Sermon 12-13-20 – The Rev Jen Van Zandt
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “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. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
“Reactions and Responses”
As we inch…. or maybe even fly towards Christmas, going deeper into Advent, this story has taken on a new meaning, particularly given the fact that we are back to remote worship. In fact, in Morris County we are now in the red zone. Unfortunately, as of this morning, COVID infections in Boonton alone, are 444. Now more than ever we need a story of hope. We need to know that God is with us. We need to know that God is going to bring good out of bad. It is so very hard to believe this; because, as Amir said this morning, this disease is truly unfathomable.
So today I want to talk a little bit about how we reactand how we respondto things. When we are in an unbalanced place, we tend to be highly reactive. Sometimes we are sharp with our spouse or children or neighbors or friends. Sometimes we say or do things that really, when we look back at, was probably not the best idea. And we also make commitments, some of which we can’t even follow through on, but we don’t really think about when we are in ‘reactive’ mode. Especially at Christmas time, we think that we can accomplish more than we can. And this year is no different, although things are being scaled back. We certainly have some challenges in how we might learn to respondinstead of just react.
In the story of Joseph in the book of Matthew, the minute Joseph learns that Mary is with child, he immediately reacts. He decides the right thing to do, to avoid his own disgrace, embarrassment and shame (as hers) was to dismiss her quietly. This is in line with his Judaism, is in line with the Torah. Deuteronomy dictates that Mary and he potentially could have been stoned to death for adultery. Joseph is both reactive but also responding to this news.
This morning I was thinking again about what their conversation must have been like, when Joseph went to visit Mary at her father’s house and Mary shares the news. I wonder what his reaction was. He was just coming by to say ‘hi’; checking in on things, discussing perhaps wedding plans or breaking bread together and he gets this news that is truly incomprehensible, inconceivable. (No pun intended.)
Sometimes, in fact more often than not, we are not remotely aware that God is already active in our lives. That same power of the Holy Spirit is active in this story just as the power of the Holy Spirit is active in our lives, especially when we get taken by surprise. God’s activity is not just for Mary and Joseph, but for all of creation which is why God brings forth his son in the form of Christ to us to save us from our sins. But I think it also calls us to thinking about how we reactand respondto God’s activity.
This week you got a letter in your inbox or in your mail box or both about the Stewardship campaign for 2021. And, yes indeed, it is later than usual for a variety of reasons, but mostly because I wanted to make sure that we had a message that was both thoughtful and caring; affirming of all of the stewardship the church has given faithfully this year. We also acknowledge that we are headed and unknown vision of foreign territory as we look into 2021. We don’t know how much longer we will have to worship remotely or do fellowship remotely or Wisdom Wednesdays remotely or prerecord and do music remotely (which is such a key component of our worship services). But important to all these things, is funding all those efforts.
A couple of weeks ago I went for a walk with a friend. It was unbelievably windy that day and unfortunately I was rather underdressed. I thought I had enough layers on, but the wind was just cutting right through me. And so I said to my friend, “Let’s cut the walk short; let’s cut across the lawn and head back to our cars.” And as we did, I found something. It was this… It’s a ten dollar bill. I was ecstatic that I found a ten dollar bill! I reached out immediately and grabbed it. I looked around and there was no one else in sight and I thought WOW this is a wonderful gift. And I said to my friend, “Let’s go get a cup of coffee with this. Let’s get a really nice caramel macchiato latte at Starbucks or something.” He said, “No, no, no, why don’t you hold on to it.” And I did. I still have it. And as I looked at this on the back side, and you all know this, it says, “In God we trust.” But sometimes when we are called to days that are difficult for us, sometimes we shrink away from it; sometimes we hold on to things more than we should. Sometimes we are not faithful in our giving of our hearts or of ourselves or treasures and talents.
So let’s just take that ten dollar bill for a second. If I break it down into singles and I give away one dollar which is a tithe, 10%, I still have $9 left. It seems like this is such a small portion giving back to God for all the goodness that God gives to us. Now, it is simple math that shows if we give 10% of $100 or we give 10% of $1,000 or the money is obviously huge if we give 10% of $100,000. Some people in this church I know still tithe. Some of you give even more than 10%. Some of you are giving a balance between 10% of your income, 10% of your time as well as your many talents. The call, my friends, is to actually listen to where God is inviting us and respond, even though we don’t know what 2021 looks like. Like Joseph who knew he needed to care for Mary and their future child, we still need to care for the mission and ministry of this church.
God has blessed us richly this year and we expect to end the year on a positive note from your generosity as well as the funds that are invested as part of our endowment. But friends, we want to continue to do good things here and there are many improvements we need to make to the Sanctuary to make it even more technologically helpful, as we worship separately together. There are things that need to be taken care of –the steeple has repairs to be done as well other property repairs and/upgrades. We continue need to care for the staff and the mission and ministry of this church. So while the vision of the future is a little unclear for us, and some of us might be running out of patience and struggling because they have been unable to be in the Sanctuary since literally March, the invitation is still clear: to respond to God’s invitation which is to trust and be part of God’s activity in the future.
When we look back at this text, Joseph did the right thing too but only because The Holy Spirit was present to him and gave him the hope and the trust that he couldn’t muster on his own. Sometimes we have to do the right thing even when we can’t muster the trust on our own. But that’s God’s invitation to us as Christians; as believers and as members of this congregation. I don’t know what God has in store for this church, but I know that we’ve done so many wonderful things and we have the opportunity to do even more in the years and even in the weeks and months to come. So I encourage you to pay attention to God’s invitation, especially that gentle nudging to do the right thing and continue to step up on your pledges, begin a pledge, or maybe even just make a small increase. We know that God will continue to provide for us in our own lives, in our own homes, in our own family. In this text, as well as the Isaiah text, the Prophet tells the virgin that she will bear a son and they shall name him Immanuel which means: God [is] with us.
As we go deeper into Advent, I also encourage us to pay attention to the fact that God’s activity in the Christ child points even beyond the places in which we are struggling to have hope, struggling to trust God’s presence and activity; struggling even to remain patient. But Mary and Joseph did do that and it changed the world forever. Imagine just a small portion of that as we move forward and make our contributions to the future ministry and the mission of this church. I pray that you will find comfort in this message and in this text. Let the angels of God visit you this Christmas so you can hear the words tings out: Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid for God is with us. Thanks be to God. Amen.