Sunday, January 19th, 2014 – Sermon on John 1:29-42

John 1:29-42

29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” 35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed ). 42 He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter ).

You know, I wasn’t quite prepared for it when it happened. Perhaps it is because it is a question you will almost never hear asked of someone. Perhaps because it felt so exposing, so personal. But prepared or not, it happened.

“Pastor Jon, did you sin this past week?” one of our confirmation students asked me.

“Uh, umm…excuse me?” I asked, trying to hide the blood rushing to my cheeks, out of fear that he knew something about me that I didn’t want others to know.

“Did you sin in the last week?” he repeated himself.

And then I realized it. He was only asking me the same question that I ask him and all of our confirmation students every week.

You see, each week, I ask our confirmation students if any of them have been sinners in the last week. And then I ask them if any of them have been saints. The reason I do this is because this is one of the major themes in Lutheran theology. In Latin, it’s called simul justus et peccator. In English, it means simultaneously saint and sinner. In Martin Luther’s theology, he believed that all of us, every person is simultaneously a saint and a sinner. 100% saint and 100% sinner.

For those of you who are math nerds, you might be saying to yourself, “Now wait a minute…100% plus 100% equals 200%. How can anyone be 200% of something?” Well, Martin Luther isn’t interested in math. He’s interested in what he knows to be true about himself and others. That he, and every person, is a sinner, capable of regrettable and painful things. But he also knew that he, and every person, is a saint, capable of doing incredible and amazing things.

According to Martin Luther, all of us are simultaneously a sinner and a saint.

The perfect example of this showed up in my news feed last week.  Henry Rickets had been out of prison for only two weeks, when he heard a mother screaming for her child. This mother’s 2-year old daughter had fallen through the broken lid of a septic tank. Rickets ran over as fast as he could and he dove into the septic tank, headfirst.

At first, Rickets couldn’t locate the girl. But he stayed down there so long that it wasn’t until he inadvertently started inhaling the septic water, that he was forced to come up for air. And so another man went in headfirst. And moments later, the girl was located and rescued. She needed CPR, but soon was breathing again and recovering in a nearby hospital.

Henry Rickets wasn’t the person to actually rescue the girl from the septic tank, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a hero in the story. In fact, a person who saw the whole event take place called him a God-send.[1]

A God-send. How often do we think of the man just released from prison as a God-send? I am willing to bet that Henry Rickets has a good idea of what it is like to be simultaneously a sinner and a saint. But according to Martin Luther, it is not just Henry…but all of us.

And so when this confirmation student asked me if I had sinned in the last week, he wasn’t just asking me a personal question. He was asking me a theological question. Are you like me, Pastor Jon? Have you done things in the past week that you regret? And so what could I do except be honest with him. I told him that yes, I had sinned in the past week. I shared with him that I had said some things to my wife during an argument that week. Words that I wish I had never said and for which I needed forgiveness.

“Pastor Jon, did you sin this past week?” he asked. And I was startled. Because we don’t talk about sin so publicly very often. I mean, sure, every Sunday we have confession and forgiveness. But how often do we really talk about sin? I think it is because most of us, myself included, are uncomfortable with that three-letter word – sin.

But did you hear the words of John the Baptist this morning. Upon seeing Jesus, he cries out, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” According to John’s Gospel and John the Baptist, Jesus is very interested in sin. In fact, Jesus is the one who takes it away. And so, if we are going to be serious about Jesus, then we need to be serious about sin. And yet, we are so often uncomfortable with that kind of language.

I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear the word sin, it just sounds so full of judgment, doesn’t it? And who needs more of that in their life – judgment? So often that is the understanding we’ve grown up with. To sin is to do something wrong, we’ve been taught. You sin when you do something wrong, and so…don’t do something that is wrong. Be a good little girl. Or a good little boy. Right?

And so, if that is our understanding of sin, no wonder we don’t talk openly about it. Who needs to have all the wrong things they do and have done pointed out to them every day?

But in scripture, sin is something much deeper than that. Sin is not so much of an action, as it is a condition. Sin is not so much something you do as it is something you have.

