Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Cast of Christmas: Prophets

In reflecting on the story of Christmas, we're just so fond of focusing on figures who fit nicely into our nativity scenes: Joseph, Mary, shepherds, angels, wise men, assorted livestock. But behind the scenes and off-stage lurk others no less important to the full picture. Throughout the centuries and even millennia before that Bethlehem dawn, God sent a number of people we call prophets – human spokesmen given the privilege of eavesdropping on the heavenly counsel taken by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and then relaying urgent messages to the rest of us just in the nick of time.

So the prophet Abram heard that God would bring life from his good-as-dead body (Hebrews 11:12), and was reckoned righteous for having faith in a God of Resurrection (Genesis 15:6). He heard that, through the work of this Resurrection God, kings and nations would come from him (Genesis 17:5-6), centering on one Offspring who would inherit the covenant loyalty of the LORD (Genesis 17:7; cf. Galatians 3:16). Just you wait...

The prophet Moses heard that God would someday appoint a new Prophet from the people of Israel, a Prophet coming with a covenant like Moses did (Deuteronomy 18:15-18), when the LORD would circumcise his peoples' wayward hearts to love his justice and mercy (Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6); and this Prophet-to-come would be one the LORD would hold all people accountable to believe (Deuteronomy 18:19). Just you wait...

Many years passed. Prophets like Samuel anointed kings like David, who himself was inspired to prophesy in his Psalms. Prophets like Elijah and Elisha worked great wonders in the land. The prophet Amos heard about judgment on Judah and Israel alike (Amos 2:4-8); he spoke of God trying to shake his people awake (Amos 4:6-13), calling them to seek him and live (Amos 5:4) – and after judgment passes through, God promised to raise up “the booth of David” and turn their land into a paradise forever (Amos 9:11-15). Just you wait...

The prophet Hosea heard about the LORD's deep grief at the unfaithfulness of his Bride, and his determination to woo her and wed her at last (Hosea 2:19-20). He recalled the days long before when the LORD adopted Israel as a son and led him up from Egypt with deep compassion (Hosea 11:1-4). But the people were long unfaithful, tempted by paganism and political pressure. After thundering judgment chapter after chapter, finally the LORD says, “My compassion grows warm and tender; I will not execute my burning anger” (Hosea 11:8-9). God contemplates, “Shall I redeem them from Death? O Death, where are your plagues? O Grave, where is your sting?” (Hosea 13:14). And so the prophet Hosea hears God's promise that one day all of God's countless people would be called “sons [and daughters] of the living God” (Hosea 1:10), gathered under a single Head to lead them (Hosea 1:11), who would be a faithful son of David (Hosea 3:5). Just you wait...

And then, how much the prophet Isaiah heard! He saw that, though proud nations like Assyria were God's axe (Isaiah 10:15, 34), sent to chop wayward Judah down to just a holy stump (Isaiah 6:13), out of this remnant stump would grow “a shoot from the stump of Jesse,” a fruitful “Branch from his roots” (Isaiah 11:1), that is, a King anointed with God's Spirit to rule with eternal justice (Isaiah 11:2-5). Isaiah explains that this will be a sign for the whole royal family: that “the virgin will conceive and bear a son,” who will be proof that God is with his people after all (Isaiah 7:14). In those troubled times of deepest darkness and greatest gloom (Isaiah 8:22), this great light was to burst forth in “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Isaiah 9:2) with the birth of a holy King called the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6), to rule a kingdom with eternal justice (Isaiah 9:7).

This would fulfill the prophecy that “the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him” to “tend his flock like a shepherd” (Isaiah 40:10-11). This king would be the faithful remnant of the remnant of Israel, the Servant of the LORD, and so God calls him “my Servant, whom I uphold,” and he comes bearing God's Spirit (Isaiah 42:1). He would be anointed to “bring good news to the poor, … to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives” (Isaiah 61:1). This royal Servant would be sent “to bring back the preserved ones of Israel,” but also to be “a light for the nations,” so that “salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6).

This royal Servant, Isaiah says, would “act wisely” (Isaiah 52:13), but nonetheless be “despised and rejected by men” (Isaiah 53:3), becoming “one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation, the servant of rulers” (Isaiah 49:7). He would “give [his] back to those who strike, and [his] cheeks to those who pull out the beard,” and wouldn't flinch from those who spit in his face (Isaiah 50:6), but in all this the royal Servant would “not cry aloud or lift up his voice” (Isaiah 42:2), for “like a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). This was all so he will be, Isaiah foresees, “pierced for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5), to “[bear] the sin of many” (Isaiah 53:12) once “the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). And so the royal Servant would be “cut off from the land of the living” and assigned a “grave with the wicked” (Isaiah 53:8-9), having “poured out his soul to death” (Isaiah 53:12). By this the LORD would “wash away the filth of the daughters of Zion” (Isaiah 4:4), and because of his atoning death, the LORD promises through Isaiah, “I will not remember your sins” (Isaiah 43:25).

But the Servant would not be abandoned to this grave with the wicked or be “numbered with the transgressors” forever, but would later “prolong his days” and “see light and be satisfied” and receive “a portion with the great” (Isaiah 53:10-12). Isaiah promises that this Servant or “Branch of the LORD would revive and be “beautiful and glorious” (Isaiah 4:2), living on to “reign in righteousness” (Isaiah 32:1). On his account, God would send messengers “to the coastlands far away that have not heard my fame or seen my glory, and they shall declare my glory among the nations” (Isaiah 66:19). Through this royal Servant would come a new “everlasting covenant” of love (Isaiah 55:3), embracing even foreigners and outcasts (Isaiah 56:3-8), and a family would form around him, for Isaiah says, “He shall see his offspring” (Isaiah 53:10). This is why God tells his Servant, “I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring” (Isaiah 44:3), who will be “saved by the LORD with an everlasting salvation” (Isaiah 45:17). Just you wait...

In those years of Isaiah's ministry lived also the prophet Micah, who foresaw that an ancient ruler for Israel would emerge from “Bethlehem” (Micah 5:2), through whom God would “tread our iniquities underfoot” and “cast our sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19). Through him, the LORD would gather the outcasts and the afflicted (Micah 4:6-7), and nations would come to seek the LORD and learn his ways of peace (Micah 4:2-3). This Ruler from Bethlehem would “stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD,” and would be “great to the ends of the earth; and he will be their peace” (Micah 5:4-5). Just you wait...

The prophet Habakkuk, in an hour of distress, heard that when this time comes, “the righteous shall live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). The prophet Zephaniah, too, foresaw that all peoples would learn to “call upon the name of the LORD and serve him with one accord” (Zephaniah 3:9), once the LORD himself would dwell in Jerusalem's midst as “a mighty one who will save” (Zephaniah 3:17), to “save the lame and gather the outcast and … change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth” (Zephaniah 3:19). And the prophet Joel, in the face of a destroying army, declared that once the LORD's Voice would be heard in Jerusalem someday (Joel 3:16), “a fountain shall come forth from the House of the LORD (Joel 3:18). God would grant plenty to his people (Joel 2:23-25), pouring down not just rain but his own Spirit (Joel 2:28-29), and “everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved” (Joel 2:32). Just you wait...

