Last week’s readings and sermons were great! Baby Jesus is born. Angels sing, carols ring, rays of glory shine, happiness and congratulations all around. We’re all still glowing from the warmth of Christmas Day. Advent was a time of anticipation, looking forward to something very special. Then on Christmas Day, we experienced the exciting climax of hope and anticipation. Baby Jesus is born. He’s with us, he’s here. Hope is realized, we are filled with comfort and Joy!
Now, this week, reality sets in. Massacre in Bethlehem, exile, immigration, murderous tyrants, refugees, unemployment, homelessness, and, to top it off, foreign travel in economy class with an infant. But something miraculous has just happened, and the world will never be the same. Our Creator, our God no longer only looks at his creation from a distance. God has chosen to enter our dimension of existence and become fully human as well as God. God is now with us. God is one of us.
Our readings today jolt us from basking in celestial warmth. Our gospel shines a light on human realities. The world was then as it is now, a world filled with danger and discomfort. But something different has happened, and the world will never be the same. Immanuel! God is immanent. God is with us. The heavenly balance has tipped. We humans are no longer the craftiest, most highly evolved biped animals on earth. In the fullness of time, in that one glorious moment, humanity became heir to heaven, sisters and brothers of God here on earth. The Christmas of that year two-thousand and twenty years ago wasn’t just the birth of the anointed Christ; think of it as the birth of humanity. We are now struggling infants dependent on our nurturer and teacher to educate us and bring us to full maturity.
God did not just descend to be with us. God saw that humans were ready to be lifted up to the next stage. God lifted worldly existence to a higher plane. The old rules that got us here are now suspended. They’ve done their job. Darwin and Malthus were correct. Natural laws brought us from primal ooze to anthropoids with opposed thumbs. The old natural laws of survival of the slyest and strongest and most adaptable are done. Their job is over. God has a new set of instructions for us and a clear goal. Our teacher has just come into the world. He is walking with us as we face the next stage of “evolution” – the transformation of plain humans into divine beings.
It will be some time before we see the fruits of the new creation. We are only a few thousand earth years into it. The old order tries to hang on, of course, even though there are clear hints something fundamental has changed.
In Matthew’s Gospel today we’re reminded of the crafty duplicity that governed the world up until the first Christmas. We see it in the problems Joseph faced. We also see the messengers of God instructing and guiding Joseph through the maze of worldly troubles. Consider Joseph. Here he was, a solid citizen, proprietor of a high-end specialty carpentry business, engaged to a beautiful young lady from a good family. Out of nowhere she announces to him she is pregnant. Shame. Humiliation. Shock, since he knows the father couldn’t have been him. What is he to do?
Joseph, concerned for Mary’s reputation as well as his own, decides the right thing to do in this terrible circumstance is quietly end the engagement. We can imagine Joseph deeply troubled, probably tossing and turning sleeplessly at night. Joseph, finally asleep has a dream. An angel appears to him and tells him how this all came about; that he should not be afraid to take Mary home with him to be his wife. He is to name the child, Yeshua, which means “God rescues people.” Joseph wakes up, goes to Mary and tells her about the dream and his decision to believe, to believe her and her story, and to act on faith. Imagine the joy and thankfulness both Joseph and Mary felt. You can imagine the peace and joy both now felt —even though nothing had changed. They were still in a terrible fix.
Joseph’s troubles continue. After their child’s birth and the visit of the sages from the East, another angel appears to Joseph. In a dream he is told the unpredictable and crazy King Herod is going to search for Yeshua and kill him. “Take the infant and his mother, get out of the country, go down to Egypt and stay there until I tell you,” the angel tells him.
It’s not easy traveling the desert road down through Gaza and on into Egypt with a recovering wife and new-born infant, but Joseph and Mary with the baby do it. They head for Egypt. They hear about the rampage Herod went on, killing all the babes and toddlers around Bethlehem. Maybe they’ll just stay on in Cairo. But when another angel tells Joseph to pack up and go back, it’s safe now, Joseph doesn’t argue or complain. When they get back to Israel, he gets word that Herod’s son is the new puppet King. Afraid, he is again directed in a dream to head north, to the Galilee, where he settles in Nazareth. What a mess! From start to finish this is a disaster! Uncomfortable, distressed, frightened, inconvenienced. In fear for the life of their child. In a foreign country, on a dangerous road. Out of business, no income, homeless and no place to go.
Everything is the same. But everything has changed. God is with us now. God did not fix their circumstance. He did not send an angel with first-class round-trip tickets on El Al to Cairo. Not even a bus. But neither did God create or send the circumstance. God did not place Herod on the throne; the Romans did. Despite what many manipulative despots think, they were not divinely anointed to do evil in their temporary positions of power. But one thing is sure; once human free will has created a situation, no matter how miserable, our immanent God can and does accompany and assist his faithful ones as we negotiate our way through the situation.
This is important to understand. God is the creator, not the micro-manager. God created humanity; God created humanity with freedom to decide wisely, freedom to act impulsively or freedom to deliberately do evil. God did not force us to choose which course to take. God also created rules that govern human happiness, but God did not force us to follow these rules.