In scripture, sin is like being in bondage – you are tied up and stuck and you just can’t get out of it. Sin is like this sickness that just won’t go away. You see, whenever I’ve been in an argument with my wife and I say something I regret, my first thought isn’t, “Well, darn, I broke a rule. I did something wrong” No, my first thought is usually, “Damn, I did it again! Why did I do that?” It is this sense that I am caught in this way of life that too often leads me to protect myself and as a result, hurt others in the process. And I can try and try and try to just get better and better, but it will always be there.

The Apostle Paul puts it this way, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15)

Sin. It is a condition. Not an action. And that is just the personal side of it. There is this global or systemic side to it as well.

When my friend, Alan, who is a pastor in South Africa, came to Minnesota, we had lunch together. And after lunch, he asked us to drop him off at a nearby Target store. We said sure, and asked him if he needed something. He said, “No. I just have never seen a store like that before and we are getting the first one near me in South Africa.” And as I remember it, he paused and then he said, “Is it true that there are just shelves and shelves of food and racks and racks of coats?”

His point was deeper than just the question. We live in a country where 1 in 5 children are food insecure, meaning they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. And we have Target stores lined with shelves of food. Deep down inside each of us, we know there is something really wrong with that. And yet we feel powerless to stop it. And we keep shopping at these stores and propping up a system that supports it.

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

Sin. It is a condition. Not an action. And it is not something I can fix on my own but just being a good little boy. It is something I really do need saving from. And John says about Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”

You see, that old understanding of sin – where it is about doing bad things and the message of the church becomes “don’t do bad things.” Have you noticed how in that understand Jesus isn’t the one who takes away the sin of the world…you are. You are the one who is supposed to just do better and stop sinning all of the time. In that understanding, Jesus doesn’t take away the sin of the world. You do….by not sinning.

And I don’t know about you, but that does little to reassure me. And little to actually inspire any change in my behavior. But our text says that Jesus the Lamb of God, is the one who takes away the sin of the world. And to take something is to claim it. To bring it close to you.

When John’s disciples, strangers to Jesus, ask Jesus, “Where are you staying?” They are asking him more than a question of location. They don’t want to know if he is staying at the AmericINN or what his address is. But rather they are asking him, “Who are you? Where is home for you? What is the center of your life?[2] And what does Jesus say? “Come and see,” he says. As if to say his home, the very center of Jesus’ life is accepting strangers and all that they carry with them, to join him on this journey of life. Come and see, he says.

And that’s how Jesus takes away sin. By accepting it. By letting it come along and enter in.

And here is the amazing thing. When I hear that Jesus accepts me, as I am. All of my faults and failures and shortcoming. Only when I know that I am accepted exactly as I am, only then do I suddenly feel whole again. Still a saint and a sinner, but also like an entirely new creation.

Preacher Tom Long was once staying in a motel in a large city. And he was surprised to see by the elevator a handwritten note that said, “Party Tonight! Room 210 – 8:00pm. Everyone is invited!” Tom could hardly picture who would throw such a party and for what reason. But he couldn’t help but imagine that around 8pm, room 210 would be filled with a wild assortment of people. Sales representatives seeking relief from being on the road. A vacationing couple tired of sight-seeing. A man stopping overnight on a long journey. A few curious and tired motel employees, fulfilling their professional duties. Perhaps some young people who had snuck out of their parent’s room, anxiously curious about what was happening in room 210.

But unfortunately, the sign by the elevator was taken down and replaced with a typewritten note by the motel staff explaining that the original note was a hoax, a practical joke. Which makes sense when you think about it, but it was also a little disappointing. “For a brief moment, those…at the motel were tantalized by the possibility that there just might a party going on somewhere to which they all were invited – a party where it didn’t make much difference who (the people) were when (they) walked through the door or what motivated (them) to come.” A party where all people come in. Just as they are.

