Searching for the Biblical Christmas, Somehow 8/8
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church
December 24th, 2017
Psalms 124:1-2, Matthew 1:18-25
I don’t know if you know this, but I’m trying to set it up so that when I become a grandparent, here, pretty quick, I get to sneak with the kids. I have always been that bad kid at heart, and I refuse to relinquish that responsibility within the family. I do well when I’m being yelled at.
So, why is it that we do not hear from Joseph in scripture – at all? Not once. We hear about Joseph. We hear about the message he received. We hear about his concern to keep strict interpretation of the law, but not one word comes out of Joseph’s mouth to us.
I mean, he could give great parenting advice; how to raise a messiah. And not just a kid who thinks he is The Messiah. Joseph was the one who introduced Jesus to his Habudeem, when Jesus was a little bit older, the local religious club, of which Joseph would have been a member. The men of the community gathered after the day’s labor, after dinner, and they sit together in the evening, and they ponder deep thoughts and interpretations. And they arrive at a strict interpretation of scripture. Then they apply it to everyday living, mostly for other people.
Joseph would have taken Jesus to the Habudeem. Probably first to listen to the conversation and the debate among the men, and then, later, about the time Jesus became a young man, invited to carefully form an argument within the group, and maybe participate in some of the conversation. There is a time when 12-year-old Jesus become separated from his parents during Passover. We hear the story about how they’re looking, and how Jesus’ parents are upset. But we only hear words from Jesus. Once again, nothing from Joseph.
It occurs to me, that there’s something going on here, and I think it might be worth chasing out. And, I guess today’s sermon is for those men who have figured out that it’s not always important to talk. In fact, there have been a few times through the years, when I’ve performed marriages for men and women. The joke to myself was: well, I know why they got married. I know why he got married, so he’d never have to talk again.
There is an insight that comes in silence. There is an insight when you can hold your words. There is an authority that comes when you don’t say everything that comes into your head. And that’s not just for men, but we’re talking about Joseph today, and his silence.
But, here’s where I think this text goes. How long does it take for you to change your mind? When you have formed an opinion; when you have entered into the belief that you are right, you’ve been informed by tradition, and experience, and reason, and scripture, and you’ve been reinforced by observation. Or, maybe for you, you just entered into an opinion that’s uninformed and reinforced by your favorite talking head. But, the question remains, how long does it take for you to change your mind?
When you have formed an opinion that something is wrong, and you are in the right, how long does it take for you to change your mind? What we have on our hands today, is the fiancé of Mary, who is pregnant with Jesus. He is reluctant in the beginning. He is clear he is right; this woman is in the wrong. The rules are clear about what should happen to her. His first response as a man who practices his religion, and seeks to do what is right. What? Pregnant? That’s just… I can’t marry her. She should be stoned.
At what point do you suppose Joseph finally said: oh, right, yes, then, well, it’s all good. I’m on board, Mary. How long does it take you to change your mind?
I’m pondering this as we get going this morning, because Joseph is an outstanding scriptural example to most of us. We are reluctant to call important, what God wants. To believe. We are reluctant to act on what we understand God wants. To have faith.
We are well-intentioned, but we are reluctant to imitate the one we follow. We just have our way. And we don’t want it disturbed. And we’re pretty sure that we’re right. At least it’s familiar. And it’s going to take a long time for us to think about possibly, maybe, changing our mind.
What becomes fairly clear to me as I think about Joseph and what I see in him, and what I see in Mary and the Christmas story. Is that there is a theology, a way that we think about God, that has escaped most of the books you and I might have read.
It is not so strange that this theology has been missed because it’s centered not so much in intellectual argument that we can prove on page. You know, this theology, this way of thinking about God, is centered in the heart.
Notable theologians, like Barth, and Brunner, and Tillich, have missed it. Contemporary thinkers, like Roberts, and Cohen, Fiorenza, and Russell, have not been able to fully articulate this theology because they’re coming out of their head onto the page. And this is a theology of the heart. And the theology that I’m talking about on the day before Christmas, as I think about Joseph, and Mary, and Jesus, and shepherds coming out of the fields, and wise men coming from afar, is a peculiar theology you will never get words around, but I’m going to try. It is, of course, the theology of somehow.
I’m talking about the theology that goes where logic says it can’t. This is the theology, a way of thinking about God that makes us bold when we would prefer to be shy. It makes us optimistic and hopeful, when all rational thought and all evidence in front of us, says that we should be pessimistic. It stirs strength in us, when we are filled with physical weakness, and despair, and surrender.
