"Thriving In A New Year"


Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - December 30, 2001

Isaiah 63:7-9; Matthew 2:13-23


     As Advent and Christmas begin to fade from our thoughts, many of us will try to get back to our normal routines.  As we do so, what residues from our observance would we like to take with us into the New Year?  What core message, what ideas, or what life-strategies would we like to use to motivate, stimulate, and guide us as we continue our journey into the future?  

     Our Gospel lesson today offers a story from which we might gain some insights.  Just as Christmas day eventually loses its glow and excitement for us, so it did for "the first family" of our faith as well.  As we will see this morning, life was always a challenge for them.  How did they learn to thrive in the midst of such daily uncertainty? 

     The long, uncomfortable trip to Bethlehem near Mary's due date was a difficult one.  Then to find a barnyard the only available place to deliver her infant had to be equally frustrating.  According to the story, there were several hours when the universe appeared to rejoice at what was happening. For one brief moment in time, joy and light filled their lives.  

     How quickly those moments of celebration came and went for Mary and Joseph.  If we take certain liberties with the Scriptures and combine the traditions of Matthew and Luke, we realize that a time came when the angels stopped their singing, the shepherds returned to their responsibilities, and the three wise men left for their return trip to Persia.   

     It was not long thereafter that another set of  life-changing detours began to outcrop for the young family.  The Matthew account indicates that Joseph was warned by God in a dream how Herod intended to deal with his fear and rage that a potential rival to his throne was on the horizon. As the story unfolds, Herod gave orders for his troops to travel to Bethlehem and destroy all male babies up to two years of age.  In light of this information Joseph and Mary fled into Egypt. 

     What can we learn from this story that we might apply to our lives?  One might think that with the King of Kings, or the Word of God being made flesh, or a great light entering our world, that the Creator would make some allowances for Jesus' safety.  Such a thing did not happen.  If Jesus was to stand eventually as a light in darkness, the world could not be anything other than what it was -- a place where understanding was absent. 

     The first lesson we can take with us into the New Year is that the world is not going to be a kinder, gentler place simply because we trust and love God.  We should not expect anything to be different from the same world that Jesus entered.  However, being people of faith we must remember that God will continue to create through us in ways we cannot anticipate or imagine. 

     One morning Dr. Clarence Forsberg of the University Hospital in Chicago was in his office reading the Tribune.  The front page story featured the tremendous riots that were taking place in the city following Dr. King's assassination.  A series of photographs captured perfectly the confrontation in the streets.  

     Readers could see the hatred on the faces of people who were throwing fire bombs. Individuals were smashing store front windows and looting.  Police were struggling with those who were violating the law.  But Dr. Forsberg saw something in one of the pictures.  He went to the Chicago Tribune and asked the staff to enlarge one of the pictures for him.   They did, and he used that picture for years as he taught hundreds of medical students. 

     In the middle of the front page pictorial of those nightmarish events he noticed someone dressed in white kneeling next to the person who was lying on the street.  The enlarged photograph clearly revealed that this figure was one of Dr. Forsberg's students who was giving first aid to a victim of the riots.  He had entered the fray as a volunteer.  That young intern had no idea that someone would be taking a picture, a picture that would be used for years to instruct countless medical students about the new identity they were about to assume.  That picture gave the Hippocratic Oath form, depth, and substance. 

     We are called to stand in the midst of chaos and assume nothing.  God works miracles through us in ways that we will never understand.  We cannot know what tapestry God is weaving when we stand as an island of hope in a ocean of chaos. 

     How could Mary and Joseph possibly have known who their son would grow up to be?  Yes, Mary "kept all these things and pondered them in her heart" but what thoughts must have entered her mind 33 years later as she stood at the bottom of a cross watching her son die?  Suppose she was recalling the words spoken to her at Jesus' conception, "And of his Kingdom there will be no end."  What meaning could such words possibly have as she remained riveted to a scene that appeared to be the final act of a drama that would make no sense? 

     A second lesson we can take into the New Year is that we should expect that not only will we be inconvenienced by circumstances beyond our control, but there will also be times when we will lose what is near and dear to us.  It should come as no surprise that a world in need of healing will often affect us personally in heart-wrenching ways.  This comes with the territory of living here.

     When Mary and Joseph had to flee into Egypt, this not only represented an inconvenience, this experience would ultimately prove to be filled with losses.  One wonders, for example, what happened to Joseph's carpentry shop in Judea.  What would become of his tools?  Presumably when he and Mary left for Bethlehem to register for the Roman taxation, they did so knowing they were going to return. As Matthew's story unfolds, we learn that Joseph did not return to his home.  

     The family would remain in Egypt for years until Herod's death.  Once word came that it was safe to return, Matthew's story reveals that Joseph's family was directed in a dream to make their new home in Galilee.  Within several years, Joseph and Mary twice had to begin housekeeping from whatever meager possessions they had gathered along the way. 

     How many times have we felt abandoned by God thinking, "If God really loves me, why am I struggling so hard to keep myself together?"  When such thoughts come to us in the New Year, drive them away by remembering that Jesus' own family experienced far worse.  The world is exactly what it is and any feelings that we are being rejected by God completely miss the mark.   

