A Messy Calling, A Merry Christmas.

It may feel like responding to the call of God in Jesus makes your life more difficult rather than easier. Perhaps we find ourselves living with convictions and behaviours that are different from everyone around us. That can be a difficult path. Mind you, it is relatively easy to be a Christian here in Canada compared to other parts of the world where your family may disown you, your community may shun you, the authorities may arrest and imprison you, and someone may kill you.

Isn’t religion supposed to make your life better, not worse? Isn’t God supposed to make your life, well, “cushy?”

When it comes to Christmas and we think of Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus, we might get these nice sentimental visions of what it was like. We imagine the beautiful scenes we see in Christmas cards. Was it so beautiful and nice?

Let us focus on Mary. She was very young, and this was what we would call an unwanted pregnancy. Imagine how Mary must have felt in realising she had to tell people she was pregnant, and that there was no man involved. Perhaps we imagine that family members would be overjoyed at the news? Remember that Joseph did not believe Mary until an angel convinced him that Mary was speaking the truth. Imagine how that first conversation must have gone, how Mary must have felt in breaking the news to a doubting Joseph. That must not have been easy. We are not told that any other family members get clued in by an angel apart from Elizabeth and Zechariah. Perhaps that is the reason Mary went very quickly to visit Elizabeth. Perhaps Elizabeth was the only family member who would show some understanding. The fact that Joseph needed an angel to clue him in should indicate to us how most people would have reacted to Mary’s news – yeah right Mary!

Thanks to the Romans, Mary and Joseph had to make the trek to their ancestral home. And then there was no room for them in the inn. Great timing. Then there is flight to Egypt, because Herod is out to kill this infant king. Joseph and Mary become refugees.

Then there is a return, not to Bethlehem for there is still some danger there, but to Galilee. Will they be accepted? Is the rumour mill still working overtime? Some Bible scholars point out that rumours seemed to persist into Jesus’ adulthood.

Thus far it would seem that God has called Mary to walk a very difficult path. Strikingly, before they flee there is an ominous prophecy from a man named Simeon about what lay ahead:

Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Luke 2:34-35 (NRSV emphasis added)

Jesus taught and performed miracles for three years. For those three years Mary watched the opposition to Jesus grow. Jesus was strongly opposed in his own hometown. Imagine how Mary would have felt at that.

Jesus was arrested, charged, tortured and killed. Just imagine what Mary was going through. Indeed a sword would pierce her soul.

Mary had this awesome calling of being the mother of Jesus. Mary had this awful calling of being the mother of Jesus.

We have an awesome calling from God. Sometimes it can feel like we have an awful calling from God. It can feel like a more difficult path to follow than if we were to find our own way.

So why not just stay on our own path?

Though it was the difficult path, through responding to the call of God, Mary had the opportunity to participate in the unleashing of God’s love.

Mary was called by God to walk a hard road, a messy road, yes. But it was a road that would lead to things being better for so many others. It was a road of love. At Christmas we see the love of God expressed in the incarnation of God, through Jesus. Mary had the amazing opportunity of participating in the unleashing of God’s love on the world.

Jesus, of course, had a messy calling. He faced disbelief, opposition, arrest, torture, and execution. But he wouldn’t have it any other way. It was the way of love. It was a difficult path, but a path that led to God’s love being unleashed. It was a rough road for Jesus, but a road that led to blessing for so many.

Mary picked up her cross and followed Jesus in the way of love before picking up your cross and following was a thing. Do we pick up our cross and follow? Do we centre our lives on God’s will, difficult though it may be, so that God’s love can be poured out on others?

Our expression of Christianity can become quite self-centered, self-obsessed even. We can become like the rich man:

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Mark 10:17 (NRSV)

Do you notice the self-centredness of that question? It was all about him and all about what he could get from God. This often seems to be the case today. “How can I get to heaven?” That is a question we preacher types want people to ask us. Yet it is kinda self-obsessed if it is the only question. Notice how Jesus gets the rich man to refocus:

He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

Mark 10:20-21 (NRSV)

Jesus gives an answer that calls the rich man to think about others. In fact we could say that Jesus changed the question. The question Jesus answered is “what can I do to see the love of God unleashed through my life?” In this rich man’s case the answer is, be generous. What is the answer to that question in your life, and mine?

What might God’s call on your life be? It might be to dive deeper into a marriage relationship. Given the sacrifice involved, it may be the harder road. But love will be unleashed. It might be to take a deeper dive into parenting, and again the sacrifice may be huge. But love will be unleashed. It might be to live out the single life in a kingdom building way. There will be sacrifices along the way, but love will be unleashed. It might be to ask forgiveness from someone. That can be difficult. But love will be unleashed. It might be to forgive someone. That can be a hard thing to do. But love will be unleashed. It might be to speak out against racism. It might be to speak up for a people who are on the margins. It might be to express a greater generosity of time, or talents, or treasure. It might be to deeper prayerfulness. It might be to helping the oppressed. It might be praying for the oppressors. It might be seeking help. All of these things can be a difficult path to walk. But love will be unleashed. For some people around the world it is to remain faithful to Jesus even under threat of death. Evil still abounds. Yet love is unleashed.

Jesus took the difficult path of the cross, and by doing so, he blessed us. Mary picked up her cross and followed before picking up a cross and following was a thing. Her life, though difficult led to God’s love being unleashed. Jesus calls us to pick up our cross and follow. It may be the more difficult path, the road less taken, but it will be the better road, opening up blessings for others, unleashing God’s love.

