I had a friend once who worked very hard to make sure that all of his plans went the right way. He followed all the rules. He worked hard. He found a spouse. He had children. He saved money. He did everything he was supposed to.
But one day, his world came crashing in, and his life fell apart. The best-laid plans didn’t hold up, and his relationships turned out to be superficial. It turned out his family needed him in a way that he hadn’t been available because he had been so busy trying to play by the rules, trying to work hard. His relationship faltered because he hadn’t been available to be present to more important things.
Or my other friend, who worked very hard to ensure that she got everything done in a different way. She worked very hard to be present to everyone’s needs in her family while also trying to manage a successful career. She spread herself so thin that she was exhausted. She tried to meet every expectation laid upon her, a different set of rules, and in so doing always felt insufficient at all of them, sort of stretched too thin. One day her life fell apart when she realized none of it was making her happy.
Sometimes the best laid plans, following the rules, meeting the expectations– it just doesn’t seem to work out that well.
We think that following the rules is always the way to fix our problems. But sometimes it doesn’t work. This time of year in the children’s hospital where I used to work, there would always be a set of parents who would go through a series of devastating setbacks as they worked really hard to follow the rules, take the prescribed regimens of physical therapy or medication, and try to get home before Christmas. And when following the rules sometimes did not get them home in time for Christmas, there would be a sense of unfairness, of loss: “Dr. – I did what you said! Why can’t we be home for Christmas!” Following the rules just doesn’t always land you where you hope it will.
I so want Christmas to be a time of relief from that rat-race of chasing expectations. But sometimes the postcards and trying to live into a picture-perfect idea of what this season might look like ends up adding a kind of pressure that doesn’t help. How will I get the cards out? What if the kids don’t care about the traditions? How will I find all the money I need? How will I get the cookies baked? Where will I find the time to do it all? But also: What if I’m alone? What about the ones I’m reminded of this time of year that I can’t be with? What if the joy isn’t there? The expectations we have set for the holidays don’t always align with the reality.
We’ve got families in the congregation who have loved ones in the hospital this Christmas, who are grieving this Christmas, and who won’t have the Norman Rockwell postcard Christmas. The darkness that comes at this time of year can take its toll, and the difficult fact is that darkness comes into our all our lives at sometime or another, and no action on our part can prevent it.
In today’s gospel, I imagine Joseph trying to do the right thing to break what must have been a dark moment in his life. With his fiancé pregnant, the kind thing to do for both of them was for him to leave quietly without making a big fuss, and he was going to follow the rules and do just that. Joseph had the best intentions to take what he perceived to be a bad situation and follow the rules that would make the best of it.
But then this angel broke in, unexpected, and told him not to follow the rules– not to leave Mary– and to risk it all to stay with her.
How reckless! How messy! How culturally inappropriate! This is not the postcard answer to the scandalous situation they found themselves in. This is a messy answer that is only going to make it messier. I can’t imagine this solution getting through committee, much less General Convention.
But that is the point. We like our pictures of Christmas that are cute, and gentle, and orderly. But this– this is grace breaking into this world, setting the stage for the messy incarnation to come, an incarnation of God into a child in a dirty manger surrounded by filthy barnyard animals who probably haven’t had any vaccinations and are going to get that baby sick!
This is grace, taking this man Joseph by the throat and saying, “Everything you know tells you to leave this woman quietly, but I’m telling you not to.” This is grace, saying, “Do not be afraid. This is hard stuff, but take courage, because even though it will be worse before it gets better, and you will flee into the night in the very next chapter of Matthew– you will leave your nation to go to Egypt because they are trying to kill this baby, the very one you yourself are trying to leave now, I am with you. And though it isn’t going to be easy, you’ve got to step up and have faith, and love.”
Because that’s what grace is. It’s that messy breaking in, it’s love! It’s the voice that comes in the middle of the night and tells you that even though it is going to cost you, you are loved enough yourself to risk going out and loving somebody else, even if it isn’t in your plan, even if it breaks a few rules. Do not be afraid.
There was a time, once, a few years back, when I was lost. I felt like life was so dark. I remember working so hard to get out of it, to find the light. I met with my spiritual director at the time, who said to me, “Stop working so hard to find the light. Let the light find you.”
We want so much to work to find the light, hoping that if we follow the rules we can get there. But that’s not grace. That’s control. Grace isn’t about finding the light.
Grace is the light that finds you. Grace is the light that breaks in when we least expect it, though we may be so busy working on our own plans that we miss it. Grace is God’s invitation for risky and messy love in God’s own self– a light so powerful that we can risk to love without fear. Grace comes not in a booming voice but in a small, still whisper. Grace comes not in a majestic Christmas portrait but in a messy and dirty manger, one that we may well walk by without a second thought because we think it doesn’t fit the rules we have built to hold it.
I love this story of Joseph, this final advent moment before the incarnation next week. It is so powerful in its call to move us out of complacency, to listen in the darkness, to prepare the way for the light, to listen for the voice that is always beckoning us to love. Whether or not we have ears to hear, even when it doesn’t match our rules, our expectations, is up to us.
We have a tradition in my house this time of year. We usually watch this movie, The Polar Express. I don’t know how many of you have seen it, but it is the story of a boy’s journey to believe.
The movie begins with the boy doubting his belief in Santa. Just when he is tossing and turning in his bed, something happens on the street outside, and a train appears from out of nowhere. He is invited on board, but he asks the conductor where the train is going. The conductor responds, “One thing about trains: It doesn’t matter where they’re going. What matters is deciding to get on.” He struggles with whether or not to board the train. What a difficult choice! This mysterious train from nowhere– full of intrigue, yet he knows nothing about it. Is it safe? What if it goes someplace dangerous? He refuses. But what if it goes someplace wonderful? As the train pulls away, he says yes and boards anyway.
It turns out to be a life changing adventure. He meets many people. He has lots of joyful and scary experiences. And in the end, he discovers that he believes, all stemming from his decision to take a step onto this mysterious train that appeared from nowhere that is leading to an unknown destination, breaking all the rules he knows.
The thing is, when the train came to his town in this mysterious adventure, the adults all slept through its arrival, even though it was loud and noisy and shook the whole house. The train didn’t fall into their expectations, their rules. They missed the opportunity to go to a new place, even though that journey required risk and uncertainty.
But the boy, he listened. He risked. He was willing to receive the gift that was so freely offered in this mystery that came to him. My wish for all of us is that the train wakes us up, shakes us, and startles us into getting onboard to a destination we’ve never dreamt of before.
In the words of poet, author, and pastor Peter Traben Haas on this Advent season as we come to its end,
You now enter the deepest days of darkness.
Take time to recall through story and song the message of my descent to you in love.
While it’s an ancient story told with the poetry of a different era, remember this: I surprise with wonder. I make the impossible, glorious.
Watch. Wait. Wonder.
The Rev Jeff Martinhauk
18 Dec 2016