Making Room for Friends

As has become tradition, Christmas Eve means another Christmas Story for the saints at the Crafton Heights Church.  My hope is that exploring The Story in this way will help us find ourselves in it…and maybe it in us as well.  We read Luke 2:1-20 as we prepared for the following story. If you enjoy this, you might  want to know about I Will Hold My Candle and Other Stories for Christmas, my 2011 compilation of short stories for the Advent Season.  You can find it here.

Twelve-year-old Reuben was among the tallest boys around.  He was smart, he was well-spoken – he was the kind of boy that any dad in Nazareth would have been proud of – except for that arm.  Something had happened the day he was born, and ever since then, his left arm had hung limp by his side…useless.  No, it was worse than useless.  If it were merely useless, then Reuben would have overcome that already by virtue of his hard work and his desire to please his family.  Every day, Reuben showed up at the grinding mill, where with his one good arm he hitched the donkey to the wheel and loaded flour and grain and helped people who were eager to feed their families.

Yet every day of his life, Reuben endured the scorn of those who believed that his disability was an affliction sent by God to punish him for some sin.  The children his age taunted him.  He was unable to think about joining his father in service at the Temple.[1]  Perhaps that’s why he was so quiet and introspective.  I don’t really know.  I do know that most of the time he watched as an outsider.

I also know of one day, like most days, when he helped old Rachel pour out grain to be ground into flour.  She seemed to come every day, like clockwork.  He was glad for that, because unlike most of the customers who tried to avoid him, Rachel actually treated him as a human, and spoke with him almost like an equal.  As he helped her, he commented, “Are you baking again?  You cook more bread than anyone I know!  Who is there to eat all this bread?  Do you have a lot of relatives who stay with you?”

The older woman smiled and said simply, “Well, not in the way that you’re thinking of.”  She paused, and then continued, “Look – tomorrow is the Sabbath.  Why don’t you come and see me and share some of this bread?”

As he wandered through the village the next day, Reuben thought about Rachel.  She may have been a widow, he thought, yet he couldn’t remember her having any children.  At any rate, he knew that she went through a lot of flour.  He arrived at her home, which was empty – but clearly ready for company.  There were several benches, and the table was laden with freshly-baked bread as well as a large container of wine.  There was also a scroll on the table.

“Welcome to my home,” Rachel beamed.  “I have lived here for nearly my entire life.  I came back here to stay after my husband, Joses, died.”  She noted the unasked question on Reuben’s face, and continued, “No, we did not have any children…he died before that prayer could be answered.”

Reuben, who had four brothers and two sisters, blurted out, “You must be awfully lonely, then!”  Yet as he said it, he couldn’t help but wonder about those vast sacks of flour that she used.

“Oh, no, my friend.  If there’s one thing I’m not, it’s lonely.  I was, and might still be, were it not for a conversation I had many years ago.”

She continued.  “Have you heard of the teacher, Jesus?”

Reuben nodded – there was nobody in Galilee who hadn’t heard of this man.  “He’s the one who was killed – in a rebellion or something? – a long time ago, right?”

“Yes,” Rachel said, “he was the son of Joseph and Mary, crucified more than 25 years ago by the Romans.”  She sighed, and the room got very quiet.

“He was the most amazing man I ever knew,” Rachel offered, with a faraway look in her eyes.  “Although we didn’t speak much as children, I saw him most days when I was growing up.  He was several years older than I.  When I was about fifteen, I married his brother, Joses.  At that time, Joses and Jesus were working together in the carpentry shop their father had established.”

“Oh, Reuben, it was so wonderful to be young,” the older woman gushed.  “As Jesus was not married, he was often in our home.  We ate together.  We laughed – oh, how we laughed together!  And Jesus – well, Jesus knew the scripture better than anyone I’d ever met.  He was far wiser than any of the teachers of the Law we had in town then – but he was only a carpenter!  He spoke so beautifully of God’s ways – every time we spoke, I wanted to hear more and more and more.”

“But then things changed.  Jesus just quit one day.  He left the shop and went down to the lake.  He became a teacher, and even gathered a few followers to his side.  And then, even though he wasn’t at home, it was a wonderful change, at least at first.  One day, I was taking him some bread, and I saw him heal a blind man!  I had known that man my whole life, and when Jesus touched him, he could see!”

“I don’t know whether it was the miracles that brought people or his teaching.  One day, there were more than 5,000 men who gathered just to listen to him speak.  Jesus – our Jesus – was becoming famous!”

“But as his popularity increased, we saw him less and less.  Oh, we still got together for family meals, but he was rarely there.  And when he did come, he was never alone.  I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the times that year when he showed up at the door by himself.  Always, he had two or three – or fifteen or twenty – people with him.”

“At first, I thought them to be students, and I tried to respect them.  Even though most of them were fishermen, we didn’t mind.  All of us knew someone who worked hard out on the lake, and I sure didn’t begrudge them.”

“But soon enough, he started showing up with all sorts of people!  We would be gathered for dinner and Jesus would walk in with a tax collector or someone even worse!  One time, he tried to bring a Samaritan into our home!  There were women who I knew to be prostitutes – and he must have, too – he couldn’t have been that blind.  I was embarrassed!”

