Sermon for 12/18/16 Matthew 1:18-25

It’s finally the fourth Sunday in Advent. We get to light all of the blue candles, we get to sing all the verses of “Light One Candle,” and we are finally in the week of Christmas. And so it seems fitting that we finally get a story that starts to talk about how the birth of Jesus came to be. This is the stuff we want, right? We want the lovely, awesome, Hallmark-y version of the Christmas story. We want to hear about a young woman chosen, her husband lovingly coming to terms with it, a reminder that God is with us, and then we want to hear the lovely soft cooing of the baby Jesus. If that is what you hear in today’s reading, I am not about to tell you that you’re wrong. I am, however, going to challenge you. The text calls me to wrestle with it and I don’t wrestle alone!

Let’s have a brief history lesson. Marriages in the time of Jesus were nothing like they are now. There was no fancy dresses, no wedding showers, no “save the date” cards, and certainly no cake. Marriages were not for love; they were for necessity. They were often arranged and often included a dowry and/or agreements between the woman’s father and the groom. The marriage was made “official” when it was consummated. So, can you imagine Joseph’s surprise when he found out that Mary, the woman he was to marry, was already with child? This is certainly not the way Joseph thought things would turn out.

Again, in Jesus’ time, a woman was (most likely) a virgin until marriage. So for Mary to be with child before marriage leads Joseph to fear that Mary has been unfaithful. Under Jewish law, Joseph had a few options. Mary could have easily been sentenced to death. For a woman to be unfaithful in marriage was a sin punishable by death. (And yes, a man could be with more than one woman, but that’s another sermon for another time). Or, she could be divorced. During this time, divorce was seen as a stain on a woman because no matter the circumstances, divorce was always a woman’s fault. (We tend to get a bad rap, biblically speaking). But, Joseph, “being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace” was going to try his best to kind of sweep this whole thing under the rug. He didn’t want a big dust-up. He kind of wanted to go quietly. If this were a Hollywood style divorce, we’d be reading about irreconcilable differences, thankfulness for the support, and requests to respect the couple’s privacy. But, this wasn’t Hollywood and there certainly was no reason (maybe even no precedent) for Joseph to act as he did.

And in the midst of all of this, Joseph has a dream where an angel of the Lord tells him “do not be afraid!” We’ve all heard this story more than once (or, at least, I am assuming most of us have). And to us, it makes perfect sense. Maybe we’ve gotten ourselves so wrapped up in sentimentality that the ludicrous nature of this story is missed on us. We don’t see Joseph’s anger. We don’t see Mary’s trepidation. We don’t see her family’s or his family’s reaction to this situation. But if you can imagine yourself in the shoes of any of those people (for even just a moment) you might be able to start to see that this amazing and miraculous birth story was not without scandal and even a little disappointment. We’re just supposed to believe that Joseph woke from his dream, took in the words of the angel and then went on his joyful way? I think he probably struggled with this for at least a minute or two.

Joseph is us. We are him. How do we react to life when life doesn’t go as you planned? It seems especially stressful this time of year when things don’t go as planned. Trust me, this comes from a woman who shed a tear or two on Monday because I forgot to take Ellen’s nap-time blanket to preschool. The expectations we set for ourselves and others around us are usually high. But, during the holidays, Christmas especially, they are almost unattainable. There is this misnomer that there is such a thing as a “perfect Christmas.” We desire this: but what we end up with is this:

Joseph didn’t do what was expected of him by letting Mary go quietly. He remained faithful to Mary because, thanks to a reminder from an angel, God remained faithful to Joseph. God came to Joseph in an unexpected way: through a dream and through an unplanned pregnancy to a woman he was supposed to impregnate! While we may want to plan and plan and plan, prepare, and anticipate, often, like Joseph, things don’t go the way we would have wanted. And what does the angel of the Lord tell Joseph in his dream? His son, our savior, will be called Emmanuel, God with us. Joseph (and we as well) are assured that through a change in plans, God will continue to work and God will continue to be God with us. And maybe, now more than ever, we need that reminder that God is indeed with us.

We need a reminder that when we think everything around us is going wrong, or that we have failed, or that we were unsuccessful that God is still moving and God is going to surprise us. Joseph wasn’t expecting to hear that Mary was with child. I am certain that he certainly wasn’t expecting to hear that this was to be the savior of the world. When was the last time you allowed yourself to be surprised by God? In order to be surprised by God, in order to be disturbed in a wonderfully Holy way by God, we have to make room for God. This means that we have to be willing to let our plans go in order for something greater. Making room for God means that have to loosen the reigns on our perceived control of life. Making room for God means that we trust that God’s plans and timing are much greater than ours.

Being surprised by God means declaring with joy and trepidation that indeed God is with us. This holiday season, give yourself a break. If you can’t totally let go of your expectations, maybe you can lower them just a tad. It is usually when we expect (and maybe even almost demand) that a situation goes one way that God steps in and everything goes unexpectedly and almost better than we could have imagined. It’s not just Christmas, but life, that often (if not always) full of surprise and failed self-set expectations. And in the midst of this season, in the midst of crises, in the midst of our greatest joys, we are surrounded by a God that not only promises us something even better, but promises accompaniment. We are ushered through life from birth to death by Emmanuel, God with us.

Life often isn’t what we have planned. It’s an unexpected cancer diagnosis, it’s job opportunities, it’s fluctuating markets, it’s death, it’s a pregnancy, it’s a savior born into uncertain circumstances and dying only the way a king could: on a cross. Life isn’t what we had planned. Instead it is full of Holy surprises and God with us.