The prophet Jeremiah saw that, after the coming exile, the people would be brought back to seek and find their God (Jeremiah 29:11-14). Someday they would be ruled by a “Ruler [who] shall come out of their midst” (Jeremiah 30:21), when the LORD would “raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land; in his days Judah will be saved” (Jeremiah 23:5-6; cf. 33:15-16). In those days, the prophet saw, God will “make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (Jeremiah 31:31), and would thus “forgive their iniquity” and “remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34). The prophet awaited the day when “all nations shall gather … to the presence of the LORD (Jeremiah 3:17). Just you wait...

So too, the prophet Ezekiel heard that God would “rescue [his] flock” and “set up over them one shepherd,” a king from the line of David, who would “feed them and be their shepherd” (Ezekiel 34:22-23). Through him, God would make a “covenant of peace” with his people (Ezekiel 34:25; 37:26), reviving them to real life (Ezekiel 37:11-14), washing them “clean from all their uncleannesses,” replacing their resistant hearts with tender ones, and filling the people with his own Spirit (Ezekiel 36:25-27). In this way, they would become “one nation in the land, … and one king shall be king over them all” (Ezekiel 37:22), namely, the Good Shepherd from the house of David (Ezekiel 37:24-25). Just you wait...

The prophet Daniel came to bear witness to a “God in heaven who reveals mysteries” (Daniel 2:28) and who “removes kings and establishes kings” (Daniel 2:21). In visions he saw the great empires of history as metals like gold, silver, bronze, iron, even clay – but a holy Stone, carved by no human hand, would smash and replace them with a kingdom that would “stand forever” (Daniel 2:44). The prophet also saw the great empires of history as vicious inhuman beasts (Daniel 7:2-8), who would be tamed and replaced by a human figure, the “one like a son of man,” who would receive from God the right to rule that kingdom that stands forever (Daniel 7:13-14). And finally the prophet Daniel heard tell of an 'anointed prince,' the Messiah, who would come and “be cut off” at a very specific time (Daniel 9:26). Just you wait...

The prophet Haggai promised that when the “Desire of Nations” would arrive, the LORD would glorify his new temple more than the one Solomon built (Haggai 2:7-9). The prophet Zechariah promised that the holy Servant of the LORD called “the Branch” (Zechariah 3:8) would be a royal priest who would build God's true temple (Zechariah 6:12-13), and through whom, God says, “I will remove the iniquity of this land in a single day” (Zechariah 3:9). This Branch was to be the King who comes in peace, “humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” into Jerusalem, “righteous and having salvation” (Zechariah 9:9). Though people would look on “him whom they have pierced” and “mourn for him” (Zechariah 12:10), this would be how “a fountain shall be opened … to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness” (Zechariah 13:1). This humble King would set prisoners free through “the blood of my covenant with you” (Zechariah 9:11), and would rule the earth forever (Zechariah 9:10). Only in this way would “many peoples and strong nations come to seek the LORD (Zechariah 8:22), when the kingdom of God at last arrives (Zechariah 14:9). And the prophet Malachi warned that “the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple” to purify the people (Malachi 3:1-3); and when things seem too hot, “the Sun of Righteousness” would rise with healing in his wings for all who fear the LORD (Malachi 4:2). Just you wait...

Down through the centuries, the prophets kept hitting at so many of the same things. They saw the same things on the horizon, heard the whispers of God as he plotted it all out. And as the people inherited these promises over centuries, how many new years do you think began when they said, “This will be the year”? And then how many New Year's Eves rolled around, and they looked back and saw no messiah, no justice, no forgiveness, no glory? And so the elders reading the prophets' scrolls would tell the people, “Not yet, but someday. Oh, just you wait...” And so many did wait. In today's passage, we read of a man who was waiting for the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25), and of many people who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38) – the very things of which the age-old prophets spoke.

Onto that scene walk two elderly prophets, Simeon and Anna. (I sure wish either of them had left a book of scripture behind!) He was “righteous and devout,” being led by the Holy Spirit, and had received a promise that he wouldn't die until the saw the prophets' words coming true – until he saw the Lord's Messiah, the anointed King from the house of David, face-to-face (Luke 2:25-27). She was a woman of the tribe of Asher, a widow most all her life, who stayed on sacred ground to fast and pray by night and by day (Luke 2:36-37). The both of them were waiting... waiting for an answer. Fasting, praying for an answer.

But then, amidst the milling throng in the temple courts, they beheld a forty-day-old baby boy in the arms of a peasant couple – too poor to afford a lamb, but only bringing a pair of pigeons for Mary's atonement (Luke 2:24; cf. Leviticus 12:8). And in seeing “the child Jesus,” they knew that their wait was over. Simeon could say, “My eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples: a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:30-32). This was what the prophets had always said: a public salvation, a public display of God's strength, to open Gentile eyes and fulfill Israel's destiny and put everything back the way it ought to be. The key act of faith would forever now be in looking at this Jesus and seeing the light of God shining clear and strong.

When Simeon and Anna saw Jesus, they saw everything they'd been waiting for all their lives. It might take a bit more time to unfold, but it was all there, all there in him. How would you have reacted, if you had been there that day? If you had been able to take the infant Jesus in your arms? If you had looked into his face and known that the hopes and fears of all the years were met in him one cold Bethlehem night? Had seen in him that the story of your life had reached its great resolution, and the tension of years was coming undone, and now the plot had its point? How did Simeon and Anna react?

Simeon thanked God for “letting [his] servant,” Simeon, “depart in peace.” He thanked God for being faithful to his word, after so many years of waiting (Luke 2:29). He blessed Joseph and Mary, and prophesied about what all this would mean (Luke 2:34). Nothing would be as it had been. Nothing could stay hidden. This Messiah would unmask the reality behind everyone, would ferret out the human heart and put it on display, “so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:35). God had chosen this Child to be the standard, this Child to be the centerpiece, the cornerstone: either people would trip over him and fall, or people would build on his foundation and rise – and there would be plenty of both (Luke 2:34; cf. Isaiah 8:14; 28:16; Romans 9:32-33; 1 Peter 2:7-8). His life would not be easy; he was a sign from God, just as the prophets said, but would be opposed and spurned, also as the prophets said (Luke 2:34).

And as for Anna, “coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38). Not only did she thank God for fulfilling his word and making good on his promises, but she went and found others who were waiting – who knew something was lacking in their lives, who knew that something was wrong with the way the world was – and she told them that she'd just seen the sign, this child Jesus, who would be the answer to all their waiting, too.

As we meander through the year, we wait for so much. We wait for consolation in our darkest gloom. We wait for a rescue from our addictions, for freedom from our slavery, for an end to the struggle with our vices and bad habits, our faults and our sins. We wait for peace in a war-torn world. We wait for unity in a divided society. We wait for reconciliation in the face of betrayal. We wait for a flicker of flame to melt and cheer the bleak midwinter. And how many times have we sighed, “Not yet, but someday”? And how many times have we felt anguish, and despaired, and murmured, “Not yet, and never”? How often have we asked what's the point? How often have we felt beleaguered, worn down, exhausted by the wait, bored with the monotony, pained by the need, ensnared by the tension, bursting with longing or bowed low with resignation?

