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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
When I was young, one of the first Christmas carols I learned was in Norwegian, “Jeg er saa glad hver julekveld”- I am so glad each Christmas Eve. This was a beloved song for the closeted happy people in my family. My grandparents were stoic, unemotional immigrant stock. At Christmas they often felt guilty about not feeling guilty- and about being too happy. When they heard the Christmas story read from St. Luke’s gospel, they knew they were to stand to attention. This was gospel truth. Christmas and the Christian faith were to be taken seriously. But when they heard the lilting words and melody, “I am so glad each Christmas Eve,” they were suddenly changed. The closeted happy people were free to rejoice, and to sing, and to laugh – openly.
Certainly, this has not been an easy year for all of our friends and family here at Lake of the Isles. For many, it has been a harsh walk through a dark valley. You are disenchanted this Christmas and are relieved that “I am so Glad Each Christmas Eve” is not in your family repertoire, because that’s not how you feel this year. You’re afraid as you approach Christmas, that the song of the angels won’t have the same lightness and joy as you have known in Christmases past. Or perhaps you wonder whether that the lowly shepherds will have the curiosity to go unto Bethlehem and see the thing that has come to pass, or whether the wise men will be searching the heavens and for a wistful star. Be assured my friends, the spirit of Christmas, God’s own holy spirit, is not inclined to leave you hopeless. The Holy Spirit is preparing once again this Christmas to make your spirit sing.
The Christmas story as recorded St. Matthew’s gospel provides intriguing images of how God invites us all to experience renewed joy and gladness. So, together with the words of the gospel and those of a dear friend, former parishioner, and poet, Betty Westrum Skold, let me offer you a reverie of poetry and word in this sermon for the anxious, disenchanted and closeted happy people of this world. Let us look towards Christmas from the perspective of Joseph, God’s holy messenger, and Mary.
Ponder first, my friends, the familiar character of Joseph- the adoptive father of our Lord Jesus. Consider his strength of character, the depth of his love, the courage of purpose. Joseph is after all a righteous man, and when he discovered that Mary was expecting a child, he was unwilling to expose her to public disgrace. Instead, he planned to dismiss her quietly. And yet by the power of the Holy Spirit, he welcomed the stranger, that was not his, into his home. He opened his heart to an unborn child and to be his father. I must admit, as a father with two adopted children, I can easily identify with Joseph. He is often the most overlooked character in the Christmas story. The early church father St. Augustine, however, didn’t dismiss Joseph’s role in the Christmas narrative. He wrote, “Certainly we have confirmation of Joseph’s fatherhood, not in flesh, but in love. Let him, therefore, be accepted as a father, as indeed he is.” In a poem called His Workmanship, Betty Skold writes.
You taught him workmanship, Joseph. You showed him the importance of driving nails straight, of measuring carefully, of smoothing rough edges.
The boy had a quick mind, good hands. Good help around the shop, I’m sure. But if Jesus was both God and man, then the boy Jesus was both God and child. What did that mean?
As human father you taught that boy workmanship, but on a deeper level weren’t your own skills a gift from him? Weren’t your carpenter’s hands a product of his workmanship?
Isn’t that true of all our human relationships. You and I are not simply focused on changing and shaping others. The love and joy of other’s changes us. Certainly, my sons Vitali and Alexei are different men because of my love for them. But I hope as well that I am a different person because of their love for me. That is worth celebrating this Christmas. We can be anxious and cautious, but we should also be glad. There is an invitation to each one of us to follow in the footsteps of Joseph. We are called by the Holy Spirit, to open our homes to the stranger.
While working for an organization that delivers lunches to elderly shut-ins, a fellow pastor used to take his four-year-old daughter on his afternoon rounds. She was unfailingly intrigued by the various appliances of old age, particularly the canes, walkers and wheelchairs. One day he found her staring at a pair of false teeth soaking in a glass. As he braced himself for the inevitable barrage of questions, she merely turned and whispered, “The tooth fairy will never believe this!” My friends, in opening your life, your home and your heart to the stranger, you too will be changed and you will be richly blessed. The Holy Spirit is opening your life to new surprises.
