Matthew 1:18 – 25
Our theme during Advent is People Who Waited for Jesus and this morning we are remembering Joseph, Mary’s husband.
Now when we think about Joseph we need to say this first and often: There is a great deal we don’t know for sure about Joseph. We don’t know when he was born or where he died or how old he was when he died. We do have one little clue about when he may have died. His name is not mentioned in the stories of Jesus as an adult. Jesus’ mother is mentioned, and his sisters and brothers are mentioned, but Joseph is not mentioned. So we guess that may have died before Jesus reached the age of 30. But the Bible says very little about him, and we have to read between the lines carefully if we want to know much about him at all.
Now if you happened to be in the city of Nazareth about two thousand years ago and if you asked somebody standing on the street next to you, “Who is Joseph?” They would have told you that he was a woodworker in that town, and that his wife’s name was Mary and that he had several sons and some daughters and that his sons’ names were Jesus, and James and Joseph and Simon and Judas. And maybe they wouldn’t remember the names of his daughters. And that’s probably what the people in Nazareth would say about their neighbor Joseph.
But now let me tell you the rest of the story of Joseph. He was a woodworker, all right, and he probably made things like wagon wheels and farm wagons and chairs and tables and benches. And if he wanted to deliver those items in the village of Nazareth, that was all well and good. But if he wanted to deliver a wagon wheel to a farmer out in the country, he’d have to get on the road going out of town, and he would have to pay a high tax to the Roman government – 2,500 miles all the way away in Rome - just to use the road. Now the problem was that there was no sign on the toll booth saying how much you had to pay, so the tax taker in the toll booth could charge you whatever he felt like charging you that day. And if he liked you, he’d charge you less, but if he didn’t like you, or if he didn’t like your brother, or if he had a headache that day or if he was in a lousy mood, he would charge you a whole lot more. And of course he would know what the rate was to use the road, and he would pocket the difference for himself. It was a very common practice. And there wasn’t a thing in the world Joseph could have done about that. Except pay the very high tax to use the road.
And may I tell you that in those days it was no great honor to be a woodworker. They were among the very lowest class of people – just above the beggars and the day laborers and the slaves. So paying a high tax just to use the road would have made a big difference to Joseph and his family.
Joseph was engaged to a young woman named Mary, and he had every intention of marrying her. But one day she turned up pregnant, and Joseph was very sure he wasn’t the father. Now Joseph was a decent man, and he didn’t really want to bring any more shame or harm to Mary, but he also didn’t feel like marrying her under those circumstances, so he planned to end the engagement very quietly and let both of them go on with their lives with some dignity. But he had a dream, Joseph did. An angel (who he knew was God) came to him and spoke to him and told him that Mary wasn’t pregnant by another man at all, that her baby was the child of the Holy Spirit. Of all amazing, unbelievable things. And Joseph believed what the angel told him.
And the next we know of Joseph is that he and Mary are traveling some 100 miles south, walking of course, for days on end, with their bedrolls and their pots and pans and food to eat along the way - to get to Joseph’s home town of Bethlehem. So that he could register there. So he could be taxed even more than he was already being taxed – by the Roman government. And while they were there, as you remember so well, Mary’s baby was born – in the cow barn they were staying in.
And Joseph stood by and watched while a group of scientists from hundreds and hundreds of miles away came to see his newborn baby. (Those Magi we talked about last week.) And brought him gifts worth a royal fortune. And pretty soon a bunch of shepherds showed up from the neighboring fields to see the baby. And before he could soak that all in, the midnight sky was as bright as day from one end of the sky to the other, and angels were singing from one end of the sky to the other – about the birth of his baby. Which was quite a lot for a simple woodworker from Nazareth to take in. (Now when I talk about Joseph’s baby, you realize that he wasn’t really Joseph’s baby – Jesus was the son of God.)
And while all that was soaking in, Joseph got word (from an angel again - who he knew was God) that the Roman King Herod was searching for the baby to kill him. Which was entirely believable because Herod was well-known to be a madman who had even murdered members of his own family. So Joseph and Mary bundled up their baby Jesus and took off in the middle of the night – to Egypt. Which was another four or five hundred miles, depending on where in Egypt they went. Which meant weeks on the road again, without any source of income that I can imagine. And who knows how they would have had anything to eat or drink or where they would have spent the nights. And I can tell you that the route they would have taken was a dangerous one – used by bandits waiting to rob helpless travelers, and the only way they could have been reasonably safe at all was to attach themselves to a camel caravan heading that way.
