Sunday, December 18, 2016

God in Our Thin Rejoicing

For the folks here in our part of the kingdom, we have had a wave of significant losses, and struggles. Since October we have walked with the sadness of overdose death, and then the death of men in their 40's and 50's leaving behind high school students, those same men being the only child of their parents. The unexpected diagnosis of  a mom of two girls, the leukemia diagnosis of a five year old. The sudden loss of a beloved teacher at the middle school, and a mom of a young girl our kids know-faces in our small community. The loss of young and old, and yesterday evening, the loss of one of our church musicians whose unexpected entry into the church triumphant I had to announce at the beginning of worship. The flu was too much for her heart. Having held the hand of a faithful saint and singing "Beautiful Savior" as her heart stopped. And then coming home late last night and deciding to shorten and adjust the gospel for the wounded and weary flock I knew would be present.  
Where normally "Joy to the World" and lighting the Chrismon tree are anticipated. This sermon was for our early service folks, since at our late service we had the kids' Christmas program. But for all who find themselves in a weary world, may this be a word from God:

"There are times when we experience thin rejoicing. We sing and hear “rejoice!” But it feels thin at best. The places where we have experienced the unexpected, felt like the rug has been pulled out from under us, where it has felt like burden upon burden.  In the gospel of Matthew, we get this deeper glimpse into the journey of Joseph. Though across the years our songs sweetly rejoice about that trek to the little town of Bethlehem,  just then in real time…Joseph could barely manage the weight of Caesar’s decree and his wife’s condition. From where he stood, Joseph’s situation as it happened seemed like an exercise in hopelessness.And a word from an angel was at best thin rejoicing. 
To the extent that we allow the craziness of the holiday season to distract us and encourage us to denial, we waste the opportunity the gospel gives to engage the hard truths that gave the birth of Jesus and experience its deepest meaning that God with us in the flesh brings hope. But to know it truly, “Hope and courage begin with honesty.” (Diana Butler Bass) That God is with us in our real lives.
This is the season to embrace both the joy hoped for but also the difficult truths of our lives, to acknowledge the darker side of the holiday we can experience. Where there lies a weight. Where we don’t  need to look far to see that  the shadow of the cross falls upon the manger. We know. The gospel seen through the eyes of Joseph and Mary and this life invites a courageous truth telling. 
Advent’s  waiting is not the simply like the child’s wishful waiting for Santa, but a more difficult waiting- waiting for that which we cannot yet see. Or even imagine.” (Sam Portaro)
The good news in the story of Joseph and Mary is that “God worked through real people with real challenges. He didn’t choose a fairy-tale princess to bear the savior, but rather an unwed peasant girl. He didn’t choose a political or business success story to name and care for Jesus, but rather a man with his own doubts and questions who wanted to do the right thing but needed angelic guidance to accomplish it.
In beloved hymns  it’s easy to forget that Joseph and Mary were real people. In our imagination, 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. 
If we give a little more attention to their real story it can speak hope to places of burden and heartache we feel in real life.
It starts with the engagement. Joseph has been given his young bride to be in a legal contract, binding in every respect. Essentially be to married yet without having consummated that marriage or as yet living together. When Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant, he can only conclude that she has been unfaithful to him. And we can imagine the pain, shame, and sense of betrayal that any of us would have felt at such a devastating revelation.
Joseph is faced with two options. He could either publicly declare his injury, in which case Mary would likely have been stoned, or he could divorce her- dismiss her  quietly. He chooses at first to dismiss her.
Now imagine Mary-the unexpected pain her pregnancy caused and, given the likely consequences,  having great cause for concern for herself. 
It takes a visit from an angel to calm all this down and orient Joseph to God’s intentions. Angels usually get involved in the biblical story only when heavy-lifting is involved. Joseph responds to the angel and yet 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 emotion. And they have no idea what the future holds. Just as we ourselves often feel.  Neither Mary nor Joseph could’ve anticipated the fullness of their child’s life, much less its enduring power in our own lives. 
And yet that child changed the future for us all. 
The human hopes and fears met in Bethlehem’s manger were more than we  could’ve imagined- what God was accomplishing—would accomplish— much less how and in whom.
The gospel calls us to  lean into our faith unafraid of our truth and steadfast in trust in our God with us. To let go our own fantasies of a future of our own desires and designs. To open a space ready to receive God’s surprise, the life promised us. 
We’ve no idea what awaits us in the darkness of that scary not knowing, and yet the light of Advent shines. 
So we take our places with Joseph and Mary at the center of that wearying trip-
A trip of burden and uncertainty, where we journey to find ourselves at a stable, staring into the face of a baby whose future is as unknown as every child’s.” (Portaro)
We have – each of us – experienced similar upheavals, weariness and burdens. Times when we are struggling to hold it all together even harder while at church. 
What we’re called to, what we come to, in this and every Advent is the wonder Is that it is into THIS WORLD a new life is being born. 
And we hold fast to the assurance of that “God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” 
We come to see the “Emmanuel” of Matthew and Isaiah- “God with us.”  “God REALLY with us.” 
God coming to be with us as we are. 
Not as we know we should be, or are trying to be, or have promised to be, or will be some day, but with us as we are now…today…in this moment. Still. 
And the promise is that as God came before to be with, use, accept, and hallow Joseph and Mary at the birth of Christ, so also God comes to us in Christ to be with us, use us for good, accept us as we are, and hallow us. Still. 
As we prepare to journey to the manger this year- this is what we can celebrate
God is really with us. 
God is with us, really and truly as we are. 
Christ  is our Emmanuel. So Come Lord Jesus, Come Emmanuel, we pray. Come again and always. And however you find us, and however thin it seems, we Rejoice to be here. (Lose)