Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Sermon for December 19, Advent 4

Doing the Right Thing

The birth of Jesus took place like this. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. Before they came to the marriage bed, Joseph discovered she was pregnant. (It was by the Holy Spirit, but he didn't know that.) Joseph, chagrined but noble, determined to take care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced.

While he was trying to figure a way out, he had a dream. God's angel spoke in the dream: "Joseph, son of David, don't hesitate to get married. Mary's pregnancy is Spirit-conceived. God's Holy Spirit has made her pregnant. She will bring a son to birth, and when she does, you, Joseph, will name him Jesus—'God saves'—because he will save his people from their sins." This would bring the prophet's embryonic sermon to full term:

Watch for this—a virgin will get pregnant and bear a son;
They will name him Immanuel (Hebrew for "God is with us").

Then Joseph woke up. He did exactly what God's angel commanded in the dream: He married Mary. But he did not consummate the marriage until she had the baby. He named the baby Jesus --Matthew 1:18-25 (The Message)

These reflections were part of a service based on a spiritual practice called Lectio Divina. We listened to Matthew 1:18-25 three different times, and I offered three various perspectives on the passage after periods of rest and silence.

--Part One--
It was a few days before Christmas. That morning, a woman woke up and told her husband, "I just dreamed that you gave me a diamond necklace for Christmas. What do you think this dream means?" Her husband replied, "Oh, you'll know the day after tomorrow."

The next morning, she turned to her husband again and said the same thing, "I just dreamed that you gave me a diamond necklace for Christmas. What do you think this dream means?" And her husband said, "You'll know tomorrow."

On the third morning, the woman woke up and smiled at her husband, "I just dreamed again that you gave me a diamond necklace for Christmas. What do you think this dream means?" And he smiled back, "You'll know tonight."

That evening, the man came home with a small package and presented it to his wife. She was delighted. She opened it gently. And when she did, she found-a book! And the book's title was How to Interpret Your Dreams.

Advent is a season of dreams. What have you been dreaming about lately? Some of us are dreaming about wonderful possibilities. We're dreaming new possibilities, new toys, and new beginnings. I hope all those dreams come true! During my regular sleep time, when I’m not on cough medicine, my I dreams fall into two major categories. The first I call worried dreams. In these dreams, I am stand in a pulpit, for instance, with nothing to say. Or I’m late and the service is running an hour over, and I can’t get the buttons to my robe together. In another dream I’m back in college and I show up to a college class unprepared, or I can’t register for the one class I need to graduate. Another form of this is the chase dream. Someone is out to get me – hunting me down. Sometimes there is aircraft involved, but I think that’s from the new furnace fan that drones all night long under our bedroom. These are nights that I spend wrestling with my spirit.

Sometimes my dreams are refreshing. I dream about reconciliation. I dream that my enemies and I are living at peace. I dream of flying through the air or swimming like a fish. I dream of new opportunities. These are nights where my hope is renewed.

What is the reason for dreams, those strange stories that bounce along our brain waves? We wake suddenly, and reality itself seems like a different world. Today's gospel lesson is about a dream -- the dream of Joseph. Not Mary's dream, but Joseph's dream. Today we get to consider his point of view. Joseph dreams something wonderful. God will enter the world. God will be born to his fiancée, as crazy is that was to understand. Joseph has some serious trusting Joseph has to trust that the voice of God is speaking to him. Joseph has to trust Mary is telling the truth. Joseph has to believe in dreams and then get out of the way.

I want us to consider a gift that we can give others this season. It’s the gift of believing in someone else's dreams. The greatest gift you can give is to have faith in someone else. Believe in the dreams of the person you love. Believe in the dream of your husband. Believe in the dream of your wife. Believe in the dreams of your children. Believe in the dream of your hero, your leader, your friend. Believe in their dreams! Believe in dreams this Christmas, and Jesus will be born again. Believe in dreams this Christmas, and God will appear.

-- Part Two--
A young boy was in big trouble with his Dad. The boy was sent to his room, where he stayed for an hour. When the Dad came in and found the boy packing some of his clothes, his teddy bear and his piggy bank. The boy said indignantly, “I’m running away from home!”
“What if you get hungry?” the father asked.
“Then I’ll come home and eat and then leave again!” said the child.
“And what if you run out of money?”
“I will come home, get some money and then leave again!” replied the child.
“What if your clothes get dirty?”
“Then I’ll come home and let mommy wash them and then leave again,” he said.
The Dad shook his head and exclaimed, “This kid is not running away from home; he’s going to college.”