“And then, in my mind, it just got worse and worse, Reuben.  Can you imagine trying to eat dinner and having a leper walk into your home?  Sure, he said he’d been cleansed, but when you’ve known a person to be sick for fifteen years, you don’t expect him to just ‘get better’ from leprosy.  And there were beggars, and cripples and…”

Here, Rachel’s voice trailed off as she found herself gazing uncomfortably at the withered arm that hung by Reuben’s side.

“Reuben, I’m not proud of this, but the truth is that I allowed my irritation with Jesus’ friends to drive me away from him.  Know this, Reuben, and know it well: I loved Jesus.  But I simply could not stand his friends.  And so gradually, I began to remove myself from Jesus’ presence.”

“After I complained for a while, Joses and I eventually moved down to Tiberias where he started his own carpentry shop.  We rarely spoke of Jesus, and saw him even less.  I cut Jesus out of my life altogether.”

“During this time, my mother-in-law, Mary, came to visit.  She was not one to beat around the bush, and she simply came out and asked me about my absence from Nazareth.  I was ashamed, and embarrassed.  I didn’t want to say anything.  But finally I erupted into anger.”

“It had always been clear that Jesus was her favorite child, and I surely didn’t want to offend her – she’d been nothing but kind to me.  But my anger towards these ‘friends’ – and towards Jesus himself – had been simmering for so long that I just exploded into a tirade about Jesus and the people he kept bringing home.”

“To my great surprise, she listened, and then she smiled, and then she said, ‘Well, Rachel, I know how you feel!’  Just like that!  Plain as day, his own mother agreed with me.”

“She talked to me about the early days – even when he was born.  I had never heard about the fact that she’d given birth to him in a stable, nor about the fact that while she was just recovering from that, a group of shepherds came barging in and wanted to see the baby!  Can you imagine that?  Her, covered with blood and who knows what else, and these hooligans from outside coming in and talking about angels and other nonsense?”

“Not long after that, Mary told me, there was a group of gentiles who came looking for him.  Again, these strangers just barged right into the house where they were staying.  They said all kinds of strange things about her son, and gave her some strange presents, and then just left.”

“And then Mary said, ‘But in some ways, that was just the start.  When Jesus was growing up, he would have conversations with the strangest people.  Joseph and I never knew where we’d find him, or who he’d be with.  It used to really irritate me…no, worse than that, Jesus was scaring me.’”

Rachel sat for a moment, remembering this conversation with Jesus’ mother.  She continued: “I interrupted Mary, and I said, ‘but you have always stayed with him!  How?  Why?’”

“And Mary looked back at me and said simply, ‘He is my son.  He is the reason I am who I am, in many ways.  And I love him. I do not expect him to live a long life.  And I want him near me every day.  And if loving him means loving his friends, then I guess that I can learn how to do that!’”

The house was quiet for what seemed like a long time.  Finally, Rachel spoke again, saying, “You have heard what happened to Jesus, I know.”

Again, Reuben simply nodded.  Everyone in Galilee knew what happened to Jesus, and to anyone who stood against the establishment.  The crosses from Rome appeared as frequent reminders of what happened when people asked big questions.  The boy didn’t know what to say, and so he was silent.

Rachel continued, “About a year after Jesus was killed, my husband Joses died when a house collapsed on him.  At that point, I moved back to Nazareth. I hoped to find Mary, but she had gone to Jerusalem.  I was alone.”

The enormity of that struck Reuben – he, who was surrounded by a large and loving family – tried to picture Rachel as a young widow with no family, no children, no means of support.  He tried to think of life without his family – what it would be like to live here among the mockers, all alone.  He offered, “It must have been terrible.”

“It was at first.  Simply horrible.  But then something happened.  Something I couldn’t have imagined, and surely didn’t deserve.  Jesus’ friends began to come and visit.  They brought me gifts – a little food, some firewood.  I noticed that the same people who used to frustrate, or anger, or disgust me were now treating me as if I was their family.  They were different.  I was different.”

“After a couple of months, it occurred to me that this home is bigger than I need.  There are several rooms here.  We began to meet regularly, every Sabbath.  We remember Jesus.  We share his teachings, and we try to live the way that he taught us to.  We tell others about not only his death, but his resurrection.  And we invite any who care to to follow us as we follow The Way.”

The boy didn’t know what to say.  He wasn’t really hungry, and yet the smell of bread filled his nostrils.  He surely wasn’t looking for a new religion, and yet there was a presence in the room that defied explanation.

Rachel was clearly not in a hurry.  Finally, she gestured towards the table. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t wish I’d have treated him differently in those years when I ran away”, she said.  “When I think about all the time I missed…all those things he went through without his family nearby…well, I feel empty.  And now, I miss him terribly.  But at least his friends…my friends…our friends…still come by.”

“We’ll be having dinner soon.  It’s not much – some bread, and a little wine.  A young man named Mark has just arrived from Rome, where Jesus’ friend Peter is in jail.  He’s brought a message.  I hope you’ll stay, Reuben.”

Do you know, that was the first time in his life someone other than his family asked Reuben to share a meal.  And he stayed.  And his world was never the same since that day when he met Jesus’ friends…and became one of them.

It would be nice if this story ended with me telling you that Reuben’s arm was healed and he went off to serve as a priest in the Temple.  But that didn’t happen.

