Adjusting to the New Reality? (A Sermon for Advent)

We live in a world where we are able to make changes, making all kinds of adjustments to all kinds of things to suit us. It might be changing homes, a job, career, the furniture, cars, or the tv channel. Sometimes, however, we must adjust to the way things are. There are things we cannot change or adjust, but rather we must adjust to. The pandemic has been one of those things for most of us. For some it is a medical diagnosis or the death of a loved one. There is nothing we could have done.

Which is God? Is God a notion we get to make adjustments to according to our desire and perceived benefit? Or is God a reality we must adjust to?

Keeping that question in mind, let’s go back to the first Christmas. Let’s see if everyone adjusted.

Herod

Herod did not adjust. Upon hearing from the magi that there was one “born king of the Jews,” he wanted this baby destroyed, worried that people might come consider this child to be the true king. Herod knew that he was king of the Jews only because the bigger power of Rome said he could be. He had no right to that title otherwise. Herod was paranoid of losing power.

Does concern for power keep us from adjusting to the reality of God?

The Religious Leaders.

The religious leaders were able to tell Herod that the messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, just down the road from where they were, in Jerusalem. So why didn’t they go? If anyone should have taken an interest in the possibility that the messiah had been born, it is the religious leaders. But they didn’t go. Why not? We can just imagine their conversations around the water cooler: “What do you make of those magi?” “You mean those foreigners who have nothing to do with us, with our God, and our messiah?” “Yeah, the messiah will rescue us from foreigners, right!?” “Aren’t they astrologers? They don’t know our Scriptures!” “How could these guys possibly know anything about anything? What could we possibly learn from them?!” “Nothing!”

And so the religious leaders of the day missed the biggest event in the history of religion, in fact the history of the world.

Does pride in what we think we know about God keep us from adjusting to the reality of God?

Joseph and Mary

For Mary and Joseph, a pregnancy was a reality that they had to adjust to. Mary’s baby bump was no mere figment of her imagination. She really was pregnant, and the baby really was not Joseph’s.

There would have been a great temptation to not adjust. In fact Joseph at first did not and could not. He required the visit of an angel to change his mind. Why? The whole thing would have seemed crazy, and to Joseph, Mary would have seemed crazy.

Perhaps we sometimes imagine that young women like Mary were hoping to be the one to experience a virgin conception in fulfilment of Isaiah 7:14:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.

Isaiah 7:14 (NIV)

In the original languages, the word virgin can also be translated young woman which is how some translations have rendered it. Perhaps more importantly, when you read through the full prophecy of Isaiah chapter seven, we find that it is a prophecy that would have been fulfilled in Isaiah’s day. The sign wasn’t that a virgin would conceive, but that what God said would happen back then would happen before a newborn child could discern between right and wrong, that is, in a few years. Therefore no one in Joseph and Mary’s day were expecting a virgin conception, including Joseph and Mary. To the Christian looking back it all makes sense, as does Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14, but to Joseph and Mary, this pregnancy would have been unexpected, crazy, and terrifying!

Joseph was clued in by an angel. Would anyone else have had that help?

Does worry about what people think of us keep us from adjusting to the reality of God?

Where do we find ourselves in the Christmas story?

Are we like Mary and Joseph who were able to adjust to the new reality of this baby named Jesus?

Whatever people may think of us, the reality of this baby points us to the reality of the opportunity for reconciliation with God, the reality of the better way of Jesus in the way of love, and the reality of a better future. This baby points to the reality of God’s love. The idea of the Creator of the universe coming to us in a strangely-conceived-baby-laid-in-a-manger might seem crazy at first glance, but can we, like Mary and Joseph, let God be God, and let Him love us?

Or are we like Herod and the religious leaders?

If we were to attempt to adjust God to make God better, to change God so that God would be a better God for us, it can’t be done. If we think it can, then perhaps we have a faulty notion of God. The God who is, the God who has revealed in Jesus that the divine is for us and not against us, is a reality we cannot change, but a reality worth adjusting to, and worth celebrating.

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”)