Sermon for 12/4/16 Matthew 3:1-12

Winter is probably my least favorite season. I am not made to survive temperatures below around 40 or so. I definitely am not made to withstand “blizzard” conditions, ice, and generally being cold. But, one of the things about winter that really gets to me is the amount (or lack thereof) of sunlight. Those of us who suffer from depression know that there is something called “seasonal affective disorder” (appropriately named SAD). This is usually triggered by a change in seasons, a lowering of the serotonin and melatonin in one’s body, and a predisposition to depression. While I don’t have SAD, it certainly would be easy for me to fit into many of the categories of the symptoms. So, this week as I was struggling with the change in weather, and continuing to struggle with the change in daylight hours, I also struggled with the news of the two missing hunters from our area: Keegan and Tyler. I didn’t know Keegan, and I only knew Tyler’s face because he worked for the vault company and was often at the cemetery when we would go for burials. But, I know many people that loved them, miss them, and spent time looking for them, only to come up empty handed. And then the news of the death of a young 17 year old girl, Hannah. This death was by choice, by her own hand, and obviously quite sudden. She also was a cousin to one of the missing hunters. Hannah was also known by many of our young people in this congregation.

With all of that, maybe you can understand that as I read and prayed about scripture then this week that the last thing I wanted to do was preach on a text with the line “You brood of vipers.” Because the last thing you need when you’re down is someone reading and preaching on scripture like that. As much as I love Advent, as much as I invite all of you to dwell in the waiting and anticipation of Advent, it’s times like this that I want all of the celebration, grandeur, and festivities that go along with Christmas. I want the lights, I want the merriment, I want the baby Jesus, I want the baking and present wrapping, I want it all! (Except eggnog. That stuff is disgusting.)

But sometimes, God has us wrestle with scripture for a reason. So, I continued to wrestle with this reading from Matthew today. And I kept coming back over and over again to the line that says “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” I know I’ve talked about repentance before. But, I want to expand on this idea a little bit more today. Often when we think about repentance, we think about confession, saying “I’m sorry” or even “man, I really screwed up and I am REALLY really sorry.” During Lent, we talk about repentance in the idea of turning around. So, we turn away from sin and turn towards God.

When it comes to change, any kind of change, we humans can be pretty stubborn. We don’t like change. And part of repentance is change. We need to, we must, change what we are doing. Often, repentance happens when we finally realize that whatever we are doing with our lives, whatever is going on in our lives, whatever our actions may be, are in direct opposition to God’s will for our lives. Repentance is that time when you realize that your words, actions, efforts, even your choices aren’t in line with what God wants.

If you are familiar with AA and their 12 step program, each individual step is about repentance. Admitting you are powerless, believe in something greater than yourself, turning yourself over to God, make lists of people you’ve wronged and attempt to make ammends, and on and on. Trust me when I tell you friends, sometimes people find more God at an AA meeting than they do at church on a Sunday morning. But the basis of the program is built on repentance. What does it mean, then to bear fruits worthy of repentance?

Normally when we talk about bearing fruit, it’s a good thing. But bearing fruits of repentance can sound kind of confusing. Repentance is more than just a heart and mind activity. It’s easy to say to your spouse or loved one “I feel really bad that I hurt that person’s feelings” but it’s completely different (and maybe even a little uncomfortable) to make confession to the person themselves. If we are serious about our repentance, then an entire change in our lives are needed. We need to reclaim our baptismal identity, confess to God and to one another, and make sure our actions show that we do indeed repent.

Repentance is more than shallow words. It certainly is more than shallow actions. Repentance means that you are committed to doing better, knowing better, and participating in better. And repentance is something that cannot happen on your own. You can pray to God for forgiveness, yes, but that confession without action may not lead fully to repentance. Repentance means that we have not been obeying the greatest commandment of love your neighbor as you love yourself. And this week, this week as I have observed so much hurt and pain in this community, I wonder if the people we need to repent against the most is ourselves. See, how do you love your neighbor as yourself if you cannot even love yourself?

In the quest for perfection, we set standards and goals no one can meet, let alone ourselves. This seems to be especially true during the holidays. No one will care if your napkins don’t match the tablecloth. We may chastise ourselves for our looks, our hair (or lack thereof), the number on the scale, the number in our bank accounts, the number of awards on our walls, even the success of our children. We all fight some kind of demons, and sometimes they are just louder than others. We get stuck in our own heads and into a no-win situation. And then we go “shoulding” ourselves. “I should have done more to help find Tyler and Keegan.” Or “I should have probed more when Hannah said nothing was wrong but I felt like there was.” I am sure many of you say more than one “should” statement to yourselves on a daily basis. And it is time to repent, brothers and sisters. It it time to repent against not loving yourself because this is not the kind of life God wants you to be living.

If we’re going to fully repent, fully forgive ourselves (because we have to do that before we can forgive others) then we have to act like, talk like, and think like we actually are remorseful and repentant for the way we treat ourselves. This means we look at ourselves as the amazing and beautiful creatures God created us to be. This means we let ourselves off the hook every once in awhile and choose being present over being perfect. This means that we take a compliment and not over analyze it. Active repentance to ourselves means loving ourselves, completely. This means loving yourself no matter the number on the scale, image in the mirror, number in the bank account, or if you even have one single award to your name. Loving yourself means not abusing yourself with drugs, alcohol, sex, or self-harm. Loving yourself means fully admitting and confessing to yourself that you are loved and then living like you believe that is true because it is true.

As we draw closer to Christmas by journeying through this time of waiting, watching, anticipating, and even wonder, we also participate in bearing fruits of repentance. Stop beating yourself up. There was only one Savior and you are not him. Start loving yourself, no matter what, because that is the life God desires for you. God wants you to think of you the way He does. Don’t be afraid to declare to yourself and to whomever will listen “yes! I am awesome because my God is awesome.” And then, start acting like it. I love you. You should too.