Monday, January 30, 2017

“The Foolishness of It All” (I Corinthians 1:18-31)

“For the message of the cross is foolishness . . .”

The ways of God are not the ways of the world.  Nor are the ways of God our ways.  I cannot imagine a single one of us sitting in this sanctuary disagreeing with that assessment--God’s ways are not our ways.  In fact, I would further imagine that for all of us, the truth of the matter is . . . we just don’t get God’s way of doing things.

God’s way seem to contradict the world’s ways . . . in the economical, sociological, political, and religious fields upon which life is waged on a daily basis.  Also, for us as individuals.  God’s ways seem to clash with the world’s and our ways.  History proves this out over and over again.  God’s ways seem foolish in light of the world in which we live.  They don’t seem to make sense.

In the time of Jesus, Jesus did not make sense.  For a people under the burden of a militaristic and brutal empire, searching for a savior to free them from their oppression--Jesus did not fit the mold.  They were looking for a savior to take sword against sword to free them from their oppression.  A mighty warrior king.  This is what they were seeking from God . . . and, God gave them Jesus.

Through Jesus, God set forth the plan of restoring the kingdom.  Through Jesus, God planned on freeing the people from their oppression.  Through Jesus, God gave the people their savior and he wasn’t anything like they were expecting.  He was not a powerful warrior king--shoot, he wasn’t even noble.  He was the son of a carpenter.  He wasn’t wealthy.  He wasn’t important.  He wasn’t powerful.  He wasn’t political.  Yet, through this man, God planned to save the people . . . to save humanity . . . and, to restore the kingdom once and for all.

Sounds foolish, doesn’t it?  Or, as the Apostle Paul states, “For the message of the cross is foolishness . . .”

And, yet, isn’t the faith we proclaim as the church--the body of Christ, and as individuals beliefs based upon this foolishness?

The argument in Paul’s words this morning is about the cross and the apparent foolishness that it represents to the world.  To the world the cross carried the finality of it all--it was done.  Those in power saw the movement of Jesus as being crushed with his crucifixion upon the cross.  The disciples . . . the followers . . . they all scattered.  For all intent purposes, it was done.  Yet, the ways of the world . . . the ways of humans . . . are not God’s ways.  The cross was not the end . . . it was the beginning.  The beginning of a world and way of living that contradicted the ways of the world then and now.

To the world it all seemed to be foolishness.  To those who believe and follow Jesus . . . well, it is the only way.  To the world it makes no sense.  Yet, the apostle tells us, “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”

And, yet . . . nothing has changed . . . has it?

When we look at the history of humanity, has anything changed?  Have any of our ways brought about the Kingdom of God?  Are we any better than we were in the time of Jesus?  I guess that is something we can think about; in the meantime . . . what are we going to do?

Well, what we are going to do is to do what humans have always attempted to do, and that is to conform God and God’s ways into what works for us and our ways.  Last week in our scripture lesson the Apostle Paul state that there is only one as the church argued the ways of different leaders within the congregation.  Each argued that their way was the best way, the only way.  For Paul this was nonsense as he understood that the only way was Jesus--his words and life.  Jesus was the way.

Just because the apostle said it, it doesn’t mean that people are going to buy it.  They want proof.  In looking at Jesus--his words, actions, and results--the people do not see what the world perceives as important.  No, what they see in Jesus is a contradiction--foolishness; and, yet, this is the way of God.  And, the only way that the world can reconcile this to the world’s ways is to bend, twist, and ignore the ways of Jesus to accomplish the goals it desires.  The end result is that the Kingdom of God is no closer to being realized . . . nothing changes . . . then or now.

The Apostle Paul argues that despite how foolish the ways of God might look to the world, it is the way that God has chosen to accomplish this task of restoring the kingdom.  Also, it is through Jesus that the world--humanity--has been given the pattern, the model, to execute and follow.  Jesus said it in the Gospel of John: “I am the way and the truth and the life.”  Then to emphasize it all, Jesus finished the statement with these words: “No one comes to the Father except through me.”

It is the only way . . . as foolish as it seems or looks--it is the only way.

Because it is the only way that the Kingdom of God will succeed and be established, the ways of the world must be held up to the ways of Jesus.  Where those ways do not fit with Jesus and his ways, they must be let go and replaced . . . replaced with what Jesus would want . . . with what Jesus would do.  If we are going to wear WWJD--What Would Jesus Do--paraphernalia . . . jewelry, shirts, posters, coffee cups--then we better live up to it.  If we are going to use the words that Jesus spoke to explain the faith we proclaim, then we better live up to it.  And, our actions better fit the words we speak . . . after all, they are Jesus’ words.

