Saturday, December 13, 2014

Did You Have Other Plans? ~ Sermon (Advent 3)

Oh, Joseph.  You did have plans, didn’t you?
And weren’t they wonderful plans?  You had a trade – you were a carpenter, which in your day, meant that you were a master builder: a stone worker, a woodworker, a mason.  In your small town in the world at that time, no one had the luxury of specializing in one form of construction alone – but your knowledge and skill meant that you were much in demand.  You built houses out of all sorts of materials – and you also made shelving, and furniture, and maybe even some items simply for the beauty of them.  You had a trade that all but guaranteed you the ability to support yourself and a family.

And you had a fiancee’ – that family you hoped for appeared to be more than a mere possibility, but a soon-to-be reality.  Your marriage to Mary was arranged and, as we know, such a betrothal was a serious business.  There had not yet been a wedding ceremony, and you had not yet begin to live together, but for most intents and purposes, the two of you were married. Your families had reached an agreement, some property may have changed hands, and you two were set – as good as married.
Yes, you did have plans, didn’t you?

And then – and then –
Somehow -- and the Bible doesn’t tell us how, or from whom – but somehow word got to you: Mary was pregnant.  Pregnant with a child she claimed had come from the Holy Spirit.  Pregnant in an era in which women did not have babies unless and until they were securely married, to the man of their father’s choosing.  Pregnant despite the fact that she was carefully supervised and sheltered by her parents.  Pregnant with a story as well as a baby – a story that made no sense at all.

And your plans, Joseph?  Shattered. Shattered along with your heart.  How betrayed you must have felt!  How disappointed!  How angry!   
You would have been well within your rights to act upon that anger and disappointment.  Mary’s story?  Highly unlikely.  The law?  Women found guilty of adultery – and what better proof than a pregnancy?  – women found guilty of adultery were subject to the punishment of death by stoning.  No one would have criticized you, had you walked into the center of town and asked that such a sentence be visited upon Mary.

But – you didn’t.  You decided instead to  “dismiss” her – to break the marriage contract, and to do so quietly, so that she would not be humiliated.  Why was that, we wonder?  Had you already developed some affection for Mary?  Did someone else suggest that option to you?  Or did you yourself find the law overbearing and oppressive, a worse injustice than the act of which Mary was apparently guilty?
We don’t know your reasoning. All we know is: no sooner had you made up your mind, than you had a dream.  And what a dream that was!

An angel.  An explanation.  And very clear instructions:

[D]o 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.

This news did not fit with your plans, did it, Joseph? Plans for work and marriage and children.  Plans to live as an ordinary member of your community.  Your plans did NOT include angels - and mysterious conceptions - and entanglement with God - and a son born to save the world.  You had other plans entirely.

Now, we all know something about that saying, “Life is what happens when you’re making plans,” don’t we?  And sometimes the most amazing things happen!  Things in which we do indeed rejoice and give thanks!
I’ve told you that my niece and her husband adopted a baby a few weeks ago.  Now, they did have it in mind to adopt a baby.  They’d been working on that project for quite awhile.  But they didn’t have a definitive plan, and they certainly weren’t ready – not in the way that you get ready when you have nine months of pregnancy during which to plan and prepare.

Nope – they got a call on a week-end that there would be a baby the next week-end.  And so they started to get organized, and my niece, who’s a teacher, told her principal that she’d be starting maternity in a week.  And they started making lists and planning – planning – to buy paint and baby furniture and baby clothes and baby supplies.  They had a week to get it all finished.
And then they got a call on Monday – the baby will be delivered to you tomorrow!  Tomorrow!

They had other plans. 

A week earlier, they had been planning to host their first ever Thanksgiving dinner in their home.  A day earlier, they’d been plan to furnish a nursery.  And then, suddenly – a baby!  Right then and there, in their arms!
Now, that’s a really good sort of change of plans.  A really wonderful interruption. Craig Barnes, who’s now the President of Princeton Seminary, which is one of our Presbyterian seminaries, but a few years ago was one of my professors at Pittsburgh Seminary – Craig Barnes is fond of talking about when God interrupts our lives.[1]  When God expects changes from us.  And there are, indeed, lots of interruptions and changes, like the arrival of a new baby, even with only a few hours’ notice, that we welcome with great joy, and for which we are willing to change everything.

But we all know that there are other sorts of interruption as well. Other ways in which our plans are altered.  Interruptions which cause us to wonder aloud at this idea that we should rejoice always and give thanks in all circumstances.  Changes which make the holiday season the most difficult time of the year.
There’s the meeting with the doctor, and the diagnosis that will change your life.  You’ll be spending the next month undergoing chemotherapy instead of taking that long-awaited vacation in California.