“Perhaps if there is to be such a party, the church is going to have to throw it.”[3] AMEN

 

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Sunday, January 12th, 2014 – Baptism of Our Lord Sermon on Matthew 3:13-17

Matthew 3:13-17

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Today is Baptism of Our Lord Sunday. Every year, near the beginning of January, we celebrate in worship the baptism of Jesus. And not only Jesus’ baptism, but our own as well. Before worship, you were invited to take a baptism stone from the font. Which meant you had to get your fingers wet as you reached into the water. In order to get into the sanctuary, you walked through the blue and white streamers, simulating walking through water. And then, with the help of our children, we sprinkled you with water.

In case you haven’t gotten the point, today is all about water and baptism.

A little over two years ago, for the sermon during worship, I had an “Ask the Pastor” sermon. The week prior and during the worship service, I invited many of you to send in and write down the questions that you have about faith and life, religion, Christianity….anything. It was an open invitation to ask any question that you have been living with and wondering about.

What was remarkable to me was the number of questions that centered around unbaptized babies. What happens if an unbaptized child dies? Is a child that isn’t baptized going to hell? It was the same question over and over again, just with different words.

Which tells me that we have questions about baptism. And perhaps many of us have known of unbaptized children that have died. And we worry about what that means for them….in the afterlife. Many of you, I know, grew up with the tradition that a newborn baby is not taken out of the home until it has been baptized, because the tradition said that you can only get to heaven if you have been baptized. That you only become a child of God by being baptized. Notice, however, that few people ever ask about unbaptized adults. We seem to think that they should have known better and had ample opportunity to get baptized, but babies. Babies are hard because they are so young and innocent and so we wonder…would God really punish a child for not being baptized?

Well, my answer to that question back then and today are the same. What I said was I quoted from Psalm 139. “For it was you (God) who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” I quoted this Psalm because this Psalms tells us that God has been part of a child’s life long before we are. That God has knit this little one in its mother’s womb is to say that God has always been involved in this child’s life. It is to say that this child already is a child of God even before its birth. And certainly before it’s baptism. And so then, like a loving parent, wouldn’t God care for this child in death as it already has in life? And so I said that I trust that the living loved ones of an unbaptized child, who has died, have nothing to fear. That God welcomes them into God’s good care with love and open arms.

Therefore, to be clear, I reject the idea that we become children of God in baptism. I just can’t believe that a child only becomes a child of God when they are baptized. I just can’t. Elliot wasn’t baptized until he was 7 months old. Does that mean that he wasn’t a child of God for those first 7 months? No! I just don’t buy it.

Now, I don’t claimed to have all the answers. I don’t claim to know with any certainty. And there are plenty of people, including other Lutheran pastors who will disagree with me. And that is okay. And maybe some of you disagree with me. And that is okay. And there are certainly scripture verses that disagree with me. And that is okay. But there are also scripture verses like Psalm 139 that agree with me and I can only tell you what I believe in my heart and what I believe to be revealed about the character of God in Jesus Christ.

So what is baptism? How does it work? How do we understand it? What’s going on there?

Baptism is one of our two sacraments. The other being Holy Communion. And a sacrament always has two parts to it. A promise and a thing – something that you can touch. First the promise…in baptism the promise is that God has already chosen you as God’s beloved child. We see this in our text when after Jesus’ baptism, the voice from heaven proclaims, “This is my son, my beloved, with whom am well pleased.” So baptism is not about you choosing God. It’s not about your parents or your family members choosing God for you. Baptism is about hearing the promise that you have already been chosen by God. That God does the choosing. It is God who says you are my beloved child.

It is about the relationship that God has already established with you. It is about the promise of God’s unconditional love for you that is forever.

Now, to tell someone that you love them can be a sacred and vulnerable and nerve-wracking moment in a relationship. But here is the thing, when I first told Lauren that I loved her, it is not that I started loving her the moment the words left my mouth. I loved her before that, but I finally worked up the courage to tell her.

It is the same with baptism. It is not like God starts loving the child the moment the water strikes their forehead. No. God loved them long before that. Long before. God knit the child together it it’s mother womb! And in baptism, we get to hear for the first time that God’s promise is, and has been, and will be for this child. It gets announced. To the child. To the parents. And to the community. It is like a birth announcement. When parents send out a birth announcement about their newborn, it’s not like the child doesn’t exist until the birth announcement is in the mail. The birth announcement tells the community what has already happened. Now everyone knows it. The world knows it. It gets spoken. That’s how it is with baptism. It tells of a promise that has already been given. But now the promise gets spoken to the whole community. And to speak a promise like that is so very important. It was true before. But it needs to be said over and over and over again.

