"Trusting God With Our Destiny"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - December 30, 2007
Psalm 148; Matthew 2:13-23
Before we delve into our Scripture lesson today, I want to give you a brief orientation to the author of Matthew. This Gospel writer created his story from a distinct point of view. While writing to a Jewish community, he wanted them to know that Jesus was the Messiah as foretold in Scripture. However, he used statements from earlier writers that were never meant to be prophetic in order to support his understanding.
For example, in our lesson we have two instances of this. The first is when he wrote, "This was done to make come true what the Lord had said through the prophet, 'I called my Son out of Egypt.'" The actual quote from Hosea 11:1 reads, "The Lord said, 'When Israel was a child, I loved him and called him out of Egypt as my son. But the more I called to him, the more he turned away from me.'" Matthew's quote had nothing to do with foretelling the arrival of the Messiah.
A second reference is when he wrote, "A sound is heard in Ramah, the sound of bitter weeping. Rachel is crying for her children: she refuses to be comforted for they are dead." This is a quote from the prophet Jeremiah 31:15. The Gospel writer tweaked the Scriptures to suit his need to transform a simple statement into prophecy. This statement in Jeremiah had no connection with predicting Herod's slaughter of the babies in Bethlehem. The context of the Jeremiah passage was the passing of the Jews by Rachel's grave (I Samuel 10:2) as they were being led away into exile.
We may find this style of writing strange, but to the Jews and Jewish writers, factual information was seldom their goal. Hebrew writers wanted people to recognize that God was still very active in their lives. The Jews were no strangers to this point of view. They understood for centuries that they were God's chosen people. Modern readers must understand Hebrew writers as coming from this highly subjective point of view.
The final literary device that the Gospel writer used was an angel that came to the key participants in a dream that provided them with specific instructions for how they were to trust God with their destiny. Again, historically, the Jews were well informed about how God communicated through angels, so Matthew used this medium as a segue from one portion of the story to another.
Why have I subjected you to this background? Few of us have the luxury of having someone verbally reconstruct our lives from hindsight. Biographers have a wonderful way of showing how the various stepping stones neatly fit together as a person made his or her way across the river of life. However, even though we trust God with our lives, most of our steps are not easy to take. Most are filled with hesitancy and risk.
Regardless of how this episode in the life of a young family was reported, the issue was that they had to trust God with their destiny. This is what it means to have faith. This task may be the greatest challenge for us because we know that trusting God for our destiny intersects with our assuming responsibility for the decisions we make. We were taught, "As you sow, so shall you reap." Matthew glosses over any struggles that Mary and Joseph had, and thus the background was necessary.
Secondly, many of us recognize that our Gospel story is filled with imagery and symbols that are different from our own. For example, we do not have the tradition of angels bringing messages from God that specifically direct our lives. People in our day, who have attempted to predict the future by using specific biblical references, have all missed the mark.
To validate this understanding for ourselves, it would be interesting to see what our response would be if one of our presidential candidates indicated publicly that God spoke to him directly from a burning bush that was not consumed? Be honest. Would you continue to see this candidate as objectively as you did prior to this revelation?
Some of us may recall when Pat Robertson, of the 700 Club, was running for President some years ago. During the campaign a powerful hurricane named Gloria was headed straight for the shores of Delaware, Rhode Island and New Jersey. Mr. Robertson indicated that his prayers directed the storm to veer due east, sparing our eastern states massive damage. Rather than evoke praise, he suddenly dropped dramatically in the polls and soon bowed out of the race.
It is fascinating how a person's religious orientation has become a factor in the race among today's presidential hopefuls. Many of us have slept in Marriott hotels without ever questioning if the facilities are managed fairly and skillfully because the family who owns the company is Mormon. Another candidate's credibility has been questioned because his name sounds Islamic. Another candidate has created uncertainty in the minds of some voters because of his statements that grew from his experience as a Christian and a Baptist minister.
Yes, we enjoy having our faith reinforced by our Biblical heroes, but if the truth were known, most Americans would prefer that such people stay in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. People whose lives speak to us from thousands of years ago are safe because the outcome of their deeds of faith is known. When such people of faith come into our lives today and are interviewed by today's talk show hosts, their witness gives us pause. Clearly, the images and symbols from the lives of Biblical characters are much different from our own.
Another example occurred some time ago in an Episcopal church. A search committee was established upon the retirement of their long-tenured pastor. The task of such a committee is to receive resumes from the candidates who apply for the position, develop a short list, invite the candidates on that list to meet with the committee. They are invited to preach to the congregation. If everyone is satisfied with someone's performance, the committee makes a decision and issues a call to the finalist.
One day a member of the search committee had become increasingly frustrated with his group's tedious, judgmental rejection of one candidate after candidate. He stood up one evening and read a letter purported to be from another candidate.