As foolish as it seems we--the followers of Jesus--must shed the ways of the world to embrace the world as jesus did.  We must love and live as Jesus did. It will not be as the world does, but it will be the way that Jesus does.  It is the only way.  The apostle concludes his argument: “Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.’”

“For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”  Amen.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

“The Common Denominator” (I Corinthians 1:10-18)

Diversity . . . “the condition of having or being composed of differing elements . . . the inclusion of different types of people in a group or organization.”  We, as a nation, community, and church speak of diversity as a positive thing . . . as something we want, need, and should embrace . . . after all, we are historically known as a “melting pot” as a nation.  Historically we have open our shores to a huge array of diverse people to make us the great nation we are today.  As I look at those of you sitting in the pews this morning, what I see is a diverse group of individuals . . . each created uniquely, who think and act differently--based on a huge foundation of life experience--culturally, educationally, religiously . . . based on your gender . . . based on the area where you live . . . based on your income level, just to name a few of the conditions that make you a diverse crowd.  The bottom line is that you are a diverse crowd . . . you are all different . . . and, it is that diversity that gets us all into trouble.

That trouble comes when we--or any group--attempts to assert their diversity as the only way.

At the time of the Apostle Paul, Corinth was a great cosmopolitan Greek city.  It was the capital of the Roman province of Achia.  It was noted for its thriving commerce, proud culture, widespread immorality, and variety of religions . . . it was a virtual melting pot of diversity.  You name it and you could have probably found it in Corinth . . . from legal to illegal, politics, commerce, religion, entertainment, education . . . they had it all.  Corinth was filled with diversity . . . and, filled with competition.  It was a competition between diverse groups as to which was the one and only one.

I think that, as individuals, we understand this conflict because we live in it on a daily basis.  For example, take advertisement--whether it is on the radio, television, newspaper, or magazine; advertisements are a competition of diversity proclaiming one product over another.  Think about it.  I like VO5 Shampoo . . . I think that it is the best shampoo out there.  It is the only shampoo I use.  Yet, sitting in the bathroom of my house is a huge variety of other shampoos . . . four or five other bottles of shampoo.  Each one is there because they claim to be the best . . . and, each one is a little different than the other one.

And, you know what?

They all do the same thing.  They clean hair.  So, in my mind, why not buy the dollar brand instead of the five dollar brand?  I haven’t won that argument in the family yet.

This conflict of diversity permeated into the very fabric of the Corinthian community . . . even into its places of worship.  Whenever there is conflict, there is division as people line up on sides.  This was the apostle’s concern with the congregation that he established in Corinth . . . that diversity would divide them and make them impotent in following the call of Jesus.  Paul’s concern was in holding the congregation together in order to be Jesus’ representative in that community and beyond . . . of holding them together to be the body of Christ . . . of fulfilling God’s call upon their lives.  And, it was a valid concern as the congregation was splitting itself up into factions . . . and, those factions were getting a little heated in their debates.

Paul says, “Let me put it this way: each one of you says something different.  One says, ‘I follow Paul’; and another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; and another, ‘I follow Christ.’ Christ has been divided into groups!”

Sounds to me as if there is a problem with diversity.  Each side wants their way.  There is no compromise . . . it is “our way or the highway.”  And, the conflict is reaching the point that the congregation is about to fall apart.  In Paul’s mind, which he delves into later in his letter to the Corinthians, he see the various diverse members of the congregation as parts of a body . . . in this case, the body of Christ.  Each part of the body is necessary to be a “whole” body.  No two parts of the body are the same or perform the same duties, yet together they make the whole body.  Together they present the fullness of Christ to themselves and to the world around them.  In Paul’s mind and heart, he knows that it takes all of them together.  In this conflict he is witnessing the body self-destruct.

Thus it is that Paul realizes that there only one trump card that he can play . . . only one thing that he can do . . . and, that is to point out to those he is addressing, that despite their differences they are all bound to one another with one common denominator.

Now I realize that I have used a “math” term . . . “common denominator”; and, true, the first definition of that term is based in mathematics.  But it is not the mathematical definition I want us to focus on, it is the second definition of the term: “a feature that everyone or everything in a particular group has.”  A “common denominator” is that thing that binds the group together despite their diversity and differences.  In Paul’s mind and heart, that “common denominator” is Jesus.

