- STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH DECEMBER 6, 2020
Rev. Sabrina Ingram Advent 2
Lighting of the Advent Candle
Hymn O Come O Come Emmanuel
Prayer of Adoration and Confession
Holy God, when we were lost in darkness and sin, you broke through those barriers to be with us. You came in Jesus with the raw reality and confusion of human suffering. You came to save us. You came to be with us. You came to set us free and invite us to be active participants in your great mission. We thank you. We glorify you.
We confess Lord, that we long to obey you, but we often fail. Our efforts are strong at times and feeble at others. We can take your Law, which is meant to be life-giving and turn it into rigid rules regulations. We often feel that if we keep your rules, we have done all we need to do. This suits us because we can feel righteous without getting too close to you or too mixed up in the complicated work of being your disciples. Yet, we know that Jesus didn’t come for us to be detached from you or from his mission. He came so that we can participate with him in the coming of your kingdom. We thank you for your forgiveness, and we ask that your Spirit work in us to give us new and abundant life.
Jesus in this season of waiting, we are also anticipating what your coming will mean for our world. Help us to open ourselves to new life and grace.
As we worship together, both those who are here and those at home, make us one. While the rules say we can’t sing, they cannot stop us from loving you or worshipping you from the depths of our beings. Be glorified through us for the sake of your holy name. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon Romans 5: 20 & 21
Sin didn’t, and doesn’t, have a chance in competition with the aggressive forgiveness we call grace.
When it’s sin versus grace, grace wins hands down.
All sin can do is threaten us with death, and that’s the end of it.
Grace, because God is putting everything together again through the Messiah,
invites us into life—
a life that goes on and on and on, world without end.
Prayer for Illumination
Lord God, you gave us the law so can recognize our sin and appreciate the extravagance of your grace. As we hear your word, help us to honour your law and to practice your mercy and forgiveness. Amen.
Galatians 5: 11 – 18
Matthew 1: 18 – 25
Message: Christmas in the time of CoVid: Rules
Throughout life, there are rules – spoken and unspoken, known and unknown, agreed upon and disputed. There are mathematical rules, rules of physics, biological rules, government rules, etiquette rules, school rules, driving and diving rules, family rules, financial rules, work rules, even church rules (and for the record, I do not make the rules; however, I’m willing to help you bend them for a good cause). My ancestors in Scotland, had one rule. Never run with bagpipes! You could put an eye out, or worse, you could get kilt! Even TV characters have rules – Sheldon has a roommate agreement which includes not sitting in his spot and scheduling bathroom time. On NCIS, Gibbs numbers his rules. These are my favorites: Rule 8: Never take anything for granted. Rule 9: Never go anywhere without a knife. Rule 15: Always work as a team. Rule 28: If you need help, ask. Rule 42: Never accept an apology from somebody who just sucker-punched you. Rule 45: If you make a mess, clean it up. Rule 51: Sometimes, you’re wrong. Rule 62: Always give people space when they come off an elevator. Okay, Number 62 isn’t really a favorite, but it seems very pertinent to our times. In these days of CoVid we’ve encountered many new rules: practice physical distancing, go in one door and out another, walk through a whole building to get to a doorway that is 3 feet away, self-isolate, get a stick stuck up your nose if you feel ill, don’t sing, put up plastic barriers, don’t use cash. What has made this even harder is that the rules change: don’t wear a mask, wear a mask; don’t eat at a restaurant, eat at a restaurant; don’t go to school, go to school; socialize in groups of 50, no 10, no 5, no 100, no 20 – no, just don’t socialize, see only the people with whom you live. And of course, different people are given different rules – you must lock down in Toronto, while in Peterborough, we’re free to run loose – at least so far.
As a society, we agree that rules are made for reasons and being obedient to them is important. The rules of the road for example, keep us and others alive. Financial rules, like paying off debt, can be freeing. And we don’t run with bagpipes, so we won’t get kilt. Some rules can be positive in some situations and negative in others. Carrying a knife is great if you want to eat an apple or need to dig a bullet out of a tree; it’s not so good if you’re going through airport security, which has it’s own set of rules.
There are many reasons we follow “the rules” – Sheldon has a need to structure his experiences; Gibbs uses them as guidelines in tricky situations; in CoVid we keep the rules so we and others will stay healthy. Much of the time, rules are life-giving. They can also be life-crushing. For instance, while keeping us healthy, the CoVid rules also have life-crushing impact. It’s life-crushing to be isolated. It’s life-crushing not hugging those we love. It’s life crushing not to sing in worship. It’s life-crushing to limit our involvement in mission (e.g. cancelling Pasta Supper). Any time we institutionalize something by giving it structure and rules, we risk crushing the spirit of it – one example is the passion of the Early Church to share the gospel, compared to the apathy of Christians which increased throughout the time of Christendom.