Reuben did become a follower of The Way.  He learned, and he then talked about Jesus every chance he got.  He learned to break the bread and baptize people one-handed.  And, so far as I know, he never stopped looking for – or loving – Jesus’ friends.  Thanks be to God for that.  Amen.

It’s easy to be sentimental about Christmas.  We sit and we bask in the candlelight and to think about all the things that warm our hearts.  We read about the innkeeper who didn’t make room for the holy family, and we swear that we’d do things differently.  To quote Peter Storey,

Some tell us that following Jesus is a simple matter of inviting him into our hearts. But when we do that, Jesus always asks, “May I bring my friends?” And when we look at them, we see that they are not the kind of company we like to keep. The friends of Jesus are the outcasts, the marginalized, the poor, the homeless, the rejected — the lepers of life.

We hesitate and ask, “Jesus, must we really have them too?”

Jesus replies, “Love me, love my friends!”[2]

As we begin the new year, let me say that I hope you have Jesus in your heart.  And it may be that as you wander through the days and months to come, you’ll catch a glimpse of Jesus. I hope so.  I guarantee that you will see his friends.  I promise you that you will.  In the year to come, love him – and love his friends.

[1] Leviticus 21:16-23

[2] from 
Listening at Golgotha: Jesus’ Words from the Cross (Upper Room Books, 2004) pp. 29-30.

What’s Nicaea Got to do With Pandora?

Advent worship for 2011 continued at Crafton Heights on December 18 with an exploration of who it was who made the longest journey in order to be present at the Nativity for that first Christmas.  Our Scriptures included Philippians 2:5-11 and John 1:14

What does the number one grossing movie of all time have to do with a gathering of 318 leaders of the church that took place in 325 AD, and why should you care about that?

Well, for starters, what is the number one grossing movie of all time?  It was released in 2009…it won three Oscars, essentially all of which have to do with visual effects…it stars Sam Worthington as a paraplegic Marine who adopts  second identity… Yes, the movie is Avatar, which has grossed nearly $2.8 billion worldwide.[1]

Have you seen this movie?  It’s a good one, and the Oscars for the artwork are well-deserved. It is a lush and beautiful world.  Avatar is but the most popular of a long line of Hollywood blockbusters that center on the theme of an alien presence who comes into the home world disguised as one of us, but who we, the movie-going public, know to be quite different.  Think about Men In Black, Battlestar Galactica, or, for those who favor the older films, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  All of these stories explore the possibility that an alien race has managed to infiltrate our own – they sound and look and smell and act like us, but at the end of the day, they are not us… and that usually has deadly consequences for all kinds of people (and aliens!).

OK, that’s the movie.  How about that church meeting?  In the opening years of the fourth century, Constantine united his Empire militarily and politically. He became a follower of Jesus, and was concerned that the church, too, be united.  However, there was a dispute raging within the Body of Christ at that time, and it centered on the question of who, or what, was Jesus?

Some folks, such as the Ebionites, taught that Jesus was an ordinary man who somehow, at his baptism, became filled with the Spirit of God and that allowed him to do things that no one else had ever done.  He was a human who was transformed by the power of the divine – just like Jake Sully, in Avatar, was a human who, through mysterious means, became one of the Na’vi people.

Others, often called Docetists, said that Jesus was God, and not human.  Oh, sure, he acted like a man, but that was just for appearances’ sake.  In reality, they said, Jesus was God in a man-suit, the Divine impersonator.  If you’re a Battlestar Galactica fan, I suppose, that makes Jesus a Cylon “skin job”.

Emperor Constantine and his mother, Helena

When Constantine declared Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire, the logical question was, “what kind of Christianity?”  Two of the more powerful voices involved in that discussion were men named Arius and Athanasius.  Arius taught that Jesus was created by God at some point before the Garden of Eden.  God knew what was going to happen, and so Jesus was conceived and made to be a sort of Divine “Plan B”.  Athanasius, on the other hand, said that Jesus shares eternity and divinity with God and the Holy Spirit – that there has never been a time when Jesus was not.  God, from eternity, has always existed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even though the human presence of Jesus was felt on this planet for three decades some two thousand years ago.

Although the Emperor was not a trained theologian, he saw that there were some problems, and he called the leaders of the church to come together in the town of Nicaea, in Turkey.  While there, they debated the merits of Arius’ and Athanasius’ arguments, and, believe it or not, the argument (which actually lasted for most of the fourth century) came down to a single letter – an iota, the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet – in one word.

Everybody agreed that Jesus was something special.  But who was Jesus, really?  The first draft of the document the church leaders proposed said that Jesus Christ, the begotten Son of God the Father, is of one substance with the Father.  The Greek word there is “homoousios”. A minority of scholars, however persisted in saying that Jesus Christ, the begotton Son of God the Father, is of like substance with the father.  That word is “homoiousios”.  The question at hand was this: is Jesus God, or is Jesus like God?

For fifty-six years debate went on (and you thought a 22 minute sermon was tedious!), until in 381 the Council of Constantinople approved a statement that we now as the Nicene Creed, and which says, “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father…”[2]

And now, somewhere in the sanctuary, I hear a voice crying…pleading… saying “Make him stop!  Please, dear Lord…who cares?  I didn’t come to church this morning to be lectured to about a church argument from 1800 years ago.  I hear that voice.  And listen: if it was only an 1800 year-old argument, I wouldn’t waste your time or my breath.  But it’s not ancient history – it’s the question of the hour.  Who, or what, is Jesus?

