December 22, 2013

Matthew 1:18-25

“Don’t be Afraid, Joseph.”

Yesterday I listened to a CBC podcast titled, “While Shepherds Watch Their Flock: The Trials and Triumphs of Clergy at Christmas.” Pointing out that this season, for many Christian clergy, is experienced somewhat differently than for most other people, it included stories from a number of ministers, priests, and pastors about the challenges that come from the demands and expectations of congregations at Christmas. From dealing with a drunken parishioner who kept sliding off the kneeler, to having the singing of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” interrupted on Christmas Eve because it was the “wrong tune,” the stories were both humorous and real.

The part that stood out to me most was the fact that these clergy felt such pressure to make Christmas in their churches perfect for everyone. A United Church minister commented that the regular church-goers were quite forgiving if everything wasn’t perfect, but those who attend a few times a year are less-so, and those who only come at Christmas have amazingly high expectations. Some of them want everything to be like it was when they used to come to church when they were children… the service should match what we did back in 1973!

They named Christmas as the busiest time of year for ministers, though I’m not sure that’s always true as so many other responsibilities tail-off in December because no one else wants the extra programming or meetings. But it is still a busy time, and we do want things to go well… especially on Christmas Eve.

It makes me think of young couples planning their weddings. They want everything to go perfectly! They include so many important details to make their weddings just right, and some of them are scared to death that something might go wrong. I often tell them that with all the details they have arranged, and all the people they are relying on to make those details happen, something is sure to not go as planned.

It’s almost an inevitability, so when it happens try not to take it too seriously. Try to relax and enjoy your wedding day. (Of course, quietly, I am hoping and praying that if something does go wrong that it won’t be me who leaves something out, or pronounces someone’s name wrong, or trips on my alb when walking up the stairs at the front of the church!)

But while clergy everywhere are planning what to preach on Christmas Eve, and working with musicians to arrange the carols and anthems, and organizing readers, and candle-lighters, and all the things that make our Christmas services special, almost everyone else is busy with other Christmas plans.

Karen, our office administrator here at the church, was calculating the other day how much meat she would need to buy in order to make “Beef on a bun” for a Boxing Day gathering of about 60 family members! Some of you are getting ready to host family dinners too (even if they’re a little smaller than that), and you’re cleaning your homes, and decorating, and baking, and figuring out who will sit where and how your gatherings will go. Others have gifts yet to buy, cards and letters yet to be sent, and calls yet to be made to loved ones far away.

This season comes with high expectations for all of us – good food, happy families, perfect presents, and lovely homes. Some of you may be struggling to keep up with the wonderful Christmases you see friends or neighbours putting on, or you may be struggling to keep up the family traditions that you’ve always had so that no one is disappointed.

Of course, the reality is that every Christmas is not going to be perfect. The church service may not include your favourite carols, or the turkey may turn out a little drier than you hoped. Your favourite uncle, or daughter, or brother may not make it home for Christmas this year, or you may have to work on Christmas Day and put off the family dinner until a little later.

There was one person in the Christmas story who must have understood what it was like to have things NOT go as planned, and that was Joseph. You see, Joseph was engaged to a nice young woman from Nazareth. We don’t know if Mary was the love of his life, or just a girl that his parents had chosen for him, but Joseph was getting ready for a nice, normal, peaceful life in Nazareth with his wife, and children, and his carpentry work.

In that time, when you got engaged (they called it betrothed) it was a very formal commitment. It wasn’t like you were considering the idea of maybe getting married some day. It was like you were actually married. You didn’t live with each other yet, but there was no question that you were already husband and wife, promised to each other for life.

But it was during that time (probably in the midst of the wedding preparations themselves) that Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant. What a disaster! Some people would probably assume that the child was Joseph’s, and his reputation would be tarnished. Others might find out that it wasn’t Joseph’s baby, and then the rumours would be even worse! I imagine that Joseph had an idea of what he wanted his life to be like, and this wasn’t it! Why was this happening to him?

Most of you have felt like Joseph at one time or another in your lives, I am sure. You had dreams, and hopes, and expectations for what your lives would be like, but something happened and your life turned in a different direction. You lost a job. A loved one died. Someone got sick – either you, or someone that you needed to care for. You did’t find the life partner you were hoping for. You got pregnant at the wrong time, or didn’t get pregnant when you wanted to. Your marriage broke down. You didn’t have a chance to go back to school.