God also has rules, not only for the created order (gravity works and the Earth circles the Sun) but for his people. The 10 Commandments are just the tip of the iceberg. The Hebrew Scripture has 613 commandments which are known as The Law of Moses. Essentially, they are “the rules” of the Jewish faith. The Israelites strove to keep these rules for many reasons: they were symbolic of their covenant with God and therefore a mark of their identity; they were a path to spiritual cleansing; and doing so was a sign of their love for God. One of these Laws is tucked away in Deuteronomy 22: 23 & 24, “If a man comes upon a virgin in town, a girl who is engaged to another man, and sleeps with her, take both of them to the town gate and stone them until they die—the girl because she didn’t yell out for help in the town and the man because he raped her, violating the fiancée of his neighbor. You must purge the evil from among you”. To us, that sounds like blaming the victim and a strange solution to the fiancé’s loss. Regardless of how unjust that Law might seem to 21st C Canadians, it was the rule guiding the people of Israel in the 1st C, B.C. To grasp the import of this rule, it helps to understand the marriage traditions of that time. In ancient Israel, arranged marriages were the norm. Fathers would get together and make a contract agreeing that their (sometimes quite young) children would eventually be married. The spirit of this was more like our practice of engagement. An agreement was in place, but the deal hasn’t been sealed. There’s time to change it. Then, about a year prior to marriage, the couple were betrothed. A ceremony was held, and the father of the groom gave the father of the bride money (moher – the “bride price”). There are two reasons for this, women were considered the property of their father, so essentially, the groom “buys” his wife (which is only a sliver better than a dowry in which the father of the bride pays to have her taken off his hands) and once married, the woman would live with her husband’s family where she would help with household chores, so the father would lose a valuable asset. Depending on what the daughter did, her father may even have to pay to replace her – either through hired labour or the purchase of a slave. Now, Dad may also have felt he was losing his baby girl and been in grief about that, but a betrothal was a legal contract, detached from fatherly emotion or even romantic love. At this point the bride is legally considered the wife of her husband, but she remains with her family of origin until there is a public wedding ceremony. In the meantime, she is still subject to the rules surrounding fidelity and the union cannot be ended without a legal divorce. After the wedding, the bride goes to live in her in-laws home and the marriage is consummated.
Because of these societal rules surrounding marriage, the rule from Deuteronomy created a difficult dilemma for a particular man named Joseph. Mary was the wife of Joseph in almost every sense of the word when Joseph discovers she’s pregnant. Joseph is 100% sure the baby isn’t his. He too hadn’t done the one thing necessary for humans to reproduce. Joseph doesn’t know who the father is, so he can’t bring charges against the other man. However, he can charge Mary as it’s clear Mary has been violated – willingly or unwillingly. Or it appears to be clear. Joseph is torn. Apart from the emotional crisis Joseph may have experienced (i.e. anger, sorrow, loss, humiliation, etc.), Joseph has a spiritual crisis. Joseph is a righteous man. We often take this to mean he was a nice guy. The Message paraphrase says he was “chagrined but noble”. It really means, Joseph was a devout Jew, righteous in the eyes of God. He followed the Law, and The Law is clear about the consequences of such situations. At the same time, he had compassion for Mary. Perhaps he couldn’t bear to be responsible for another person’s death. Maybe a part of him wondered if her story might be true. So, after some struggle, he decides he won’t charge her with adultery, but he is done with her. He will divorce her and call off the marriage. With the problem resolved, Joseph sleeps like a baby. But just as he’s falls into the REM cycle, an angel shows up in his dream with some new rules: don’t be afraid; take Mary as your wife; name the baby Jesus. We often take this passage to be a story about a virgin’s pregnancy and how God assured Joseph so he would marry her. Sometimes, we add that this was important because Jesus needed a human father and role model. It also wouldn’t have been fair to Mary, given the Holy Spirit is the source of her condition. All valid points, but there’s much more than that going on here.
Matthew introduces his gospel with a list of who “begat” whom. Those are the first 17 verses we always skip over. However, they’re there for a reason. Matthew didn’t research Joseph’s family tree for nothing. He included that long chain of names to show that Joseph was a direct descendant of King David. That’s important because the prophets predicted the Messiah would be from the lineage of David. Mary must be married to Joseph, in order to fulfill that prophesy. He isn’t superfluous to God’s plan; like Mary, he is an integral part of it. Likewise, everything else the angel says speaks to the uniqueness of this baby. Mary is, in fact, pregnant by the Holy Spirit. This is no ordinary baby. This baby is a combination of human genes and Divine participation. For the first and only time in history someone will be born who is not made by a human father but is the only begotten Son of our heavenly Father. The angel provides Joseph with the baby’s name – in Aramaic, Jesus. In Hebrew “Y’shua”. In English, Joshua. Just as some cultures give their children names that describe the child’s personality or destiny, Jesus means “to deliver, to rescue”. Joseph is told that this baby is the one who will “save his people from their sins.” In other words: God’s anointed, chosen Messiah. In case Joseph didn’t grasp the fulness of this (lots of baby boys in Israel were named Jesus), the angel went on to quote the prophet Isaiah 7: 14 who promised Israel “the Lord, himself will give you a sign”. A sign which is infolding right in front of him, a sign which Joseph is invited to witness first hand, “Watch for this—a virgin will get pregnant and bear a son; They will name him Immanuel – “God is with us”. (Matthew 1: 21). The dream then ended. We’re told: “Joseph woke up and did exactly what God’s angel commanded in the dream: He married Mary. But he did not consummate the marriage until she had the baby. He named the baby Jesus” (Matthew 1: 24 & 25).
