December 18, 2004
If Jesus is our Savior, why is the world still such a mess? If Jesus is the King of the Universe, why is so much of the universe still characterized by violence and hatred and evil? This is an important question because in a few days we are going to celebrate the birth of the Savior and it is essential that we understand how this birth of Jesus is good news to us.
I think we realize that the central message of Jesus was to proclaim the Kingdom of God: a Kingdom of justice and peace, a Kingdom of forgiveness and love, a Kingdom where the lion and the lamb could lay down together, where there would be no more sorrow or pain, no more hatred or death. That is the Kingdom of God which we have been promised. But where is it? What we find when we look at our world is war and terrorism, misunderstanding and hatred.
So if Jesus is Savior, where is the salvation? We would rather not face this question. But questions such as these, rise spontaneously from those who confront evil. You have heard them as well as I have. Why did my husband have to die? Why do I have to live in fear of terrorism? Why did my marriage come to an end? Why does my daughter have cancer? Questions such as these rise spontaneously from those who suffer. They are a way of asking: If the Savior is born and the Savior is real, where is the salvation? If Christ, in fact, is our Savior, why does so much evil still remain in our world?
Our tradition, of course, points towards an answer. We believe that we shall share in the Kingdom after our death. When we enter heaven we will have complete happiness with God. We also believe that when Jesus comes again at the end of the time, He will establish God’s Kingdom here on earth. The Tradition says to us that the Kingdom is a Kingdom to come, a future Kingdom. It will come in heaven or at the end of time. We know this, we believe this, but what good is that future Kingdom for those who must suffer today? Is there only future good news? Or is there present good news that we can claim in our own lives?
Here is where the true mystery of Christmas becomes evident. Today’s readings point to it. Isaiah tells us that a Child will be born called Emmanuel and Matthew in the Gospel makes it clear that Jesus is that Child. The name, Emmanuel, is important. It means God is with us. As we await the coming salvation, promised us in the future, our God is not aloof. Our God has chosen to take up our humanity. Our God is with us. As we deal with the loss of someone we love, in death, Jesus, who knows human sorrow and pain, is not indifferent. He is with us. As we cope with the fear of terrorism, Jesus, who knows human fear, is not unconcerned. He is with us. As we suffer from the rejection and failure of divorce, Jesus, who knows human rejection and failure is not somewhere else. He is with us. As we confront sickness in ourselves and in our families, Jesus, who has a human body, who felt pain, is not unconcerned. He is with us.
The Good News of the Christmas season is that as we await the full salvation that is to come, God is not far off. God did not choose to wait in some distant place until the Kingdom arrives. God became human. God, in Christ, took up our human nature in all of its frailty and brokenness. God, in Christ, experienced the broken nature of our world. The mystery of Christmas is that God became one of us and that God remains with us.
Now the promises are still real, and we do expect that some day in the future we will enter the Kingdom and live in that perfection of God’s peace and justice and love. But until that day, we are not alone. Until that day through all that we have to suffer and endure, Jesus is Emmanuel—God with us!
From Disaster to Salvation
December 23, 2007
The scriptures say it so quickly and casually that it is possible for us to overlook the crisis and the chaos that it must have caused: “Mary was found to be with child.” What must Joseph have felt when he discovered that Mary was with child? Shock, devastation, betrayal. He knew he was not the father. What hurt he must have felt when he supposed that this woman who he so treasured and loved, had been unfaithful to him, That hurt must have driven him close to despair. And as a person of faith, it is likely he turned to God to complain: “God where are you? Why have you let this happen to me? Have I not served you well? Do I not pray regularly in the temple and follow all of your commands? Did you not know that my heart was set on sharing my life in marriage with this woman who I so loved and who I was convinced you had given me as my spouse? Now it is all ruined. Now my life is shattered, my hope is gone. My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
Now in time, Joseph learned that Mary had not been unfaithful, that his life was not ruined, and that his marriage could proceed, although on terms he had never imagined. The message of the angel made that all clear, in time. But in that first moment when Joseph found out that Mary was with child, he certainly presumed that all was lost, that God was absent and unconcerned.
The experience of Joseph tells us that God is working in ways which are not immediately clear. God has a plan which is unfolding, but that unfolding takes time. Therefore some of the things which seem like complete disasters can, in time, lead to goodness and life. When Joseph heard that Mary was pregnant, he was convinced that his life was ruined. But it was, in fact, the first step in the salvation of the world.