Paul takes issue with this division within the congregation.  He points out that none of them who are gathered as a congregation got there through different means.  Paul points out that it was not he who was crucified upon a cross, nor any of the others.  It was Jesus.  It was through Jesus that they came into a relationship with God and with one another.  It was through Jesus that they became a representative body of Christ.  It was through Jesus that they were saved and brought into a life of faith. And, the very thread that holds them together as family . . . as the body . . . is Jesus.  No matter what their differences . . . no matter how unique they are as individuals . . . they are all bound together through Jesus.

It is at that point, states Paul, that we begin . . . we begin at Jesus.  We read his words . . . not the words of those who interpret them, but his words . . . the words he said.  We watch his actions . . . watch how he relates to those around him . . . those outside of him . . . those who are forgotten . . . those hidden in the shadows.  And, we pray . . . we pray to the God whose intimacy we gained through Jesus . . . we pray for guidance as to how we can live up to that call by Jesus to live as he lived in our own lives.

Now, I realize, that each and everyone of us has a relationship with God that is unique to who we are.  Because of that we are going to have differences in the way that we see God tugging on our hearts to be like Jesus . . . that we are not all going to do things the same way.  We are going to have differences of opinion, we are going to have disagreements.  And, that is okay.  That is okay as long as we remember to keep connected to that common denominator that makes us one as the family of God--Jesus.  It is through that common denominator that we will accomplish God’s will.  Through Jesus all things are possible in bringing about the Kingdom of God.

Paul is not knocking diversity.  No, Paul acknowledges diversity; yet, at the same time, he points out how the diversity fits together like an intricate puzzle to form the totality of the picture.  In this case, the body of Christ.  The fact is the family of God is a rich and diverse family that stretches from one side of the spectrum to the other.  There is no escaping it . . . after all, God created us, each and everyone, to be unique and in God’s own image . . . and, it takes all of us to make it happen.

Paul’s argument is simple.  Be one in Christ Jesus.  Let that be the foundation from which the words that we speak--no matter how we speak them--and the actions that we take--no matter how we take them.  We may not agree on anything else, and that is okay; but, as the followers of Jesus we can agree on that.  Jesus came to restore us to God’s Kingdom . . . a kingdom in which we are in a loving, intimate relationship with God and one another . . . a kingdom in which all are welcome, received, included, and made to be a part of the family . . . a part of the body.

Jesus is the tie that binds us.  Let us pull tight on that tie and be the body of Christ in this time and place.  Amen.

Monday, January 16, 2017

“Whew . . . Oh, NO!” (Isaiah 49:1-7)

My grandchildren love movies and stories in which there is always a happy ending . . . an ending in which “everyone lives happily ever after.”  As adults, we know that life is not that simple.  One of the myths of life is that there are “happy endings” in which “everyone lives happily ever after.”  But reality teaches us that this is not true no matter how many Disney movies we watch and want to believe.  Life is not that simple . . . not that black and white; no, life is lived and experienced in that messy gray area between the black and white.

At the same time, we hope.  Hope . . . there always has to be hope.  We hope for the best.  We hope for those fairy tale endings in which “everyone lives happily ever after.”  We hope because we need hope.  Hope is what gets us through the day . . . hope is what makes another day bearable.  We need hope to keep us going.  We need to be able to hang on to that illusion that everything will turn out for the best . . . the hero will ride off into the sunset . . . and, “everyone will live happily ever after.”

The truth is . . . whether we want to admit it or not . . . is that it not that plain and simple.

Last week we heard about the plight of God’s children--Israel.  We heard how they had been stomped by the Babylonians . . . how Jerusalem had been razed . . . how they had been so utterly defeated that the once and proud nation of Israel--God’s children--had been reduced to a quivering mass of doubt.  Having lost their status as a nation . . . their livelihood, their homes, their religion . . . they no longer had identity or faith.  They had nothing to hang on to.  There was no happy ending to their exile to Babylon.  They were up that proverbial creek without a paddle and the rapids sure looked like they were coming up quick.  

Into that situation comes the prophet Isaiah.  Isaiah appears to throw them a life preserver . . . to throw them a paddle . . . to give them hope.  Remember what he tells them . . . about a savior who would come?  A savior that would rescue them . . . restore them?  Well, this week our scripture reading continues with that idea of hope.  Isaiah assures the people that they will come out of this mess . . . that they will be restored . . . that they will avoid disaster.