     Just because we feel rejected, alone, and isolated does not legitimize that God is responsible for creating them. God's activity has nothing to do with how we choose to feel about life's events.  Any harsh judgments we create about the world, God, or our relationships only reveal who we are and nothing more. 

     The third lesson we can take into the New Year is that we should  allow results to be up to God as did Mary and Joseph.  We need to stop trying to force issues.  We need to stop trying to manipulate others into being the people we want them to be.  We should polish our own stone and let God do the rest.   Sometimes letting God create is a challenge for us to understand.  

     Henri Nouwen was a professor at Boston University School of Theology.  A number of years ago he wrote a book entitled, Letters To Marc About Jesus.  His words reveal Father Nouwen's profound insight into how he believed God works.  This is what he wrote: 

I don't think you will ever be able to penetrate the mystery of God's revelation in Jesus until it strikes you that the major part of Jesus' life was hidden.  Even Jesus' public years remained invisible as far as most people were concerned. 

 

The way of the world is to insist on publicity, celebrity, popularity, and getting the maximum exposure.  God prefers to work in secret.  You must have the nerve to let the mystery of God's secrecy, God's anonymity, to sink deeply into your consciousness because, otherwise, you will continually be looking in the wrong direction.  

 

In God's sight, the things that really matter seldom take place in public.  It is the people who are totally unknown, praying and working in silence that make the difference in God's creative patterns. Perhaps the greatest saints remain anonymous. 

     Sometimes we take Jesus' teaching of throwing a mountain into the sea quite literally, as well we should.  Yet no one has ever succeeded in doing so, or have they?  How about a congregation praying for one of its members and sending cancer into remission?  How about the combined efforts of all of us building and paying for a three story addition?  How about a newcomer coming into our midst who finds something here that prevents them from committing suicide?  These are mountains that have been cast into the sea.  Did we do such things, or was it God working in secret? 

     A friend of mine who works at the Pentagon e-mailed me last week.  After the tragedy there on September 11, she learned that a number of her friends and colleagues had been killed.  She could not move beyond these losses and was immobilized for the longest time.  She wrote about her priest's recommendation.  His suggestion was profoundly simple; it was something all of us can do. 

     He said to her, "Why do you feel that you must navigate these troubled waters by yourself?  Try something.  Tell God that you cannot do this any longer.  You have used your best efforts and nothing has changed.  Ask God to do it for you and then turn this whole matter over to God to solve."  She wrote that after she had done so, healing started immediately. 

     Many times we fill ourselves with self-doubt when it is apparent that our faith is not working.  It is not faith when we try to climb every mountain and ford every stream by ourselves.  The faith that Mary and Joseph displayed allowed the unfolding of their destiny to remain in God's hands.  They brought their trust to each experience and allowed the results to remain with God.  We understand today very clearly what Mary and Joseph could not possibly have known.   

     How can we thrive in the New Year?  In summary, the flight of Mary and Joseph into Egypt contains all the ingredients:  (1) The world is not going to be a kinder, gentler place simply because we trust and love God. (2) We should expect that not only will we be inconvenienced by life, but there will be times when we will lose what is near and dear to us. (3) We should allow the results of our faithfulness to remain part of what God designs.    

     It is our judgments that defeat us.  It is our faith that liberates us from the tyranny of needing to see the results that we want.  Mary and Joseph had no idea what their faithfulness would give to the world.  Had they not done what they did at precisely the time they did it, we would not be worshipping here this morning.  They left their physical bodies at death not knowing how their example would influence generations not yet born.   

     Now that torch has been passed to us.  With the same patience and trust in God that Mary and Joseph modeled for us, let us move into the New Year with greater confidence that our lives are unfolding as they should. 

THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER

    Loving God, we always enter a New Year with renewed inspiration to change who we have been.  We are very good at finding fault with our lives.  How easily we forget that you created no two of us alike.  We forget that it is our special kind that is needed now on the earth, not a duplication of someone we might prefer being.  Teach us to be more loving toward ourselves.  Guide us toward new choices, new insights, and a more secure faith that will help us seek truth rather than judgments.  Teach us to fill our spirits with loving energy rather than moods that may reflect our self-absorption.  May the New Year find us more willing to express love's patience, joy, and peace.  Amen.

THE PASTORAL PRAYER

     Eternal God, each of us savors in our own way the afterglow of Christmas.  We experienced the rush and haste to get our homes ready. Many of us so exhausted ourselves with last minute details that sometimes we felt we were among the least prepared for the very thing we were celebrating   the arrival of the Prince of Peace. 

     O God, create in us a new heart, one that sees through our fleeting moments of celebration to the permanence love can communicate.  Prepare our personalities and spirits to be more affirming instruments through which may come caring, attentiveness, and friendship. 

     This morning, we have no idea what silent pains and frustrations, what unspoken fears or life- threatening issues face those who are seated next to us.  We realize that often our mission field is standing right in front of us, but like the inn keeper of old, it is disguised and we do not see it.  Lead us, O God, to remain compassionate toward all those whom life has brought into our experience. 

     Bring us into the New Year realizing that you have sent us into the world as healers whom you have asked to become the mouth, the hands and feet of your son, who taught his disciples to say when we pray . . .