Imagine someone you love – a child, a partner, a family member. You don’t have to tell them that you love them to make the love real, but if you don’t tell them…if they never hear it from you, then how will they know? God loves us. Unconditionally. But we need to keep hearing that promise to trust that it’s true.

But we need more than just the words spoken. More than just a promise. Which brings up part number two of a sacrament. You need a thing. Something physical. Something tangible. In baptism, the thing, the tangible part is, of course, water.

One of my professor’s tells a story about his time as a young pastor in Africa. He was the pastor of the local church, but in this community, the tribal traditions were extremely important along with the church traditions. So when it came time for a young couple in the church to get married, the pastor was invited to take part in some of the tribal traditions. As the tradition goes, on the day of the wedding, the bride and her family travel all the way to the grooms tribe, singing and dancing and celebrating the whole way there. When the bride arrives, everyone gathers in a circle around her. Her grandfather steps forward and speaks in the tribal language. The pastor couldn’t understand, but it sounded like words of blessing and love. And then, when the grandfather was finished speaking, he took this big mug of beer, he took a sip….and he spit it in the brides face. Then the grandmother steps forward and she offers her words of blessing. Then, she takes a sip of beer and spits it on the brides belly. Likely something symbolizing her fertility. And then…they hand the mug of beer to the pastor. He doesn’t have a clue what to do. So….he said a prayer of blessing over the bride, took a sip of beer, and spit it in her face.

Now, this pastor felt awful about what he had done because he had no idea what he had done. About two years later, he ran into the bride at the market. He immediately said to her, “I’m so sorry for doing that to you that day. But I didn’t understand. What was that all about?” The bride told him, “In our culture, blessings and promises don’t mean nothing if there isn’t something physical to go with them.” And that’s what the spitting of the beer was. It was a physical form of the spoken words of promise. Promises mean nothing if there isn’t something physical to go with them.

And here is the thing, we already know this to be true. We know that a promise has to come with something physical in order to make it true. If Lauren tells me every day that she loves me and will always love me, but she never hugs me or never kisses me, then somehow that promise seems less and less true. If a dad keeps promising to play catch with his child when he gets home after work, but he never does…the promise is useless.

This is why we had you dip your fingers in and sprinkled you with water earlier. It is one thing to remember the promises in baptism in your brain or to hear them in your ears. It is an entirely different thing to feel them rolling down your face. Or leaving spots on your glasses or your bulletin. Words and promises mean nothing if there isn’t something physical to go with them. And so we use water to baptize and to remember the promises of baptism. So we can trust that promises really is true.

Friends, baptism is not an insurance policy for the afterlife. It is not about getting your golden ticket into heaven. And I don’t believe God punishes people who aren’t baptized. Baptism, rather, is about hearing who you are. Or who this child is. It is about the spoken, watery promise that God choose this child, this person, you, to be God’s own long ago.

So, are we any different after a baptism? Of course. Just in the same way that I am different every time after Lauren tells me she loves and gives me a kiss to go with it. I am different and I live differently every time I feel that promise of love.

So if baptism is about hearing who you are, then let me tell you who you are. You are a beautiful, beloved child of God. You were yesterday, you are today, and you will be tomorrow. Baptized or not, that’s who you are. And when you leave here today, you get one more physical sign. As you leave, you will get a watery cross marked on your forehead, as the physical reminder of who you are. May you never forget that. And may you remind others that the same is true for them as well. May we have the courage to proclaim that. Because when we do, our world turns out to be an entirely different place. May it be so. Amen.

Christmas Eve/Day Sermon on Luke 2:1-20

Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]
1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

We began our worship service by singing, “O, Come, O, Come, Emmanuel.” Emmanuel meaning, “God with us.” God is with us. That is what tonight is about. Proclaiming the promise that God is with us. Not distant or far off, but here. In this place. In our lives. With us.