Then we are told - and you probably remember – that Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus spent about two years in Egypt. I am wondering to myself where they lived and whether Joseph could find work there as a woodworker, or how in the world they managed to survive as refugees in a foreign country. And I wonder if they knew the language there at all and how they could communicate. And all the while, you remember, that back up north in Bethlehem that evil King Herod is searching out and killing all the children under two years of age. In a futile attempt to make sure he got the one he was looking for.
But after two years in Egypt, Joseph and Mary got the word that King Herod had died, and another angel (who he knew was God) came to tell Joseph that it would be safe to take his wife and baby back to Bethlehem once again. So they traveled another four or five hundred miles back, on the same very dangerous highway, for another who knows how many weeks or months. Until they got back to Bethlehem. But then it turned out that Herod’s son was king in his father’s place. And in this case the son was no better than his father. And so for fear of their lives, they went another hundred miles further north, back to Nazareth where they had come from in the first place. Are you keeping track of all these miles Joseph and his family are traveling through all those dangerous places? And Joseph set up shop again there, making wagon wheels and farm wagons and plows and chairs and tables.
Joseph and Mary had other children and they raised their children to know the scriptures and to love God. Every year the entire family trekked the hundred or so miles back down to Jerusalem to worship God in the golden temple at Passover time. They joined hundreds of other good Jewish families from all over the country on the trip south – all laughing and talking and camping out and eating together and singing some of the Psalms we know.
And there was that time that we know about, and that we just read about, when Jesus stayed behind in the temple, having an animated conversation back and forth with the rabbis there. Joseph and Mary searched high and low all over the city for him for three whole days and when they found him they were beside themselves and relieved and furious. And they must have had some sense, then, of the fact that their son Jesus was not your normal young Jewish boy.
So that’s the life of Joseph as we are able to reconstruct it from the Biblical story and from what we know about those times. It’s the story of a man who trusted God, and listened to God, and rearranged his life entirely from what it might have been, and followed God into some pretty amazing places.
But if you were to ask any of his neighbors in Nazareth who he was, they would have recited for you the names of his wife and his children and they would have told you that he was a very lowly woodworker and that he made wheels and wagons and plows and tables and chairs.
So now. If someone were to come along and ask who you were, what would they learn about you? They might learn who your spouse was and the names of your children, and maybe what sort of work you do or did. But that’s not nearly the whole story about you. That’s not the story of the dangers you faced, or the hard decisions you had to make, or the anguish you felt over your children. That doesn’t tell the story of how you faced hard financial times, or moved from one place to another when things were very bad. And how God led you safely through it all. That doesn’t begin to tell of how you heard God speaking to you very clearly in ways you could not possibly misunderstand. Or how you followed God into some pretty amazing places yourself. Or what great surprising joy you have witnessed with your own two eyes.
That doesn’t begin to tell the story of how God has used you to be a blessing to many, many unseen people.
So this week, as you are beginning to wait for Jesus, think back on the story of your life. And this time when you tell the story to yourself you can leave out who your spouse is and your kids are and what kind of work you do or did. This time tell the story of you who are with God. And who God is with you. And remember to yourself that in those times when you were hurt, or afraid, or very unsure of yourself, there was God. Or remember the times when you didn’t know where to turn next, or when all you could see around you was ugliness and violence and pain. Then remember how you were held in the big warm loving hands of God through it all. Think back on the places and people and the years and the experiences of your life. And count all the times when God was there in your life to be trusted, whether you knew it or not.
As you are waiting for Jesus to come this year, re-call and re-write the story of your life – the real story of your life – your life with God.
Sunday, November 23, 2014
So let me tell you about these wise men who came to see Jesus. They were also called Magi, as you recall. If we talk about one of them we call him a Magus, and if we talk about two or more of them we call them Magi. These Magi were well-educated, well trained, well respected men in Middle Eastern society about the time of Jesus. They were the scholars of the day, the scientists of the day, and they specialized in knowing about the natural world – the stars and the planets and everything about the earth. Their vast knowledge of many things made them wise, and they were highly respected and sought out for their knowledge. Magi were often consulted by kings and governors all over the region for their education and their wisdom. Pretty much every king had his own magus or his own group of magi whom he relied on for their knowledge and their good advice, and they all hung around at the palace. That’s the good Magi.
