Monday, December 14, 2015

The Angel and the Dreaming Carpenter

Readings; Psalm 24:1-5, Matthew 1:18-25
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, December 13th, 2015

A famous musical, a big hit on Broadway, was 'Man of La Mancha'. The highlight of the show was when the central character, Don Quixote, stood center stage and sang 'To dream the impossible dream'.

In our scripture reading today an angel brings to Joseph what seemed like an impossible dream; a dream that he would play a key role in the coming of God's redeeming love to the world.

For Joseph this is a rather surprising development that came about as he was struggling with a very different problem. Mary, the young lady to whom he was betrothed, was pregnant and he could not figure out how it had all happened. Being betrothed, was a state of affairs that was far more than being engaged. For during one year to eighteen months of betrothal, the bride was usually kept in seclusion at her parents house. So to find out she was having a baby was a major shock!

Thing was, Joesph really loved Mary and, despite this pregnancy, had a high degree of trust in her. She had said that this was no normal child or pregnancy... but how do you deal with that? It didn't make any sense.

The right thing to do would have been to break off the relationship, bring accusations of unfaithfulness before the village elders and have Mary publicly disgraced. But, as we've already said, Joseph wasn't that sort of person. Not towards his Mary.

The bible says he was a 'just' man. He was 'just' in the sense being a kind man, a gentle man, whose heart was compassionate and merciful like the heart of God. Joseph wasn't rushing into any decisions. He was considering things first. He took the time to think things over rather than jumping in feet first and doing something he may have lived to have regretted.

Well... relationships. Dang! Where do you start? If this was all there was to the story then it would still have a message for us. How quick we are to make judgments and apportion blame... particularly if it comes to teenage pregnancies or marriage breakups or when our own relationships do not work out. Of course we all learn from our mistakes, but wouldn't it be better not to make them in the first place?

Joseph was one of those rare characters who had the wisdom to think first, to not take things at face value, but consider the deeper implications. This business with Mary, it must have played on his mind all day long. During the night it became the subject of his dreams. It was during one particular troubling dream that God intervened, an angel spoke to him, and he found the way though his dilemma. The problem didn't go away. It wasn't solved or sorted. But he did find a way to handle it.

We know some other things about Joseph. We know he was by trade a carpenter. The Greek word for carpenter is 'tekton'. (The root of the English word 'architect'.) The word is used only twice in the New Testament, once of Joseph in Mathew 15:15 and once of Jesus in Mark 6:3, where we are told that He had taken up Joseph's trade. 'Tekton' literally meant 'To join together or make a frame out of wood or some other material'... the irony being that it was upon a frame of crude wood that Jesus would die.

We also know Joseph was a dreamer. The Old Testament patriarch, after whom Joseph was named, was also a dreamer. You know I'm sure the story of Joseph and his amazing technicolor dream-coat. Joseph's ancestor Joseph dreamed dreams that led to him having a position of greatness in Egyptian society.

There is something appropriate about a carpenter being a dreamer. They have to visualize plans in their mind, as they make whatever it is they are working on. I confess to not being well gifted in that area, but I'm told that when a sculptor looks at a hunk of wood or a rock, they see something in it that the rest of us can't see. 'That looks like a statue of a goddess or an excellent table top' (but probably never both at the same time!) Having seen in their minds eye what the possibilities are, then they set about making it a reality.

Joseph, as a carpenter pictured the plans in his head as he worked. It seems natural that he would continue to visualize things in his sleep. But on this occasion it wasn't a plan for a table or chair that came to mind, it was the answer to his dilemma with Mary, his loved one.

I'm sure many of us carry our problems over into our sleep time and into our dreams. There are those who tell us to listen to our dreams, as they are a subconscious way of sorting things out.

There have been occasions when I have had dreams that were tremendously helpful in granting me a sense of peace about important decisions that needed to be made. I remember a particularly vivid one that occurred when I was praying about leaving my homelands and moving to the USA. It was so real it seemed like it had really happened.

I'm not going to go into detail, but simply say that I accept those things as genuine insights from God, because I can't explain them in any other way, any more than I can explain God sometimes guides us through words of Scripture that seem to jump off the page or through the random comments of friends or family... or even through that mysterious thing called intuition.

Sometimes you just have to open up to God and say, 'Lord, I don't know why or how or where or when... all I know is that You are guiding me a little further along this particular road... and for the rest, I have no option but to leave it in Your loving hands'.

In a dream an angel tells Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife because the child in her womb was due to the action of the Holy Spirit. This is no normal child, but the One envisioned by the prophets, Jesus, God with us, who will be our savior.

It must have been an incredibly vivid dream. It convinces Joseph that God is at work in the midst of these unbelievable events. When he awakes he does as the angel has directed.

This is not the end of Joseph's dreaming. If you read further in Matthew you will find him being warned to escape from the murderous plans of Herod and flee to Egypt as well as being directed, in a dream, to return to Israel and settle in Nazareth. For Joseph, listening to his dreams is literally a matter of life and death.

Christmas is a bit of a dream, isn't it? Peace on earth. Goodwill to all people. Every year we proclaim the same hopes. Every year we hear songs on the radio like 'Do they know it's Christmastime at all' and 'Happy Christmas – War is over'. The dreams of Christmas.

It's easy to become cynical and conclude that dreams are only make believe. It's easy to dismiss the whole thing with a Scrooge-like 'bah humbug'. It's easy to suggest that Christmas is the ultimate impossible dream.

But then I get back to considering this encounter between an angel and a dreaming carpenter. I like where it begins. It begins with a love story between a good man and a young lady who are side-swiped by events that are in the hands of God. The call of God can really mess with your relationships.

Ask anybody who has ever had to choose between what they felt was the best plan for their life and what they then believed God was asking of them. The two can be poles apart! But you work through it and take whatever guidance you can find, be it through dreams, scriptures, the advice of friends or the counsel of folk you trust.

I like the way Joseph doesn't rush into his decisions. That he decides to sleep on it and seek God from an answer rather than going with any gut reaction to his loved ones unexpected pregnancy.

I like the way this story ends. Joseph listens to this impossible dream and acts upon it. He is blessed by entering into the most intimate possible family relationship with the Son of God, and becomes the earthly father of Jesus.

That happens because Joseph chooses to do God's will. And, in a peculiar way, what was true for Joseph can be true for us. In Matthew 12:50 Jesus tells us 'Whoever does the will of God is my mother, my sister, and brother' and by implication my uncle, my father, my cousin or a whole host of other relationships. Whoever does God's will is part of the family of God.

Maybe we are all dreaming carpenters. We all try and visualize the kind of life God wants us to live. We all seek to have relationships that are honorable and fulfilling. We all struggle with the problems and dilemmas life brings to our doorstep.

So maybe the most important message to take away from this passage is that we are not alone. Joseph is told Jesus is “'Emmanuel' which means 'God is with us'.” (verse 23). God is there for us, just as God was there for Joseph. God is ready not only to plant impossible dreams in our hearts, but to work with us, in the power of the Holy Spirit to bring them to their unlikely fulfillment.

That is an often repeated theme throughout the 66 books of the Bible. When we travel through 'The Story' program next year, I believe we'll see that sort of pattern emerging.

Who would have dreamed that a wandering tribesman like Abraham would become the Father of a great nation? That dysfunctional Moses would lead his people out of slavery? That David, a young shepherd boy would defeat a giant and become a great King? That a helpless child, born to a peasant, refugee family, in some backwater town in Nowheresville, would turn out to be the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and our Savior Jesus Christ?

If only we dared to dream what the Savior can do through our lives... just maybe something wonderful could happen to make our world the sort of place that God intended it to be from the first moment of creation. There may be those who suggest we are like Don Quixote in 'Man of La Mancha'... a little crazy and out of touch with reality.

Yet personally I see nothing wrong in being a fool for Christ who dares to believe that with God all things are possible. And I pray that God would plant in all of our hearts the crazy dreams that bring His purposes to pass. To God's name be the glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Gabriel And The Believing Maiden

Readings; Malachi 3:1-4, Philippians 1:3-11, Isaiah 11:1-9, Luke 1:26-38
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, December 6th, 2015

A few years ago there was a church campaign that involved wearing badges or T-Shirts that said 'I've found it!' The idea was that when people asked, 'What did you find? you could explain the gospel message and invite them to church.

The angel Gabriel comes to Mary with a message that says, 'Mary, you've found it!' Found what? Luke 1:30 'Mary, you have found favor with God'. ' Another word for favor is 'grace'. Grace is something God wants us all to discover.

Who is this Mary? Outwardly, she was from the tribe of Judah. She was a native of a place called Nazareth. She was betrothed to be married to a guy called Joseph.

Inwardly, she had a deep faith in God and pondered spiritual things in her heart. When told she would be the one to bear the Christ - Child she responded by saying 'Let it be'. (Who knew she predated the Beatles by 2000 years?) She is described by her cousin Elizabeth, in Luke 1:42, as the most blessed of all women. 'Blessed among women are you; and blessed is the fruit of your womb'.

Over the centuries Mary grew to occupy a prominent position in many Christian traditions and became a focus for prayer and contemplation. She holds a unique place in the gospel story. As we come to a table laid with bread and wine on the Second Sunday of Advent, what lessons can Mary teach us about God's favor. In this angelic encounter we find Mary...'Surprised by Grace', 'Supplied by Grace', and 'Stretched by Grace'.

Surprised by Grace
It's not what you expect in the middle of making wedding plans. The angel Gabriel to turn up and tell you you are about to have a baby. As soon as Gabriel opens his mouth and says; 'Greetings Favored One, The Lord is with you' then in Mary's mind alarm bells start to ring.

Scripture tells us that she was perplexed. When Gabriel then tells her 'not to be afraid' you can imagine her thinking, 'This is getting worse. I was confused, but now you are telling me there is something that I should be afraid of. Being singled out for God's good favor may not be all it's cracked up to be.' Mary had been to Sunday School. She was aware of the crazy things that had happened to prophets and chosen ones of God in the past. Did she really need this, right then and at that point in her life?

There is a reason why the song 'Amazing Grace' is so popular. Grace... the favor of God upon our lives... is always awesome, terrifying, exhilarating and amazing. That God should consider people, such as we know ourselves to be, as fitting vessels through which to express the love of Jesus Christ to a hurting and needy world is … well... both perplexing and a little terrifying.

God is counting on us, depending on us, relying on us... to let the world know about the gospel message. We are to be the carriers, the ones who birth that message and allow it to grow inside us so we can share it with all people. Mary wasn't exactly thrilled at that prospect. She questions Gabriel. Verse 34 'How can this be?'

She hadn't taken the necessary steps for a birth to take place. 'I'm new to this! I'm not ready! I'm not prepared.' It didn't make sense to her. There had to be other more qualified, better placed people than she was to carry out God's mission. She was just a young girl about to get married. It didn't make sense!

One of the crazy messages concerning Mary's observation that she was still a virgin is that when it comes to birthing God's plans into our world, God is not prepared to wait till we consider ourselves ready. God is not prepared to wait till we have done everything we need to do before we start sharing the message of Jesus with others.

Often our first reaction when we aware of God's call to do just about anything is to say... 'Not now. Not ready. Not possible. How can this be?' Gabriel's reply to Mary is something we all need to hear! Verse 37 'For nothing will be impossible with God'”

The most important part of that verse might be the phrase 'With God'. Mary is not just surprised by grace, she is also promised she will be...

Supplied by Grace
Verse 35 'The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; He will be called Son of God' '

It is an oft repeated phrase. Those whom God calls, God also equips. God never invites us to single-handedly sort out the world by ourselves, in our strength and in our own time. Always, God calls us to work with others who are equally empowered by the Holy Spirit to fulfill God's purposes.

Mary needed to visit with her cousin Elizabeth to have confirmation that this was a work of God. Mary needed Joseph, just as she would later need an innkeeper, a group of shepherds and some visitors from the East to fulfill all that God was calling her to do. Mary, above all things, needed the Holy Spirit.

In 1774 the English scientist Joseph Priestly discovered the gas we know of as oxygen. Actually, he didn't discover it. It was already there. What Priestly did was identify and recognize oxygen for what it is and what it did. The grace of God has always been there. Everywhere we go and whatever we do, God is there. But recognizing and responding to God's grace is not an automatic process.

Maybe in a sunset or in the laughter of a child we catch glimpses and hear echoes of grace. But claiming it and making it ours is a process of belief. When Mary visits Elizabeth, she is greeted by the words 'Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by her Lord' (Luke 1:45)

God equips us by grace as we go forward in faith. 1 Peter 3:18 invites us to be people who are 'growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ''. When we exercise our bodies we receive the oxygen that we need. A swimmer or a runner in a competition takes huge deep breaths and takes them more rapidly as the activity increases. If your intake of oxygen is too small, you struggle to breathe.

The same could be said for being supplied by grace. Our grace capacity is increased by repetition and by exercising our faith. The more we give ourselves to disciplines such as worship and serving alongside others in mission, then so our grace capacity increases.

We are surprised by grace. We are supplied by grace. But thirdly, we are...

Stretched by Grace
Gabriel tells the believing maiden; 'You will conceive in your womb and bear a Son, and you will name Him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the most High, and the Lord God will give to Him the throne of His ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there shall be no end' (Luke 1:32-33)

Mary is told that her body will be the channel through which the grace of God would become incarnate and bring into the world the Messiah of Israel, the greatest and final King in the line of David, the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world. That is unbelievable. That stretches the limits of faith and possibility. But that is what we are anticipating during Advent and what we celebrate at Christmas.

Now, for sure, in our lives we are not going to have the same role to play as Mary had. Yet in order for our lives to be all that God wants them to be, we need to do some stretching. We need to stop putting limits on what God can or cannot do in us and through us.

A famous book by J.B Phillips was titled 'Your God is too small'. One thing grace can never be is 'SMALL! Grace is always HUGE. Grace is always going to stretch our imaginations, stretch our hopes, stretch our believing. Grace will always challenge our preconceived notions about what God can or cannot do in our lives, in our churches, in our communities and in our world
We shouldn't need to wear a badge or a t-shirt that declares 'I've found it'. For most of us, it is fair to say that, like Joseph Priestly discovering oxygen, what we have discovered is the grace that was always there. Like Mary, who was not anticipating a close encounter of the angelic kind, it is not so much that we found grace, it is that grace has found us.

As we come to the table this morning we contemplate the end of Jesus life rather than it's beginnings. But without Mary, we would not have the rest of the story. As we come today and remind ourselves of all that Jesus was, let us also reflect on these lessons of grace that Mary has offered to us.

  • Grace is always surprising. Allow room in your life to be surprised by God.
  • Grace supplies all that we need to do the tasks God calls us to achieve.
  • Grace stretches us to attempt things we may otherwise have never considered possible.

We have a lot to reflect upon in this encounter between Gabriel and the believing maiden we know as Mary. Consider her words of praise, recorded in Luke 2;

My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
For He has looked with favor on the lowliness of His servant
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.”

To God's name be all glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.