My hope is that that alone can be enough good news for us all tonight. We all come here from different places. Some of us come here excited. You’ve just returned home or you have just celebrated Christmas. The presents are unwrapped, you’ve gathered around the Christmas tree with family as you exchanged gifts of love. Others of you have just come from work, tired and exhausted and you still have presents to wrap. Some of you may have just come from the hospital visiting a loved one or from the bank checking to see if there is enough to get you through the week. Wherever you are in life, may the promise of tonight that God is with us be enough to give you the courage to keep living and loving.

Tonight we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the revelation of God’s love for this world and for the people in it. That God would become incarnate, en-fleshed in this world, to be with us. Tonight, we heard Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth. It’s a familiar story. It’s the one with the angel coming to Mary to say, ““Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus…The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” It’s the one where no one would share their room with Mary and Joseph. It’s the one with the shepherds hearing that holy chorus in the sky and then going, quickly, to lay their eyes on this God-child lying in a manger.

It’s a familiar story. One that has been acted out by boys dressed in their father’s bathrobe as the shepherds. The girls as angels wearing wings made of tinfoil and halo’s made of tinsel. An honorary Joseph and Mary, and a Jesus cabbage patch doll. We know the story.

But it has recently dawned on me that something is missing from our Christmas pageants and our manger scenes. Or should I say, someone. Two people, in fact. Do you remember them? They were right at the beginning of Luke’s story. Emperor Augustus and Governor Quinirius.

“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius. They’re in the story, but not our manger scenes. Why does Luke mention them and why do we forget them?

Luke mentions them because he’s a good story teller. He knows that a story is nothing without its context. Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius are big deals. They are the important people. The royals. The celebrities. The rich and famous. And do you know what the name Augustus means? It means the “One Who Is Divine.” Do you know the other nicknames for the Emperor? Lord. Prince of Peace. Son of God. Sound familiar?

The Emperor was called the Son of God, the bringer of peace. But the way he brought peace was through violence. Through power. Through control. Through keeping the people afraid.

And now Luke tells the story of an angel coming to Mary, an unwed teenager, and telling her that she is going to give birth to the son of God. There is too many “Sons of God” in the room. You’ve got the Emperor and you’ve got Jesus. What’s happening here? What’s Luke trying to say? Luke is confronting the powers that be. Luke is challenging “the man.”

You see there was this widely held belief back then. It said that if you were rich, God favored you. If you had power, God blessed you with it. It said that if God were to ever show up in the world it would be among the rich and famous and healthy and good looking. If God was going to be born, God would be born in the palace, with Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius. But Luke is saying, “No, this is a lie.” He paints the background of Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius, but then he draws our attention to a small family giving birth to a child in a run-down motel and says, “Here is where God is.”

And then the shepherds. They were the lowest of the low. Society’s outcasts. But they were the ones who first heard of the birthing of God among them. It is that choir of angels, those voices from heaven that say to the shepherds, “Look, to you, to you, is born the Savior of the World. The Lord. And the sign will be a child lying in…not a palace…but a manger.” The angels and the shepherds are drawn like a magnet not to the Emperor’s palace, but to the stable. And it is to say, “This is where God is!”

When God arrives in this world, God arrives as we least expect it.

It’s a promise that says God is with us. It says that God will not be held captive by the rich and powerful. God will not favor the rich and powerful. God does not love some and not others, but God has entered into the entirety of the world. So far that God would be born as a poor peasant. Not in a nice home, not in a perfect life, but God would be born in a cattle stall to a pair of frighten parents.

If God would go that far to be in this world, then there is nowhere where God won’t be. God will be found everywhere. Even in your life. God is with us. Not just with me. Not just with you. But with us.

And so I think we need to add to our manger scene. I think every nativity scene should have behind it, in the background, maybe on the window sill, a very, very small Emperor’s palace. And a very tiny Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius. Because then our manger scenes won’t just tell us that Christ is born, but it will remind us where Christ is born. Among the ordinary. Among the powerless. Among the forgotten and the simple. Among love and not fear.

