Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Secret Plan

Matthew 1:18-25

No matter how many times you hear this story, it is worth noting how utterly inconvenient Jesus’ arrival really is. When we set out our nativity sets, the scene looks so peaceful and serene. There’s Mary looking proudly and lovingly down at Jesus, Joseph supportively at her side. We set tentative shepherds off to the side (often with some unsuspecting sheep) with some other miniature animals. Then on the other side, three wise men (of varying skin tone and wearing very colorful Persian looking garb) holding bedecked chests or urns of precious spices. But all have come together in this seemingly perfect moment.
Except that it isn’t. Remember what Mary and Joseph had to do just to get room in a smelly, dirty, itchy barn. This was no surgically clean labor-and-delivery room either. This is after they had traveled many miles for the government’s silly census. (Ladies, you think it was tough riding in the car while eight-months pregnant, imagine being on the back of a donkey for over a hundred miles!) And this is just the logistical difficulty. Our passage this morning (which Katie and Justin have graciously and skillfully shared!) is not as serene and peaceful as it seems. It is utterly inconvenient.
For both Mary and Joseph, so very much was at stake. At this point, I’m not talking about the fact that Jesus was to become the Savior of all humanity (although we’ll get to that). You see, Joseph and Mary, while engaged, were not married yet. And here is Mary, perhaps not much older than her mid-teens, now betrothed to a respectable carpenter with her future shaping up nicely, is just beginning to show.
As a young woman in that day, until a woman was married, she was part of her father’s household. Your greatest hope was to be married (usually arranged) and bear children (sons hopefully at some point for they would carry on the family name and business). Marriage was not about “being in love” so the fact that Mary landed a “godly man” was a bonus! So in that day and age, finding a place to be a faithful wife was a much anticipated thing. This ancient arrangement was not an issue of oppression (although that certainly that took place) but for the sake of survival.
Which meant to be pregnant out of wedlock was disastrous. According to the laws of the day, the groom (in this case, Joseph) could drag the pregnant bride-to-be before the local council and press charges, tarring her and her family with great shame in the community. In extreme cases, the bride’s father could have refused to take the daughter back in. Certainly, it would be next to impossible to find another husband.
Not only would Mary’s life have been over, Joseph also could have been in trouble. His survival depended on his trade and this incident could lead people to boycott his business leaving him with no income or recourse but perhaps to leave home and move to another city and attempt to start all over, competing with other already-established carpenters. But Joseph, being a godly man, wants to do the honorable thing. So despite being the offended party to what looks on the outside to be Mary’s impropriety, he makes plans to end it quietly. That will be best for everyone.
So when the angel appears and says, “Don’t be afraid!”, it’s not hard to imagine Joseph perhaps feeling a little indignation mixed in with the awe and wonder of hosting an angel of the Almighty in his living room! But the angel says this is not as it seems. “There is a plan at work. A big one. The biggest. God is coming. He’s coming down from heaven to be one of us, labor, delivery and all. He’s coming into your life. He’s coming to save the world, so name him “I AM Saves”. And you and Mary are going to raise him.”
Does this really help Joseph or Mary out of their predicament? What if the Almighty came to your house for a visit to announce that some centuries old prophesies were about to be fulfilled in your living room? Now imagine telling your friends what you’d seen. Yeah, they would think you were crazy too. Which makes Joseph and Mary’s surrender to God’s covert operation to save the world all the more remarkable. For they had to give up every dream they ever had about their quiet, peaceful life together, face the potential whispers of gossip of Mary and Joseph’s crazy talk, all to be part of God’s great plan.
Think about it: An all-powerful Almighty God, who can do anything He wants, wants to rescue people from their incarceration to sin; of all the ways He could have done it, this is how He chooses to do it. Jesus isn’t born into a wealthy family, so He could have all the opportunities for success and exposure to the most powerful people of the day. Jesus isn’t born to affluent, big-city Jerusalem folk near the center of Jewish religion, learning, politics and culture. He’s not born to a great rabbi so He could be trained, or surrounded by any of the other symbols what we call “success.” Rather, God chooses to enter our world in a place not unlike Floyd; back water Galilee in a village of blue-collar folks trying to scrape out a living for their families. Of all the possibilities, God chose these humble, highly inconvenient beginnings to inaugurate the turning point of all human history.
For this is where God meets us: not in a picture-perfect story but in messy life, where we’re doing our best to make it. This is where God wants to bring life; right where it is confusing and uncertain and difficult. This is where God wants to dismantle our best laid plans so that we might be a part of His eternal plan to bring all people and all creation back to its good and benevolent intent.
Mary and Joseph are heroes. They are heroes because they were willing to say, “Okay, I surrender to your plan.” They didn’t charge into battle. They didn’t rush into a burning building. But they surrendered their blueprint for an peaceful, ordinary life, risk shame and terrific inconvenience, to allow God to use them for something greater; the greatest! To save the world. Because Jesus’ arrival into our lives is not convenient. Things will have to change. This is where great acts of faith happen: not from pulpits or classrooms but in terrifying moments of trust, where we don’t know what will happen when we let go. But we find that when we do, God can do great things through us and give birth to life right in our living room.


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