|Published by Josh Hosler on Sun, Dec 22, 2019 1:43 PM|
sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year A), December 22, 2019
Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25
In our children’s curriculum, Godly Play, we say that it’s easy to walk right through the mystery of Christmas and miss it—to not even know it’s there. It takes time to get ready to come close to a mystery as deep as Christmas, and Advent is our appointed time to get ready. So this is what we’ve been doing for four Sundays—cleaning house and then bracing ourselves, because something BIG is going to happen.
But what if I’m not ready? What if I thought I’d have plenty of time to get ready, only to find the time has slipped away before my eyes? What if I still have a long list of presents to buy? What if the most important package still hasn’t come? What if it’s ten minutes ’til the guests arrive, and the meat still isn’t defrosted? … Aaaahhhh!!!
Shhh. I don’t need to panic. It’s so easy to forget that the guest is also the host.
Is Mary prepared for Jesus? I doubt it. Can anyone be prepared to give birth, let alone without any legitimate father? I recently shared a meme on social media—a painting of Mary gasping as she looks at the test strip in her hand. “Wait! Is this really my life?” Mary is Jesus as a guest in her body. And Jesus is inviting her to trust in his small, developing human life to guide her into all truth and love.
How about Joseph? Confused, jilted … the only rational explanation for Mary’s pregnancy is another man. Joseph could publicly expose Mary, but instead, he plans to “dismiss her quietly” and lessen the impact on her. He must love her so much. But when Joseph sees an angel coming, he is afraid—and well he should be, because angels are terrifying. He’s not prepared for this. Before long, he’ll be a refugee in Egypt with his young bride and tiny child, running from hostile powers and hunkering down, waiting for the political situation to change before crossing the border again. “Wait!” he’ll no doubt pray. “Is this really my life?”
Both Mary and Joseph must be asking themselves again and again, “Is this really my life? How can what God wants be better than what we had planned?”
We do our best to prepare for Jesus, don’t we? We untangle the Christmas lights and put on the Bing Crosby Christmas CD. We saw the bottom off the tree and try for two hours to set it up straight. We dutifully check off our Christmas lists. And these are good things to do, but we’re not necessarily preparing for Jesus, are we? We’re preparing for the generic American winter holiday, with its triune message: “Giving is good; receiving is good; spending to boost the economy is very good, and it’s up to you to make it happen!”
So maybe we realize this and try to free ourselves from commercialism. We take on a daily devotional reading, but then we berate ourselves for falling six days behind. We make time for quiet, only to find that the baby isn’t going to nap today after all, or that routine medical appointments have taken over the calendar for the whole month. We swear that this year, we’re not going to do as much! But we actually do more. We become obsessed with improving our piety, and this, too, saps our energy.
When we realize that our anxious attempts to be perfect aren’t working, we all too often replace them with anxious attempts to do just a little bit better. But it’s not our level of productivity or our ability to catch the Christmas spirit that’s the problem. The real enemy is anxiety. It still feels like it’s all up to us.
We seem to have forgotten that the guest is also the host.
What do we want from this season of Advent leaking into Christmas? A feeling we had in childhood? A perfect home ready to receive guests? A functional family with every member showing love to every other? At the very least, reassurance that our friends and family won’t humiliate us for being negligent about sending out Christmas cards? (I’m sorry, but if you don’t notice who doesn’t send you a card, you can bet you’re not alone!) So what are we running ourselves ragged to achieve?
In today’s Collect, we prayed, “Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself.”
“Purify our conscience.” A pure conscience is hard to come by, isn’t it? But note that we’re asking God to purify it for us, as part of God’s everyday work. We don’t have the time or the ability to purify our own consciences. And luckily, we don’t have the responsibility either.
We also asserted that Jesus is coming. And isn’t Jesus always coming? Already here? Not here yet? That’s the funny thing when we talk about Jesus—he’s always with us, he’s always arriving, and he’s always going to come again in the future. Isaiah gives a sign 700 years before Jesus, and somehow it’s meant as reassurance for King Ahaz in that moment, but it’s also about Jesus much later. Some call this a puzzle to be solved. But I call it a mystery to be savored.
As John sees Jesus coming to the Jordan River, he says, “Hold it. I can’t baptize you; you should be baptizing me.” But Jesus insists. We’ll hear that story in three weeks.
When Jesus goes to the temple at the age of twelve, he wows all the scholars with his insightful questions. Who is this kid? When his worried parents finally discover after three days where he’s wandered off to, he insists that he is exactly where he should be. No one has asked him to be there, but he shows up anyway. We’ll hear that story in two weeks.
When Jesus, the guest, arrives on our doorstep, we say, “I’m sorry, Lord. I’ve been preparing a mansion for you, and I’ve failed miserably. The house is a wreck. The kids have been no help at all. The food isn’t ready. And yes, that’s my jack-o-lantern rotting and crumbling on the front step. Please don’t come in; I’m not ready for you yet!”
But Jesus insists. He insists. He doesn’t care how clean your house is—you can just move that pile of unsorted bills so he has a chair to sit in.
Oh, and by the way, you didn’t need to prepare food. Jesus himself is the main course. He is the guest, the host, and the meal.
This is all a lot of nice poetry, of course, but what does it literally look like when Jesus arrives in our lives?
I can’t tell your story, but only my own. I know Jesus has arrived when (1) my plans go completely off the rails, (2) I somehow receive assurance that all is as it should be, and (3) wondrous things happen that I never could have planned for. And I move on from that experience with more faith and more wisdom, not necessarily with a lighter heart, but with more clarity. Even when it’s all a big mess, it’s a holy mess. I find that my capacity for chaos has expanded, and that my motivations to get out beyond myself and love others are larger than they were before.
Most likely, I don’t even realize it at the time, but only years later. I can look back and say, “Oh yeah, Jesus was with me. And I know Jesus was with me because now I have more love.”
My best childhood memory of Christmas is not of any particular gift I received on Christmas morning. It’s a memory of my family lying down in the darkness in front of our lit Christmas tree, singing Christmas carols together. No doubt my parents were just as stressed out about the Christmas rush as any of us ever are. But somehow, that year, they made at least a few minutes for us just to be still together and sing. And no matter how short that time was, I still remember it more than 40 years later.
We want perfection, but we’re not going to get it. Instead, we need to listen to today’s Psalmist, who cries out, “Shine forth, O God; rouse up your might, and come save us!” Don’t pray for the perfect Christmas. Pray for the ongoing restoration of your relationship with God. Pray for salvation from fear and despair. Understand that Jesus is here, and that through him, you are God’s beloved child. You are succeeding at some things and failing at others. In short, you are learning.
Yes, this really is your life. And what God wants for you is far better than you can possibly imagine. You’ll never get there. And you’ll get there. And you’re already there. It’s not a puzzle to be solved; it’s a mystery to be savored. Three days to go? You’re about as prepared as you can be, and so am I. I pray that this year, none of us will miss the mystery. Amen.