There were also bad Magi. These so called “bad Magi” were people who specialized in incantations and magic spells and sorcery, and did magic tricks. They were charming and crafty and devious and they also maneuvered their way into king’s palaces and positions of leadership to make trouble. They were also well known in Jesus’s time and in the years of the early church. You might remember how Paul and Barnabas had an encounter with one of these magicians at a place called Paphos. He made trouble for Paul and Barnabas and Paul called him the “enemy of everything that is good.”
But these are good Magi. We don’t know where they lived or much else about them. They may have lived in what is now Iraq or in what’s now Saudi Arabia. One evening, these good scientists, these scholars, astronomers, these students of the stars saw an unusual star in the sky and they surmised that the new star must signal the birth of a new king. And they followed that brand new star as it moved its way across the sky. It would have meant a journey of five or six hundred miles through the dessert. For several months or maybe even years they traveled, depending on where they lived, to search for the new king and bring him appropriate gifts: Gold and Incense and myrrh. They followed that star into the future of the world. They couldn’t have known, of course, but that little baby would bring about the kingdom of God, a kingdom of love and justice and knowing God and living in companionship with God and serving God. That little boy would bring a new era in human history and his loyal citizens would live all over the world and speak every language in every culture. He was a new king, for sure. He brought a brand new time in human history, for sure. These Magi were the educated ones in their society and they had the best scientific knowledge available at the time. But they couldn’t have known what that little boy would do for the world. But they brought their lavish royal gifts. They honored him with their presence. And they went back home, unaware of how the world would change with his coming.
That’s the story of what happened in a place called Bethlehem about two thousand years ago now and the scholars who came looking for Jesus. It’s the story of searching, and finding and following and bringing gifts.
And today we are also searching and finding and following and bringing gifts. But we know who that baby was, and we know how he has changed our lives and we know what his coming has meant for our sorry world.
I would guess that everybody in this room today has stood up, at one time or another, in this church or some other church. We have declared that Jesus is our Lord and Savior and we have made a commitment to follow him. We are part of that vast, uncountable multitude of people over two thousand years and in every country and every continent and every language who have given our lives to him. We are a part of that magnificent kingdom of his and we long for the love and justice and peace that he promises and we experience the life with God that he offers. We know God and we have the companionship with God that he offers and we have given our lives in service to him to bring about that kingdom of justice and love and peace and life with God.
Two weeks from today we will be returning our pledges to this church – our indications of our intentions to financially support the ministry of this church for the year 2015. So these next two weeks are times of soul-searching for us – times of looking deep into ourselves and re-examining that commitment we made. Maybe this will be the year that you look at that very long list of blessings that I’ve been asking you to draw up and maybe this year you’ll decide not to write the same old check you’ve been writing to this church for a very long time. Maybe this will be the year that you decide to be lavish with God because God has been unbelievably lavish with you.
Maybe this will be the year that you will take a long look and notice that money and other gifts are flowing from this congregation in Rockford, Michigan to God’s other children all over the world. (We talked about that last week.) And you will decide that you want to add your support to the love that flows from this church to God’s children in places all over the globe – including right here. Maybe you will want to join in that loving outreach with the others here. Because your heart and soul longs to offer the peace and joy and beauty of the Magi’s baby to our very sorry and suffering world. And maybe your gift will be more heart-felt than ever before, and maybe it will be larger.
And maybe you will look into your soul and see things you haven’t seen before – or notice them in a new way. This is the time for a new future for North Kent Presbyterian Church and new ideas and new direction and a new vision. These are the days when we will be asking “what’s the next almost impossible thing that North Kent Church will be doing for God.” Maybe there’s an idea floating around in the back of your mind – so far back that it’s barely formed and you’ve never mentioned it to anybody. Or maybe you’ll call up experiences you’ve had and skills that you’ve sharpened over years in your professional life. And you’ll offer them to God for this moment at this church. Maybe you’ll be willing to sit with others and ask questions that have no immediate answers. And dream dreams you never dared to dream before. Maybe you’ll ponder possibilities that would have seemed impossible before. Maybe you’ll find yourself collaborating in ways that amaze you. Maybe you will find yourself praying in ways that astonish you. And maybe in this coming year all that sitting and asking and dreaming and collaborating and pondering and praying will help to forge a new identity for North Kent Presbyterian Church and a new vision for its future.
