Sunday, December 23, 2007

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A, December 23, 2007

Matthew 1:18-25

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. 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. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

"Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,

and they shall name him Emmanuel,"

which means, "God is with us." When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.


I enjoy listening to Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion monologues. In one of them he talks about Christmas being run by women and how it has always been that way. He said, “Joseph didn’t do much…he said, ‘Why me? Why now? Why couldn’t it have been 5 months from now?” Mr. Keillor was, of course, going for a laugh, but it can’t have been far from how Joseph actually reacted. Here he thought he had everything planned out and everything changed in a moment.

John Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.” We would like to think we are in control of what happens to us. We’re not and never have been.

It can be hard for us to understand, in our modern society, exactly what it was that Joseph was facing. Back in those days, they had a word for men like him and it was “cuckold”.

The word “cuckold” is a reference to the cuckoo. Most members of this species are what are called “brood parasites”, which means they lay their eggs in other birds nests so that the other birds will have the burden of hatching and raising young that are not their own. The cuckold was a man whose wife was unfaithful, particularly apt when the woman bore a child that was obviously not her husband’s. Such men were ridiculed and shamed in almost all societies in history.

So it’s not very surprising that when Joseph found a cuckoo’s egg in his nest, his first reaction was to quietly put his betrothed away, that is, to divorce her even before the marriage was celebrated. No one wants to be humiliated. Not only was Joseph protecting Mary’s reputation, he was protecting his own. It was life happening to Joseph in spite of the plans he had made. Time for damage control…with the emphasis on “control”.

Most of us have experienced this sort of situation in our own lives. Something happens that changes everything. A job is lost. A loved one dies. A home burns to the ground. And sometimes, just as it happened to Joseph, a child comes along that is not expected. We feel lost and confused. Why is this happening now? And if we are spiritual people, we ask God “What are you doing to me? Why are you doing this to me?” We want to have a say in what happens to us, thinking we know better than God what is good for us. We want to be in charge, to be in control.

As Christians we’re called to surrender control to God. He’s the one that is calling the shots in our lives, not us. But it is very hard to do this. It is very hard to lay those burdens down and walk away.

Joseph required a heavenly intervention. God sent an angel to clue Joseph in on what the bigger picture was. Both fortunately and unfortunately, our choices are usually far less earth-shaking, so we aren’t entitled to this sort of communication. We’re supposed to be listening to that still small voice of the Holy Spirit, the one that says, “Wait…it’s going to turn out okay. This is something God will use for good, if you will only let him work through you.”

One of my favorite verses from the bible is Psalm 46:10 “Be still and know that I am God.” This is far more polite than “shut up and listen” isn’t it? But it comes to the same thing. Be still. Listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit in your heart. Surrender control to God.

The Christian band FFH has a great song about this. Here is the chorus:

You take the wheel
I will work the radio
You take the wheel
We'll go where You want to go
You take the wheel
Take it fast, take it slow
Whatever you choose I'm fine
You drive, I'll ride
You drive, I'll ride

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Third Sunday of Advent Year A - December 16, 2007

Richard Lovelace, an Elizabethan poet, wrote these lines:

“Stone walls do not a prison make

Nor iron bars a cage.”

This is part of a poem called “To Althea, from prison” that the poet wrote while he was imprisoned in 1642 during England’s period of civil war between the Royalists and the Roundheads. The meaning of the lines, as he wrote them, is to show that while you are in prison, as long as your soul is free then you are free.

In today’s gospel we hear another message from prison. John the Baptist, in prison, sends a message to Jesus asking him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” This seems strange to us, because in the third chapter of Matthew we see Jesus coming to be baptized by John. John knew exactly who Jesus then. So why is John asking this question now?

Some bible scholars think that John is sending a little reminder to Jesus. John is in prison and, naturally, wants to be set free. Since Jesus is the Messiah and has come to fulfill the prophecy we read today in Psalm 146, John is reminding Jesus that:

“The LORD sets the prisoners free;
the LORD opens the eyes of the blind;
the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down”

So the scholars think this is a little reminder, kind of “Hey, Jesus! I’m a prisoner…aren’t you going to set me free?”

But Jesus does not set John free. Instead he replies:

"Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."

This last sentence I found very puzzling. What did Jesus mean, “blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me”? I spent some time reading different commentaries on this passage. Basically, Jesus meant, “no I’m not going to set you free from prison, John, and if you can accept that, you will be blessed.”

Personally, I don’t believe that John was sending a reminder to Jesus. I think that John had fallen prey to doubt, just like we all do. I can imagine that in prison, shut away from the crowds who had come seeking John’s wisdom and baptism at his hands, away from the center of the action, John began to doubt whether he really HAD prepared the way for the Messiah. What if Jesus was just another prophet? What if John had messed up? Obviously Jesus was not doing what he was supposed to be doing, setting the prisoners free, since Jesus had not set John free. Had it all been for nothing? When was Jesus going to get on with establishing his kingdom and doing all the things that everyone expected him to do?

The answer is, of course, that John, just like all the disciples, got the whole idea of Messiah wrong. They all believed Jesus was supposed to establish a Jewish state with himself at the head, drive out the Romans and re-establish the nation Israel as it ought to be. But the Messiah was not going to do that. His kingdom was not of this world.