Throughout Advent, we’ve been talking about the people we meet at the Nativity.  We’ve looked at Wise Men and Shepherds, at Joseph and Mary.  But we can’t stop this series until we look into the manger.  Who is laying there, and, depending on whether you can believe the Christmas Carol, “no crying he makes…”?

Jesus is there.  Baby Jesus, in the manger.  Who is he?

If you go with the Ebionites, and some Gnostics and other folks, well, that’s just your typical baby boy.  Nothing special about that child at all – a human being just like you and me.  Exactly like you and me.  When he grows up, he’ll have some exploring and some explaining to do, but now – he’s a baby.  End of story.

And if you pay attention to the Docetists, you’ll think that no, this baby lying in the manger is actually the greatest hoax ever perpetrated – because the God of the universe has come down and put on a little baby suit so that he won’t be recognized.  He looks like a baby, smells like a baby, and cries like a baby – but he’s really God, just biding his time for a few decades until it’s time to make his move.

When Jesus was laying in the manger, did he know what was coming?  Was God simply pretending?  When he grew up, did he need to go to school? After all, if he was fully God, wouldn’t he know everything already (in which case, he would be the absolute perfect lab partner, right?  “Hey, Jesus, can you take a look at this theory for me…?”)

Or was Jesus only a baby, a normal child who grew up and one day was saddled with this “God thing” that came upon him, much like the lead character in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, in which an unwitting young Jew is mistaken for a prophet and becomes a reluctant Messiah?

Paul, writing to his friends in Philippi, addresses this question.  He says that Jesus always was, and is, and always will be.  He existed with God the Father before any creation began, and will be for eternity.  But because of his love for God the Father and for the creation itself, Jesus emptied himself.  He set aside certain aspects of his divinity so that he would become fully and utterly human.

Those who wrote the Nicene Creed understood this, because the lines of the creed which follow those I’ve already read are these: “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human.”

Image by Ariel Carver, taken from "I WIll Hold My Candle & Other Stories for Christmas" ©2011

The theological term is “incarnation” – from the Latin incarnatio. In meaning in and caro meaning flesh.  In flesh.  Enfleshed.  Jesus, the Son, in flesh.

That, beloved, is the amazing gift of Christmas.  We have come to worship a God who knows us because of the humanity of Jesus – and it is precisely in that knowing that our salvation lies.

Think of who you are.  Not who you want to be, or who you are afraid of becoming; not who you wish others to believe you to be, or who you used to be, or who you’re going to be when you finally stop fooling around and get your act together.  Who you are, right now.  God, in Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, knows that you.  And God, in Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, loves that you.  There is no part of you that is unknown to God.  There is no one in this room that is unloved by God.

I spoke with a man who struggles with anger, and he wept as he told me of the time that he raised a hand to someone else.  That’s a serious problem…but do you suppose that there was ever a time when Jesus looked at someone and said, “You know what I’d like to do?  I’d like to pop you in the mouth right now…”  I think so!  He was human.  I mean, there’s no indication that Jesus ever went off on someone, but he was human – he had to be tempted to do that.

In the same way, to those of you who struggle with sexual purity: isn’t it possible – no, isn’t it likely – that Jesus looked at someone and said, “You know what I’d like to do?  I’d like to kiss you on the lips right now…”?  Again, there’s no record of his thoughts there, but remember that Hebrews 4:15 says “For we do not have a high priest incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin.”  If Jesus was human, Jesus was tempted.

Some of the temptation and pain that Jesus endured are recorded in the Gospels.  Have you been lonely?  Do you remember Jesus’ anguished cries in the Garden of Gethsemane, “will none of you wait with me?  No one?”

Who hasn’t struggled with pain and fear of the future?  It sure seems like Jesus did.  As his own death approached, what did he say? “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me…”

The fact that Jesus is fully human and fully God should be of great comfort to anyone who recognizes their own humanity.  The essence of the Christmas story is that whatever it means to be a human being, Jesus is that.  And at the same time, whatever it means to be God, Jesus is that, too.  Jesus is God for humanity and at the same time is humanity for God.  What amazingly and wondrously good news for those humans who want to know God!

Listen to me: four weeks ago I started talking about Advent and I told you that it was originally a time of confession and repentance.  It’s been called a “little Lent” because of the ways that we are invited to consider our own brokenness as we prepare for the birth of the Savior.  Unfortunately, sometimes it’s hard to do that.  I mean, we’re supposed to have “the holiday spirit” and all that.  We can be in a rush to get to the angels singing “Gloria” and the star shining brightly and Good Christian Men Rejoicing.   I know.  I’m partly to blame, because I’m picking the songs here.

But here’s the deal.  It’s December 18.  The next six days are, for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, the shortest and darkest days of the entire year.  I know, Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis and I don’t know who else want you to believe that this is “the most wonderful time of the year…the hap-happiest season of all”, but I can’t ever seem to get there.  I love the holiday, but it’s dark and cold and I miss the people who have been here before…I miss the way it used to be…I am enraged by the things that are wrong…and sometimes I feel guilty for not being all happy clappy at Christmas. I hate the dark, and I miss the light.

