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I tell every couple I marry. It doesn’t matter what happens, in the end you will be married. Sure enough there always seems to be a hiccup. I have never had a disastrous wedding, yet. But some of the issues that have arisen were definitely not what they bride had hoped for. The last wedding I did was outside in the family’s backyard. The bridal party had to be sent back to their starting spots, inside the house, because they came in too early. It was awkward as I stood there with the groom and best man wondering what to do. We stood there for what felt like an eternity. Another wedding I did was on the beach. It was beautiful outside, except for the 30 mph wind. I stood in the middle of a circle of shells trying to speak loud enough for everyone to hear me, I’m not sure if they did. But both couples were married at the end of the day.
For my first Christmas Eve midnight service I did what I did two nights ago. All the lights were turned off and all that was lit was the advent wreath. Then I blew out each candle until it was just the Christ Candle in the middle illuminating the whole room. It was a truly holy time. Then I blew the Christ Candle out and there was darkness. I thought it would be great if then I would light the Christ Candle and explain that out of the darkness came a great light that defeated the darkness forever. This light was Jesus Christ, the babe in the manger. I lit the match and in a wonderfully dramatic and liturgical moment I lit the Christ Candle.
It sat there burning for three whole seconds. Before I could even get the next words out of my mouth it went out. So I struck the second match, success for four seconds and then complete darkness. Four matches later the candle still wouldn’t stay lit. People were starting to chuckle. Others started to worry. The whole sanctuary was uncomfortable. Finally I gave up on the new Christ Candle and lit one of the other advent candles. The rest of the service went smoothly but I was a little crushed and embarrassed. Then one of the parishioners came up to me after the service and said, “You know what, no matter what candle you lit, it’s still Christmas!”
Sometimes things don’t work out like we had hoped they would. Your Christmas might have gone differently than you planned. But you are not alone, the first Christmas and the time following was full of confusion and craziness. Imagine you are Joseph for a second. There he is, engaged to a sweet young girl. He was a carpenter and was making a life for himself. Then his fiancé comes up to him and tells him she pregnant. I’m sure he is feeling rejected, stunned, ashamed and furious at this point. Then she goes on to tell him that it is God’s son and that she was still a virgin. Now he is beyond furious and on the verge of insanity. As he plots his next move to quietly break up with her an angel comes and tells him “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21)
He is faithful to his God and so he still takes her as his wife and does not consummate the marriage until after the child was born. The government then attempts to take a census which forces him to journey to his family’s hometown, Bethlehem. He traveled for days with a donkey and a very pregnant woman and when he got to his hometown he was greeted by no vacancies. Finally the settled down in a stable and there the child was born and more angels and strangers came by to say congratulations.
Sometime later some Magi showed up at his front door wanting to see the baby. After they left God speaks to Joseph again, this time through a dream, and tells him to move his family to Egypt. Joseph does in the nick of time too because the king Herod is irate that the Magi gave him the slip and the child born to be King is somewhere still out there. He demands that every boy two years old or younger be killed in Bethlehem. This is known as the Slaughter of the Innocents or the Massacre of the Innocents. The Catholic Encyclopedia states that between six and twenty children lost their lives in Bethlehem at the hands of Herod. Dozens others in the outskirts where probably killed as well. All of them died for no other reasons except a King scared he would lose his power and authority.
In 4 AD King Herod died and Joseph is told in a dream that it is okay to return. So out of Egypt the Holy family returned to the Holy Land. Matthew is making a sure that the readers of his gospel feel the connection between Moses, the main leader in the Jewish faith, and Jesus. Moses was in Egypt and freed his people. Jesus was in Egypt to stay alive and came out to free his people. Matthew then quotes Hosea 11 to tie this into Hebrew Scripture. For Matthew he wants to prove without a doubt to his Jewish audience that this baby born in a manger, this infant who ran to Egypt and then returned is the one God promised. He is the messiah.
As I read this my heart continued to go out to Joseph though. He has had four visits from God now and each time his world is turned upside down. One, he learned he was going to be a step-dad to God’s son, no pressure there. Two, he learned he had to move to another country to keep his family safe. Three, it was time to go back because the vicious king was now dead. But God had one more message to Joseph, he told him to go to Nazareth in Galilee because Bethlehem was still a little too dangerous. Life just never seemed to get straight for Joseph. Every time he got settled, God would through him a curve ball.
We all know people who have lives like this. One thing happens and then another and then another. A past parishioner of mine was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer at the age of 37. She fought it hard with chemo and radiation. During this time she also found out that she also had the BRAC 1 gene which meant she was predisposed to getting cancer again. She decided to be proactive and had a full hysterectomy, a tram flap and her other breast removed. During this time her step-father had a heart attack at church and died. Her mother went into a downward spiral after this and died some years later. Soon after this she was laid off from her job. Over and over again she was asked to start over, not by choice but by life’s curve balls.
Life is not perfect. Weddings are never perfect. Christmas is never as perfect as the Norman Rockwell paintings and nor should it be. If life was perfect; if life gave us everything we needed when we needed it; if life was seamless, stress free, and worriless, than why would we need a God? I’m not suggesting that God gives us struggles so we will need him. But if life handed you everything you would have no use for a God that offers everything. If life was perfect there would be no need for redemption, no need for repentance, no need for salvation.
Babies are always worrisome. I know first time parents who couldn’t sleep the first few nights without holding a mirror up to their newborn’s mouth every hour to see if he was still breathing. I was one of those parents. Parenthood is an initiation into a life of worry and a life of unforeseen issues. Campbell is going to be that child that always keeps me on my toes and on my knees in prayer. Since her first birthday she has burned her fingers on her birthday candle, fallen down the stairs, chipped her two front teeth, electrocuted herself, fallen out of her cozy coup and gotten road rash on her face, and then the other day I was turned my back for a second and she did a full flip out of her crib and landed on her head. We have pulled her off a ladder, stopped her from running into traffic, and caught her attempting to jump off the couch. I know Alycia and I are sounding like parents of the year, but Campbell is going to be one of those kids. She is the one we will be taking to the emergency room every other week. She is the one I pray will survive to age three.
But Campbell’s second year of life is still a cakewalk compared to what the Holy Family had to go through. Parents worry about their children but I have never feared that someone was out to kill my children. I may have had a nightmare or two but I have never been warned by God to run for my child’s life. I have never been told in a dream that if I move to a certain city because my family’s life is in danger. I cannot imagine the stress Joseph had on his heart. I cannot even fathom the sleepless nights because of the stress of how he was going to provide for God’s son and his new wife.
There are passages in the Bible that we can read and easily understand the message we can take from it. There are those passages that drip modern relevancy. But this is a scripture you have to dig into a little, sit with a while before you learn what this means for us. This passage today tells us two things. One, God is always with us and is at work in our world. We can see that from the ways that he sent dreams to Joseph and kept the Holy Family safe no matter what the world was attempting to do.
We can also see that Jesus truly is the Messiah. In the telling of this story Matthew continues to form the foundation of proof, using Hebrew Scriptures, that this child born to Joseph is the son of God. He is the messiah, the promised one, God with us. He is the one that lives up to all the expectations and does so perfectly. Our lives might not be perfect and our holidays might be chaotic. We are sinful creatures living in a sinful world. We live in a world where leaders find it okay to massacre babies and have families run for their lives. Our world is looking for something to hold on to when everything spins out of control. We are reminded, that in uncertain times, our God offers protection. May you find the peace in the chaos that God will protect you and always be by your side. Joseph understood that and had faith enough to follow. May we all have the same faith in the same God today.
And all God’s people said…Amen.