And, all God’s children sighed a sigh of relief . . . whew!

Whew!  That was close!

We all know that feeling of relief when we avoid disaster in our own lives. That everything is going to be okay.  It is a great relief . . . we feel good . . . we feel redeemed . . . we feel safe . . . everything is going to be okay.  And, at least for a moment, we believe in that happy ending.  Life is good.

We have all heard the story about the man who promised God anything and everything if God would help him win the lottery . . . and, yet, he never won.  How he went into the church lamenting the fact that he had done all of these things . . . made all of these sacrifices, and God did not allow him to win the lottery.  Then tearfully leaving the sanctuary of the church, God spoke to the man, “Joe, you gotta help me out with this one--buy a lottery ticket!”  

Research shows that those people who have won the lottery do not live “happily ever after.”  No, a lot of them regret that they ever won.  Suddenly relatives and friends--not to mention every charity and scam artist--show up out of nowhere wanting a cut of the winnings.  Then there is the government showing up wanting their cut of the winnings.  Winning a lottery is complicated . . . and, yet, the hope is that in winning the lottery, life will be easier.  But, it is not.  It changes everything . . .

You see, the story does not end with winning.  No, the story now takes a new direction.  It is not a “cut and dry” matter.  It is not, whew!  It is more like . . . whew . . . oh, NO!

Yes, the prophet Isaiah spoke words of hope to the people . . . they would be restored; but, at the same time he told them that the story would not end with this act.  No, the story would continue . . . and, in the story’s continuation they would play a major role.  The restoration was only the prelude to the continuing story of God’s love and grace.  This hope is grounded in more than restoration of a people . . . it is grounded in the restoration of all of God’s creation . . . towards the Kingdom of God.

Isaiah’s hope is grounded in a savior--a rescuer--who would deliver the people.  Over and over again, Isaiah stresses this.  At the same time, this rescuer--this savior--would be one no expects . . . a virtual unknown who delivers something that no believes he can deliver.  In our perfect 20/20 hindsight we are quick to proclaim that this savior that the prophet speaks about is none other than Jesus . . . and, it fits.  It fits our understanding of the faith story.

At the same time, the prophet speaks in metaphors . . . speaks in symbolic language . . . spiritual language.  Yes, there is the savior . . . the one who comes to rescue and restore . . . the one we point out for us as being Jesus.  Yet, at the same time . . . last week and this week . . . the prophet alludes to another meaning . . . to the rest of the story.  That allusion is that the story cannot be complete without the very people receiving the words of hope . . . the children of God themselves.  They, too, have a role in the story . . . they, too, are responsible in taking this story beyond themselves to the rest of the world.  The people have a role to play in this restoration.  They are to carry this hope to the rest of the world.

Yes, the people are restored.  They reclaim their place as the children of God.  That alone is a happy ending . . . but, God is not done.  No, it is a good start.  For God the story continues . . . out of restoration comes expansion . . . a constant outward movement to bring everyone into the family . . . to restore the Kingdom of God.  Isaiah wants the people to understand their role . . . it is not done.  And, if you listen carefully to his words today . . . and, remember his words from last week . . . that role for the people is one of servanthood.  To love God and others.

In this way, Isaiah speaks not only of a savior to come, but of a role for the children of God.

And, it fits.

It fits.  We recognize Jesus as that savior.  We are called to follow in his footsteps to not only live the words that he spoke, but to live the life that he lived.  That was a life of servanthood . . . of loving God . . . of loving others.  We are marching towards God’s Kingdom as we live our lives in Jesus . . . his words and actions.  We are called to deliver the Kingdom.

That is our hope . . . that is our dream . . . that is our “happily ever after.”  It is what gets us up in the morning . . . it is what carries us through the day . . . it is our hope.  No story really ever ends.  No, every story that involves is only a prelude to another layer of the story being unfolded . . . the beginning of another adventure.  Thus, we cannot get complacent in those moments in life when we think that we have accomplished the fairy tale ending . . . the “happily ever after.”  The reality is that it is never over until the Kingdom has be restored.

The story of faith is a never-ending story.  May we rejoice in the victory while preparing for the next chapter . . . it is grounded in hope.  Jesus showed us the way . . . let us buy the ticket and play.  Amen.

