Tag Archives: Jesus

What have you to do with us Jesus?

Mark 1:21-28

… a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”… (Read the whole passage here.)

Sermon

Today, we pick up in Mark’s gospel where we left off last week. Jesus has preached his first sermon, “The Kingdom of God has come near” and called Simon and Andrew, James and John to be disciples.

Now the group of them head to Capernaum, which becomes the home-base for Jesus’ ministry. It is the Sabbath, the day of worship, and they go to the synagogue. Jesus begins teaching, as was the right of any circumcised Jewish man. Usually, it was local scribes or rabbis who preached but sometimes travelling preachers like Jesus would come by to teach.

As Jesus begins, the congregation notices something different. Jesus is not teaching like the scribes. The scribes who were like walking encyclopedias of religious knowledge. The scribes were experts in the law, in the teachings and interpretations of the Jewish faith. The scribes didn’t innovate or interpret, they simply memorized what had been interpreted and written down by rabbis and other authorities long ago. New teaching was dangerous and probably heretical. It was important to stick to what they knew to be tried and true.

Yet, Jesus was preaching something new. Something different. Jesus was preaching from his own authority. Preaching like he had some special access to Moses, Elijah and the other prophets. Like he had special access to God.

While most people weren’t sure what to make of this Jesus guy, who he was or where his authority came from, one person did. Or rather an unclean spirit did. While regular humans don’t see who Jesus really is, the supernatural unclean spirit knows. And the spirit knows that Jesus is a threat to the established order. The spirit knows that Jesus has come to turn things upside down. The spirit knows the world that he and the people around him are stuck in is the past. The comfortable systems, traditions and ways of being that they are used to are over. Jesus is going wreck things.

The spirit is the one who speaks.

What have you to do with us? I know who you are!

The man with a spirit might just be a man with an unclean spirit. But for Mark the man might also represent the ways in which that community, that world, was possessed by tradition. Stuck in past. Unable to introduce any change that threatens the status quo.

Sound familiar?

Churches these days often struggle with this issue. We often long for things to be as they once were. We long to have Sunday schools with 100 kids every Sunday, and services that are standing room only. We long for offering plates to beoverflowing, we hope for more baptisms than funerals. We long for the past, or at least the way we remember things to be.

As a faith community or as individuals we can be possessed by our past. We can fear change, block anything new, strive to keep things the same. As the old joke goes,

How many Lutherans does it take to change a lightbulb?

Change!??! That lightbulb was good enough for my grandfather, so it is good enough for us.

When the unclean spirit names the threat that Jesus is not only to the good deal that the spirit has possessing some poor man, but also the threat that Jesus represents the whole world of the people of Capernaum and beyond, Jesus will have none of it.

Be silent and come out of him!

Jesus will not be deterred by the anxiety and fears, or the unwillingness of the spirit or people to let go. Jesus is preaching a new world, Jesus is calling the people around him into the future, into a new way of living. Jesus’ new teaching is astonishing, radical, unheard of. And it comes from a place that people don’t understand, but that the unclean spirit gets. The unclean spirit knows that the old ways, that the established approved way of doing things is safe, is comfortable, it is known. The spirit knows that people would so often rather be possessed by trying to maintain the past than face the unknown future.

Be Jesus knows that God is calling us into something new and unknown. And Jesus knows that we need to be exorcized of our fears and worries if we are going to see God’s future. Because we are often possessed by maintaining our past, by trying to recreate what we once were. We hold onto the traditions, systems, and ways to doing things that were good for our grandparents and so, we believe, are good enough for us.

Now don’t hear Jesus wrongly. Jesus is not saying that the past is wrong or bad. Jesus is not saying that God wasn’t active in the past, or that God wasn’t working through the ways we used to do things. Often when churches and individuals face change, letting go of what we once were is so hard because it feels like we are dishonouring our forebears. It feels like we are saying our parents and grandparents were wrong, that they weren’t being faithful.