Let us turn now to the holy messenger, the angel. He, of course, has the great word of promise that inspires both Joseph and Mary to change their plans. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” The angel then went to Mary as well, opening her heart to the possibilities of God. The angel whispered the words of encouragement that Mary could accept. Betty Skold writes:
The angel messenger had given you an advantage, Mary. From the beginning your son was special. You had some sense of his power.
But when you unwrapped his swaddling clothes for the last time, was there no grief?
How could you trust his goodness to a world of evil? How could you be sure his innocence would remain unflawed? You let him grow up, Mary. How did you dare?
The angelic messenger in the Christmas gospel, you see, is a voice to you as well. It is the voice of assurance. In a world of uncertainty, in times when the future is vague, the voice of the heavenly messenger is clear: It is the word of God. You need not be afraid to follow the course that God has set before you. You can be glad, even when it is not like any Christmas you remembered from the past. God is preparing something else for you. How can you be so confident? Because you have the promise of the angel that God is with you.
Unfortunately, many of us fail to experience the confidence and encouragement of the Holy Spirits, all because we fail to share the angel’s good news beyond the years of our childhood. Even when we are happy; when we feel blessed by God’s presence in our lives, we do not know the words to express this peace and contentment with others. After all, that’s the pastor’s business. My friends, this Christmas, do not be afraid to share the good news, and do not be afraid if you don’t get all the details just right. Oh, you may make a mistake in your story telling, rather like the little girl who was so excited about Christmas, that she told her friend, “I certainly hope Mary and Joseph have another baby next year.” But as you share the message that God is with you, the Holy Spirit will fill you with his word. And you will find peace and gladness.
Let us now turn our reverie briefly to Mary, the mother of our Lord. This is the woman for whom generations have found their closest relationship to God. In their darkest hour, they also e turn to Mary as the compassionate ear who intercedes with the Father. Skold writes:
Mary, your pictures don’t do you justice. You weren’t like the Madonna of the art galleries. You were younger when your baby came, and more shy, and the clothes you wore plain and rough.
I know you loved him, Mary, how you loved the child he was and worshipped the Savior he became. For you, his birth was mystery and joy. Every mother.. every father, too.. has felt something like it… mystery, joy.
To honor God, Mary, moved by the Holy Spirit, offered herself fully. Young and timid, she accepted the word of the messenger. She did as the angel bid her to do, and when Jesus was born she gave herself again entirely to serve and love him. Yes, Mary honored the baby Jesus by offering herself to him- as a gift. She had opened herself to power of the Holy Spirit, and she was glad.
It is perhaps, the most important lesson that we can learn about Christmas, my friends. We can get so caught up in the activities of Christmas, shopping, baking, partying, and wrapping, that we exchange the fleeting happiness of busyness for joy and gladness. The real preparation is not opening boxes and bags, the real preparation for Christmas is opening yourself, like Joseph, and Mary to the power of the Holy Spirt, so that he can change you.
It was the day after Christmas at a church in San Francisco. The pastor of the church was looking over the crèche and the manger when he noticed that the baby Jesus was missing from among the figures. Immediately he turned and went outside and saw a little boy with a red wagon, and in the wagon was the figure of the little infant Jesus. So he walked up to the boy and said, “Well, where did you get Him, my fine friend?” The little boy replied, “I got him from the church.” “And why did you take him?” The boy said, “Well, about a week before Christmas I prayed to the little Lord Jesus and I told him if he would bring me a red wagon for Christmas I would give him a ride around the block in it.”
My friends, what will you do to honor God this Christmas? What preparation or change is needed, so that you can truly open yourself to his gift of joy and gladness? May the Holy Spirit open your heart to receive the Lord Jesus anew. And as Joseph and Mary, may you experience the joy that the Savior brings- even to broken hearts and lives, and closeted happy people Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.