Monday, January 9, 2017

“Servant--That is My Name” (Isaiah 42:1-9)

To understand the morning’s reading one must set the scene in its context to the story of Israel.  In the story of Israel we know that God delivered the people from bondage in Egypt, made a covenant with them, and brought them through the wilderness to the Promised Land--to the land of Canaan.  They became a nation, built a temple for the Lord.  For centuries they went about their business, from time to time they strayed from their covenant with God, but the prophets always called them back.  Then, the unthinkable happened . . . they strayed too far and listened too little.  Devastation came upon them.

Devastation came upon them through the Babylonians . . . the Babylonians defeated them.  They destroyed the temple, plundered Israel’s riches and took away their livelihood, took them into bondage, and marched them back to Babylon.  The Babylonians completely and thoroughly devastated the Israelites destroying the political, social, economic and religious life that they had known for generations . . . had known for centuries.  It was absolute victory.

This crisis is difficult for us to understand because we have never experienced such defeat as a nation in our history . . . we have never been invaded, defeated, and ripped from the foundation of who we think we are.  It is difficult to understand to imagine how devastating it was for God’s chosen people to be defeated and handed over to their enemies . . . and, not once did God intervene.  How could God allow this to happen?  Were they or were they not the children of God . . . the chosen people?  In the devastation the people wondered who they were and whose they were.

It is into this situation that the prophet must speak.

What would you say?

Now I want us to shift for a moment to an earlier scene in the story of Israel . . . to a time before there was an Israel.  I want to share another story . . . a familiar story.  It is the story of Moses’ encounter with God in the form of a burning bush.  Do you remember that story?  And, in remembering that story do you remember the conversation that Moses had with God.  In particular do you remember Moses asking God for a name?              Moses wanted to have a name that he could tell the people . . . a name for God.

In these stories of faith, names are important.  In knowing a person’s name others knew the essence of who that person was . . . a name defined the person and brought a sense of understanding of who he or she might be.  Moses wanted a name . . . a name that would explain God and make God the people’s. In knowing the name, the people would have ownership.  But God cannot be owned . . . nor can God be tricked.  Thus it was that God provided Moses with a name . . . YHWH (Yah Weh).  In that name everything about God was revealed . . . everything that a person needed to understand God was in that name.

Or so it would seem . . . but, as I said, God is not easily tricked.

What does YHWH mean?  Well, when translated from the Hebrew it is usually stated as “I am” or “I am who I am”,  Amazingly this name says it all, while at the same time it says nothing.  Yet, this is the name of God.  Surprisingly, the name fits.

And for many centuries the Israelites thought that they understood the name of God . . . understood what it meant to be a child of God . . . understood who they were and whose they were.  Now they were a crushed people in exile in a strange land.  Nothing made sense.  They needed a foundation upon which they could stand and make sense of it all . . . upon which they could understand who they were . . . understand who they belonged to.  They needed assurance . . . something to hang on to . . . they needed a name.

Into this situation the prophet, Isaiah, spoke.

Isaiah tells the people who God is and how God works.  He draws them out of the moment into a bigger picture . . . to a greater purpose of God.  From a myopic view and understanding, Isaiah pulls their vision and understanding of God and God’s purpose to a more expansive view of God and God’s purpose.  It was bigger than anything they had experienced and known . . . completely different than what they were expecting, because it would encompass all of creation.

The picture that Isaiah paints is one of servant.  God proclaims that their deliverance would come, not through the might and power of a warrior king; but, from a servant.  “Here is my servant, who I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight . . .”  Through this individual, not only would Israel be saved but all of God’s creation . . . all nations . . . and, it would be done through servanthood. There would be justice . . . there would be peace . . . there would be love between one another and with God.  And, this would be delivered through this individual whose life and words would be one calling all to servanthood.  In this individual the children of God would find who they are and whose they were . . . from them they would be witness to the rest of the world.

Servant . . . that is the name the Israelites (and us) hear.

Now flash forward to a story that takes place at the Jordan River.  A man, named Jesus, comes to be baptized.  John the Baptist refuses to baptize the man stating that it should be the other way around . . . the man should be baptizing him.  Yet, the man insists that it has to happen.  In Matthew’s gospel we are told that this then takes place: As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water.  At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him.  And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:16-17)

Remember the words of the prophet Isaiah?  “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations.”  In Jesus the “servant” has been delivered.  And, who among us would deny that Jesus’ life and ministry was not based completely upon servanthood?