That is not what Jesus is saying. Jesus knows that God has been present among the people, among us the whole time. Jesus isn’t exorcizing us of our past. Jesus is exorcizing us of our holding on, of our resistance to change, of our need for safety and comfort. Of our fears and anxieties.

It is not the past that keeps us from seeing God’s future, it is our efforts to keep things the same, to recreate what once was, what we once were.  And Jesus’s new teaching is really about showing us that new world. Showing us God’s future. Showing that God is coming to, meeting us in the future. God knows we cannot go backwards.

And that is what is so radical to the people in the synagogue in capernaum, so radical for us today. God is not a God of the past, God is not about keeping things, keeping us the same. God is about resurrection, about turning death and forces that hold us back, into new and abundant life.

Let us pray,

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

Advertisements

A Sermon for a Confirmation Class that isn’t Coming Back to Church

Matthew 22:15-22

…Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”… (Read the whole passage here).

Sermon

This morning, after hearing 10 faith statements from our confirmands, we hear Jesus and the Pharisees having a discussion. They are debating how to be someone who has faith in God, and someone who lives in a world full of political and economic powers that divide our attention and allegiances. Do we ally ourselves with God, or Caesar, the symbol of world power. It is all part of our journey through the Gospel of Matthew that began last year, but particularly through the summer we have been hearing Jesus’ teaching along side of our human desire for control, power, easy answers, black and white categories and so on.

And it would seem natural at this point to tie confirmation or affirmation baptism that we will celebrate next week with some kind of choice to stand up for faith, for you confirmands to become “adult Christians.” Kind of like the choice between God and Caesar that Jesus is talking about today. And yes, confirmation has that aspect to it. There is something distinctly adult about standing in front of the church and sharing out loud what Jesus means to you. And some think that confirmation is about making the adult choice to stand up for Jesus.

So confirmands, I think it is important to recognize what you have just done. You have been bold and brave to share your faith and to do it in front of the whole church. But not only have you done that, but you have shared your faith statements after more than two years of study and learning, of classes and community, of coming to this strange place with these strange people while most if your peers and friends were sleeping in on Sunday mornings.

Now your bravery this morning is certainly an example to the rest of us, and we are all proud to see you, our young people, standing among us sharing your faith. But some honesty in this moment is called for as well.

This may be difficult to hear, but bear with me. After the last two years of classes and studying and learning about faith, a lot of you, maybe even most of you will not come back to church very often after next Sunday. A few of you might become regular and active church members, but likely not many. And after today, there will be a lot of things, a lot of other options that will pull you, and that pull all of us away from church and away from faith.

But the options and other things to do on Sunday mornings are not the only thing that will pull you away. And again bear with me.

The things that we talked about in confirmation God, faith, church and the bible, are probably not things that your parents talked much about with you. And studies show that if faith is not talked about in the home, the chance of youth staying involved in church is very low. But this is not about blame. Your parents didn’t talk about faith to you, because their parents didn’t talk to them about faith. And your grandparent’s parents didn’t talk to them about faith.

And even though the small catechism that we used in confirmation to help us learn about the ten commandments, lord’s prayer, apostle’s creed, baptism and communion was written by Martin Luther for parents, particularly fathers to use to teach their children about faith… the church for hundreds of years has been making people think that God and the bible can only be talked about and learned about at church. And that is our fault – pastors and church leaders fault – we are to blame for why parents are not teaching the faith to their children.

So confirmands, (and families), you have now heard me say that most of you will probably not be back to church after next Sunday. But I want to be clear that this is not to make you feel bad. In fact, if the reason you and your families come to church is because you feel like you should… then I don’t want you to come. Church is not a should. Faith is not a should. God is not a should. But back to that in a second.

Remember the debate that Jesus has today about the Emperor on the coin, giving to God what is God’s and giving to Caesar what is Caesars. This is not an easy task. If we feel like we should come to church, but we want to sleep in, or do homework, or go shopping, or play sports, or dance, or whatever… we might try to go to church like good little girls and boys should… but that will last only a while until what we want to do seems much more interesting.

Giving to God what is God’s sounds nice, but let me tell you, giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s is a lot more fun.

And here is the thing about church.

If you are looking for great music, the radio will always have something that sounds better. If you are looking for an entertaining sermon, tv and movies will always be more appealing. If you are looking for food that tastes better than bread and wine, any restaurant has better. If you are looking for fun youth events, family programming, or seniors groups, the YMCA, the mall or and most community groups can do more than we can.

The church is just not as cool as the world, as cool as Caesar’s stuff and so the church won’t be entertaining enough to make you come. Guilt won’t be enough to get you out of bed on Sunday mornings. Becoming regular church attenders after next Sunday is something you will have to want to do. And our responsibility is to make this place somewhere that you would want to be.

And so what does the church have offer? What would make you want to come instead of feel like you should?

Remember Jesus talking about Caesar and God. When the Pharisees asked Jesus about paying taxes with Roman coins, he asked for a coin because it has the picture of the Caesar, the emperor on it. And next to emperor’s picture two words were printed – “Caesar God”. The romans thought that their Emperor was God, and so when Jesus said, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s, he wasn’t really talking about this choice between God and the world. Caesar and his image on the coin represented humanity’s desire for control, our desire to be powerful, our desire to define God and Godly power. Jesus is reminding us that this is not true. Jesus is saying that we don’t always get to decide who we are, nor do we get to say who God is.

The world, things like school, sports, shopping, tv, dance. Things like power, money, security, control, black and white answers etc… these things are trying to tell us that we get to decide who we are. That we can be anything we want. A rock star, an NHL hockey player, a marine biologist, a doctor, that we can be rich, young, never sick, famous and powerful.

So what does the church, what does God tell us? Here at church God doesn’t let  us decide who we are, but tells us who we are. God tells is in Baptism that we belong to God. That we are children of God and that is the most important identity we have. In communion, God tells us what we are members of the Body of Christ, of this family of faith that gathers here at Good Shepherd and that gathers as Christians all over the world. God tell us who our family is, God gives us brothers and sisters in faith, who are there for us when we struggle, there for us when we celebrate, there for us in daily life.

In God’s church, we are welcome no matter what. We don’t have to be anyone special, we don’t have to be achieve anything, or commit to anything. In God’s church, we are not told us that we should do anything. In church we hear what God has done for us, we hear how Jesus is working in our lives, and we are promised that when we fail, when we are broken and suffering, and when we die, that God is there putting us back together, giving us new life.

So confirmands, today you have given us your faith statements in front of family, friends and the congregation. You have been brave and bold to speak, and we are proud. And while I reminded you that confirmation is not graduation from church, meaning after next Sunday you are not done church, but invited to engage church more. Don’t hear the message today that you should come to church. Faith, church and God are not things you should do.

Instead, hear today that in this place, with these people, with this God you are welcome no matter what, that you are a part of this family and that you belong here and belong to God. And when all those Caesar things, those world things fail to turn you into the things you want to be, here you will always belong, always be family, always be loved. Here, God will always tell you who you are.

Amen. 


Have thoughts on should go to church vs. want to come to church? Share in the comments, on Facebook: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

Noah, the Silence of God, and Holy Week

We are in the last few days of Lent before Holy Week begins. As one who bears the responsibility for planning, preparing, presiding and preaching for Holy Week, the coming days will be busy, full and emotionally draining. As a pastor you carry, whether you like it or not, the emotions of your people. The anticipatory expectation of a saviour on Palm Sunday. The dread of Maundy Thursday. The deep guilt and grief of Good Friday. Finally the joy of Easter Sunday. It can be a roller coaster of emotions through the week.

imagesOn the brink of Palm Sunday, with palm branches ready and Hosannas waiting to be sung, I have been constantly coming back to the movie Noah. Last week I wrote a review of the Movie on some of the Biblical themes, and in particular the Christological symbols. Like I said in the review, I thoroughly enjoyed Noah and found it to be rich and deep movie. However, one symbol I didn’t say too much about was the silence of God.

*SPOILER ALERT*

While God never actually speaks in the movie, God is a noticeable presence. The characters in the film regularly reference the fact that God has not spoken to human beings in a long time. The filmmakers have said that they didn’t want to put words in God’s mouth, and others have noted that none of us hears God’s voice in that way. God’s silence is something we can resonate with. Any person of faith has struggled with feeling God’s absence and experienced God’s silence.

However, the reason I keep coming back to the silence of God in Noah has more to do with the ‘why?’ of the matter. Why has God chosen to be silent with creation and especially silent with human beings? What has driven God to refrain from speaking with these little creatures that God cares so much about?

The opening scene of the movie is Cain’s murder of Abel. This theme of murder in human relationships, with each other, and with creation permeates the movie. Humanity’s ability and capacity to kill becomes the relevant question at the climax of the movie.

I have a theory as to why God remains silent. I think the murder is so offensive to God that God can’t bear to speak to humanity again. God has created this beautiful, fragile, precious thing called ‘life’ and humanity cannot stop destroying it. I think that by the time things devolve into the antediluvian world – where humanity is murdering creation and each other – God is wondering whether creation should continue at all. Or whether human beings should continue being a part of creation. And so God decides to ask the last ‘righteous man’, Noah, to make the decision.

In the end, the film doesn’t really resolve God’s dilemma. Noah chooses to allow humanity to continue, yet does so knowing that humanity still carries the capacity for evil, for murder and death. Noah believes he has failed. Yet, because of Noah’s decision, God undeniably and visibly becomes not silent at the conclusion of the movie – the rainbow becomes the sign of God new word, or new covenant with creation. God has ended the silence with humanity, despite humanity’s flaws.

Which brings us back to Holy Week.

Palm-SundayThere is a certain silence to Holy Week. Through most of Lent, Jesus speaks at length in the gospel readings. He speaks with Satan, with Nicodemus, with the woman at the well, and with the blind man. But in Holy Week, Jesus seems to clam up a bit. And we all get the sense that this unresolved dilemma is facing God again. What is God going to do? What is humanity going to do? Jesus and the authorities are on a collision course towards death. Humanity can’t stop our killing, but this time God isn’t leaving the choice up to us. This time this beautiful, fragile, precious thing of life, this time God will not give us power over it.

This time life will overcome death. 

Palm Sunday IconBut it is going to take some silence on God’s part along the way. God makes room for our voices during Holy Week. Voices like “I do not know him” or “Surely not I, Lord” or “Crucify him!”

But they all begin tomorrow with that first word spoken by the crowds as Jesus enter Jerusalem.

Hosanna.

Hosanna, which we confuse with Hallelujah.

Hosanna, which does not mean praise the lord

But really means ‘Save now’.

In the midst of the silence this coming week, as we re-tell the story of passion. I am going to be thinking about that word – Hosanna.

It is the first word of Holy Week, but it is also a word for every Sunday. A word that we, at least as liturgical Lutherans, sing every time we gather for the Lord’s supper:

Hosanna in the highest. 

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord
Hosanna in the highest

Save now in the highest.

Save us from our sin.

Save us from death.

Save us from ourselves.

And unlike the Noah movie, where the question facing God of what to do with humanity goes unanswered, God will answer.

God will answer our Hosanna.

God will save us now,

With life.


 

What are your plans for Holy Week? Have more thoughts about Noah? Ever experienced the silence of God? Share in the comments or on Facebook: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

Lazarus in the Valley of Dry Bones

John 11:1-45

(Read the whole lesson here)…Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go… (Read the whole lessons here)

Sermon

ValleyofDryBones-620x3101The prophet Ezekiel said: The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 

We have have made our way through the season of Lent. 5 weeks, 5 encounters between Jesus and another aspect of the human condition. Temptation in the desert, Doubt with Nicodemus, Shame with the woman at the well, Refusal to see with the Blindman. We have journeyed through the Lenten wilderness, one where our flaws and sufferings have been put on display, where Jesus has met us with mercy.

But today, we take a turn towards Holy Week. Jesus still meets us in an aspect of the human condition, in grief. But the story foreshadows what is to come.

The prophet Ezekiel said: The Lord led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.

We begin with Jesus staying somewhere other than where he needs to be. His friends are in trouble, Lazarus is dying. They are hoping that he can come to help. But instead, he stays. And then after a few days of waiting, Jesus announces that Lazarus is dead and then decides to go to his friends in Judea. His disciples are puzzled, but his answer to them tells us that something is about to happen. “Let us go, that we may also die with him”.

As Jesus finally makes his way to Bethany, the real drama begins to unfold. News of Lazarus death is spreading, Jesus has arrived in time to grieve and mourn, but too late help. On is way to town, Martha, Lazarus’s sister comes out and meets Jesus on the road. Martha, the busybody, the one who needs to work goes to Jesus let her grief, her frustration out. “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died. But now I know that God will give you whatever you ask him.” Martha’s word are accusatory. They are desperate. She is filled with grief. She utters words that could very well be our words.

“Lord, if you… than this…” We have all been where Martha is. We have all suffered loss, felt grief, felt abandoned or ignored. We have all suffered and wished for God’s intervention. We know what it is like to be Martha. To want the past to be different, to even be desperate enough to hope that it can still be changed.

drybonesThe prophet Ezekiel said: The Lord said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.”

Jesus is gentle enough with Martha to let her make her accusations, to let her share her desperation. Jesus could have done something, maybe he still can.

And then Jesus answers Martha, “Your brother will rise again.”

Can we imagine hearing those words? Can we imagine the God of the universe, come in flesh, speaking to us, “Your loved one will rise again.” Can we imagine standing in front of God almighty as God declares that death is no barrier, that the powers of this world that we think are unassailable are a mere trifle to God.

Martha is too lost in her grief to really take in the moment, she doesn’t really get who is speaking to her and what Jesus is saying. She responds almost automatically,

“I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

Martha gives a formulaic response, but one also resigned to death. Martha is clinging to the promise as best she can, but she does not see the immediacy of Jesus’ statement. And still Jesus stays with her, “I am the resurrection and the life”

And the Prophet Ezekiel said: Then the Lord said to me, “Prophesy toUnknown-1 these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

The God of the universe has just declared that Lazarus will live… But we don’t get the impression that Martha has really absorbed what Jesus is saying to her.

And so Jesus continues down the road, and this time Mary, Martha’s sister comes to meet him. She accosts Jesus with the same statement that her sister gave, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

And maybe this time it is Jesus who now understands something. These two women cannot see past their grief. They can only experience the rawness of their brother’s death. They can only painfully long for their brother to be alive, they can only see the empty hole their dead brother has left in their world.

This time, Jesus simply stays with these grieving women. He doesn’t try to remind them of who he is, he doesn’t try to buoy their spirits with what he is about to do. He simply shares in their grief. He weeps with Mary. He is moved by their fragility and their weakness. Jesus knows that is about to call Lazarus out of his grave, but still the deep grief that Mary and Martha carry moves him in spirit.

We have all been here. This is the essence of what it means to be human. To know that everything around us is limited. That we only have so many days on earth, we only have so much we get to do and be and experience. And so we grieve the rest, all the things, all the people that we didn’t get enough of.

Maybe this grief is a lesson. Maybe it isn’t the disciples, or Mary or Martha who need to see God’s glory. Just maybe Lazarus hasn’t died so that we can see, but so that Jesus, so that God, can live grief in person. So God can truly understand what it means to grieve.

And when Jesus finally knows incarnate grief, knows what it is mourn like we do, Jesus makes his way to the tomb. Jesus has learned grief, but Mary, Martha, the disciples, the crowds, us, we are about to see what it is like to be God, what death really means when it stands before the creator of life itself.

Ezekiel said: So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

As Jesus, Mary and Martha, the disciples and the crowds stand before Lazarus’ tomb, he declares,

“Take away the stone”

And Martha protests. Martha the one who has just confessed that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, says “There will be a stench for he has been dead four days”.

Martha, stuck in her grief, is telling Jesus there will be a stench. She is speaking to God, to the One who uttered the word “Let there be…” in creation. The one whom is the Word of God made flesh.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus rarely looses his cool, but at this moment, full of grief too, Jesus snaps are Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believed…” Jesus has declared that he is the Resurrection and the Life, and we are about to see what that really means.

The prophet Ezekiel said: Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, `Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.

468304834_640And the stone is rolled away. And that very first promise that Jesus makes to Martha,

“Your brother with rise again”

That promise comes to fruition. Lazarus walks out of the tomb.

And we too are about to enter into Holy Week. Into a period of remembered and renewed grief. We know what is going to happen, we know that Good Friday is coming. We know that humanity is about nail Jesus, that we are about to nail God to the cross.

But we go with these words ringing in our ears,

“On the third day, he will rise again”.

And the promise rings true for also for us ,

“You will rise again”

Amen.

 

Joseph and Mary shouldn’t have been parents

angel_appears_to_josephMatthew 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.

Sermon

It is the last Sunday of Advent, and we still have the blues of the season up, the Advent wreath still has one candle unlit. But the signs are showing up that Christmas is close. The trees are up. The church has been adorned with wreaths and lights. And, after weeks of hearing bible readings about the end of the world, or about John the Baptist, we get to finally hear about some central Christmas figures.

The experience of Christmas seems to come, with more and more pressure, each year. Often, many of us spend a month or more preparing for just a few hours of gift giving, a few meals with family and friends, a few days that are supposed to fill us with enough joy to last an entire year. We work very hard to make the Christmas experience perfect.

And so when we hear Joseph’s story today, the contrast he and Mary present does not match the ubiquitous manger scenes we see this time of year.

In fact, Joseph’s story is much more like all the other parts of life that we pretend don’t exist at Christmas time. The parts we don’t like or that we struggle with. The parts that are hard and frustrating, that are disappointing and painful.

Joseph isn’t the first boyfriend to find out that his girlfriend is having a baby, and Mary isn’t the first woman to find out that she is pregnant when she has no plans to be. And they will not be the last unmarried couple that will have to deal with this problem. This story is much more like real life than it is one of those Christmas movies. In fact, this story really is inconvenient for our Christmas image. Christmas should be about the cutest couple you have ever seen giving birth to most beautiful baby in the most suitable of barn stalls. It is not about poor unwed mothers, and potentially adulterous unplanned pregnancies.

And only to add to the disconnect between what we imagine Christmas to be and what Joseph’s story actually says, when Joseph finds out that Mary was pregnant, his options included stoning his wife, because she was like damaged property which must be destroyed. Another option to stay with Mary was not possible either. Joseph would either be known as the guy who got his wife pregnant before they married, or the guy whose son is not really his.

But Joseph did not choose to go that route, instead choose a more humane option. He would dismiss her quietly, which probably meant that Mary would be returned to her father, and hopefully he could get the father of Mary’s baby to pay her dowry and marry her if possible. If not, than Mary’s father would have the option to stoning Mary himself, selling her into slavery, selling her baby into slavery or if he was rich enough –which he probably wasn’t — pay for her upkeep for the rest of her life.

Not the sweet Christmas story we remember.