God also created nature and the rules that govern the natural world. But God does not micro-manage the disposition of any particular bouncing atom or molecule or galaxy. The outcome is determined; the journey is not. Yes, of course, God does on occasion intervene; sometimes with a dramatic miracle, sometimes with a subtle rule suspension which escapes notice.
But when God set up the universal rules of this creation, the rules that determine that e=mc2 and that “thou shalt not murder,” we were still left with the free will power to listen or not. What does humanity do? We continue to test our Creator. And as the universal rules dictate, there are consequences. The patience of God! Even though God is with us, God continues to give us the freedom to fail. But, as promised, God is also available to us at every moment, ready to teach, to guide and encourage.
Consider the lesson of Joseph. Joseph did not ask God to remove Herod from office. Joseph did not ask God for a shorter, more convenient journey. Joseph did not ask God to set him up permanently in a prosperous new business in Egypt. Joseph did not ask that the new puppet king of Judea welcome him. But God the Father was with Joseph and his young family every step of their difficult, painful journey. Then when God whispered to Joseph in the soft still voice of a dream, Joseph did not shrug it off as hallucination or wishful thinking. Joseph was attentive, listening for the voice of God. Listening, Joseph heard God guiding and encouraging.
What does this mean for us today? In the New Year to come you too may hear angels — if you listen. Angels are the messengers of God. They do not act on their own. They are sent by God and speak for God. The word “angel” means “messenger” both in Greek and Latin. The Hebrew word for angel is Malak. It can mean either a human or a supernatural messenger. The prophet called Malachi is literally named, “My Messenger.”
God speaks his encouragement to his people in many ways. But, like Joseph, it’s important we listen. Dreams can be one of the ways God communicates to us. Another is the voice which comes to us in the silence of contemplative prayer. Another voice, available always, everywhere and to everyone is the voice of Scripture. Psalms and Proverbs were known as prophetic voices by the writers of both Old and New Testament — and by Jesus himself. This is one of the reasons Psalms have always been so central to Christian and Jewish worship.
Even and perhaps especially the great Psalms of praise and thanksgiving assume trouble and threat will continue for a while. Genesis makes it clear things will not go smoothly for us, there will be circumstances that do not wish us well while outside the Garden. Even Eden had cunning snakes. God knows there is still difficulty and trouble. But He has provided. As proof of His understanding and His love for us, He became one of us. And like us, Jesus wept.
Our second reading from the Letter to Hebrews reminds us that Yeshua, whom we call Jesus, was the pioneer of our faith; and was made perfect through suffering. Perfection means finishing, completing. Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, able to help you and me in the midst of our suffering because he himself passed through the test of suffering. He knows what suffering is and is able to help.
Some believers focus their faith on sin and the avoidance of sin. We sometimes agonize over sinning as if being free from sin is the end purpose of life. Avoidance of sin is good, it’s elementary, stage one. But the goal of life is not simply to be sinless. Rocks are sinless. (We think.) We struggling humans have all sinned and will likely sin again, try as we might to avoid it. The process is perfect; but we are not yet perfected. There’s more to come.
There is one sin within our control to avoid. The sin of willfully persisting in the greatest sin of all — failure to accept and appreciate God’s presence with us and what that means for humanity. Much of humanity will continue to sin. We can’t control circumstances. Troubles will come. But we can control our response to times of trial. If we meet troubles with bitterness, resentment, with an angry rejection of God, blaming God for our troubles, the devil is the winner. God waits patiently for us to turn our face to him in time of trouble. Our help will come from the Lord; but like Joseph, we have to listen.
The world is filled with the quiet sound of God’s voice. Messengers of God speaking the voice of God are all around us. In dreams, in silence, in scripture. And, Angels visit us more often than you know, in the most unlikely clothing. There are times when you, yourself will be one of God’s messengers. Ask for God’s help and comfort and assurance. You will persevere and be grateful in your perseverance. You will come out on the other side, beyond today’s trials.
In the year 2020 God has something better in mind for us. Opportunities for praise and thanksgiving and the joy which accompanies praise will present themselves — even in the presence of our enemies. God promised to prepare a table of nourishment and support. He knows this is a difficult time for humanity, to know there is something new and better for us, yet still live in the world trying to operate under old rules and troubles.
As we look forward to the New Year, be filled with hope. Certainly, problems will come. And as certainly, times of gratitude and joy will present themselves. Be assured, God will be present with us — especially in times of pain and loss. God’s voice is always present to the one who listens. An ancient and persistent prayer taught in scripture is the Sh’mah. Hear, O Israel.__ The Lord is speaking. God is with us. God’s messengers will lead and encourage us. Will we hear? Yes, if we listen, really listen, expecting to hear the still, quiet voice of our teacher and guide, our companion and friend, the one who we now know travels this road with us.
So, we are not shocked by today’s news, just disappointed. The massacres, exile, refugees, homelessness, murderous tyrants, duplicity and self-seeking are all still with us, for now. But we also have the hope, the certainty, the faith that God is with us and will bring us to full maturity in God’s good time. I am also brimming over with praise and gratitude for the gift of new Life, the comfort of God’s presence, the gift of Peace and the company of this faithful group of companions here in Aurora. I wish you all the Joy of anticipation of the new year we are about to begin.