There’s the unexpected phone call, and the news that someone you love has died.  Your plans change, abruptly and completely, and you pack up the car and go.
The doorbell rings in the middle of the night, and the police are there, your son or daughter in tow, and your plans change to accommodate a court date and increased supervision of a child who seemed to have been doing well.  

All you have to do is open your newspaper or computer, or turn on the television or radio news, to be reminded that there are countless ways in which plans are demolished every day.

The question is not whether your plans will be upended.  They will be.
The question is: Will you see God at work in the interruptions in your life?

And then the next question is: How will you respond?  
Will you say yes?  Will you remain faithful to God?  Will you make room for the surprising grace of God in your life?

Craig Barnes tells us that “it is always at the turn in the road that God is most visible to us.”[2]
I would add: If we are paying attention.  If we are alert.  And isn’t that what Advent is about? Paying attention?  Being alert?  Keeping awake?

Now, what about Joseph?  Do you think that when his own great plans were interrupted, he felt more like my niece and her husband, overjoyed at the prospect before him?  Or did he feel a good deal less enthusiastic?  Worried? Afraid?  Confused?  What about those other words we’ve used – Betrayed? Angry? 
I  would guess that at the outset he felt a lot of the latter.  Isn’t that a natural set of human reactions?  Think of changes in plan which have been proposed to you lately – in your family, in your church, in the world at large.  Have you felt worried and afraid?  Betrayed and angry?  Pretty normal, yes?

But something happened to Joseph.  Whatever his initial feelings, the feelings that caused him at first to plan to put his relationship with Mary aside, those feelings were dramatically changed by his encounter with the angel Gabriel.
New Testament Professor James Boyce tells us that Joseph is

"a person of strength and purpose. He is committed and faithful to his religious tradition and ready to act on that commitment.  . . .  When the call comes, Joseph speaks not one word either of question or objection. He simply acts directly and immediately in obedient response to the  call.  . . .  . Joseph becomes visibly and audibly an example of the power of God's call to              transform our decisions and our lives."[3]
As you know, we are sharing the Bible study Taste and See[4] with folks from B. Church this week, and I’m preaching on this passage today as a way of elaborating a bit on the Bible study.  And it’s this matter of transformation which the Taste and See study emphasizes.  Joseph’s presumed fear and anger, the natural reactions any of us might experience in a situation as bewildering as the one in which he finds himself, those feelings are transformed by the grace of God.  Transformed by grace into the grace of acceptance and love.  Into the grace of determination and commitment.

Have you ever thought of Joseph as a role model for your own life? Maybe it’s time to do that. 

We don’t really give that much thought to Joseph, do we? Let’s face it: he barely makes it into our consciousness, and only during Advent and Christmas at best. But maybe we need to pay a lot more attention to this man, especially when we have plans which are interrupted.  Maybe when someone suggests that we do something differently, that we follow an unexpected course of action, that we accept a new role in a new set of circumstances – maybe then we need to ask:  Is God the one interrupting my expectations?   Maybe when life falls apart, when what we had hoped for and longed for is disrupted by disaster (and I don’t mean to suggest that God causes disaster – but I do mean to point out that God is present and at work no matter the circumstances) – maybe we need to ask: Is God calling me to change direction?  To rejoice regardless?  To give thanks anyway?
Yes, Joseph, you had other plans, didn’t you? Plans for an ordinary life in Nazareth. 

And yes, you might have hesitated when that angel showed up.  You might have protested.  You might have said, “No way! I have other plans!”  We would have understood, because we usually have other plans, too.

But you – you opened yourself to God’s transformative power, to the movement -- of possibility, of hope, of love – in the universe – and you found grace.  You became the earthly father of the Savior of the World!
To what, my friends, are we called? To what grace-filled transformation does this Advent season invite us?  How is God inviting us into the work of God?

Do you have other plans?  Do you want to cling to the past, to the old expectations and the old ways of doing things? 
Or are you willing to welcome God’s movement in your life?  Are you willing to let fear and anxiety be transformed by the grace of God?  Are you willing to let God change your lives and lead you to possibilities you’ve never imagined?

There is no doubt about it: You are called –like our model Joseph -- to participate in the life of Jesus Christ.  You are called – like Joseph – to exchange your plans for God’s.  You are called – like Joseph – to embrace a new life. 
Rejoice, and be glad!


[1] Craig Barnes, “When God Interrupts.” Shadyside Presbyterian Church Sermon.  (9/4/2011).
[2] Ibid.
[4] Jan Johnson, Taste and See.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent way at getting into the heart of the reading AND the concerns of your congregation. I hope they "hear" you....