But I leave you with this promise, as solid as all the prophets whose messages Simeon and Anna saw come true before their very eyes: In Jesus Christ, we no longer say, “Not yet, but someday.” In Jesus Christ, we say only two things. For some: “Not then, but now!” – “Now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2). For others: “Not seen, but soon!” – for “by God's power [you] are being guarded through faith for a salvation [that's already] ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:5).

And all those prophets who came before, who “searched and inquired carefully” into the things of God's Spirit – they “prophesied about the grace that was to be yours (1 Peter 1:10). They were in fact “serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven” (1 Peter 1:12). So don't lose heart: all that the prophets long foretold is true, has come true, is coming true, will come true: Not then, but now! Not seen, but soon! So let us, like Simeon and Anna and the prophets before them, announce these things in the good news for others who are waiting for something they know yet not what. Thanks be to God! Amen!

Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Cast of Christmas: Shepherds

An old man, wrapped tightly in his shúkà and carrying a long, gnarled staff, trod deliberately and lightly across the sparsely tufted savannah. He spied a herd of zebra in the distance, and, even closer, a smaller herd of white folks. I was in that second herd. I know I've made mention several times this Advent of people I met during my time in Kenya a few years ago, but indulge me briefly this once more. He was a Maasai tribesman and a shepherd, dressed in red, following and directing his flock of sheep. It's men like him whom I picture – young and old, clad in vivid colors or drab variations of brown and gray – when I think back to a scene over two thousand years ago. A dark night, cool and windy. A small band of Middle Eastern shepherds pulling their cloaks tightly around them. Hundreds of sheep all around them, grazing or dozing. The only noises – the muted bleating of sheep to sheep; the muted mutter of man to man; the not so muted chirping of insect life. All going about their nightly routine. What was it like for them?

We read that “there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8). These shepherds were, for lack of a better term, 'ordinary people,' if there is such a thing. They didn't have much in the way of prestige. Children didn't ooh and aah if these shepherds came to school for career day. Women and men didn't marvel at them on the street. Shepherding was considered a lowly and dirty profession – the sort where you might question if you really wanted to shake hands with one (especially if you didn't have a bottle of Purell on hand!). It wasn't a good way to get rich, out there tending the sheep. The shepherds had no 401(k), no stock options, no bloated bank account to speak of; they didn't have fabulous McMansions awaiting them back in Bethlehem, only puny shacks in the part of town where tourists put away their cameras. They weren't especially qualified for upper-crust ways of life: not prone to much reading, not prone to penning lengthy treatises, not equipped with degrees to wave around or connections to boast. Their lives had more excrement than excitement. They seldom came home with big stories.

They were ordinary people, and they were doing an ordinary thing: staying awake, all bleary-eyed and chilly and maybe nursing a headache, while the sheep clomped and chomped and dozed beneath the stars. They were just doing their job: another day, another dollar. They weren't keeping a late-night prayer vigil in a monastery. They weren't out climbing mountains to track down an elusive guru. They weren't meditating to track down the elusive truth within. They weren't backpacking through the Alps, weren't swimming with the sharks, weren't engaged in great exploits. They weren't composing symphonies or deriving Schrödinger's equation. They weren't sailing a yacht or lounging by the pool or sunning themselves on a tropical beach. They weren't attending a business seminar or absorbed in the latest self-help book. They weren't saving lives in the operating room or perfecting their rhetoric before the court. They were just going about their daily routine – a mundane, often boring job, without much excitement or thrill, no fame and acclaim. It was life as usual, trapped in the cold, dark night with their preoccupations – what to eat, what to wear, how to earn, how to tend to their wives and kids, how to resolve the latest family drama or neighborhood dispute. Life as usual. Until it wasn't.

That's when “the glory of the Lord shone around them” (Luke 2:9). The only other time we read that verb in the New Testament, 'shone-around,' it's when Saul of Tarsus gets knocked on his keister on the Damascus Road. A sudden brightness splits the night on every side; it's like every blade of grass is the burning bush at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Every molecule of oxygen in the air suddenly glistens and sparkles. The very fabric of reality is transfigured before their eyes. And their whole world lurches in a direction they scarcely have the language to describe. In the Bible, we know, the word for 'glory' means for something to be heavy – to have significance and weight to it. The sun is glorious – not only does it glow with light and beauty, but it exerts a gravitational pull, causing the earth and other planets to orbit it. And we were meant to orbit God in an orderly fashion; to have God at the heart of our lives, with everything in the world, our worlds, arranged harmoniously around him. But long ago, we broke free; we float freely in the void of space, or find degenerate dwarf stars to orbit, petty idols. And none can bring the light and warmth we crave, nor can they keep us from colliding together or careening apart – so we have no lasting peace, and we need a Savior to ensnare us again with God's gravity for good.

That night, this lowly band of shepherds found themselves suddenly captured, not by the gravity of earth, but by the gravity of heaven – like being suddenly teleported spitting distance from a solar flare. No wonder they “feared a great fear” (Luke 2:9)! They were disoriented, disconcerted, discombobulated, as the whole world became alien to them, and they to it. And the invasion of a heavenly military regiment, “rank on rank the host of heaven,” certainly added to the reason for fear! But this invading army came, not to let loose a war cry, but to chant the terms of a peace treaty – offering “good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10), that the Savior had finally arrived, the long-awaited Lord Messiah, freshly born that very day (Luke 2:11). The age-old puzzle of prophets had cracked open at last. And a strange mystery flew out.

If this were all the heavenly spokesangel said, it would be fantastic news. A new king had been born – the king to end all kings. There was dawn on the horizon. A new day was coming. Salvation, rescue, was on the way. That's good news. That's great joy. But it would affect the shepherds from afar. A king is concerned with war and diplomacy, with the intricacies of geopolitics, with grand strategy and domestic policy, with the honeyed syllables of Armani-clad lobbyists and the tightly guarded security of a gilded palace. What have shepherds to do with a king? When could a shepherd even see a king, save from a distance from the back of a crowd? When would a king take an interest in the troubles and travails of a ragtag crew of shepherds, who scarcely constitute a voting bloc or a force slated to sway public opinion? The birth of a new king, even a messiah, is a good thing – but a distant good thing. Nice to know about, but a newborn king is probably cordoned off by bars and bouncers in a stately manor, dressed already in purple silk and gold adornments. That's no place for shepherds.

Except... except the angel says more. He specifies that this is “good news of great joy that will be for all the people(Luke 2:10). He clarifies that this royal Messiah is born “unto you (Luke 2:11). And the angel tells them that “this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12). That might be the most stunning thing the shepherds hear. A newborn king, the King of Kings – but he's not in a palace, a castle, an estate? He's got no security detail? No Secret Service ready to gun down intruders? There's no dress code and no waiting list? Because that's exactly what this means. If the baby is napping in a manger, it means he's in a peasant house – a house that looks exactly like the one each shepherd calls home. And if the baby is wrapped in swaddling cloths, it means he's dressed the exact same way each shepherd was dressed at that age, and dressed his kids when they were born.