Christmas can be a time that brings the worst out of us. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s the stress of maintaining traditions. Maybe its all the added stress we put on ourselves to shop, and bake, and entertain, and party. Maybe it’s time with family or the in-your-face consumerism that stands in stark contrast with global suffering. Something about Christmas brings the realities of life into new focus. Some of us would like to run away from Christmas. So let me ask a question: What are you looking to get from the Christmas story? Are you looking for a Disney style story that helps you run away from the realities of life or are you looking for an affirmation that life is tough and God is with us? Are you looking for the romantic myth of a virgin birth or the stark reality of a young couple trying to make the best of a confusing situation? Are you looking for the sugar-coated story of angels with golden wings floating in from outer space with divine messages, or the reality of a frightened couple trying to follow their instincts and discern some meaning in their struggle?

Most of us don’t live sugar-coated lives. The sickly sweet fairytale Christmas story that is often presented offers little to the harsh reality of our lives: teenage pregnancies, loveless relationships, global poverty, religious rivalry, family betrayals, personal demons and workplace anguish.

The historical context which paints a more accurate backdrop to the beginnings of Jesus’ life says something profound to the realities of life. From the time Mary became pregnant, to the decisions of a family struggling to make ends meet, to the life of a struggling revolutionary, the Christmas a story is the beginning of a tale about survival against the odds. The real-world Christmas story names the struggles of your life and the horrors of our world. In the raw, the real, the radical, earthy struggles of the family of Jesus, we hear echoes of life as you know it to be. You don’t need to run away. You have all you need right here and now to live fully and survive against any odds, and to be an angel of compassion in the world.

-- Part Three --
Joseph. A decent man. A righteous man. A good man facing an impossible choice. A man wanting to do the right thing. A man caught on the horns of a dilemma—torn between his love for Mary and his lifelong habit of living by the law of God. When he hears that Mary is pregnant, Joseph does the best he can. He resolves to let her go quietly so she doesn’t have to face the law’s punishments for pregnant unmarried women. And then, in the midst of a restless sleep, an angel of God comes to Joseph and asks him to take Mary as his wife and to name her child, claiming that child as his own. We know the story. Joseph says “yes”—yes to God. That’s often where the story ends.

But there’s so much more to Joseph’s yes to God. In naming Jesus, Joseph claims him as his own and raises Jesus as his own son. Joseph will watch over Jesus. He will listening in the night. He will worrying about him. He will do all he can to keep that baby safe. Joseph will love Jesus and teach him his trade. Think of it. Think of the role Joseph played in Jesus’ life. Imagine what Jesus learned from Joseph.

Imagine the two of them at the carpenter’s bench . . . Joseph teaching Jesus how to use tools . . . Joseph telling stories from the Bible, sharing the parables of old . . . singing the psalms . . . singing of a father’s love.Imagine Jesus watching Joseph . . . seeing how Joseph treats the people others ignore . . . noting Joseph’s kindness . . . how Joseph goes out of his way to make others feel welcome . . . seeing the tenderness Joseph shows to Mary.

Imagine Joseph telling Jesus stories about the Romans. We can almost hear him muttering about the way the Romans treated the Israelites — the heavy taxes, the hillsides crowded with crosses, the arrogance of power. Imagine Joseph instilling in Jesus a passion for justice. Imagine him sharing his longing for peace with Jesus. Think of it. Think of the role Joseph played in Jesus’ life. After all they were together almost thirty years.

And think of the role Jesus played in Joseph’s life. Think of how Joseph’s yes to God rearranged his life; think of the richness it brought him; think of how that yes to God stretched Joseph into new possibilities, new relationships, new ways of being in the world. God comes to us as God’s angel came to Joseph, inviting us to take God’s child into our homes and into our hearts. Inviting us to claim that child as our own and to live as Joseph did into the fullness of God’s dream for us. God gives each of us an opportunity to say “yes”—to say yes to God.

Maybe we can live a little more like Joseph did. We do our best to live our faith out, in word and deed—in the little things we do, in the way we lead our daily lives.

Thanks to the following pastors and thinkers who inspire my thoughts and lead me to think about Scripture in different ways:

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