Monday, December 20, 2010

Just When He Had Resolved

Sermon from December 19, 2010
(Advent 4 – Year A)
Matthew 1: 18-25
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

Joseph could not fall asleep that night.
He had spent the last few hours of the night staring at the ceiling, fighting back tears, then getting up out of bed to think.
Joseph was not used to these feeling of uncertainty.
Joseph was used to everything being black and white, according to the letter of the Law.

You see, Joseph was a righteous man.
Joseph was a good Jew, a man who had been raised to be a good boy, following all the religious rules.

In those days, details about the birds and the bees were not discussed readily.
Yet Joseph knew enough to know what happens between a man and a woman when, months after the engagement ritual, the wife is taken into the home of the husband.
And Joseph, being good man of the law, had never even gotten up the nerve to put the moves on Mary, because the Jewish law clearly stated that marital relations were not to occur before she had been properly brought into his home.
Yet now his beautiful Mary was pregnant, obviously by another man.
Every time he thought of each of the young men in Nazareth, and speculated about which one of them had gotten Mary pregnant, tears began to roll down his cheeks.
Yet Joseph was a religious man, a man of the Law, who knew that the Jewish penalty for adultery was death by stoning.

So Joseph concocted a plan.
Joseph made plans to dismiss her quietly, plans to send her away for a quickie Caribbean divorce.
And just when he had resolved to do this, Joseph fell fast asleep.

The next morning, before Joseph rolled out of bed, he woke up with this strange sense of calm and peace.
Was this sense of peace coming from the dream that he had the night before?
He couldn’t tell.
However, he did remember a voice.
A voice had spoken to him in his dream, instructing him by saying:

“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary [into your house] 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.”

For just when he had resolved to judge Mary based upon the Law,
Then Grace appeared, telling Joseph to lay aside the rules of religion and to not be afraid to be the father of the Son of God.

Sixty years after the birth of Jesus, the Apostle Paul wrote a very short letter to his friend, Titus.
The book of Titus now appears in the New Testament, yet we very rarely read from this small letter.
Yet in writing about the Christmas event, Paul writes this to Titus:
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.”[1]

For just when we had resolved to base everything on the Law, on the rules of religion,
Then Grace appears, bringing love and salvation to all.

Last Friday afternoon, I had resolved to preach a sermon about Joseph.
In the mind of Jeff Fisher, I had concocted an outline of a sermon, a sermon about Joseph and his best-laid plans.
But just when I had resolved to do this, I went to Gold’s Gym for a workout and some prayer time.

At the gym, a man about my same age, whom I have met there before, saw me walk into the area where the free weights are.
This man signaled to me and then walked right over in my direction.
A little out breath, he shook my hand and inquired:
“Hey, man.
You are the guy who comes in here who is a pastor, right?”
Obviously, even in gym shorts and tennis shoes, I was not fully incognito.

This man proceeded to say:
“I need your advice, man.
You see, my wife and I – we are getting a divorce.
Now I will fully admit that both of us were in the wrong.
I fully admit that I have been seeing someone else.
But what really has me bothered right now is this church we had been going to.
The senior pastor has kicked both of us out of the church.
He sends me text messages all the time telling me that I am going to hell.
The guys in the men’s group at my church tell me that I have been impure and can’t come back to their bible study breakfast.
My wife – my ex-wife that is – is being hounded by the senior pastor, as well.
I have confessed that what I have done is wrong.
But pastor, tell me this:
Am I going to hell for what I have done?”

I assured this man that if he has confessed his sins, and is truly sorry for what he and his wife have done, then God forgives.
I assured him that he needed to get away from his current church and to come to a church like St. Alban’s, where grace and love are preached.

At that moment, this guy’s cell phone rings.
He looks at the screen and says to me:
“It’s my ex-wife calling.
She lives in Dallas now.”

He then answers his phone and speaks to his ex-wife, saying:
“Hey, guess what?
I just ran into this guy at the gym who is a senior pastor of a different church in town.”
He then turns to me and asks.
“You are a Senior Pastor, right?”
Since I am rarely given an opportunity to pull rank on this guy {pointing to Jimmy}, I assured him that I am, in fact, a senior pastor.
The guy then goes back to his phone conversation with his ex-wife, and tells her:
“This guy here at the gym is the senior pastor of an Episcopal church, you know they are kinda like Catholics, except this dude is married.
Anyway, what this guy here says is that we need to just get away from the hateful stuff at our old church.
And that we need to find different churches.
This guy says that you and I need to find places where there is love and grace.
Because this pastor here at the gym tells me
That we have been forgiven.”

For just when we had resolved to base everything on the Law,
Grace appears.
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.

I have discovered in my own life, that the older I get, the more attracted to grace I have become.
When I was a much younger man, I took great comfort in basing everything on the law, a set of religious rules and dogmas that made it very black and white on who was in and who was out.
Yet as I have grown older, and I hope a bit more spiritually mature, the more attracted I am to hearing and speaking words of grace and forgiveness and love.

Because just when we have resolved to point out the faults and shortcomings of the family members who will gather around our holiday tables,
Then grace appears, in the form of keeping our mouth shut.

Just when we had resolved to kick people out of our churches because they might be divorced or alcoholic or an unwed mother,
Then grace appears, in the form of a senior pastor at the gym who simply says:
“You are forgiven.”

And just when Joseph had resolved to base everything on the letter of the Jewish law and to send the seemingly adulterous Mary off to an undisclosed location,
Then grace appears, in the form of an infant, a baby whose name is Jesus, a name which literally means “God saves.”

For just when we had resolved to base everything on the rules,
Then the grace and forgiveness and love of God appears.

Just when we had resolved to base everything on the Law,
Then Grace is born.


[1] Titus 2:11

No comments:

Post a Comment