Dear Men and Women of the Search Committee,
The committee members sat there stunned, astonished and aghast. The chair of the committee said, Harry, please sit down. You are being absurd but I think all of us understand the point you are making. Perhaps we are being a bit harsh, but all of us want the best candidate for our church. We would be remiss in our responsibilities to do anything less thorough. With that said, we would never consider hiring an unhealthy, trouble-making, absent-minded, criminal who probably has been smoking something to be our next pastor. Did you write that to make a point or did someone actually have the audacity to sign it? As Harry looked at those assembled around the table, he said, "It was signed by the Apostle Paul." Harry made the point of how disconnected they were from images and symbols that described the most famous follower of Christ in our faith's history.
I want to suggest to you that trusting God with our destiny requires that we take risks when the outcome is far from sure. We may not have an angel that comes to us in a dream with specific instructions to attend this university, marry this potential mate, take this job, move to this location and apply for a new position within our company. The quality and style of our faith has evolved. There would be no point to life if God micro-managed each of our decisions.
There were certain historic realities in Joseph's life that would have caused stress and anxiety in Joseph and Mary's life. For example, Joseph would have known about Herod's potential for cruelty. Most people in his society did. As soon as he took the throne, Herod began assassinating the members of the Sanhedrin, the supreme court of the Jews. He slaughtered 300 court officers. He murdered his wife, Mariamne, her mother Alexandra, and three of his sons. Even on the hour of his death, Herod gave orders for the slaughter of the highly visible politicos who were living in Jerusalem. Joseph was very well informed about the threats that were present in his world.
Fleeing to Egypt is what Jews frequently did when there was political turmoil. Every major city in Egypt had a colony of Jews. The city of Alexandria, for example, had a colony of over a million Jews. The Egyptian government handed entire areas over to the Jews to manage. The Jews were productive, industrious and an asset to the Egyptian economy.
As our lesson indicated, when Herod died, his son, Archelaus, inherited Judea to rule, a territory that represented one third of his father's territory. Archelaus began his rule with an order to slaughter 3,000 of the most influential people in his territory. Joseph was wise to settle in Galilee in the city of Nazareth. Isn't it interesting how the characters change but the script for how some leaders govern appears the same?
Matthew's Gospel provides us with a wonderful story. What we can surmise from our reading the Scriptures is that each person in every age of our faith history from Abraham to Paul has had to face moments of uncertainty just as we do. They had to make choices where no clear answers were known. Once we discern the facts surrounding the lives of Mary and Joseph, the same could be said of them. Living by faith is not a cake walk.
What we can understand with certainty as we enter the New Year is that our destiny was assured before we were born. God's love would never allow our eternal destiny to remain up to our fragile, often fearful and uninformed decision-making. Clerics who attempt to convince us otherwise are appealing to our fears while trying to micro-manage the way God expresses love, a love we cannot earn or deserve because of how we think, believe or behave. God's love definitely comes to the just and unjust alike.
We are creatures who are still evolving. God is the creator. We can only speculate about what our experiences mean. God actually knows. In that truth we can rest and find peace.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Eternal and always present God, we thank you for moments of reflection coupled with those of anticipation. Jesus gave us a picture window through which we can view your purpose for our lives. Jesus taught us to love others and then trust you with the unfolding of our lives. The New Year will bring challenges that will present us with moments when we can reframe our uncertainties into opportunities. We can examine our habits, thought patterns and the quality of our dreams under the light of how love would refine them. Give us the vision of how we can stretch toward new horizons. Allow us to learn the wisdom to let go of the frustrating aspects of life we cannot change. Inspire us to remember that you can help us make all things new. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Loving and always faithful God, how grateful we are that your signposts of guidance still direct the paths of those of us who choose to remain attached to your vine. Truly life is much different when perceived through trust and faith in your abiding presence.
During Christmas, we were reminded that you came to us through a form we could understand. You spoke in our language and used symbols that helped humanity learn that each of us is related to you. The signposts during Lent remind us of the value of restraint, of reflection, of meditation and of remembering who you called us to be. The signpost of Good Friday lifts up for us how blind to truth we humans can be, while your son confidently radiated love's vast control over life while facing and experiencing his transition from this life. The signpost of Easter gave us a pearl of great price — the truth that we do not die. We have learned that nothing real can ever be threatened by the powers of this illusion filled world.
As we face the coming New Year, we thank you for the understanding that comes from learning from our mistakes. We thank you for how our emotions and spirit can be drawn closer to you when others forgive us, when others love us, when others call us "friend" and when others glow around us because they enjoy being with us. We thank you, God, for being exactly who you are and for giving us the vision to experience your revelations when they come to us. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .