Tag Archives: minisry

Mary and Joseph of Aleppo

Matthew 1:18-25

“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. (Read the whole passage)

The 4th Sunday of Advent is one that rolls is over to Christmas. While, this year we are in the unusual circumstance that there will be a full week between Advent 4 and Christmas Day. Next year for example, the 4th Sunday of Advent is Christmas Eve morning!

Advent then is a long as it can be with 28 days this year. And with still a week to go before Christmas, we get to sit with the story that we alway hear on the 4th Sunday a little longer than usual. The last Sunday in Advent is always the chance to hear the story of Mary’s pregnancy, and Mary and Joseph’s response to this life-changing news.

The announcement of Mary’s pregnancy by the messenger angels is always a turn from the preceding weeks of Advent, from the warnings about the end of time, from John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness and then questioning the legitimacy of the Messiah from prison. It is also movement within our Advent theme of light in the darkness, taking us from a the grand size of God’s plan to bring the Messiah into the world, into the cosmos, to come like a thief in the night, to straighten out the crooked paths, to cure the sick and raise the dead… Advent 4 is movement way from those big things, to the small space of Mary’s body, to the intimate relationship of Mary and Joseph’s engagement.

The story of Mary’s conception is a familiar one, although the version we hear today is less familiar. Rather than the Luke birth story, the beloved one we hear each Christmas that begins “in those days a decree went out from emperor Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be registered”, we hear Matthew’s version. Brief and to the point. There are no angels who appear to Mary today, but instead to Joseph. There is no visit to Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, but just a dream and a command to faithfulness.

And if you caught it at it the end, Jesus is born in Matthew’s version of the story. No shepherds or angels. No stable or manger, no pondering of Mary. No animals or drummer boy, although those aren’t in Luke’s version either. Matthew just gives us what we need to know and then picks up the expanded story with the magi, which we hear at Epiphany.

This doesn’t really sound like the story that we know, or that the carols sing about or that the made-for-TV-movies tell. It is a version of a familiar story told in an unfamiliar way. It opens our eyes anew to something we thought we knew well.

In our final advent weeks, our eyes have been opened anew to the dark places of the world. The theme of light in the darkness has reminded us that seeing the dark places is the first step in seeing the light.

One dark place more than others has been revealed to us this week. As the war in Syria intensifies, we bore witness in the news this week to the siege of Aleppo. The hundreds of thousands of civilians caught in the middle have been telling their stories on social media, even giving their final goodbyes with bombs exploding in the background. Human rights organizations and NGOs have called upon the warring factions and the global community to action. And even after ceasefires are called, they are promptly broken. It is a complex and messy conflict between factions where there are no clear good guys or bad guys. Where both sides are using civilians and civilians casualties as negotiating chips.

Now after years of civil war in Syria, reports of violent conflict, millions of refugees flowing into surrounding nations and then into Europe, the rise of the Islamic State and now the indiscriminate bombings and summary execution of civilians, Syria has become the great humanitarian tragedy of the 21st century.

So what does the darkest place in our time have to do with an unmarried couple receiving news of an unexpected pregnancy 2000 years ago.

Well the world of Joseph and Mary was not that different than ours. And no, not our Canadian countryside where we imagine the holy family showing up in a homeless shelter or soup kitchen on Christmas Eve. Rather, Nazareth where Joseph decides to remains faithful to Mary despite her pregnancy is only 593 kilometres from Aleppo. The distance between here and Regina, or even closer than the distance to Minneapolis.

And like the trapped citizens of Aleppo, Mary and Joseph were ruled by a ruthless despot in King Herod, a puppet installed by virtue of his birth, much like Bashir Al Assad.  Their home had been invaded by a foreign empire in Rome, much like occupying Russians. Their world was one drawn regularly into conflict as religious zealots tried again and again to spur violent uprisings in order to overthrow the the ruling powers, much like the rebels. All too often these uprisings only result in needless civilian death. Mary and Joseph almost certainly knew what it was like to exist between violently conflicting forces, never knowing when the chaos might erupt around them.

If Mary and Joseph were to be found today, we might imagine it would be in a barn on the prairies, or a back alley in New York, or sleepy neighbourhood in Sweden or an apartment block in Beijing. But perhaps today, Mary and Joseph are in Aleppo (Jesus was born hardly a stone’s throw away after all). The unborn Christ child would be dodging bombs and bullets in a war zone.

But it isn’t just the physical location, it is location within the human condition. If we listened to the Christmas carols and made-or-TV-movies, Mary and Joseph would exist in sentiment and nostalgia. They would be characters that we play in pageants or that we put up in nativity scenes. They wouldn’t be real, they would be nice ideas or warm fuzzy feelings.

Except Mary and Joseph aren’t characters in a pageant. They are the real people chosen by the God of light who shows up in dark places. Mary is a real pregnant woman, with expanding body, morning sickness and cankles. Joseph is a real fiancé whose beloved wife-to-be is pregnant with another’s child. The holy couple are real parents simply trying to survive in an unbelievably dangerous world.

But most importantly, the promised child, the light that is placed in Mary’s womb, is a real baby, kicking and turning, readying mother and father for the reality that they will soon be responsible for a life other than their own, in a world where life is disregarded like piece of garbage.

And this is all God’s point.

This is all God’s work, to send a real baby, born to real parents, in a dark and very real place in the world…in order to be our real Messiah. Because our real sins need real saving.

Only a real Messiah can bring light to our real condition, to the sin and death of the dark places around us. While the nostalgia of carols and movies, of nativity scenes and pageants, sometimes help us to tell the story, they are not what our Advent waiting needs. They are not the version of Messiah we need.

God sends a real Messiah because our real wars and real violence and real disregard for each other needs real light. God comes into the darkest places because our detachment and avoidance of the dark places needs to be revealed. God comes into real bodies, born to real parents because this is how we all enter into the world, because the danger of life is the real risk of death. The Messiah comes in order to join with creation in the starkest, realest ways there are. To be born like we are born, to live like we live, to die like we die. All that so we can rise like Messiah’s rises.

Our dark world is not much different than the one of Mary and Joseph. We need the light as much as ever. And so that is why hear the story of God’s coming again today, and we hear it anew.

God is coming not only to a surprised couple in Nazareth, but God is coming into this world, here and now.

Coming to a prairie barn, far away from places that matter.

God is coming to the back alleys in New York.

God is coming to the sleepy suburbs of Sweden.

God is coming to apartment blocks in Beijing.

And God is coming to civilians hiding out in Aleppo.

God is coming to bring light to our dark world, Messiah is on the way to show us that war, and violence and suffering do not define us. Messiah is coming to save us from sin and death.

Today, we are about to roll over from Advent into Christ, and yet there is still a week of Advent darkness and waiting left to do. And in the darkness of our world, of places like Aleppo or closer to home, especially when things seem darker than ever… Messiah is coming with the light.

 

Advertisements

The parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector – It’s a Trap

Luke 18:9-14

The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, `God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’

“God, I thank you that I am not like other people: proud, haughty, self-righteous, or even like that on-fire-for-Jesus Christian. I bow my head when I pray silently, and I cover the amount on my envelope with my thumb when I slip it into the offering plate”.

Have you ever prayed that prayer? Or had those thoughts?

“God, how could you love someone like me. I am not like those other people who have it all together, who give more than I do, who volunteer more than I do, who are better people than I am. Have mercy on me, because that’s all I have”

What about this prayer and these thoughts?

It is easy to hear this parable and think that it is a lesson about the value of humility. There is the Pharisee, incorrectly dividing the world into categories. Thankfully we are not like him. And there is the tax collector. He knows what this is about, he is a good Lutheran. All sin. The only hope he has is for God’s mercy.

To modern listeners, the details of this parable go by so quickly. We don’t know what it was like to stand in the temple of Jerusalem. The term Pharisee is derogatory today. It can seem easy to identify the villain here because we have not heard the standard prayers of the Hebrew faith.

But understanding the context, as always, is very important. The temple of Jerusalem would have been grand sight to behold. It was big and it had rules. The people believed that it was where God lived – in the inner sanctum, the holy of holies. The temple was the place where you had to earn every inch of God’s favour. Whether you were a Pharisee or tax collector, you knew where you stood in the eyes of God when you were inside the temple.

The Pharisee knows that he is righteous. He prays a Benediction that every Jewish man was to pray each day. Thank you God that I am not a Gentile, a sinner, or a woman. The Pharisee modifies the prayer, but the point is still the same. He is genuinely thankful for who he is. The pharisees see those around him and looks down on them.

The tax collector, on the other hand, knows that he cannot expect anything from God. His job requires him to break the rules of Judaism. To charge interest, to handle money with graven images on it, even to steal or assault. He is not righteous and his only hope is God’s mercy. The tax collector is so wrapped up in himself, that he doesn’t see the world around him.

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector are both quick to divide people into categories and be judge on God’s behalf. The Pharisees judges himself righteous, the tax collector judges himself unrighteous. And we are often guilty of the same.

Whether we are thanking God for not being thieves, rogues, adulterers or tax collectors, or whether we are thanking God because we are not arrogant, self-righteous, or prideful, the issue is the same. We divide humanity into categories, justified or unjustified, saved or unsaved, loved or unloved.

Human beings are constantly looking for the ways that we can identify who is in and who is out. We might not be standing on the street corner, boldly thanking God in prayer for our certain salvation. But have we looked down on others, the homeless, those in financial trouble, those who struggle with addiction, those who come from broken families, even those who are sick, and we thank God that we are not them. “Therefore by the grace of God, go I”. Or how often have we been the ones thinking that we are worthless compared to those around us. That we unworthy, while everyone else seems so perfect. Whether we are intentional about it, or whether we do not know that we are doing it, we too place ourselves in the same categories that the Pharisees and the Tax Collector do.

Now, here is the thing about that kind of thinking. It is a trap.

And so it the parable today.

The parable that Jesus tells today is a trap that makes us identify ourselves with either the Pharisee or the tax collector. But this parable is not about pride or humility, and it is just as much not about pharisees or tax collectors.

The parable is about the storyteller.

The parable is about Jesus.

While we are busy trying to make things about us, God is reminding us that it is God alone who justifies. God alone decides who is good enough for the Kingdom.

According to the law, the Pharisee came into the temple righteous, and left the temple righteous. But Jesus says something about the tax collector that should grab our attention,

“I… tell… you,  this man went down to his home justified”.

There is nothing that the tax collector did, rather it is Jesus who says that the man is justified. It is Jesus who decides.

In the world of the Jerusalem temple, there were those were in and those were out. But everything changes with Jesus.

Through birth, life, death and resurrection, Jesus comes to tear down the categories we try to build. Whenever we try to make categories, God will stand on the other side, because God wants all to be included, all to receive grace, all to be loved. God has only one category for all of us. We belong to God and God alone.

Now, to the confirmands who shared their faith statements. If there was one thing I hope you take away from the past two years, it this. That we are not good enough to save ourselves, and nor are we too bad to be loved by God. God is the one who decides who is in and who is out, and God says, you are in.

The parable that Jesus tells is not a parable on how to act, or who to be like or how to pray. This is a parable about God. A parable that shows us God’s motives and shows us the way that God chooses to act in the world. That shows us that God wants to be with and care for the least, the lost, the sinners and the alone. God wants to care for us… because  we are the least, the lost, the sinners and the alone.

Neither the Pharisee, nor the tax collector, nor us, want to see or admit, that being justified, that being saved is something that God does for us. Yet, that is what is told to us today.  The trap is laid that we try to divide humanity into saved and not saved. And it is God who alone who knows the way out. Through love and mercy God chooses humanity. God who chooses those who truly cannot be righteous on our own, God comes to us as Christ who lives and dies, with us, with imperfect and flawed human beings, God sends us the Holy Spirit to bring us into the resurrection and into new life.

Perhaps our prayer today should be:

“God, we thank you that we ARE like other people: Pharisees and tax collectors, sinners and saints.  We are justified by your righteousness; we are saved by your love.”

Amen.