It means that this Messiah isn't walled off. The shepherds, for all their humble station, wouldn't be cast aside as impure, too dirty and diseased to be close to the baby. The shepherds wouldn't be thrust out as unimportant, undeserving of the Messiah's time. The shepherds wouldn't be rejected as unworthy, unqualified, denied access to his presence. Because not only is the newborn King of Kings on the scene, but he's wrapped like a peasant tyke in a peasant house, and there might as well be a sign by the door saying “Shepherds Welcome.”

The shepherds may be ordinary. They may be poor. They may be weak and weary. They may be old and tired. They may carry a heart full of regret or the scars and wounds of a rough life. They may have a grating laugh or a drippy nose or their share of bad habits. But none of that is a barrier to this mystery, the face of God on an infant skull, the Word of God made flesh and blood with a full diaper. A Presence deeper than physics, an Energy older than time and space, a Mind wise enough to see body and soul in full detail, the world in all its dimensions laid bare. The Unbounded and Incomprehensible, expressed fully as a few pounds of muscle and bone and fat. Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal – snoozing tenderly and vulnerably in a feed trough, his heartbeat audible, his pulse palpable. Mystery of Mysteries – with shepherds welcome, along with all and sundry.

The angels sing their song, and then they about-face and march back to the stars and beyond (Luke 2:13-14). The brightness fades. The air returns to its customary crispness, the grass resumes its dull green, the heightened tension of earth confronted with heaven dissipates. The shepherds are, once again, standing in an ordinary field, wearing their ordinary clothes, surrounded by their ordinary sheep. But now they know something they can't unknow. And that knowledge confronts them with a choice. They have a decision to make. They can stay put. They can keep watching the sheep. They can persist in life as usual, now that the brightness has faded and all things look the way they always did. They can convince themselves it was all a dream, or be content with the theoretical awareness that somewhere out there is a Savior. They can write that down in their diaries and then go home, curl up in bed, and forget. They can take it for granted. They can hope it comes in as handy trivia on a game show someday. They can play catch with their kids, eat their wives' home cooking, and otherwise do the very same thing they would have done if that night had just stayed silent.

Or they can do something about it. They can take action. They can break character. They can take a leave of absence from the field, from their customary and familiar turf, and go on a quest in pursuit of a mystery. They can accept the invitation implicit in the angel's words. They can go encounter the Incomprehensible. They can go see “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15), “the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God” (1 Timothy 1:17). They can go to meet the Mystery of Mysteries themselves – and let their aching fingers be grasped in a Savior's gentle grip.

These shepherds chose that option, to “go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened” (Luke 2:15). What's more, “they went in haste” to answer the invitation (Luke 2:16). They made no excuses to delay their quest. They didn't complain of their frailty; they didn't cling to their sheep, their livelihood; they didn't turn up their noses or scrape the dirt; they didn't reason that surely the baby would still be there in the morning. Even in the coldest, darkest hours of night, they set worldly concerns aside and went in haste. They went right then. No excuses. They refused to procrastinate any longer. If only we'd do the same!

So they went to Bethlehem. They followed the trail of the village midwife, and the gossip of sleepy villagers who'd heard a woman grunt and groan in labor during the night, disrupting their sleep. And they found the place – they “found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them” (Luke 2:16-18). No doubt, when the shepherds spilled the beans, Mary explained to them her visit from Gabriel nine months earlier. No doubt, after that, Joseph made mention of his angelic dream, and the word he'd heard. Others were there, too. Maybe a couple nosy neighbors. Maybe a few of Joseph's nieces, cousins.

The point is, after the shepherds went off on their pursuit of a mystery, and after they encountered the Mystery, they shared fellowship with other Mystery-Meeters as well – with Mary, with Joseph, with neighbors and family and all sorts of admirers of this Holy Child. They testified, and were built up by the testimony of others, as they gathered around this central point: the feed trough acting as a makeshift bed for the King of the Ages. And all who were there were listening, gazing, admiring, celebrating their encounter with the Heart of Mystery.

From there, the shepherds went back out into the fields. But not to life as usual. “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (Luke 2:20). They went forth and resumed their work, took up the basic elements of their daily routine – but it was not like before. This time, they went forth with a new life, defined not by poverty but by mystery, glory, and praise. As they tended their flock through the dawn hours, their work was infused with a new song to sing. As they returned to their families, they cherished a light that no night could ever fully overshadow, nor any gloom wholly dampen. As they mingled with their neighbors, they had a story to tell. And through all the days of their lives, wherever they went, they knew they had peered behind the curtain, seen under the surface of the universe, gazed into the infinity of God, and were welcome guests of a Savior. They had encountered the Heart of Mystery and found a Hope that does not, will not, cannot disappoint (Romans 5:5). Their lives could never be what they were, could never be defined by all the trappings and tinsel, but by the mystery, glory, and praise that redirected their lives.

All well and good for the shepherds. “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). Who among us can't identify with the shepherds out in those fields? We have plenty fields of our own – our territory, where we work or live or dwell, wherever we sit beneath the stars and toil. We've had cares aplenty – flocks to tend, families to feed. We've had seasons of languishing in the blackness of night, comforts torn away and exposed to the cold and cruel realities of existence in a fallen world. We have “dwelt in a land of deep darkness” (Isaiah 9:2). And we look at ourselves, and we seem so ordinary, so poor, so defective, so unqualified and unworthy.

But then there came a day when everything lurched. It was unsettling. It was uncomfortable. It was surprising. But we “who walked in darkness” then glimpsed “a great light” (Isaiah 9:2). God “shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). Grace appeared. Maybe you couldn't identify it, couldn't see it for what it was. But then someone explained that it was good news – that even in the darkest night, there could be a great joy beyond yourself, because a Rescuer had come to earth to pull you back where you belong and put your fractured pieces back together.

And best of all, you heard, this same joy was every bit as accessible to you as to anybody else. You don't have to be the optimistic sort; you don't need to be an extrovert; it doesn't require a naturally religious temperament, if there even is such a thing. You don't have to be already clean, already pure, already straight and sober and sorted out and set. You don't have to get your act together first. You don't need to qualify yourself, to pass some test. You don't need to ace a quiz. You don't have to first establish your credentials as a good person. You don't have to be replete with resources. You don't have to be young, and you don't have to be old. You don't have to be rich, and you don't have to be poor. It doesn't matter if you're an adult or a child, a man or a woman, if you're black or white or any other hue of the human tapestry. How you vote, where you work, what you think and feel – none are prerequisites to go “see this thing that has happened” (Luke 2:15).

And each one of us had – each one of us still this very moment has – a choice to make, as the shepherds did. It isn't a foregone conclusion, to be taken for granted. We're free to hear the good news and go about life as usual. We're free to make excuses why we can't take part, why we can't show up, why it's all a great big humbug, why there'll always be another chance, why it's too unimportant to change our lives or too big for us to handle. You can do that. You can go home today and forget all about it. You can celebrate for a day or two and then let the swamp of routine suck you in, and the burdens of life weigh you down, and the dark of night close in. Your eyes will adjust to the gloom; your cloaks might shield you some from the wind. You can stay put in that field, if you prefer.

Or you can pursue a mystery. You can refuse to relent until you've met him yourself, this King of Kings. You can leave your excuses in the dirt and go place your hand in the Savior's grip. You can trust yourself to the Mind wiser than creation, and rest yourself in the Presence deeper than physics. You can gaze in admiration at the sight of the Unbounded God wrapped in our humble rags, breathing our air and breathing Heaven's Wind back into this earth. You, too, can encounter the Mystery of Mysteries, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords. You can fellowship with others caught in God's gravity, testifying to what you've seen and heard – we're here to do just that every Sunday. And as you go back to the field, to your family, to the town, you can take a new life of mystery, glory, and praise with you, like the shepherds did.

Confess with your mouth” that this baby wrapped in peasant rags and resting in a Bethlehem manger is Christ the Lord, and “believe in your heart,” with all your heart, that not only was he born to the Blessed Virgin Mary in Bethlehem, but he grew up, taught wisdom, healed the broken, entered death for you and blew a God-shaped hole in the other side – just confess that, trust that, rely on that, gather around that, follow that, and “you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). You'll be gripped by a Savior, caught with God's gravity, joined to reality's royal family, you'll mingle with saints – and you'll touch a Mystery of Mercy who will save you and change you in ways you never dreamed possible. Only in the Mystery's Mercy can there ever be peace on earth. I hope with all my heart that, like the shepherds, that choice is the one you make today and every day. Don't let this day, this night, pass you by without a new life. Go therefore in peace and awe-struck wonder, “glorifying and praising God” for all you've seen and heard (Luke 2:20). Go to spread a merry Christmas. Amen.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Cast of Christmas: Angels

It was a dangerous day for the man of God. For some time now, Elisha had been thwarting the plans of the Syrian king – learning through a prophetic gift what Syria's tactical maneuvers would be, and reporting them to Israel's king. One day, the Syrians had had enough. By night they came and surrounded Dothan, where Elisha was living. In the morning, Elisha's servant rose to see them and was terrified – Syrian warriors on every side, with no way out. Elisha, however, was not alarmed. He assured his servant, “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Kings 6:16). And when the veil was torn from the servant's eyes, “he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (2 Kings 6:17) – a heavy security detail if ever I heard of one! The Syrians, in fact, were outnumbered that day by a greater army, one they couldn't see but which blazed with celestial fire behind the scenes.

What sort of army was it that defended Elisha that day? The same kind that came to retrieve Elisha's prophetic mentor Elijah, whisking him away “by a whirlwind into heaven” (2 Kings 2:11). This mysterious military unit of the LORD, who “makes his angels winds and his servants a flaming fire” (Psalm 104:4), is not one I would want to tangle with. So often, when we think of angels, we see them as our paintings picture them: effeminate men in white robes, with soft and delicate features, if not actually baby-like. Saccharine-sweet and harmless. All of which has very little to do with how the Bible actually depicts angels.

Setting aside the cherubim and seraphim – very specific sorts of heavenly created beings – one of the first times we really meet angels in Scripture, it's at Sodom. The angels came to rescue Abraham's nephew Lot, and when the crowd turned hostile, the angels “struck with blindness the men who were at the entrance of the house, both small and great” (Genesis 19:11). As Lot hesitated to leave town, the angels grabbed him and hauled him and his family past the city limits by force (Genesis 19:16). Soon after, fire and brimstone rained down and wiped Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim (Genesis 19:24) – and these angels had plenty to do with it. “We are about to destroy this place … The LORD has sent us to destroy it” (Genesis 19:13).

Later, we read about a mysterious “Destroyer” through whom death came to the Egyptian firstborn as the tenth plague (Exodus 12:23). In the desert, we read of how a pagan sorcerer, hoping to profit by coming to curse the people of God, found an invisible presence in his path – and when his eyes were opened, “he saw the angel of the LORD standing in his way, with his drawn sword in his hand,” prepared to kill Balaam (Numbers 22:23). In the days of King David, who had given in to a devilish temptation, “God sent the angel to Jerusalem to destroy it … And David lifted his eyes and saw the angel of the LORD standing between earth and heaven, and in his hand a drawn sword stretched out over Jerusalem” (2 Chronicles 21:15-16). Many years later, after Elisha and his servant had a fiery army of angels for their bodyguards, we read that Jerusalem was threatened by Assyrian soldiers, but Isaiah promised David's descendant Hezekiah that God would save them. “And that night,” we read, “the angel of the LORD went out and struck down 185 thousands in the camp of the Assyrians” (2 Kings 19:35), resulting in an Assyrian retreat (2 Kings 19:36).

All this to say, angels – whatever heavenly beings God is using as messengers – tend not to be neat, picturesque, harp-strumming figures we imagine in our sweet little songs. They come armed and dangerous, ready for war – which we know they fight, or fought, against the devil's forces – including, at times, the humans who do his bidding. And so, one otherwise silent night in the fields around Bethlehem, one can understand why a sudden invasion of heaven's army would be cause for alarm. Everything was quiet and normal, until an angel showed up, and when he'd said his piece, “suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host” (Luke 2:13). That's Bible-talk for a whole army regiment, sent from heaven. What the shepherds beheld that night was no innocent choir, but a powerful army, armed to the teeth, appearing seemly from nowhere.

But this heavenly army regiment sang a song, chanted a chant, on their march. And the end of their song should strike you. “On earth peace among men well-pleasing” (Luke 2:14b). We mention it in so many of our carols, this declaration of 'peace on earth.' We look around us, we look within us, and what we see looks like a war zone. People are getting hurt out there. Disease and fire run rampant. People scheme and betray each other. They fight in secret, they fight openly, with words, with fists, with blades and bombs and bullets. You know the lyrics: “In despair I bowed my head; / 'there is no peace on earth,' I said, / for hate is strong and mocks the song / of peace on earth, good will to men.” In the middle of a war zone, there is little news that would be better than peace on earth – everything fitting back together seamlessly, harmoniously.

The truth is, ever since a far-away garden we read of long ago, there's been a rebellion going on. We've refused so often to just listen to our King and submit to his wisdom. Sometimes, in his own name, we've gone out and done great damage. Ask any twenty randomly selected young folks today what sort of things people have done in God's name – you'll hear more than you bargained for. And just as often, people have set themselves up in opposition to the King. We wanted to be 'as gods,' able to decide for ourselves what's good and what's evil. In every act of sin, that's what we do: declare our own definition to supersede the heavenly one. We incessantly declare war on heaven, on earth, on each other, on our own selves.

And in the context of that kind of rebellion, it's striking, isn't it, to have heaven's army finally march down to earth as one, crowd into a single field, all lined up in battle array... only what they've come to proclaim is peace. A ceasefire. A treaty. To rebel fighters, to enemies, here comes heaven's army offering terms of peace, to all those who are well-pleasing – those who lay down the fight and return to heaven's cause. Aren't we tired of all the fighting? Aren't we tired of all the lies, all the strife, all the anger and the chaos, all the destruction and all the carnage? Heaven's army has come to offer terms of peace, with total amnesty on the table. What more can we really ask for? What more do we want but the possibility to rebuild after we've seen our fight go so wrong?

But how can we have this peace on earth? How can heaven's peace be ours here? It seems like that harmony is so easily disturbed, so easily tipped out of balance and damaged or destroyed. We're good at that, after all. But the angel army explains. The first half of their song tells the how: “Glory to God in the highest” (Luke 2:14a). In biblical tradition, one key meaning of the word for 'glory' is for something to be heavy – for it to have real heft, real weight to it, real significance and importance. Think about the sun, which not only glows brightly, but exerts a gravitational pull on all the planets in our solar system – because it's so massive, or, in biblical terms, so glorious.

Here on earth, our lives orbit many things. We are constantly caught between the gravitational attraction of this and that celebrity, this and that cause, this and that job, this and that hobby, this and that person or place or thing – we're always finding something to glorify, something to deem as having real gravity to hold us in place and give us meaning. But the problem is, that's not how things were meant to be. We were meant to glorify God in the highest – to place him at the center of our lives, with everything else in orbit around him, caught in God's gravitational pull. Only when God is glorified, made central with his gravitational pull submitted to, do we at last find a stable course in which to move. When God is glorified, then everything else can share one center, and instead of crashing into each other or veering far apart into the cold and dark reaches of space, we can orbit in order. And only when orbiting in order around the real source of light and warmth can we finally taste peace.

The problem is that, when it comes to God, we seem to have a bad case of anti-gravity. Something within us actively seeks to repel him, to repel each other. And we've drifted so far. With no way of propelling ourselves through space to reach him, how could we ever get back and find our place in his orbit again? We can only find real peace (the kind offered by heaven's armies) by giving ultimate glory to God, but how can that be possible for rogue planets drifting in outer darkness?

And that's where the rest of the angelic message comes in. What the angels came to say was that there is just such a way. Our aversion to God's glory has to be cured, and we have to be propelled back into his orbit. We have no ability to do that ourselves – no power to rewrite the laws of fallen physics in our fallen nature, nor to learn to resonate with God in our hearts, nor to chart a course back to him under our own steam. But this is what we need to hear: “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). The long-awaited Messiah had finally come. He didn't descend from the clouds, fully-grown and robed in white, like his armies did. No, he was a newborn, meant to grow up on the same earth as one of us, to cure us from the inside-out. He came to be where we are, to be our healing, our rewriter, our propulsion, bending space and time to lead us back to the divine brightness we fled so long ago.

And so Christ the Lord came to be our Savior. He stills the chaos within our souls. He ends the war between heaven and earth – for how can heaven's armies besiege the city where their King dwells? He anchors the adrift and carries the lost and lone. When we were adrift in the darkest night, he came like a holy graviton to renew the inviting, welcoming force of God on our lives. This Savior mediates the gravity of God in person. He turns us back toward the light and tugs us toward the beauty and warmth of holy love.

No more need we drift aimlessly. No more need we orbit the dwarf stars of our idols. No more need we crash, splinter, fracture in the empty voids of mere existence. We are called back to the glory of God – to life, to health, to peace, to completeness – to where we belonged all along. Because to us is born a Savior, who can rescue us when we can do nothing to rescue ourselves. It may not be a smooth ride back to the warmth of God's glory – after all, as we move through space toward his pull, we may well find ourselves pelted by the meteorites of opposition and the asteroids of hardship and tragedy, or as Jesus himself said, “I have not come to bring peace but a sword” (Matthew 10:34) – but in the long term, peace is where we'll be when he's through with us.

No wonder, then, the angelic spokesman for heaven's army calls this “good tidings of great joy” (Luke 2:10). A return to our original orbit, a restoration of balance and harmony, a ceasefire with superior forces, a healing for our wounded hearts, a hope of light and life – that's pretty joyful! That's the activity of God through the Savior he sent out to our far reaches. And to announce it, to announce peace on earth for all those who accept the favor of this rescue mission to those of us lost in space – well, that's some greeting! Those are some good tidings as far as I'm concerned. That's good news. That's gospel, right there, a gospel of great joy.

What the angelic spokesman literally says here is, “I evangelize you.” Yes – the angel is an evangelist. He may seem scary, unsettling, unnerving, discombobulating, but he's got a gospel to tell, good news to proclaim, with great joy in its wake. It's no wonder the angel's evangelism is experienced as so disconcerting – after all, his message is accompanied by the glory of God, a lurching shift of gravity for the unwitting shepherds who saw and heard (Luke 2:9). But the same evangelistic message can set people free from the feeble gravity of dim and degenerate stars, free from the coldness and emptiness, free from chaos and rebellion, free from the inevitable atrophy and aimlessness of perfunctory existence and meaningless drudgery. The angel's evangelism points to a Savior who rescues us from all these ills, and through whom we experience the light and life of God afresh. And the joy-giving entrance of that Savior into our forlorn and war-torn world is just what Christmas is, after all, all about.

We may not, like Elisha's servant, catch a glimpse of horses and chariots of fire on the mountain. We may not, like Hezekiah, survey Assyrian carnage in a destroying angel's path. And we may not, like the shepherds, hear the armies of heaven chant their ceasefire before our eyes – though we may well, like Abraham, Gideon, Manoah, and many saints, “entertain angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2). But there remains plenty we can learn from this celestial invasion.

If we yield beneath the pull of our Savior's nail-scarred-but-freshly-living hands, we will fall more and more under the pull of God's glory. Other centers of gravity will lose their attraction. And as we look more and more to the gravity of God, become drawn to him, become warmed with his glow and transfigured with his beauty, we will find that things fall into place. Yes, the petty rocks that cross our path may pockmark us with craters, may throw up plenty of irritating dust in our lives. But for all that, we will find our peace in God's orderly orbit, all through our Savior's work. The time for drifting lost in space is done; the time to be found is now. And, like the angel, we are called to evangelize, to communicate this good news in real and practical ways, in word and in deed, to bring great joy. We are called to share a Savior's guidance with those still lost, to minister a Savior's touch to those adrift or fracturing apart, to reflect God's glory out into the darkness, and to announce and illustrate the joy and peace in God's orbit. Don't be afraid. Ever since the ceasefire at the Savior's birth, “those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Kings 6:17). Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Cast of Christmas: Joseph

I wish I had gotten his name. It may well have been Daniel; let's call him that. He certainly knew how to make an impression. He lived in the same Kenyan village where I met Elijah and Tabitha. Tabitha was young – still in high school – and Elijah was perhaps on the young side of middle aged. Daniel was another story. He lived in a small village house with dirt floors. He had cattle dwelling within his gates, and a well from which his family could draw water with a rope and a bucket. His wife lived with him. So did their daughter. So did a pair of grandchildren. And a great-grandchild. You see, Daniel's wife was 89 years old, when we meet. And Daniel was nearly four years older. He was going on ninety-three years old.

