not the question.
Can I love God’s son?
All I can do is show him how to take something broken,
                    And make it whole. 


“When Joseph awoke from his sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded. He took Mary as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son.”

I Joseph,
In the presence of God,
Take you Mary,
To be my wife.

I Joseph,
          In the presence of God incarnate,
Take you Mary,
To be his mother.

I Joseph,
          In the presence of all witnesses,
                   Promise to
                                                          Be your husband.

I may not be fully prepared for this journey,
          But I am fully prepared to be by your side.
I may not be holy enough for this moment,
          But your holiness will be enough for a lifetime.

I Joseph,
          With complete awareness of the purpose of God,
                   Take you Mary,
                             To birth our salvation.

Matthew 1:25b

“And Joseph named him Jesus.”
        We know the Christmas story by heart. Mary, a young girl who found favor with God, was impregnated by the Holy Spirit. After a long and wondrous conversation with her cousin Elizabeth, Mary traveled to Bethlehem to give birth to the baby amidst the shepherds and angels in the stable.  We love the image of the Mother and Babe surrounded by God’s creatures. And if we look closely, way back in the barn, we spy the figure of the man called Joseph. At least that is the story as presented in the Gospel of Luke.
But there is a second story. It is the story of a respected carpenter who lived in the city of Bethlehem. He was an honorable man faced with a less than honorable decision. The woman to whom he was engaged was found to be pregnant.  Joseph did not want to expose Mary to public ridicule. But neither did he want to raise a child that was not his own. This is the story the Gospel of Matthew offers to us.
Matthew’s recollection is not as “tender and mild” as Luke’s romantic account of the glorious wonders that have defined our recollection of Christmas night. Luke gives us Mary, a woman many have lifted to God-like status. Matthew offers us Joseph, a man as human as you or I.
Joseph dreamed of marrying the most beautiful woman in the world. He dreamed of the moment their love would be consummated, an act hopefully leading to the birth of his son. But mid-dream his joy was interrupted by a startling revelation. Mary, the woman of his dreams, was pregnant and Joseph knew he was not the father.  The dream became a nightmare as Joseph’s life began to completely unravel.
Most folks like symmetry and balance in their lives. During Christmas at the Andrews’ house my job is to put the candles in the windows and the ornaments on the tree. Deb’s job is to go back the next few days to make sure the lights in the windows are in perfect balance and the ornaments on the tree have found their time honored spot. Balance brings stability and stability offers peace of mind. Deb adores Handel, I prefer Coltrane. Joseph was kind of like my wife. He wanted his life to resemble a chorus from the Messiah. One should be careful what they wish for.
The balanced, respectable side of Joseph understood what must be done. He would assist Mary in finding a relative in another village. And if the true father would not reveal himself, Joseph would provide enough money to assist Mary in starting a new life. But in a weak moment the respectable Joseph discovered even lovers of the classics gives an occasional listen to a piece that starts on the offbeat. So when the Angel of the Lord came to Joseph in a dream singing an outrageous tune, the carpenter listened.
“Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. The child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. You will name him Jesus, for he will save his people.”
What does one do when confronted by the imagination of God? Do you walk away pretending not to hear? Do you weigh what you thought you heard against the wisdom of more rational voices? Do you talk it out with others hoping they will bring you to your senses? Is your next word sung on the offbeat? We would do well to hear the words chosen by Joseph. Listen carefully.
In the midst of doubt and suspicion, Joseph silently made a leap of faith.
In a world with too little laughter, Joseph silently performed an act of joy.
In a society filled with fear and distrust, Joseph silently believed.
In a time when hate snuffed out any light, Joseph silently lit a candle of hope.

        I can’t imagine how one even thinks about emulating the Virgin Mary. Through the centuries she has been elevated to a status beyond human reason and comprehension.
        But we can be Joseph. Through acts of mercy, or even outrageous leaps of faith, we can light a candle of hope, a candle of joy, a candle of peace or a candle of love. We can become the silent light that surrounds and imitates the one we dare to call Jesus, Immanuel.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Advent Does Matter

Matthew 3:1-3; Isaiah 11:1-10

        Does Advent matter? Certainly Christmas does. Last year our Christmas Eve services were so large we had a major traffic jam as people leaving the early service collided with folks arriving for the later one. Our church was filled with visitors spending the holidays at Wintergreen. Faces I had never seen rushed down the hill to help us celebrate the birth of Christ.
I suspect there has been no parking problem today. You the faithful have gathered for the second Sunday in Advent. We have lit the Candle of Peace and sung another of those dark hymns that always show up early in December. I suspect one or two of you would rather be singing, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”.
Does Advent really matter? 
Allow me to share a story I suspect each of us has experienced. A group of parents stood in the lobby of a nursery school waiting to claim their children after the last pre-Christmas class. As the youngsters ran from their lockers, each carried “the surprise”, the brightly wrapped package on which the child had been working diligently for weeks. One small boy, trying to run, put on his coat and wave to his parents all at the same time slipped and fell. The surprise flew from his grasp, landed on the floor and broke with an obvious ceramic crash. 
        The child began to cry inconsolably. His father, trying to minimize the incident, patted the boy on the top of his head and whispered, “It’s all right son. It doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter at all.”
        But the child’s mother gently took the boy into her arms and said, “Oh but it does matter. It matters a great deal.” And she began to weep with her son.
        This morning I would like to suggest Advent matters just as much as that carefully wrapped surprise.
        During the Christmas season we all have memories. One might argue Christmas is the season of memories. I remember as if it were yesterday coveting the star on top of my family’s tree. I remember shouting, “Mrs. Andrews, light your candles”. I remember spending Christmas in Korea without a ham. I remember Deb and me taking the children to hand out boxed meals to the hungry on Christmas morning. But I also remember something else. I remember reading those poetic passages from Isaiah proclaiming God was in the process of doing something extraordinary.
        When we think of poets we often imagine slightly delusional dreamers who lock themselves away from the realities of life. We think of an idealist sitting on top of a hill writing nonsense like, “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the goat, and a little child shall lead them.” Often when we read those classic Advent passages from Isaiah, we smile and think to ourselves, “The guy must have been on drugs.” But since it is in the Bible, the Holy Word of God, we hesitate to allow ourselves the privilege of engaging in such heretically thinking. Instead, we take a step back and rationally conclude Isaiah was writing about the birth of Jesus. After all, he was a prophet. His poetry did not have to pass the reality test. It was a vision placed in his mind by none other than God.  Using this logic we can read Isaiah 11, take a deep breath, and sing, “Come Thou Long expected Jesus”.
But what if Isaiah was not sitting on a hill, sipping wine, and enjoying the sunset? What if Isaiah was not imagining an event seven centuries away? What if Isaiah was having a radical thought in the midst of an irrational situation? What if Isaiah actually believed peace could come to Jerusalem?
Suggesting peace in Jerusalem in any century is a noble but questionable consideration. There certainly was no peace in Jerusalem during the life of Isaiah. The very existence of Jerusalem was threatened by the Assyrian Empire. They were a ruthless and vicious people who seemed to only be at peace with themselves when at war with someone else. In 721 the Assyrians swept down from Syria and destroyed the Northern kingdom of Israel. Only a treaty with Ahaz, the king of Judah, allowed Jerusalem to remain standing. But Judah was an enslaved nation, afraid to do anything that might upset their vicious neighbors. Ahaz summoned Isaiah to call on God to intervene. The words of Isaiah did nothing to settle the nerves of the broken king. Listen again to his response.
“A shoot shall come forth from the stump of Jesse and the spirit of the Lord shall rest on him. He shall be blessed with the spirit of wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and a respect of God. With righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” Ahaz knew Isaiah did not have him in mind and the king was right. Isaiah had given up on Ahaz but was hopeful that the king’s son Hezekiah would be the anointed one, the one who would restore the kingdom of David. History reports that while Hezekiah proved to be far better than his father, he also fell short of returning Jerusalem to its long lost status. But a seed had been planted in the minds of the faithful. One day the Anointed One would come. One day the Messiah would rise out of the ashes of a broken people. One day Jerusalem would be restored.
The Spirit of Advent began with the outrageous desire of a lone voice. It was a voice whispering through the centuries, rising and falling, forgotten and revived until the voice fell on a crazy man roaming around in the wilderness of Judea. John the Baptizer, in the finest tradition of Isaiah, screamed out to anyone who would listen, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” And when he spoke, people remembered and they listened, and their hopes were revived.
That is what makes Advent so extraordinary. Advent is not just about remembering. Advent is about hoping for the improbable based on a belief in the impossible. A sensible person would warn you wolves only lie down with lambs if mutton is on the menu and yet we Advent people believe it is not beyond ones imagination. After all, if we believe in resurrection, how far away can the peaceable kingdom be?
Advent is having hope even as despair and chaos challenge the very foundations of our soul.
Advent is having memories even when folks find those recollections to be out of touch with their reality.
Advent is embracing the poet as the one who speaks the truth. 
Advent is recognizing the tears of God in the midst of tragedy and the laughter of God in the dawn of a new day.
Advent is when we remember the past,
                and find hope for tomorrow.
I think that really matters.