There is that beautiful picture of the brand new Christian Church just a few years after Jesus died. We read about that in our first lesson for this morning from the book of Acts. Those early Christians were of one heart and soul. They ate together and prayed together and read Scripture together and they lived together in a bubble of blessing and shared what they had. You heard how some of them actually sold their homes and land and gave the money to the apostles to be shared among those who had needs. Now they didn’t do that for very long apparently and I have to say that that kind of living together may not be very practical in our day. But do you see that all that praying together and eating together and reading scripture together and all that overflowing generosity had this result – that they were of one heart and one mind and that they lived together in a bubble of blessing.
And that’s a beautiful picture for North Kent Presbyterian Church in 2015.
Sunday, November 16, 2014
Now I know what I see. I don’t entirely understand what I see, but I know what I see. I see a Christmas tree loaded down with hats and gloves and mittens and warm scarves and blankets and warm pajamas and even winter coats. And I have been told that these warm winter items are going to children who need them in this very cold winter coming up.
I see barrels in the fellowship area where we have coffee hour every Sunday and in those barrels I see bags full of cereal, and peas and beans and corn and ravioli, and stew and spaghetti sauce. I see boxes of macaroni and cheese. I see brand new slippers for adults and brand new underwear and brand new shirts and sweaters for adults. And I see a sign that says that these items are going to the North Kent Service Center for those in more need. And I am proud to be your brand new, temporary, part time pastor.
I see a jar that says “Pennies from Heaven” and I see that members of this congregation have been bringing their small change and I see that recently a total of $429 worth of small change was sent from this congregation to the Ronald McDonald house and the Mel Trotter Mission.
I see empty paper bags and I have been told that this congregation provides meals for children – children who eat free breakfast and lunch at school – just to make sure that they don’t go to bed hungry every night.
Last week I saw a whole table full of small Operation Christmas Child boxes filled with candy and school supplies, and coloring books and socks and wash clothes and little toys and toothbrushes and toothpaste. And I have been hearing some of the stories about Samaritan’s Purse and I am learning that those boxes are going to places like Nigeria and Mongolia and maybe places in this country to children who have need of such simple and necessary items. And I am proud to be your pastor.
And I see that next week is the last week to bring “bucks for Birds, which somebody will have to tell me about, but what I bet means that families in this community are going to have turkeys for their Thanksgiving dinners.
And last Sunday I sat with the Presbyterian Women of this church and heard about the upcoming cookie walk, which raises funds to be given away to good places like Philippine relief and North Kent Community Services, and the mission of the Lake Michigan Presbytery and scholarships at Alma College.
I sat with the Mission committee the other evening and I learned about several of the mission outreaches of this congregation which aren’t even on the list that’s in the bulletin. Places like Safe Haven, and the Women’s Resource Center which among other things, helps to provide appropriate clothing for women looking for work.
I have been learning about the care you show each other and I have seen firsthand how you care for those who are in hospitals or nursing homes or ill in their homes.
And I do know about the Presbyterian offerings which this congregation participates in also – almost $2000 went from this congregation to Presbyterian mission causes in 2013. In the Christmas Joy offering, and the Peacemaking Offering and the Pentecost Offering and the One Great Hour of Share Offering. And I am proud to be your brand new, temporary, part time pastor.
And I know about one other of the projects on the list in your bulletins. I know about the “Little Dresses for Africa.” And maybe you do, too. These are very simply made little dresses that go to young girls in Africa. They are new and bright and cute and when a young girl wears them in her community she sends the message that somebody cares for her and that she is not an easy target to be abducted and sold into sex slavery. I am very proud that this congregation is helping to save young girls in Africa from such a fate.
But much more to the point, Jesus is proud and very pleased.