This is the theology of somehow. It is the human in us that marvels at the relentless ebb and flow of nature. It’s what causes us to pause when we see a beautiful sunset interrupted by a rocket taking off. It causes us to smile when we glimpse rainbows. And it causes us to load the car, the truck, the camper, and the boat, and to drive hours to be in the forest, because the trees reach into us and pull out of us, a place, a way of being, breathing, that we can never find in the city.
It’s what causes us to become riveted to our television sets when we’re watching Nova or National Geographic. It is marveling at the world around us. If you’re like me, there’s a scientist in you, and you often ask: how? And the only answer that makes any sense, and yet seems to follow, and flow with, the ways of the universe; but, can defy the odds of numbers and math, and ration, and logic, and still happen, is the theology of somehow.
How is it that the eternity of an alarm clock never fails? The seasons roll in perfect order every time, how does that happen? I don’t know, but somehow. How is it that the dew-drops know to fall in the early morning? And thunder knows to announce the coming of the rain? I know, we are well-versed in meteorology, and we may be able to understand the scientific principles of thunder and lightning, but there’s still that question: how?
I suggest to you, that the best answer for those of us who are trying to learn how to live out our faith, rather than head to paper, or confined and equip, that we can articulate, is the silence of somehow.
The question how, is a very biblical question as well. Pharaoh’s army wanted to know how did this happen, when they found themselves over their heads in rushing waters. In which moments before, had been a dry and barren seabed. The city council of Jericho, wanted to know how the walls came tumbling down, just because the trumpet player hit a note. The 400 prophets of Baal, wanted to know how is it that fire danced out of the sky and consumed Mount Carmel’s alter, and most of the prophets of Baal. Nebuchadnezzar wanted to know how is it that three Hebrew boys, named Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, walked out of the fiery furnace; not a hair singed.
When we hear that Isaiah declares God’s way: cease evil, learn good, seek justice, help the oppressed, justice for the orphan, and plead the case of the widow. We wonder: how? A woman named Mary, wanted to know: how? How can this be, she asked, when she unexpectedly came up pregnant out of wedlock and started having angel dreams. When this wife-to-be came you pregnant, and not by him, a man named Joseph wanted to know how he would ever be able to move forward in a faith obedient to God.
When Jesus walked on the water and told the winds to lie down; when he looked at the lightning and gave it the off-switch. When he spoke to the thunder and the air become quiet. The disciples wanted to know: how?
And one Sunday morning, in a tomb, the grave clothes were neatly folded, the stone had been rolled away, and no one was there, and the women asked: how? And the disciples gave the best answer: somehow.
You see, we come from a long line of intelligent people asking how, and my only response to you is: somehow. And that somehow is God’s somehow, that finds its way into our Christmas, when we ask all of those how questions. How are we going to get the house ready for all the people that are coming? You know the answer.
How are we going to get everybody seated around a table in a living this size? Well, you know the answer.
How am I going to tolerate my brother because he loves television programmes I hate? You know the answer. You’re going to keep your mouth shut.
I know. I know, the temptation at Christmas is to turn the conversation into a self-affirmation, and a self-flagellation, as you contemplate your personal sins, and you know, personally, Jesus came for you, and you want a reassurance that God loves you. But it’s not about you and your sin. It’s about God, and God’s somehow. You know about God’s somehow. Can I remind you what you already know? It is in the giving of a coat that we are warmed. It is in providing underwear, and pants, and shirts, and shoes, that we are clothed.
It is in helping to provide treatment to the ill that we are made well. It’s in making sure that those who need are fed, that we are filled. It’s in giving away, that we’re provided for. It’s in dealing fairly in areas of business, that we are justified. It’s in thinking of others, that we enter the consciousness of God.
Did you get that one? It’s in thinking of others, that we enter the consciousness of God. That’s a conundrum. How does that happen? How do any of these things happen? How does this strange transaction work? Somehow.
Somehow our cadence has to come from God: God Almighty; God the Author of somehow; God the Sustainer of somehow; God the Baker of somehow; God the Blooming Rose of somehow; God the Spirit of somehow; God the Eagle of somehow; God the Maker of somehow; God the Light of somehow; God the Brilliant Darkness of somehow; God the Teacher of somehow; God the Embodiment of somehow.
Christmas is the story of somehow. How long does it take you to change your mind? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how long it takes you because we’re on God’s time. And the question is: how long is God going to work in you? How long is God going to work on you? As long as it takes.
And how’s that going to happen? You know.