He was a member of the Kikuyu people – probably just about everyone in Mwimutoni was, after all. By the time Daniel was born, the British colonial authorities had claimed ownership of a great deal of Kikuyu land, often reducing his people to an impoverished state. In the early 1950s, a year after the first translation of the Old Testament into their native tongue, the Mau Mau Uprising or 'Emergency' broke out. Not all Kikuyu took part, but plenty did. They thought of themselves as freedom fighters; the British had a different word: “terrorists.” To keep tabs on the Kikuyu, colonial authorities wrenched many of them from their land and forced them to settle in 'Emergency Villages,' formed specially for the occasion. Mwimutoni was one of them. They were difficult times, those. No side of the fight can claim truly clean hands. Many people were sent to prison in the days after the Emergency. Jomo Kenyatta, later to serve as an independent Kenya's first president and whose son Uhuru fills that office even now, was one of them. But Daniel was another.

In spite of his undoubtedly brutal treatment in prison, the man I met had no bitterness. He had a smile on his face. You see, during the many years of his long life, he had learned to love the teachings of a great teacher – Jesus of Nazareth – and this Jesus had set him free from the temptation to nurse bitter resentment. And so the man I met radiated real strength of character – or so it seemed to me, though I don't know his heart. And he mirrored it with strength of body. I shook his hand, and found his grip a strong one. His muscles were more vigorous than most young men you'd meet here in Pennsylvania. I learned that, even though he was in his nineties, he would sometimes take his bicycle and ride it alone all the way to Nairobi to buy food and supplies for his family, and then ride back to his village with the fruit of his commerce. Knowing how long it took simply to drive to the village from Nairobi in a van, that seems almost superhuman to me. But it's just something he did.

I didn't spend much time with Daniel. We didn't have a language in common. But as I think back on my brief and impressive encounter with him – as I imagine the arc of his life, passionate, courageous, bold, strong – I can't help but think about another man. One we're more accustomed to remember, even if only briefly, this time of the year. A Middle Eastern craftsman named Yousef – 'Joseph.' We don't know as much about him as we wish we did. By birth and by law, he was a descendant of an ancient king named David, who ruled over the chosen nation of Israel while it stayed united and whose family held power for centuries over the southern portion after the north seceded (cf. Luke 1:27).

This Joseph was a Bethlehemite, from David's own town, but lived in Nazareth as an adult – perhaps he moved to Nazareth, or else his parents did, but Nazareth was a very new settler village, not unlike Mwimutoni. Everyone there came from somewhere else. Nazareth was founded with a clear purpose – to retake “Galilee of the Gentiles” from the forlorn pagan influences that had cropped up there over the years – and Joseph may well have cherished that mission enough to relocate himself there from the midst of his family and friends in Bethlehem. Joseph was a man on a mission, you could say, even if that mission was to be lived out just by living somewhere he felt needed, pursuing his trade, and being the best Jew he could be. And that he was: the Gospels mention that it was Joseph's custom to make annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem for festivals like Passover (Luke 2:41), which was above and beyond what the rabbis of the day taught was strictly necessary. Above and beyond when it came to the things of God – that's the kind of man Joseph was.

I'm sure Joseph could have had a fine and successful life in Bethlehem. He knew a lot of people there. It was home. It was a larger town, relatively speaking. It had deep history, local clout. It wasn't so many miles from the holy city of Jerusalem, where his forefather David once ruled a sacred kingdom, and where a rebuilt temple then stood and gleamed above the rooftops. No doubt people with demonstrable Davidic descent were the toast of the town. A man like Joseph could have been a deeply respected town elder there, could have made a great living. But Joseph chose village life. He chose the boondocks, the backwoods. Rather than make it big in the big city, he chose a simple life with a purpose.

And so, though perhaps born in Bethlehem, he chose Nazareth. And he set himself up as a carpenter – a fact we actually learn, technically, from a single verse in the Bible, when Jesus is referred to by his former neighbors as “the carpenter's son” (Matthew 13:55). It wasn't a high-prestige profession, but it was his. Joseph the Carpenter – maybe he occasionally was hired for bigger building projects in nearby towns, but you know what a typical carpenter in a small rural village would've made in the first-century? Probably a lot of farm equipment – plows, yokes, and the like. If Joseph strolled off the pages of the Bible and into our midst today, I have a funny feeling he'd fill out a job application over at CNH, don't you? The form may have changed, but that's the sort of work he did.

And that tells me that Joseph was a strong believer in the value of hard work. Not obsessive about work as if it were an idol, but appreciative to God for the gift of work. Like that elder I met in a Kenyan village, Joseph was strong and committed. Joseph was an active participant in Nazareth's village life. He was a man who routinely put hand and tool to lumber, imposed new order on the material he harnessed from God's creation, and then lifted up the product of his sweat and exertion to his God, to bless his neighbors and his neighborhood. There's little doubt in my mind that, after a long day in his workshop, Joseph looked at the plow he'd fashioned or the yoke he'd designed, and thought to himself, “With this, my neighbor can better farm his fields. With this, we can have more grain for less strain. Armed with this, my neighbors will plant the seed to which God will give the growth, and all of us will be fed from the harvest. Let me make a beautiful and sturdy plow. Let me make a strong and comfortable yoke for the cattle. Let me make tools and implements, surfaces and wheels, to the glory of my God. And with this God-honoring carpentry, we will all be served and blessed.”

I think that's the sort of thing Joseph would say to himself. We read often, in the pages of the New Testament, about the virtues of work. Paul tells us to “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you” (1 Thessalonians 4:11). These days, in all the movies, a life of routine work – the same productive tasks, day after day – are seen as boring, soul-destroying, life-hindering. Paul says otherwise: this very kind of work, pursued diligently with purpose, is the stuff a good and healthy life is built from. And it's important, for as we read, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). 'Unable' is one thing; 'unwilling' is another. Work is a part of God's good creation.

We read, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28). Not all exertion is ethical work, honest work. Paul doesn't advise thieves to steal bigger scores, but to give up thievery and turn to ethical work – not so they can get rich for themselves, but so that they can be more helpful to their less-fortunate neighbors. We read, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Colossians 3:23). Any ethical work can be worked for the Lord – Joseph was a carpenter for God. May those of us still employed in labor for pay be good truckers for God, electricians for God, farmers for God, printers for God, caterers for God, trash collectors for God, artists and musicians for God. Do it heartily for the Lord, not merely for bosses, customers, clients. These are the things Joseph knew and was prepared to model for the family God would provide for him. And we see in Scripture that he did train Jesus in his trade, for the people of Nazareth remembered young Jesus as himself having been a carpenter (Mark 6:3). I dare say, if Joseph here and now might well work for CNH, it's not far-fetched to imagine a young Jesus as working there either.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. When we first encounter Joseph in the pages of the New Testament, we know that he's engaged to a young village lady named Mary. I wonder if he fell in love with her the first time he saw her. I wonder how long it took him to know she was the one. I wonder what it was like the day he first approached her father to ask her hand in marriage. A lot of questions we have. He trusted her. He relied on her. He admired her faithfulness, to God and to him. With intense anticipation, the both of them scrupulously took pains to maintain propriety, respect, virtue, and keep temptation at bay.