John was in prison physically, but his doubt had also put him in a mental prison. John was guilty, as we all are, of expecting God to do what we want him to do. John had read the same scriptures that everyone else had and had built a set of expectations based on what he read, the way that John himself interpreted them. So when God did not behave according to expectations, John lost faith and doubted.

We all do this. We build a box and try to put God in it. Then when he doesn’t go quietly and nicely as we expect him to, we end up in that box ourselves. Because we doubt God can do for us what we think he ought to do, we limit the effectiveness of what the Holy Spirit *can* do THROUGH us. This *is* the prison that the Messiah came to free us from, the prison of our own doubts, fears and expectations.

So Jesus’ message, ending with “blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” told John, “Yes, I am the Messiah. And if you have faith in me, you will be blessed.” It shows that Jesus understood that John was experiencing doubt and despair. In choosing faith over doubt, John would be set free from prison, though not in the way he was expecting.

Only through letting go and allowing the power of God to flow through us in the person of the Holy Spirit, can we be free from the prison we construct of our own doubts and expectations. The power of the Holy Spirit can be the wind beneath our wings, lifting us free from the burdens that weigh us down. Allowing God to work through us will mean that we shall be “free indeed”.

Richard Lovelace’s poem, “To Althea, from Prison”, which is considered a love song, actually acknowledges God as the source of spiritual freedom. Here is part of it:

When (like committed linnets) I

With shriller throat shall sing

The sweetness, mercy, majesty,

And glories of my king;

When I shall voice aloud how good

He is, how great should be,

Enlarged winds, that curl the flood,

Know no such liberty.

Stone walls do not a prison make,

Nor iron bars a cage;

Minds innocent and quiet take

That for an hermitage;

If I have freedom in my love,

And in my soul am free,

Angels alone that soar above,

Enjoy such liberty.

May we all know and enjoy this liberty.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

First Sunday of Advent Year A - December 2, 2007

I’m lousy at waiting. That’s why I knit, honestly. As the mother of three kids, I have spent a lot of time waiting outside the school when I’m picking them up, sitting in a lawn chair at soccer games and t-ball, and outside the classroom for dance classes. As the steward of my children’s health, I have spent a lot of time in emergency rooms, as well as doctors’, dentists’, orthodontists’, and optometrists’ waiting rooms. As the steward of my own and, sometimes, my husband’s health I have done the same. Knitting keeps me sane all through this, because at least I feel like I’m doing SOMETHING. And it helps while away the time. Time drags by very slowly in waiting rooms

This is the time of year to think about waiting. Advent is all about waiting. Symbolically, we are waiting for the coming of the Christ child, a wait that spans four weeks in our liturgical cycle, which has it’s echoes in our day to day life in our wait for Christmas day, particularly our children.. We are also waiting for our Lord’s return to earth, something for which we have been waiting for almost 2000 years. Advent symbolizes both of these things, the wait for the Christ child and the wait for the return of Christ our King. Today we begin our season of waiting. What does it mean to wait?

The American Heritage Dictionary has 4 different definitions for the word “Wait”

    1. To remain or rest in expectation: waiting for the guests to arrive. See Synonyms at stay1.
    2. To tarry until another catches up.
  1. To remain or be in readiness: lunch waiting on the table.
  2. To remain temporarily neglected, unattended to, or postponed: The trip will have to wait.
  3. To work as a waiter or waitress.

Clearly what Jesus’ message relates to us today has to do with definition number two, to be in readiness. He warns us very specifically that we will not know the hour of his return so we should always be ready. So what are we supposed to be doing while we wait?

If we add one word to the verb “wait”, we get “wait on”. Let’s turn to the dictionary again to see what this means:

wait on/upon

  1. To serve the needs of; be in attendance on.
  2. To make a formal call on; visit.
  3. To follow as a result; depend on.
  4. To await: They're waiting on my decision.

I think we could easily use more than one of these definitions to decide what to do while waiting. We can serve the needs of the Kingdom of God. We can be in attendance on God and making ourselves available to do the work he needs us to do. And we can follow and depend on God. Clearly, if we do all of these things, we don’t have to worry about what the master will find us doing when he returns. Whenever that may be, which is not entirely clear. Jesus didn’t give us a date and asked us to jot it down on our calendars or put it in our Palm Pilots or Franklin Planners. Why not? Wouldn’t it be nice to know?

There are plenty of people who have tried to set a date for Jesus’ return. In the 19th century, there was a noted preacher named William Miller, who set a date for Christ’s return on April 3, 1843. Unfortunately, that date came and went, as did 2 other dates set by the same preacher.

Jesus was purposefully obscure about the date of his return; in our reading today, he says:

"But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” God set the date, but not even Jesus knew what it is. And even if he did know what it is, we can be sure he wouldn’t have told us. Because if there as many people who procrastinate spiritually as there are those that procrastinate about cleaning, paying bills, and doing anything else that requires a bit of effort, there would be a lot of people who would wait until the last minute to repent of their sins and do God’s work here on earth.

What Jesus was not obscure about was what you and I ought to be doing when he returns. We’re not supposed to be waiting by the door, looking at our watches and complaining about how long it’s taking. We’re not supposed to write the date on our calendar and then go do whatever we like until a day or two before he comes back, when we can clean our spiritual houses. We’re supposed to live our lives, every day, as if we can expect Jesus to show up at any time. Are you ready?