Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
When tragedy strikes, when trouble comes, when life disappoints us, we stand at the crossroads between hope and despair, torn and hurting, despair cements us in the present; hope sends us dancing around dark corners trusting in a tomorrow we cannot see. Joan Chittister
Trusting In Turmoil
At some point during the Christmas season I usually read or hear a comment something like this:
Christmas is all about children laughing and having a good time. It’s about family and love. It’s about the joy that God wants us to experience.
I love the energy and joy that kids bring. It is contagious, but I wonder – is that what Christmas is all about, seeing kids have fun? Our world tends to mix together Advent and Christmas, turning the whole month of December into what one author described as “one long, warm fuzzy occasion. It’s a season of light and joy, of presents and good cheer” (12/4/15 Advent Devotional by Trinity School for Ministry). Then we hear stories of shootings and terrorism, and we get offended, as if someone is trying to ruin our wonderful Christmas.
In some Christian traditions they try to keep Christmas and Advent separate. The biblical readings for Advent are typically dark and challenging. I’m not a big fan of that and I don’t think you need to keep Christmas and Advent separate to realize that the Christmas story itself has some very dark overtones.
Think of the Christmas story from Joseph’s perspective. His life didn’t turn out quite the way he had planned. I imagine that when Joseph was a young man he dreamed about marrying a nice, respectable young lady. They would have 4 or 5 sons. Joseph would teach them to be carpenters and they would all work together in the family business. Joseph would retire early and let the sons run the business. He would take in the profits. They would have 2 or 3 daughters who would marry rich farmers. His family would take vacations every year. Maybe they would buy a cabin in the mountains or a condo down at the beach. Maybe they would just go visit his family back in Bethlehem. After he retired Joseph and his wife would play with the grandkids and go on cruises, or buy a motor home and travel around the country. Joseph would be a respected member of the local synagogue.
Of course, it didn’t happen quite that way, did it? It all started when Mary came up to Joseph one afternoon. “Hey Joe, I went to Walgreens today and bought a pregnancy tester. Guess what?!” Joseph figured he would break the engagement with Mary. He would keep it quiet, but there was no way he could go on. He would start over again and maybe he would still reach his dreams. Then he went to bed and had a really strange dream. An angel spoke to him, telling him to take Mary as his wife and that her son would be Emmanuel and the savior. We’ve heard that story so many times, I wonder if we can begin to imagine the shock that Joseph must have felt. God had not spoken to any of the Israelites for more than 400 years. Now he was speaking, not to a prophet or a priest, but to Joseph. And this was not an easy message to comprehend. What does it mean that the child is conceived from the Holy Spirit? Joseph was just a humble carpenter. How could he be father to the Son of God? Then came the census that forced Joseph and Mary to leave their home, and his business, and go to Bethlehem. Joseph’s world was never the same.
We don’t know what happened to Joseph. In Luke’s gospel, he disappears after the birth stories, before Jesus starts his ministry. In Matthew, after the story of the Wise Men, Joseph and Mary run away to Egypt to save their lives, and Jesus’ life. Then he drops out of the story. I’m convinced that Joseph’s life was filled with turmoil, not only because his dreams were disrupted. The turmoil went deeper. He wondered what in the world God was doing. He wondered why God was doing what he was doing. He probably even wondered if God was doing anything in his life, or if God had abandoned him. The first Christmas was anything but a warm fuzzy occasion. My guess is that as Joseph prepared for the birth of Jesus his life was not filled with peace and joy, but with turmoil.
The same thing is true for many of us. We know what it’s like to have our lives be filled with turmoil. When did this time of year get to be such a chaotic rush? I’m not sure who put together the Flyer about the Advent Dinner and Children’s Program tonight. I love it. In big bold letters – ADVENT: PREPARE. Then behind that:
Baking… Shopping… Christmas Card List… Ornaments… Decorate… Christmas Tree… Outside Decorations… Give Cards… Secret Santa… Clean the House… Prepare Guest Room… Shop for Food… Polish Silver… Coworker Gifts… Wrapping Paper… Gift for the Boss… Arrange Babysitter… Teacher Gifts… Mail Carrier Gift… Family Picture… Dog Grooming… Guest Towels… Christmas Dinner… Elf on the Shelf…
The list goes on and on, and that is just the normal chaos. For many people the problem is much deeper. Maybe it’s anxiety about your children or your parents. Maybe it’s worries about your job or money. Maybe you’re dealing with health issues or struggling with a relationship or dealing with the death of a loved one. It may be an inner turmoil that you don’t understand and can’t explain, but is very real. For whatever reason, most of us have times when our lives are filled with turmoil.
First Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton, California had a program that helped children of divorce as they worked through their emotions and the struggles of the divorce. Brandy was one of the first kids in the program. She was eight years old, and had a younger brother named Stephen. The two of them met with one of the persons who worked with the program. Gary, the volunteer, said, “It's really hard to go through a divorce, isn't it, kids?” Stephen responded right away. “Man, it's the pits! I hated it!” Brandy looked up, with a bored expression on her face. “Oh, I didn't think it was so bad. You just get more moms and dads. No big deal.” Stephen wouldn't let her get away with that. “You're lying, Brandy! And we are in a church!” She glared back at Stephen, “I know, but I don't like to talk about it... I just take the sad thoughts to my secret place and then I lock them up.” This is an 8-year-old kid. Gary looked at Brandy and asked her, “Is your secret place getting full?” She began to cry and shook her head yes. “What happens when you can't fit anything else into your secret place?” “I don't know.” she said.
Brandy's life was filled with turmoil. She hid it, but it didn't go away. It never does. Unfortunately, many of us do the same thing with the struggles of our lives. We put on a happy face, pretend there is nothing wrong. And our secret place gets full.
So, what do you do? How should we respond to the turmoil of our lives? Let’s look at what Joseph did. How did he respond to this mess?
At first he set out to take care of the problem himself. He wanted to do the right thing but he didn’t want to make a big deal of it. He didn’t want to humiliate Mary. He could have dragged her out in front of the elders and had her stoned, but he wanted to keep the whole thing quiet.
Then an angel appeared to Joseph and told him what was happening and what he was supposed to do. “Joseph, son of David, do 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 the sins” (Matthew 1:20b-21). Notice how Joseph responded. “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him” (Matthew 1:24). It sounds so easy but it was probably one of the most difficult things he had ever done. Joseph trusted that this absurd message from the angel was God’s word. He trusted that God’s outrageous promise was true. He trusted that God was somehow involved in this mess. Then Joseph obeyed God’s command; he did what the angel told him to do.
Here is the message for us. In the midst of the turmoil of our lives you and I are called to trust and obey. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t had an angel come to me and say, “Here is what you are supposed to do.” It would be nice to have a message that clear. However, we do have the Scriptures which tell us what we are supposed to do.
- Love the Lord you God with all your heard, with all your mind, and with all your strength… Love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:30-31).
- He has shown you what is good and what does the Lord require of you. To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).
- Forgive one another as God has forgiven you (Ephesians 4:32).
- Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey all that I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19-20).
We are also called to trust. The Bible not only has commands that we are called to obey. It also has some wonderful promises. We are called to trust them.
- There is nothing that can take away God’s love and mercy (Romans 8:38-39).
- I’m going ahead of you to prepare a place just for you (John 14:2).
- If we confess our sins God will forgive us (1 John 1:9).
- The one who began a good work among you (Jesus) will bring it to completion (Philippians 1:6).
- God is always with us.
Most of the Christmas carols that we sing focus on the story of the birth of Jesus. They don’t really talk about modern-day life. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear is an exception to that. It was written just before the Civil War, when our country was filled with turmoil and fear. It points to the reality of life, with all its struggles and pain. Verse three focuses on the struggles of life.
O ye beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow;
Yet the song is a favorite, with a wonderful message of hope and joy. Jesus, the Prince of Peace is coming into our world. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. We are called to listen to the angels as they proclaim this good news. We are called to trust and obey God in every way we can, celebrating the birth of Jesus, our Lord, our King, Emmanuel.