And then it all came crashing down. She went away for three months to visit an elderly relative, Elizabeth. She came back – I'm sure Joseph was very eager to see her again, hear her voice again – and that's when Joseph's world caved in. Mary came back, and she looked just a little bit different. Perhaps Joseph couldn't put his finger on it at first. But if it wasn't already obvious, it wouldn't have been long. She had to tell him: she was pregnant. Put yourself in Joseph's shoes. Can you feel the blood drain from his face? Can you see his face go white as a sheet, or feel his cheeks burn with embarrassment and anger? I wonder how long he yelled. I wonder if he cried. I wonder if he drove her to tears as she tried in vain to convince him that the obvious conclusion wasn't true. All Joseph could see, all any of us could have seen, is that she'd broken her promise – that she wasn't the woman he thought she was – that she'd betrayed him in the deepest way, and didn't even seem willing to confess and just be honest with him. He'd been jilted. Cheated on. And there she stood, lying to his face with the evidence right in front of him, right above her hips. That's how it seemed. What other conclusion could he possibly reach (Matthew 1:18)?

So yes, Joseph was angry. And that's an understatement. He was furious, incensed, sliced deep with grief. She was all but his wife, and there she stood, pregnant with a baby not even his! He was utterly humiliated. And I think anyone in his shoes would be tempted, at least tempted, to expose her true colors. To send her packing in loud wails of contrition. To avenge the deep dishonor done to him. But we read further that Joseph was “a just man,” a righteous man (Matthew 1:19). Joseph is passionate, but not the sort to let his anger run unchecked or unrestrained. Joseph is upstanding, a man of deep moral principles. But before him stands a flesh-and-blood woman, a real human with all her apparent beauty and all her apparent foibles. Under prevailing interpretations of law, Joseph has every right to pursue a legal end of their betrothal, and to do it in a way that announces to the whole village what fault he found in her – have it put on her permanent social record, have it filed away in a perpetual archive: “Miriam of Nazareth, divorced for the indecency of adultery.” Some local rabbis might even have told him that it was his obligation to do so.

But Joseph resists the temptation. He was “unwilling to put her to shame.” As hurt as he is, he refuses to let it stain Mary's reputation or put her in danger. He resolves to end the engagement as secretly and privately as possible, with no record other than her pregnancy to explain things. He refuses to breathe into the whirlwind of gossip, refuses to make things worse for Mary. Though seemingly betrayed and put to shame, Joseph takes time to think, to think about how best to turn the other cheek. Joseph isn't just passionate; he's compassionate – he seizes on his own worst betrayal as an opportunity to do good to the woman he can only reasonably see as his most callous traitor.

He clearly wrestles with the decision – in which direction, it isn't altogether clear – but during a dream, his mind in slumber receives a heavenly visitor, reminding him of his royal heritage, exhorting him to believe Mary's outlandish tale, and promising that God is at work in what a moment before seemed like brazen sin (Matthew 1:20-23). And then he awoke. And everything was different. Mary only seemed unfaithful, but really she was pure. The pregnancy only seemed a sign of sin, but really was a sign of salvation. And now Joseph knew it. But no one else would. To the rest of the village, either they'd conclude Joseph had impregnated his fiancée, and thus that he was a sinner never to truly be trusted, or else that he had no honor and would tolerate shame from a promiscuous wife and a mamzer child. It would be risky to marry Mary. But he did (Matthew 1:24). He vouched for her and committed to raise this holy son, this Jesus, as his own.

About five or six months later, as he ignored the mockery and the jokes, the sneers and the stares, he heard the news. An imperial decree, requiring the registration of every head-of-household empire-wide in his own town, so ensure outdated records couldn't keep the coins out of Caesar's coffers. Unwilling to leave his bride Mary to the devices of the Nazareth townsfolk, especially with her so visibly pregnant, Joseph took her along on the journey to Bethlehem (Luke 2:4-5). It was no short trip – across the Jezreel Valley, down to Jericho, up through the desert on an uphill trip to David's city – requiring at least five days. Perhaps for a stretch, they walked that Jericho Road where a parable understandably imagined a man beaten by thieves. Joseph took upon himself the responsibility to protect Mary and the unborn Holy One in her womb. But they were a family, and Joseph had courage to protect his family.

That's who Joseph was. Mission-driven. Hard-working. Compassionate. Courageous. Strong. Joseph was the kind of man, as it turns out, whom the Eternal Word of God, by which stars were sparked into being, by which atoms cohere and DNA replicates, by which mountains rise and valleys sink and lions learn to roar... well, see, Joseph was the kind of man whom that very Word of God would choose to submit in obedience as a son in his household. The Word by which all things were created, submitted to Joseph as a son. Joseph was such a man.

Every year, we recite these stories – stories about the birth of Jesus, the emergence of the Messiah onto the human scene. But where would the story be without Joseph? God provided Joseph as a protector, a mentor, a leader for Mary and her Holy Child. God entrusted Joseph with perhaps greater responsibility than any man since Adam in Eden had ever borne on his shoulders. And so it's no wonder Joseph has been recognized as Nutritor Domini – Guardian, or Educator, of the Lord. We read in the Gospels that, during his childhood and in his humanity, Christ “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52). How did Jesus grow in stature? With food bought as Joseph earned it through hard work. And how did Jesus grow in wisdom? With Joseph, a godly village carpenter, for a teacher.

Where would the story go without Joseph? He's the legal link between Jesus and his Davidic heritage. Descent from David through Mary could never have given Jesus a claim to the throne, under prevailing first-century thought. And the Messiah was a promised king from the House of David. Without Joseph, we could never talk of the Holy Child born of Mary as being “Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). And finally, although he was simply following an angel's instructions, it would have to be Joseph who actually named this child. Hence the angel's words: you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). 'Jesus' – 'Yahweh is salvation' – and to announce salvation in the child's name was Joseph's task.

Joseph had a lot of responsibility. So do we. Joseph was charged with protecting and providing for the Lord in his youth. We're charged with protecting and providing for young disciples, young imitators of Christ the Lord. Joseph was charged with a ministry of compassion in faithfully cherishing and uniting with Mary, even when it drew him into the midst of scandal. We're charged with being faithful to the church even in days thick with scandal, as we see all around us this year. Joseph was charged with pronouncing the name of Jesus and all he means. And so are we charged with announcing the name of Jesus and the great salvation he brings, he is. To carry out his sacred mission of bringing real Light into Galilean darkness, Joseph needed plenty of virtues – his passion, his compassion, his boldness, his courage, his strength, his work. Can we afford to leave even one of these by the wayside? This season, go and learn from Joseph's example. If it was good enough for God in the flesh to grow up watching, I dare say it's good enough for us. Thanks be to God. Amen.