Time after time, through the words that he spoke and the actions that he did, Jesus lived servanthood.  He even demonstrated this to his disciples on that last night that he was with them all . . . he stripped and covered himself in a towel and then proceeded to wash the feet of his disciples.  He explained that the master had become the servant . . . and, that this was the role that all were called to.  In Jesus this was demonstrated and lived so that all would know how they were to live their lives . . . in service to God . . . in service to others.

The prophet Isaiah delivers his words of hope to the people . . . that redemption and salvation would come in the form of servanthood.  In Jesus the model has been given . . . through word and deed Jesus demonstrated what it mean to be created in the image of God and to be a child of God.  He stated it in simplistic terms . . . love God and love one another.  To bring peace and justice.  To establish the Kingdom of God.  In Jesus we are shown the way . . . in Jesus we are revealed who we are and whose we are.

This is a radical way of seeing the world and living in the world.  It is not of the world, but the very heart of God.  To this the prophet Isaiah speaks to the exile people . . . this is how they learn who they are . . . how they know whose they are.  Through servanthood . . . in serving God and others . . . and, Jesus is the way.

Thus we return to the story of Israel in their Babylonian exile . . . a people searching for meaning and purpose . . . a people desiring their place in God’s family.  Isaiah speaks the word to them . . . speaks of servanthood . . . of being a servant.  They want a name and God gives them a name.  After a long description of the servant’s purpose and ministry, Isaiah--speaking for God, proclaims: “I am the Lord; that is my name!”  

In that name, it says it all.

The tradition is that on the first Sunday of the season of Epiphany we celebrate the baptism of Jesus.  The mold has been cast . . . God sends a servant who will bring justice, who will establish peace . . . and, it is servanthood.  In Jesus, God sends that servant.  That is the name of God we can understand and embrace.  During Epiphany we recognize and receive the Servant . . . a gift we are called upon to share with the whole world.  Thus said the prophet Isaiah . . . fulfilled in Jesus.  Amen.    

Monday, January 2, 2017

“Making Sense” (Matthew 2:13-23)

Christmas music begins the day after Thanksgiving in the Keener household and continues well into the month of January . . . Dana loves Christmas and would keep it going for as long as I can tolerate it.  There is something beautiful about Christmas with God coming to the world in love . . . not in a judgmental way, but in way that makes it difficult to not want to jump into that love and fully embrace it.  God comes as a little baby . . . and, who among us does not love little babies?  Who wouldn’t want to hang on to that feeling for as long as possible?  To keep it going?  This celebratory version of Christmas is hard to shake, especially in the Keener household . . . but, there is a darkness that looms over the Christmas story . . . a darkness waiting to jump out from the shadows and remind us that life is not simple.

Life is complicated.

Life is complicated even when it comes to our salvation story.

As soon as the wise men left, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream with a warning: “Get up, take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt.  Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”  Joseph is warned that Israel is no place for him and his family . . . that there was danger in staying . . . grave danger.  Heeding the warning of the angel, Joseph packs up his family and hightails it to Egypt . . . runs for their lives.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch (as they say in all the great Westerns), Herod realizes that he has been duped.  The wise men do not return with the information of where the new king of Israel has been born; nope, they have skipped town.  Furious Herod does the only thing that he can do to remedy this competition . . . he issues an edict to kill all the boys in the vicinity of Bethlehem who were two years old and under.  This was the only way he could be assured that this challenge to his power would be eliminated.

The darkness moves quickly to squash out the beauty of the Christmas story. The children are killed.  A nightmarish tragedy echoes forth from the story as death moves through families and communities.  A prophecy has been fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”

Such actions kind of put a kabash on the Christmas story . . . no one really wants to sing Christmas hymns and songs knowing that innocent lives were taken.  It doesn’t make much sense does it?  And, yet, this is a part of the story of Christmas . . . a part of the reality of our salvation story.  Darkness engulfs the story . . . and, it just does not make sense.

So, the baby Jesus is whisked off to safety in the land of Egypt.  Kind of ironic that Egypt would be the place of safety for the saviour of the world?  Egypt which had been a house of bondage to Israel . . . the land of their exile for so many generations . . . a place where they were oppressed . . . a place where their children suffered.  Ironic, yet so symbolic.  For it was out of Egypt that Israel was born . . . it was out of Egypt that Israel found itself as God’s children . . . out of Egypt from where it was saved and had its beginning.  Once again, it will be out of Egypt that the family of God will be born anew . . . that it will be established as a new creation . . . a new beginning.  It is difficult not to note the parallel of this story with the story of Israel’s exodus from bondage into life.