Because you heard what Jesus said, didn’t you? Jesus said that what matters is that we give food to those who are hungry and clothing to those who need it and that we care for those who are sick and visit the prisoners. It does not matter how we look like or what we wear or where we live. It does not matter whether we consider ourselves to be conservative or liberal or someplace in between. It does not matter how old we are, or whether we are single or married. It does not matter if we have important positions in the church or not. It does not matter how much we have safely stashed away in our retirement accounts or how much education we have. It does not matter what we think in our heads. It does not matter how carefully we search for just the right words to say what we believe. (Now that’s important, and we Presbyterians do a fair amount of that if you may have noticed.) But in the end, what matters is that we have brought macaroni and cheese and provided pajamas and underwear and that we have saved little girls from being abducted off the streets into sex slavery and provided clothing for women looking for jobs.
We do what we do because we are followers of Jesus and that’s what followers of Jesus do. That’s what Jesus asked us to do and that’s what we do. Jesus spent his days with those who were poor – feeding them, healing them, and talking with them, and being their advocate. He wore himself out every day being surrounded by those who were clutching at his clothing wherever he went. They were widows who had children to help them and no social security income to fall back on and people who had had their homes and their farms foreclosed out from under them. They were literally hungry and sick and disabled and they were desperate for some good news. He spent his days having conversations with women whom nobody else would pay attention to, and touching people with hideous deadly diseases, and talking with beggars in the street. He blasted the powers that be who made a point of oppressing the poor.
And he expects the same of us if we call ourselves followers of Jesus.
And now I’m going to get Presbyterian on you. We don’t do these things because we have a really committed and generous and creative Mission Committee who encourage us. (Though that is very true.) We don’t do these things out of guilt. We don’t bring mittens and socks and winter coats because we want to convince God to love us. Let me tell you sincerely that from the moment of our births God has loved us uncontrollably and there’s not a thing in the world we can do about that, one way or the other. We don’t make all those dozens and dozens of cookies because we want to make sure that we go to heaven when we die. That was taken care of long ago at a place called Calvary. We don’t visit shut-ins to impress God or anybody else.
We do what we do out of gratitude. Deep gratitude. We buy toothbrushes for other children because all the kids in our family go to the dentist regularly. We visit those in the hospital and nursing homes because we love them and we are grateful to God for the gift they are to us. Our refrigerators and freezers and cupboards are stuffed to overflowing and any time we feel the tiniest bit hungry we can get ourselves a very good meal or a snack. And if we’re very fussy and we don’t feel like eating what we have in our refrigerators and freezers and cupboards we can take ourselves out for a meal of anything our heart desires at our favorite restaurant. And out of that great blessedness, we supply some turkeys for families in our community. Or we give a hundred dollars to the One Great Hour of Sharing Offering or to the Christmas Joy offering coming up. Or we give thousands of dollars every year to this congregation.
We have life with God. We have rich, abundant, joyful life with God every day no matter what the weather is. Every morning and every evening we look out at the sunrise or the sunset and we soak in the blazing splendor of the glory of God. Several weeks ago now I asked you to make long lists of all the ways you are blessed, and maybe you have done that.
And I say this carefully: I think that some might even say that our life with God is rich and abundant and joyful even when the days are very hard: on those days when we are afraid for our children, or grieving a loved one, or when we are constant pain. Or when we are far too busy and our lives are stressful and we can’t see over the piles of work and responsibilities in front of us. In those moments also we have found the riches and abundance and joy in our lives with God. We are held every day in the big warm loving hands of God and we have the sure assurance that nothing can really harm us when we live our lives in God’s hands. And out of deep gratitude for our daily riches and abundance and joy, we work hard to give some of that richness and abundance and joy to others.
You are smart, well-educated bunch, I am discovering. And out of gratitude for that and out of gratitude for the very comfortable lifestyle we all have – we contribute financially to the work and ministry of this church. And we are not stingy.
Now I am just beginning to learn your stories and already I know that a good many of you are or have been teachers – and that some of you are teachers in very difficult places. And I cannot begin to guess how many thousands and thousands of children have been blessed by knowing you. How many times you have intervened for good in the lives of children who were headed in very bad directions. I am hearing that some of you have sadnesses in your families and complex issues in your families and that you are silently, faithfully, lovingly tending to them. I know that some of you are passionate about care of the earth and living things in this world that God created good.
And I am proud to be your brand new, temporary part time pastor. But much more to the point, God is pleased.
God is saying “Well done, good and faithful servants. That’s exactly what I expected of you.”