Among us! You and me. The hope of Christmas, the light in the darkness is that if God is born into the ordinary, the everyday….then God is born into your life too.

I don’t know where you go after this. Perhaps you jump the car and head off to Grandma’s, maybe you go to a house that smells like Christmas and with a whole family to join you, or maybe you go home alone. Maybe you’re gearing up for a marathon Christmas tour from one relative’s home to another. Maybe the tension in your family will make the next 24-36 hours hard. Wherever it is, wherever you are going, I promise that Christ will be there. And I pray that you meet him. That you see him, feel him. God is with us. May that be enough to remind you how tremendously important you are and how deeply loved you are. And not just you, but all people. God is with us. May it be enough. May it be so. AMEN.

Sunday, December 22nd, 2013 – Sermon on Matthew 1:18-25

Matthew 1:18-25
18 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. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 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. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

This past week, a friend of mine sent me an email about a new company out there. It is a book company called Cornerstone Stories and they are trying to prevent thousands of parables and fables that have been told to children around campfires from burning out and fading away from the human memory. The idea is that for $19.99, you can create your own book of four stories you want so that you can then read them to your children and grandchildren, thus keeping these ancient stories alive and well. You can choose from stories title, “Little Fish, Big Fish,” “The Fox and the Crow,” “The Bearded Fool,” “The Leaky Water Bucket,” and many others. It’s a great idea, I think. In fact, I may just order a book for Elliot sometime. The only problem is that nowhere in their catalog is there the option of choosing the Christmas story. And the Christmas story is becoming a forgotten story.

No, I don’t mean by everyone else out there, who seems to have forgotten that Jesus is the reason for the season, but I mean by us! We’ve forgotten the details of the story. I have forgotten the story. Sure, we all know who the characters are in the manger – the animals, the shepherds, the wise men, the angel, Mary and Joseph, and, of course, Jesus. But do we know the story? Do we know how they all got there? No.

In particular, we’ve forgotten about Joseph. We’ve forgotten Joseph’s story. When do we ever hear his side of the story. It’s in the Bible. But it is rarely ever told around the fireplace.

It is a forgotten story. A forgotten story of grace.

Joseph was engaged to Mary. Now, engaged back then and engaged today are not the same thing. Today, engagements happen at Gooseberry Falls on a sunny fall afternoon, or on the SkyRide at the Minnesota State Fair, or, in my case, over a well-planned game of Monopoly. Today, engagements are joyful moments of joy filled with professions of love and longing, and poetry, and excited phone calls to friends and family. But back then were more likely to happen in the lawyers office then in the booth of the restaurant of your very first date. To be engaged as Joseph was to Mary was to be legally bound to one another. There was no easy way out. In the eyes of society, the woman would already be viewed as his wife. Then after about a year of being engaged, she would move in to his home.

Mary and Joseph are engaged, legally bound to one another, but not yet living together. They are between stages. Which meant that they hadn’t…well, you know. And it is at this point that Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant.

Now, if you are Joseph, there is only one thing that goes through your mind. She’s been unfaithful. She’s cheated on him.
Now the text also says that Joseph was a righteous man. What does it mean to be a righteous man? It means he was the goody goody. He was the child who always colored inside the lines. He’s the one who knew all the rules and follows them to a T. He was the first to raise his hand and give the correct answer to any of the teacher’s questions. As a righteous man, Joseph knew Jewish law and he followed it.

And the law is quite clear about what happens when an engaged woman is found to be pregnant. Listen to the law found in Deuteronomy, which Joseph would have known. “If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death.”

Joseph is a righteous man. He knows and follows the law. And suddenly he finds himself in a situation in which the law is clear. His fiancee must be publicly put to death. What’s he supposed to do?

Can you sense the fear and the terror that he must have gone through? I mean, if we forget anything about this story, it’s the fear and the terror. What do you think it was like for Joseph when Mary sat him down to break the news to him? Nothing short of terrifying, for them both.