The question for us is: when Joseph woke, was he simply following the angel’s rules? “Do not be afraid; take Mary as your wife; name the baby Jesus”. Had the angel showed up to remind Joseph to do his duty, if not to Mary then to God? Is this simply an example of a righteous man obeying a new directive? Was Joseph, the rule follower, just being a good obedient Jew? If so, did Joseph do this with a heavy heart? Did he feel resentful? Was it a life-crushing task? Was it simply a test of his obedience over and against his feelings? I wonder. If we read this as the moment Joseph came to terms with his virgin wife being pregnant and then doing what he was told to do, we will miss the meaning all together. The angel wasn’t only directing Joseph’s actions, he was inviting Joseph, heart and soul, mind and might, to be a part of this grand, once off, saving event that God was doing. He was calling Joseph to be the active link between the Messiah and his ancestor David. Even more than that, He was stirring Joseph’s spirit. Calling him to be the protector and provider for Mary and Jesus. He was welcoming Joseph to be a part of holy history, a member of God’s team in this Divine moment of salvation. Joseph heard that call and responded from his core with passion and wonder and faith – and obedience.
When Jesus came, he gave us new rules – show compassion to your neighbour; love your enemy; pick up your cross; serve one another; go into all the world and share the good news. As faithful Christians we strive to be obedient, we do our best to please God, but when we approach our faith only as a set of rules to be followed, regardless of whether they are The Laws of Moses or the teachings of Jesus, rather than receiving an invitation from the Holy Spirit to share in God’s saving mission to the world, we miss out. Our faith becomes mechanical, dry and life-crushing. We miss the whole meaning of Christ’s coming. We miss the passion, the wonder, the excitement, and the challenge of being a part of God’s saving, healing, restoring, amazing plan. Like Joseph we may resolve to do the “right” thing, but we miss doing the “life-giving” thing. We miss Immanuel. We miss “God with us”. The whole point of Jesus’ coming was to free us from sin and The Law and bring us into a new relationship with God where we are re-born into abundant life. Rules might structure our experiences, guide us through tricky situations, keep us healthy, make us wealthy but they do not bring us to life; they do not make us fully alive. Only Jesus does that. Christmas is about so much more than obedience; it takes us beyond a life of restrictions and rigid living. Christmas is the vaccination for human sin, and it offers us freedom. Christmas in this and every time is about Jesus. Jesus removes our fear; Jesus unites us – “marries” us if you will – to the living God; and Jesus saves us from our sins. Christmas whispers “God is with us”, it announces “Jesus saves” and it invites us to participate fully in God’s on-going work of redemption. Responding to that invitation with our all we are is the essence of Christmas in the time of CoVid
Prayer and Reflection
Offertory Prayer: Lord God you have given us everything. You didn’t even withhold your own Son but sent him to die. We are not as generous as you, but we offer you our gifts. Use them so others may live in your grace. Amen.
Hymn O Come All ye Faithful
Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession
(this week’s prayer is adapted from the PCC website)
God of Wisdom and Patience,
In this season of Advent, we wait for your gifts of hope and peace.
We wait on you in prayer, knowing you hear us even before we speak.
Prepare our hearts and minds to welcome the coming of your Son once again,
and prepare our courage and conviction to follow the way of the Lord, not only in strict obedience, but also from hearts inspired with fervour and excitement for what you are doing and for the possibilities we have as your disciples.
Thank you for leading us on the Way, especially in these difficult days
when the pandemic still threatens, and people are so weary.
We are grateful that we can rely on your strength and comfort
in the midst of uncertainty.
Comfort those who are troubled in mind or spirit as the days grow shorter.
Strengthen the bodies and spirits of those who are tired or suffering.
Embrace those who are living with loss,
Protect children and young people
for whom the future seems confusing and unimaginable.
God who makes all things new,
Turn our lives upside down and shake out the unnecessary distractions of this season.
Help us to focus us on you, on those who are dear to us and on what is truly important in this world because of this season.
Turn our lives upside right so that our priorities and purposes match those we have learned from Jesus.
Shape and reshape us until we conform to his way of living and his likeness. Guide us as we share in your mission.
Turn us upside down, O God,
so that we value what is hidden and small more than what is showy and grand.
Open our eyes to the needs of others. Help us to bring them good news and bless them. Give us courage to speak out against injustice, even when it means there will be confrontations.
Turn us right side up, O God, so we can see we have resources to share and love to give.
Today we remember before you
Hear us now as we name places, people, and situations that need your care:
You know our deepest needs, Lord. Touch those we love with your grace.
God, you are Alpha and Omega, our beginning and our end.
Strengthen us with your Spirit to participate in building your kingdom,
here and now, now and always.
Hear us as we pray together, using the words that Jesus taught:
The Lord’s Prayer
Hymn – Prepare The Way
Invitation to Mission
We go from here
To love as we’ve been loved.
To forgive as we’ve been forgiven.
To set others free, as we’ve been set free in Christ.