When we follow God’s calling for us, it may not make our lives better right now, if we define better as easier or cushier, but it will make life better for others in the long run. It is the path on which love wins. It is the path along which God’s love is unleashed.

(The full reflection can be seen as part of this “online worship expression”)

The First Christmas. An Ordinary Day?

For most of us, Christmas is no ordinary day. We prepare for it, we take time off, we meet with family, we play special music. This is no ordinary day. Yet the first Christmas was actually quite ordinary in many ways. It was not marked on anyone’s calendar as being a holiday, or anything out of the ordinary. Yet there was something extraordinary about that first Christmas. Let us consider the many ways Christmas Day points to both the ordinary and the extraordinary.

Mary. An Ordinary Woman. An Extraordinary Calling!

Mary was an ordinary young woman, like every other young woman. We don’t know too much about her, but we can assume that she had quite an ordinary childhood. Like other young women of her age, she was engaged to be married. Her life was quite ordinary, until she had an extraordinary calling from God.

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee, 27 to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David. 28 Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you!”
29 Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean. 30 “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God! 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!”
34 Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.”
35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God. 36 What’s more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she has conceived a son and is now in her sixth month. 37 For the word of God will never fail.”
38 Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” And then the angel left her.Joseph.

Luke 1:26-38 (NLT) 26

Joseph. An Ordinary Man. An Extraordinary Family!

Joseph was also quite an ordinary person. He was a descendant of David, but he was also a normal man like any other man. In fact when he learned that Mary was pregnant, he decided to do what any good man would do, he decided to call off the wedding. However, this was no ordinary child Mary was carrying. As it turns out, while Joseph was an ordinary man, he would have an extraordinary family.

This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph, to whom she was engaged, was a righteous man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly.
20 As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
22 All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet:
23 “Look! The virgin will conceive a child!
She will give birth to a son,
and they will call him Immanuel,
which means ‘God is with us.’” Matthew 1:18-23 (NLT)

Bethlehem. An Ordinary Town. An Extraordinary Fulfillment!

That first Christmas took place in an ordinary town. Bethlehem at that time was probably no bigger than the small town we live in which only has 2000 or so people. It had a rich history, with King David being from Bethlehem. However, living in Bethlehem would feel no different to the locals than living in a small Canadian town does today. Life there was quite ordinary. But something extraordinary did happen there.

At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. 2 (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. 4 And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. 5 He took with him Mary, to whom he was engaged, who was now expecting a child.
6 And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. 7 She gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them. Luke 2:1-7 (NLT)

While being an ordinary town, through the birth of Jesus this town became the site of an extraordinary fulfilment of prophecy.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, 2 “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.”
3 King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, as was everyone in Jerusalem. 4 He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”
5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they said, “for this is what the prophet wrote:
6 ‘And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah,
are not least among the ruling cities of Judah,
for a ruler will come from you
who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.’” Matthew 2:1-6 (NLT)

The Shepherds. Ordinary People. An Extraordinary Invitation!

You might think that the birth of a long awaited king would be announced to a long list of important people, like rulers or religious leaders. God chose to announce the birth to quite ordinary people, shepherds working nearby. In doing so, God indicated that ordinary people are important people. They are important to him.

That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. 9 Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, 10 but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. 11 The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! 12 And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in highest heaven,
and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”
15 When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
16 They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger. 17 After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child. 18 All who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished, 19 but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often. 20 The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. It was just as the angel had told them. Luke 2:8-20 (NLT)

Jesus. An Ordinary Baby. An Extraordinary Baby!

Jesus himself was quite ordinary in some very important ways. He was a baby like any other. Despite the claim of a favourite carol, he cried like any other baby would. He needed fed like any other baby. He probably kept his parents awake at night, like any other baby! But he was also extraordinary. He was the incarnation of God. He was “Immanuel,” God with us.

In the beginning the Word already existed.
The Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
2 He existed in the beginning with God.
3 God created everything through him,
and nothing was created except through him.
4 The Word gave life to everything that was created,
and his life brought light to everyone.
14 So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son. John 1:1-4,14 (NLT) 

Christmas. An Ordinary Day. An Extraordinary Event!

That first Christmas Day was a very ordinary day. It was not marked as special on anyone’s calendar. There were no decorations. There were no Christmas carols. There were no Christmas trees. There were no gifts under the trees. There was no Christmas shopping. It was such an ordinary day, that really the only ones who knew about it were Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, and perhaps a few others. The Magi probably didn’t arrive until later. It was actually a very ordinary day with a very ordinary birth.

Yet that first Christmas Day was an extraordinary day. It was a day which would lead to the possibility and opportunity for reconciliation with God. Because of the Son of God, Jesus, who was born on that day, we could become God’s children.

But when the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law. 5 God sent him to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children. Galatians 4:4-5 (NLT)

He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. 11 He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. 12 But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. 13 They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God. John 1:10-12

We could go on to speak about how ordinary people would experience the extraordinary teaching, miracles, and presence of Jesus. We could speak of his crucifixion, unfortunately an all too ordinary event in that time and place. We could speak of God’s extraordinary love expressed through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Although we may feel like we are far far extraordinary people, we can experience that extraordinary love.

My family and I wish you a Merry Christmas!