Now, if Joseph is going to be biblical about this, if he is going to follow the bible, then Mary is to be stoned to death publicly, and the child growing inside her will die too. This is why we have to be careful with the bible. If we are going to be biblical about things, we just might kill Jesus before he’s even born. This is why my friend Alan says we aren’t called to follow the Bible. We are called to follow Jesus. Read the Bible, study the bible, but follow Jesus.

Now, if that is the context. If that is the law that a righteous man like Joseph would follow, listen to what happens next. Joseph was “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace and planned to dismiss her quietly.”

Joseph, the righteous man, the one who always follows the rules, does not follow the bible, and instead, is unwilling to expose Mary to public humiliation and planned dismiss her quietly. So that no one would know her situation. Now that was a moment of grace.

But that was just the beginning of the grace. It wasn’t finished yet, because at night, something stirred with in Joseph. His fear of the situation and his love for Mary and his uncertainty were eating at him. He was still working it all out, even as he slept. Have you ever had that experience, where what was going on in your life at the time, you were working it out in your dreams? Over what to do? In Joseph’s dream, he hears this whispered voice. An angelic voice. And it tells him perhaps what he wanted to do all along – “Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. She’s going to give birth to a son. The boy is from God and you are to name him, Jesus.”

Finally, it becomes clear what he is to do. It is like a brand new commandment from the mouth of God, and who is Joseph, a righteous man, to deny this commandment. He gets up from his slumber and he takes Mary as his wife. “He says, ‘I will not harm her, abuse her, expose her, shame her, ridicule her, or demean her value, her dignity, or her worth. I will protect her.” (Fred Craddock, The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock, p. 66)

Joseph may not have been Jesus’ father, but he was certainly his dad. And Jesus must have learned a tremendous amount of grace and mercy from his father.

Friends, what we learn from this text is that moments of grace pave the way for God to be born into this world. And by grace I mean moments that give witness to the unconditional love of God that is free and forever and for all. By staying with Mary, by standing beside her and remaining with her, Joseph stands up against the culture and the scriptures that tell him to get rid of her. That takes courage. Joseph says that God’s love for Mary is not conditional. Unwed and pregnant or not, God loves her all the same. Had Joseph not done that, not shown her that grace, Mary perhaps would have never made it to the delivery room in that stable. Moments of grace pave the way for God to be born into this world.

When I lived in Rochester, I had a friend who worked at a church as a youth director. And one of the youth got pregnant. And for 9 months, she left the church. She couldn’t bear the shame of being there. Which is tragically sad to me. It tells me that she had been told that the church is not a place for unwed mother’s to be. It tells me that she has been told that God’s love is not free. That God’s love depends upon how you use your body. That God’s love does not extent to unwed pregnant teenagers. Which is just ridiculous. Of all places, the church should be the place where all unwed pregnant teenager feel the most welcome because Mary was an unwed pregnant teenager. And if it weren’t for the grace shown towards her by Joseph, Jesus would have never been born.

Anyways, the girl in Rochester. She left the church for 9 months. But then, after the baby was born, she came to church. And just before worship, my friend, the youth director, went and sat beside her and the child, and they worshipped together. But after worship, some of the members of the congregation were angry with the youth director. They felt that by sitting next to this young girl and her baby, she was saying it was okay to have a child out of wedlock. They would have preferred that the new mother be left alone and shunned for her action.

What these congregation members missed, what they couldn’t see because they were stuck in their own culture and tradition, is that when the youth director sat beside this young mother, in a moment of grace and solidarity of one Christian sitting beside another, so that an unwed teenager wouldn’t have to be alone in worship, God was born into this world. It was a moment of tremendous grace.

Friends, it is easy for us to forget the details of Jesus’ birth. It’s a frightening story, but it is also a grace-filled, God-filled story in which Joseph paved a path for Jesus’ birth by loving another whom the world said ought to be discarded. On this fourth Sunday of Advent, we are still waiting for Jesus to be born. We are waiting for Emmanuel – God with us. Mary is not even in labor yet; the contractions haven’t started. But take heart, because all that changes on Tuesday night. God is coming to us. God is always coming. And it will be moments of grace that pave the way. Amen.