Hopefully not ALL those things happened to you, but one or two of them likely did, or something else that really wasn’t part of your plans… something else that broke your heart, or made you angry, or caused you regret or guilt feelings… something else that took you by surprise, threw a wrench in your plans, and caused you to wonder, “Why is this happening to me?”

When it happened to Joseph, I suppose he considered his options. He could get married as planned, and let people think that he was the father of Mary’s child. He could announce to everyone that he wasn’t the father, call off the wedding, and put Mary to shame. After all, how could she have betrayed him like that? Neither of these options seemed good, and so he resolved to dismiss her quietly: “Sorry Mary, but I just can’t marry you now. Let’s just go our separate ways.”

After making his decision, but before carrying it out, Joseph went to sleep and he dreamed. An angel came to him in his dreams and told him not to be afraid: “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child to be born is from the Holy Spirit.”

“Weirdest dream ever!” Joseph must have said to himself when he awoke. I can’t imagine that Joseph would have understood what the angel meant by that assurance – that the child to be born is from the Holy Spirit. Did that mean that Mary was actually faithful to him, that she hadn’t betrayed him? Or did it just mean that somehow this child would have a special spirit of God in him? The angel was clear that the child would be important – he would somehow save his own people, and he would somehow be God-with-us.

Joseph can’t have known what all this meant… and it was a dream, after all. But what he took from the angels words was his opening line: “Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” And so that’s what Joseph did. I can imagine him taking a deep breath, and saying to himself, “Yes, I can do this. It’s not what I planned, but it’s going to be okay.”

At the end of the CBC podcast there was a story from a United Church minister who had served in rural Saskatchewan some years ago. She described it as rural, rural, rural Saskatchewan. I’m guessing that she didn’t choose that location, or that congregation. It was probably her first congregation, and she was settled there by the church – what we used to call an ordained missionary appointment in the Presbyterian Church. Usually a new minister would get placed in a congregation that wouldn’t otherwise be likely to get a minister, and would promise to stay 2 or 3 years at least before seeking a call elsewhere.

Anyway, this minister talked about her wintry drive to the little country church for the Christmas Eve service, and her fear of losing her way or landing in the ditch. The church was packed, as churches often are on Christmas Eve, and the service went quite well. She admitted to some distraction as she led worship because she kept thinking about her church back home in Ontario, and her family gathered together there.

But it was after the service that it got really difficult. As different church members introduced their visiting relatives and friends, she could hardly keep her lips from trembling as she mourned the fact that her own family were so far away.

“What am I doing here?” she wondered as she tried to scrape off her iced up windshield to go home. “Why is this happening to me?” she thought as she stood in the snow in her “Toronto” red high-heeled shoes. The scraper didn’t seem to be doing anything, so she tried a credit card which promptly snapped in two from the cold.

But when she finally got into her car, she found that the back seat was filled with presents. A note on the steering wheel reminded her that she didn’t need to lock her car in rural Saskatchewan, and that if she hadn’t done so, it would have made it a lot easier for the congregation members to leave their gifts.

I don’t know if your plans for Christmas or your plans for your life are turning out as you planned, as you hoped, or as you expected. If they are, that’s excellent, and I’m very happy for you. But if they’re not, I hope that you’ll remember Joseph this Christmas.

His fiancée getting pregnant was just the first problem. Then there was the onerous trip to Bethlehem, and trying to help Mary through the traumatic experience of giving birth in a barn. Not long after, Joseph had to flee with his family to Egypt when another angel warned him that the baby’s life was in danger. They became refugees for a while, and life must have been very difficult for Joseph, and Mary, and little Jesus.

“Don’t be afraid, Joseph.” Those words must have come back to him over and over through the challenges that he faced with becoming a father to the saviour of the world. And because he was willing to accept the unexpected, the unplanned, and the unknown, Joseph was there when God in Christ made his first appearance in our world. Joseph was an important part of the most amazing story ever told, the most amazing thing that ever happened to the world… even if it wasn’t what he was expecting or hoping for.

Whatever your Christmas looks like this year… if it’s spent quietly at home, or if you’re travelling to be with family or friends… if you’re hosting a meal or being a guest, if you’re keeping up family traditions or keeping it simple… if your Christmas goes as planned or if lots of things go wrong, I pray that you also will have the courage to face whatever comes your way, and to look for glimpses of God and God’s love made manifest in the midst of whatever happens. God bless you this Christmas.