So here’s what I want to invite you to do.  Enter into the darkness of these next six days.  Look at your self.  Your real self – not the self you present to others.  Look at your humanity, and all that is wonderful about that, and all that troubles you about that.  Talk with God, in Jesus’ name, about the things that you wish were different, and about the things you are glad for.  Engage.  Reflect.  Confess.

And then, let’s meet together again on Saturday night.  By then the days will be getting a little longer.  And we’ll have some candles to hold.  And we’ll approach the manger together, and behold

the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, no made, of one Being with the Father… For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human.

Engage your human self this week, and give that human self to Jesus.  And come Saturday night, we’ll ask Jesus for a bit of His Self.

He will not say no.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[2] For more on the development of the Nicene Creed, see Presbyterian Creeds: A Guide to the Book of Confessions,  by Jack Rogers (Westminster 1985) and Speaking as One: A Look at the Ecumenical Creeds by Scott Hoezee (CRC Publications, 1997).

On Passing The Nativity Scene…

Our Advent 2011 worship at Crafton Heights continues to examine the folks who gathered around the manger.  On December 11, we listened for Joseph’s story, as found in Matthew 1:18-25.  The Old Testament reading for the day was Isaiah 51:7-8.  By God’s grace, may we meet at the manger and journey forth together from it in the footsteps of the Messiah.

This Advent, we’ve been taking a look at the people who gather in and around the manger in Bethlehem.  We’ve tried to think about what they left behind, what they brought with them, and the impact that the visit had on their lives.

Last week, we spent some time with the shepherds, and we noted that these men left their busyness and their commerce and in so doing were able to participate in a night of wonder, worship, and celebration.

Two weeks ago, we watched the Magi leave the comfort of their own homes and the security of the answers that they already knew so that they might enter into a new season of learning and growth.

This morning’s scripture points us towards the Holy Family themselves.  What did they leave, and what was the result in their lives?  As the Gospel of Matthew is mostly concerned with the story of Joseph, we’ll look at things from his vantage point.

We learn that Joseph and Mary are betrothed.  Sometimes, we read that passage and we assume that means they are engaged and we think, “Oh, engaged!  I know what that means.”  We all know people who have gotten engaged as they moved towards discerning what marriage would mean for them.

In their culture, however, the betrothal between Mary and Joseph has a far different meaning than our modern-day “engagement”.  According to the customs of the time, these two would have been engaged prior to their betrothal.  The first step in a formal marriage was when the fathers of the bride and groom came together and negotiated an agreement that the two would be married.  These men would act as agents for their children in formalizing their relationship and begin the process of arranging for the families to come together.

The next stage involved a betrothal ceremony in which the parties would make promises of fidelity to each other in front of witnesses and the groom would present his intended with gifts.  This level of relationship was legally binding and could not be dissolved except through divorce.  In fact, if a man died during the time of betrothal, the woman was considered by those in the village to be a widow.  After the ceremony, the man would separate from his betrothed and build or prepare his house to accommodate his family.

The final stage of the marriage process was when the man and his friends would come to the bride’s home and declare that all was in order, and so the marriage feast could begin.  There was often a year between the time of betrothal and the celebration of the wedding feast.[1]

It is during this time of betrothal that Joseph is confronted with the inconvenient truth that his fiancé happens to be pregnant with a child that is not his.  The vows of betrothal have been violated. This is clearly not right.  Joseph has the rights of an injured party.

Look at what Matthew chooses to tell us about Joseph: that he is a “righteous” (or “just” – the word is the same in Greek) man.  The Gospel of Matthew was written primarily for Jewish people who had come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, and when Matthew uses the term “righteous”, he is using it in the way that many rabbis in the first century might have understood it.  “Righteousness” is maintaining appropriate, or “right” conduct in the eyes of the Lord.  The rabbis taught that as humans sought to please God, they were most likely to do that by following the Law.

Well, on this point, the Law seems pretty clear: Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy all contain passages indicating that adultery is an offense punishable by death.[2]  Following the Law would mean death for Mary.

Yet the rabbis also taught that just as God may sometimes exercise unexpected and undeserved mercy because he is righteous, so too for humans, mercy is better than a slavish adherence to the Law.

So Joseph, because he is righteous, cannot in good conscience follow through on this marriage, because there has clearly been a departure from the Law.  Yet, because he is righteous, he also cannot bear to see his betrothed shamed or killed.  And so, on the basis of his righteousness – and I’m repeating that word over and over again because I want us all to see that Joseph’s conduct is based on his understanding of who God is and what God expects from us – because of his righteousness, Joseph decides to be quiet and discreet in beginning the process of divorce.

The risk here, especially to a man who has the reputation for righteousness, is that people will say that he is soft on the Law and that he is in fact condoning adultery.  After all, if the law says “death”, then why not “death”?  That’s not really your call to make, Joseph…

But before his plan can be implemented, Joseph has the dream wherein the angel tells him to go ahead and finish the plans for the marriage – to go through with it after all.  And he does.

And if divorce carries with it a sense of leaving himself open to judgment for being soft on the Law, then this behavior carries an even greater stigma. People who know Joseph will assume something untrue about him.  They might think that he is a liar and a fraud – he had this great reputation for righteousness, and now his own fiancée is knocked up.  You can just hear the tongues wagging, can’t you?