But, again, does this make sense?

In light of the fact that we were just getting our Christmas groove on, does any of this make sense?  Does it make sense that so many innocent children would be allowed to be killed?  Does it make sense that Joseph drags his family off to Egypt--not quite one of the top ten places for Jews to go and take an extended vacation?  All of this puts a damper on our Christmas celebration . . . from joy to crushing frustration and ultimately, depression . . . as darkness casts a shadow over the promise and the hope of the season.  Doesn’t make much sense does it?

One biblical commentator stated that this was a “trial of the faith of Joseph and Mary.”  In my mind and heart, this is a pretty harsh trial of faith.  From the beginning it has not been easy for either of them . . . an unexpected pregnancy before the wedding has even happened . . . news that their kid would be the saviour of the world . . . no room in the inn . . . a birth in a stable . . . strangers showing up all goo-goo eyed over their kid . . . angels coming with messages and telling them to get the heck out of Dodge . . . running off to Egypt.  That is a lot of stress on the newly married couple who have just had their first baby.  Nothing normal about it.  And, I imagine that both Joseph and Mary were overwhelmed with feelings of frustration . . . nothing made sense.

But, God is funny that way.  Not “funny” as in a “ha ha” sense of the word, but “funny” as in “peculiar”.  God likes to throw a lot of curveballs in a world that expects fast balls.  But God never said it would be easy.  Jesus never promised that it would be easy.  Heck, faith is hard.  Because we really do know how difficult and hard faith can be . . . and, we also know that God has the capability to simply fix it all with a simple motion of love and grace to make all things work out . . . we just don’t understand why it has to be so difficult and hard.  Why do we have to go through all this muck and mire?  So why doesn’t God just fix it?  

It just doesn’t make sense.

As we were growing and continue to grow, did it make much sense if our parents, teachers, and mentors did everything for us?  No, it didn’t.  If our parents, teachers, and mentors did everything for us, what would we have learned?  Nothing.  And, what would we have become?

God understood and understands this.  If our parents, teachers, and mentors did all the work for us, would we be the people we are today?  Would we know who we are?  Probably not, and for that reason we have to go through life experiencing all of its ups and downs for ourselves . . . having to make the decisions for ourselves . . . having to learn the lessons.  No one else can do it for us . . . not even God.  The choice is always ours.  And, a lot of the time, the choices we make do not make a lot of sense at the time that we make them.

But, we have to believe.  We have to believe in the promise.  We have to believe in the gift.  We have to believe that God will not abandon us.  We have to believe that we are on the right path . . . a path blazed for us in the life and example of Jesus.  We have to believe in love and grace in the face of a world that seems to be spinning towards darkness.  We have to believe.

And, to believe . . . to believe is our choice.

Throughout the Christmas story, all of the leading characters had choices to make.  God did not force them to go one way over the other, but allowed for them to make choices.  In the story we read of the choices that they made even though we do not quite understand the choices that they were given.  This is probably not the way we would have written the Christmas story had we been given the chance . . . we would have had it end with “. . . and they all lived happily ever after.”  Thus we are confused . . . confused and attempting to make sense of it all.

Darkness invades the Christmas story just as it invades our lives.  That is the way life is . . . the way that faith is.  It is hard and often times unexplainable and difficult to understand.  And, we wonder . . . we question . . . we attempt to make sense of it all.  The truth of the matter is, darkness is a part of the Christmas story . . . plain and simple, just as it is a part of life.  What makes it easier to endure is the choice to believe . . . to believe in the promise . . . to believe in the love and grace . . . and, to set that belief into action in the way that we live our lives.  That much of our story we can control.  That is our choice.

This darkness that invades our joyful celebration of the Christmas story does not have to be the end of our joy or our celebration.  Christmas hymns and songs can continued to be sung despite this darkness that produces a bump in the journey of faith.  True, it is a part of the story . . . a gruesome part . . . but, a part nonetheless.  As such, it presents us with a choice . . . a choice of how we confront the darkness that enters into our lives.  We can acknowledge the darkness, and we can respond with belief.

Belief that Immanuel . . . God with us . . . is where we begin.  With such belief we begin to live life.  God’s ways may not make sense, but God does.  In that we believe and live.  Amen.