(Pause)

Nelly had volunteered to direct the Christmas pageant at St. David’s, or rather she was the only one who hadn’t immediately said no when asked by Father Angelo. Nelly was busy enough this Christmas, but she decided that if she was going to do it, she would do the pageant right and put forward her best effort.

On the day of the first practice, she only had half the number of people she hoped for. But she decided to make due.

To the men she gave the roles of shepherds and magi. The women would be the angels. The little kids would be the animals. But for Mary and Joseph she only had one option for each. There was gangly teenage boy named Josh who simply didn’t seem like a magi or shepherd and quiet teenage girl named Grace who was dressed like an emo goth punk. The two could not look more out of place and uncomfortable in a church.

“This will not do at all” Nelly told herself. “Maybe I can find a better looking Mary and Joseph before next week”. For that first day however, Nelly dressed up these two out of place teens, and put them next to the manger. Josh could hardly see his lines because his hair was in his eyes, and Grace’s black eyeliner was so distracting, that the angels and shepherds giggled and whispered with each other every time she spoke.

At the end of the practice, Nelly was determined that she was not going to let these unsuitable kids ruin her pageant.

(Pause)

In many ways, the story of Joseph that we hear today, unravels and upsets our vision of the Christmas story. We don’t want Christmas to be like real life, it supposed to something different, or least that is what we are told to buy each December. All the commercials and ads promise the perfect Christmas, and each year, the world opens up their wallets in the hopes that if we buy enough and work enough, this Christmas will be perfect.

But our version of Christmas is NOT God’s.

God is telling a different story at this time of year. God is telling a real story, about real people. About people who have big problems, and no easy way out. It is about poverty, about unmarried parents, about unwanted babies, about judgment and the threat of death.

(Pause)

After four weeks of practices, and lots of begging and hoping and nagging, Nelly just couldn’t get anyone else to be Mary and Joseph. Josh and Grace were going to have to be it.

The night of the pageant came, and all the cast was gathered together after the dress rehearsal. The pageant was as polished as it was going to get. The little kids were running around pretending to be the animals they were dressed as. The shepherds and Angels were drinking coffee. Josh and Grace were standing by themselves, looking a little lonely… lost even. Nelly was still frustrated about them, they read their lines woodenly, and never loud enough. And Grace refused to off her black eye liner, and Josh’s hair still covered his eyes.

It was soon showtime. Nelly announced that there was five minutes until curtain up. As Nelly stood up to go and check on the crowd, she glanced over at Josh and Grace. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched as Josh reached down and grabbed Grace’s hand just for a moment, he squeezed it once and let it go. Grace looked at him and smiled. They were in this together. Josh and Grace against the world.

Nelly almost dropped her stage notes. She began to realize, that Josh and Grace were just like the real Mary and Joseph. All they had was each other, they weren’t perfect, or well suited for the role they were to play in God’s mission in the world, but they were all that God needed to work miracles.

(Pause)

Our perfect version of Christmas has never existed. As we stress and worry and prepare for the perfect Christmas, God is sending divine messengers to unmarried teens living in poverty. While we try to create perfect memories with seemingly perfect families, God is discarding the rules about pregnancy before marriage in order to send us a messiah.

God does not wait for the perfect moment to begin the work of the incarnation, the work of taking on our flesh and becoming like us. God starts in the most unexpected of places, with the most unexpected of people. With Mary and Joseph, with Josh and Grace, with you and me.

The story of Joseph shoves aside our idyllic nativity scenes, and our perfect Christmas pageant visions, in favour of a real story about real people. A story about shame, and danger and betrayal. But also a story about mercy, and compassion and grace.

For when Mary and Joseph get past the shame of pregnancy before marriage, when they get past the possibility of death for adultery, they become guardians of God’s promise.

God’s promise that cannot be re-created no matter how much shopping or baking or decorating or cheesy Christmas movie watching we do. It is God’s promise given to imperfect people, to imperfect us.

A promise whose name is God with us — Emmanuel. A promise whose name is God Saves — Jesus.

Amen.