And even if they don’t think that he’s lying about the baby’s paternity, at best people will think that Joseph is an idiot.  Why in the world would you enter into a marriage covenant with someone who is so demonstrably proven to be untrustworthy?  Joseph, you’re a nice guy, but you are pretty thick some days…

Can you see that for Joseph and Mary, following the path that leads to the manger has a cost?  The implication of the Gospel is fairly clear at this point: if you take your faith seriously; if you seek to live a life that is rooted in righteousness – that is, acting in such a way to please God and love your neighbor – then it’s very possible that the people around you will come to the conclusion that you are either a fraud and a hypocrite or that you are simply not right in the head.

Participation in the events of that first Christmas cost the shepherds a night of their time and put their flocks at risk for a brief period.  It cost the Magi something else – more time and more money, perhaps, but for them it’s possible that the search for the newborn King was something that preoccupied them for a season.  For Joseph and Mary, however, the cost was very different.  When they chose to listen to the angelic message and shape their behavior accordingly, they knew that they would be treated differently by the people around them for the rest of their lives.

Friends, this is not simply a story about a young couple from another time and place.  This is a fundamental truth that is applicable today.  If you choose to take the meaning and message of Christmas seriously, you will find yourself in places where the people around you will think that you are nuts.

I know a man who was convinced that his company was behaving unethically, if not illegally.  On the basis of his own faith and ethical commitment, he approached his superiors and was told, “Look, you want to work here, you play by our rules.  You want to change the rules, then get another job.”  He began to look, but was blacklisted by his employer so that he could not find work in his own field.  That led to a prolonged period of unemployment and tremendous financial difficulties for him and for his family, and things only changed for him when he entered an entirely new profession.  He was a righteous man who, based on the depth of his own convictions, could not support what he knew to be wrong.  And it cost him.

What about the young person at school who is different than the rest of the kids?  Maybe it’s a medical condition, maybe it’s a life-situation, maybe it’s a choice that the other kid made – but do you remember how difficult and how painful it can be to stand up for – or stand next to – the one who is so different?  What will people think if you start hanging around people like that?

In this season of consumer spending and gift-giving, what about those parents who are seeking to make decisions about gifts on the basis of what is needed or what will bring health and joy to the community, rather than simply buying the newest load of loud, shiny junk?  When “everyone” has to have the latest bells and whistles, how do they explain to their children that the Author of Christmas did not come so that we would all get iPhones without guilt?

Here’s what I’m getting at: this year, as every year, you will not be able to go very far without encountering a nativity set.  You may have one in your home.  There’s one up front here.  Several churches are offering “live nativity” displays, there’s the giant one downtown, and so on.  There’s no getting around it.  You’re going to pass the manger.

But that’s all you have to do – pass it.  Nobody is going to make you come inside.  As we said last week, it’s entirely possible that a lot of people – not just the shepherds – heard the angel voices that first Christmas Eve.  Only a few shepherds actually went, though.  You are free to ignore or acknowledge the nativity.

However, should you choose to enter into the story – should you follow the star, listen to the angel’s songs, or hear God speaking in your own dreams, make sure you realize that you will be changed.  There is a cost.

Back to Joseph.  Think about this: when he died, nobody knew that Jesus was the Messiah.  Nobody knew about the virgin birth.  Nobody knew about the resurrection.  From the night he had that dream until the night he died, there were people who thought Joseph was either a fraud or an idiot.  And Mary.  There were people in her town who went to their graves convinced that she put one over on Joseph and that she was lucky to be alive after running around the way she must have.

Living the gospel way is not for sissies, and it’s not for people who are merely looking for the flavor of the month, spiritually speaking. It’s a demanding calling that will take all of you.

Fortunately, you are not in this alone.  Joseph and Mary had each other, and they each had angels behind them.  In addition, they were supported by those shepherds and wise men we keep mentioning.  Elizabeth and Zechariah came alongside of them.  They were sheltered later on in Egypt.

If you are intent on going inside the manger and even following in the footsteps of Jesus, know that you need the community around you as much as did Jesus’ parents.  Accept the support of those who are here, and reach out to them in ways that will strengthen them to live in the way of righteousness – pleasing God and loving their neighbors.

In the third century, a man named Tertullian was living the high life in the North African city of Carthage.  He was rich, pampered, and on a fast track towards being a celebrity.  He heard about the Christians, and considered them to be ignorant and stupid.  Yet as he watched, he became fascinated by the ways in which contemptible slaves and weak little servant girls were willing to die for their beliefs and for each other.  As he continued to investigate this little group of Christians, Tertullian eventually became a Christian himself, and devoted the rest of his life to writing for and about the cause of Christ.  He was the first person to write about Jesus in the Latin language.  When he talked about the church, he continued to marvel at the ability of a Christian community to change people’s lives.  “Look”, the pagans say; “See how the Christians love one another (for the pagans are filled with hate); see how they are ready to die for each other (for they themselves are readier to kill).”[3]

May the things that we find when we are together strengthen us for life in the times when we are not together, that we might all be found faithful and righteous in our obedience to the Law and in our care for those around us.  Amen.

[1] From R.V. G. Tasker, Tyndale Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (InterVarsity Press, 1983), p. 232-233.