In light of this story of Joseph, we must be slow to judge when evil attacks us. Although God is always at work, it takes time to perceive what God is doing. Now this stance of faith in no way denies the reality and power of evil in our world. Sickness, tragedy, violence, and death are real. They do attack us and hurt us. But even as they press in against us, the person of faith continues to believe that God is in charge. God is active, and yet what God is doing is not completely clear. We cannot yet predict the exact way in which God is going to bring goodness in our lives.
Therefore when we receive bad news in our family, in school, at our job, it is appropriate to be in shock and to cope. But at the same time, the person of faith believes that those disasters will not derail God’s plan of life for us. When we make foolish choices or disastrous mistakes, we have to admit our failure and live with the consequences of our decisions. But even as we do so, we continue to believe that God is with us, guiding us to learn from our mistakes and to avoid them in the future. When someone we love is attacked by sickness or death, we are rightfully shocked and discouraged. But we continue to believe that God will provide opportunities for love, for reconciliation, and for growth.
Those of us who know the story of Joseph know how radically things can change as time passes and God’s plan becomes clear. Evil, sickness and death will always be a part of our lives. But the Christian knows how to face them. Even as they press in against us, we face the future with hope because we believe that the present moment is only a part of the plan that God has in store for us. Although the present moment is a disaster, it can lead to goodness and life. When the present situation is a total loss, it is still somehow a part of our salvation.
Another Christmas Story
December 19. 2010
There are two places in the New Testament that describe the birth of Jesus. One is in the Gospel of Matthew and one is in the Gospel of Luke. It is Luke’s version that we know the best and that we will hear next Saturday on Christmas day. Luke is quite a storyteller. He describes the journey to Bethlehem, the birth in a manager, the appearance to the shepherds, and the angel’s song of Glory to God in the Highest.
Matthew’s description of Jesus’ birth is very different. We almost heard it this morning in the gospel. But because we are still in Advent, the Lectionary stopped just before it, in order to save the proclamation of the incarnation for Christmas. Today’s gospel describes Mary’s unusual pregnancy and Joseph’s doubt about whether he should take Mary into his home. This doubt is resolved when an angel appears to him in a dream and assures him that everything is all according to God’s plan. The last verse of the gospel that was just proclaimed was this: “When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel commanded him and took his wife into his home.” It is in the very next phrase that Matthew gives us his description of Jesus’ birth: “and he did not have relations with her until she bore a son and he named him Jesus.” That’s it. That’s Matthew’s description of Jesus’ birth. It is one verse, actually only five words in a subordinate clause of one verse: “Until she bore a son.” Matthew tells us almost nothing about how Jesus was born.
Needless to say, if we only had Matthew’s gospel, we would be in a real fix when it came to Christmas cards, crèche scenes, and Nativity plays. Matthew seems unconcerned about telling us the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. He spends all his time talking about the struggles of the family, about Mary’s unusual pregnancy, and Joseph’s efforts to cope with it. Now why would Matthew describe Jesus’ birth in this way? Why does he tell us so much about Joseph’s doubts, Joseph’s questions, and only mention the birth of Jesus in passing? Perhaps, it is because Matthew wants to emphasize the importance of family issues in our own celebration of Christmas.
Now of course the celebration that we will have in this upcoming week is about Jesus. He is the reason for the season. But because of who Jesus is, it is also true to say that Christmas is not just about him. Jesus came into our world to minister to the poor, to the wounded, to the broken hearted and there would be no better way to celebrate his birth then for us to be attentive to our family and friends who struggle at this time of year. Now, I’m well aware that there are many things that need to be done in order to celebrate Christmas. There is shopping, baking, wrapping, sending Christmas cards, and preparing special foods. Therefore, it could easily happen that all of these activities become the major focus of our Christmas celebration.
The gospel of Matthew reminds us that we should be attentive to those like Joseph who struggle and doubt. Make sure that you find time this holiday season to write a special message in your Christmas card to your college roommate who just lost her father. Make sure that you pick up the phone and spend a little time with Uncle Louie, who just was diagnosed with cancer. When people gather in your home or around your Christmas table, ask yourself who is the person here who most needs my love? Is it your son who just broke up with his girl friend? Is it your aging mother who is frustrated because she cannot do the things that once came so easily? Be attentive to those who struggle and do not let the Christmas tree or the plum pudding distract you from loving them.
Matthew describes Jesus’ birth the way he does, because he knows that Jesus came into our world to bring hope to the discouraged and to the broken hearted. Matthew understands that Christmas is not about holly and eggnog but about loving those who are wounded and in pain. It is true that Matthew tells us that Jesus is to be called Emmanuel: God with us. But Matthew also tells us that if Jesus is going to be with those who carry pain in this holiday season, it will often be through our attention and love.