[2] Exodus 20:14, Leviticus 20:10, Deuteronomy 22:22

A Shout Out for “I Will Hold My Candle”


I know that you’re used to seeing sermons or long reflections at this site…but here’s a short note inviting you to visit a blog authored by the owner of Hearts and Minds Books in Dallastown, PA.  Byron is a friend who was among the first to take the risk of selling the book in his own bookstore.  Once a month Byron sends out a list of mini-reviews and recommendations.  I was very pleased to see his enthusiastic write-up about my recent book.  As he mentions, if you’d like to purchase a copy, you’ll get a nice discount – and great service – from Byron.  To read his entry, click here. Happy reading!

So, What Do You Do?

Our second Advent worship for 2011 continued to explore the folks who found themselves gathered around the manger on that first Christmas.  The readings for December 4 focused on the shepherds, and included Luke 2:8-20 and Psalm 34:8-14

So…What do you suppose is the longest-running prime-time game show in the history of US television?  Family Feud? Millionaire?  Nope.  Click on this link and take a trip down memory lane (or discover that snazzy graphics weren’t invented in the 21st century….Sheesh!):

What’s My Line debuted in 1950 and was in production until 1975.[1]

My hunch is that most folks under the age of 40 have not seen or heard of the program, so here’s how it worked: There were 3 celebrity panelists who were asked to question contestants in order to determine what their profession was.  These jobs included what you might expect – airline pilot, nurse, housepainter…but also some unusual occupations, such as “breadbox maker”.

“What’s my line?” is a question that I would imagine doesn’t make a lot of sense to many people these days.  While it’s proper to say, “Dave, what line of work are you in?”, that seems old, and stiff, and formal.  More likely, we say, “Dave, what do you do?”  And you might think that’s just a more efficient way of asking the same question using fewer syllables…  But I think that it reflects a change in our cultural understanding.

“What line of work are you in?” invites you to tell me about some aspect of yourself.  The question recognizes that your occupation is a part of who you are, but not the sum.

“What do you do?” is an attempt to get you to define yourself by your profession.  I’m a barber.  I’m a janitor.  I’m retired.   It’s a subtle difference, but I think it’s a difference nonetheless.  I suggest that the truth is that in America in 2011, more often than not, we allow our occupations to define us.  Which is, I might further suggest, at least one reason why there is such misery, grief, and confusion among the unemployed or the underemployed and even the retired.  After all, if I AM what I DO, and what I DO is not valued, then I am not valuable. If I am ashamed of what I do or don’t do, then I am ashamed of myself.  So I like asking “what is your line of work?” or “tell me a little bit about yourself” much more than I like asking “what do you do?”

Believe it or not, I actually tried to find out whether they’d ever had a shepherd as a contestant on “What’s My Line”, but even with the vast tools of the internet and six minutes of research time, I couldn’t get an answer to that one.  But I can guarantee that if this show was running in Jerusalem in 4 BC, shepherds would not have made the guest list.

We love the shepherds at our mangers.  We like to think of the sheep as cute and cuddly and the shepherds as gentle, yet strong protectors.  That’s us.

Most middle-easterners, in biblical times at any rate, thought of shepherds as low-lifes who were rude and dirty.  They were men who were believed to be unfit for anything else, and commonly perceived as thieves.  Their reputation for untrustworthiness was so engrained in the culture that the law forbade a shepherd from ever testifying in court.  Why bother?  You can’t ever believe a shepherd…

And yet…and yet, when Mary and Joseph are huddled around the newborn Son of God, the angels appeared to a group of shepherds.  Isn’t that crazy? God’s PR campaign for the “Messiah Initiative” begins with a group of men who were legally unable to tell the truth in a court of law…  That’s irony.

Portinari altarpiece by Hugo Van Der Goes (1476)

And when the angels show up, what happens? The shepherds leave their jobs and go running off into the village to check out this God-thing that is going on.  Isn’t that just like a shepherd?  Seriously!  You can’t rely on these jokers for anything.  No wonder nobody trusts them – they leave the sheep and go traipsing off after some song and dance from the angels.  No sense of commitment, I tell you…

Here’s a question for you.  When you think of shepherds and Christmas, where do you picture them?  Don’t we always have them hanging around the manger?  Last week, we talked about the fact that the Magi would have had to make a journey that lasted months to arrive and worship.  The shepherds were close by.  Whenever we put up a crèche, where are they?  Right there.  In fact, they’ve been lollygagging over there under the Christmas tree for more than a week now.

But check out verse 20.  What do the shepherds do?  They go back to work.  They returned, glorifying and praising God…  That doesn’t sound like typical shepherd behavior to me.  I mean, if they really were as lazy and shiftless as everyone seems to think that they are, then what better excuse to stick around town and have a couple of beers and some wings?  “Wow, Larry, how about those angels?  God’s Son coming into the world…this round is on me, boys!”

Only that’s not what happens.  They go back to work.  They are full of praise and glory – they are changed – but they return to their occupation and responsibilities.

I know that not every adult in this room is employed or has a job.  But each of us have work to do.  For some, there is a profession or an occupation.  For others, there is the care for a child, a spouse, or a parent.  We pray, we garden, we volunteer, we encourage each other through the written or spoken word… each of us works.  It’s a part of the created order – God gave Adam & Eve work to do.  Work is a good thing.

Do you ever leave your work?  I mean, do you, like the shepherds, ever turn aside and “go with haste” to a place of wonder and amazement?  How hard is it for you to set aside the business of your day and find a quiet place?

Some might say, “Oh, I wish!  But you know, if I stop working for a day or so, there’s so much to do when I get back it’s just crazy.  My boss is a tyrant.  My work environment is insane.  Trust me, if I let up for a minute, I’m hopelessly behind.”

And others might respond, “Wow, that’s lucky for you.  Nobody even notices me at work.  Heck, I could be playing solitaire on my smart phone all day and it wouldn’t make a difference.  I am never even tuned in at work.”

And someone else might think, “At least you have somewhere to go.  I don’t do a thing.  I am just useless.”

Another way of asking the same, or a similar question: why do you do the things you do?  What is it that keeps you working at whatever work is in front of you?

Do you keep working because you’ve got bills to pay?  And is the work that you do enough to pay for what you need?  Are you working for things like food and shelter, or are you working to have newer and shinier toys?  Or do you work because that’s the part of your life where people notice you and affirm you…You get so many props for the things that you DO that it slowly blends into the thing that you ARE?  Or do you labor because you’d feel guilty if you didn’t.  Someone has got to do something around this place, and you’re not going to let people think you’re the slacker?

But whatever your work, do you ever stop?  Can you, like the shepherds, hear the angelic call and follow?  I had an interesting thought this week as I read through Luke.  The shepherds were outside.  The angels appeared in the skies.  Do you think that the shepherds were the only people who saw the angels?  What if there were lots of other people out that night… soldiers… innkeepers… travelers… pastors… What if the roads were full of people who saw something, but were so focused on getting their important work done, or so afraid of what would happen if they left their posts even for a moment, that they could not pay attention to the angels?  Scripture doesn’t say anything about that, does it?  But isn’t it at least possible that there were some people out and about that night who heard the ruckus and decided that it was too risky, too dreamy, or too unproductive to stop their jobs and wander over to the stable?

The shepherds are a good model for what it means to be human.  They are fully engaged in their work, and they notice the Holy when it appears.  They are able to set down their work for a season and enter into a time and place of awe and wonder.  And then they fully re-engage in their work in ways that bring health and fruit for the community.

And this would be a good time for someone to say, “You’re talking pretty big for someone who only works an hour a week, Dave.” Yeah, I get that.  I don’t have a real job.  But I know what it’s like to be trapped by your work.

In 1987 I was putting in between 80 and 90 hours a week at work and at school.  I dried up inside, and was diagnosed with clinical depression and burn out.  I had to leave a job I loved because I wasn’t doing it the way I thought it needed to be done.  I moved to a new town, got a new job, and tried to learn a new way of engaging the world around me.

I came to be the pastor here in 1993.  Eventually, some of the old behaviors caught up with me.  I began to worry, a lot, about my performance as your pastor.  I lived in fear that I was letting someone, somewhere, down.  And so I started to work more.  And harder.  And longer.  And every now and then, I would disappear for a while.

An elder in the church visited me and said, “Dave, I’m worried about you.  You are way too engaged here.  You’ve got to slow down a bit.”  And I looked at her and I said, “You know, that’s why I go to Africa every now and then.  I get so worried about how I am doing or not doing what I’m supposed to do that I just need to get away and be in a different place.”

And she said, “Doesn’t that seem at least a little bit odd to you that you’ve got to physically leave the continent in order to disengage from your professional role?  Are you so task-oriented that you can’t bear the thought of being unavailable and staying on Cumberland St.?”


One of the enduring gifts of my sabbatical time is, I hope, an ability to look for ways to be my best person and to do my best work in all sorts of areas with intensity and purpose.  To work long and hard at those tasks to which I am called.

And then, to stop for a while.  Since the Sabbatical experience I had last year, I’ve read more than I have in a long time.  I’ve played, and worshiped, and been a good neighbor. I’ve seen some amazingly wondrous things…in my own backyard.  I’ve been able to write more and better material than ever before.

I don’t think that I’m doing any of these things to the detriment of my vocation.  Instead, I think that my participating in some of these behaviors is making me a better pastor who is trying to pay at least as much attention to what God thinks of him as to what the guy in the fourth pew from the back on the right hand side thinks of him…or to what the people I don’t even know, but somehow feel the need to impress think of him…  I think that I’ve learned something from the shepherds about turning aside and sitting down with the Holy for a while.

This Advent, let me invite you to do the same.  If you are doing something because you are driven by some compulsion; if you are consumed by a pressure to DO and to ACCOMPLISH and to PRODUCE – whether it’s for your job or some other need in your life – then let me encourage you to find a way to leave the driven-ness behind and enter into the joy and wonder that waits for each of us in the manger.  Like the shepherds, can we leave our work for a while, and then worship, and then return to our tasks, glorifying God?

Earlier this week, I posted on Facebook and I emailed to everyone whose addresses I have a link to an Advent Devotional.  It’s called Following The Star, and if you’d like to click on that link, you can experience a well-done exercise that includes music, scripture, and space.  That’s a start.  Maybe you can take ten minutes today and listen to some good music, read the scripture, and pray.  Maybe you can do something else.  I hope that in your Advent journey, you will allow God to shape who you ARE, not just what you DO.  Amen.