"Seeing Mary And Joseph As Our Teachers”

Sermon Delivered By Reverend Richard E. Stetler – December 18, 2011

Centenary United Methodist Church

Micah 4:1-4; Luke 1:26-38


    In the blink of an eye we have reached the fourth Sunday of Advent and have lighted the Candle of Peace.  This morning we are going to consider how peace can be maintained in our lives, a mastery that would increase our physical, mental and spiritual health.  Billions of people have not been successful at holding on to their peace.  One of the reasons they fail at doing so is that they view their resentments, frustrations and anger as entitlements.  They feel perfectly justified in saying so.  Mary and Joseph provided humankind with an alternative.

    Go back in time with me for a moment when an angel visited Mary.  The first words Gabriel said were these, “Peace be with you.  God is with you and has greatly blessed you.”  The angel told Mary many things about her future: “God will make a great king with the infant son you are carrying, as his ancestor David was.  There will never be an end to his kingdom.” (Luke 1:32f)

    Clinging to the thought that God was with her, Mary made the very difficult journey to Bethlehem late in her pregnancy in order to register for the taxation that Rome had levied on the people.  Mary and Joseph did so in peace.  Bethlehem’s inn was filled with other customers. First come, first served was the rule even in those days.  The two of them had to deliver their baby in a stable. They did so in peace.

    As we continue the story, the three Astrologers came, left their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh and returned to Persia.   Shortly thereafter the family had to flee for their lives and traveled to Egypt.  Never once in the story is there a hint that their trust in the words of the angel was fading.  Like the faith of Joseph, who had been sold into slavery by his brothers, Mary and Joseph took everything in stride.  They could do this because they knew that God was with them. They understood that their lives had the purpose of rearing God’s son.  Their life-experiences did not rob them of their peace.

    The family returned to Galilee where Mary bore six more children. (Mark 6:3) Another tragedy struck. Early traditions address Joseph’s absence in the family by indicating that he was killed in a construction accident while working as a carpenter on Herod’s fortress-castle at Masada.  As the oldest son, Jesus had to assume the role of being head of the family. 

    When Jesus had a vision at his baptism and began to teach as a rabbi, that role had not been part of the angel’s words.  The word “king” had been mentioned several times.  As Jesus continued in his ministry, three of the Gospels record that Mary and Jesus’ brothers came to get him.  (Mark 3:32)   Jesus knew that his mother and family members had other plans for his life. When he learned that they were asking for him, Jesus turned to his listeners and asked, “Who are my brothers, sisters and my mother?  All of you are when you desire to do God’s will.”  (Mark 3:35)

    Imagine yourselves being Mary for a moment as we advance our timeline.  We find her standing at the foot of a cross upon which her son is dying. Think of her confused thoughts and emotions! There is no way that Mary understood her son the way we do today.  Mary was living through the most agonizing and torturous moments of her life. She was witnessing the power of Rome and the hatred of religious leaders destroying the innocent life of her son. She quietly and peacefully accepted the tragedy as Jewish mothers have for millennia.

    What did Mary and Joseph teach the generations that followed?  The answer is to trust that God is leading even when we have no understanding.  This was the faith of Joseph, Daniel, Elijah, Miriam, Ruth, Sarah, Joshua and Deborah.  None of these people knew what God was doing in their lives. There is no question that God’s will is unfolding, but none of us will live to see its fulfillment while in our physical form.

    As we pastors are delivering our sermons, many times we wonder if anyone is listening or if anyone cares what we are saying.  It is not surprising that even Jesus faced this issue. There was a time in his ministry when people lost interest in his words and they stopped attending his meetings. After people stopped coming, Jesus turned to his disciples and asked them, “What about all of you.  Do you want to leave me also?” (John 6:66f)

    Once I was delivering a message one Sunday afternoon to people in a skilled nursing facility.  The nurses would bring out the residents, many in their wheelchairs.  Some were on IVs and could barely keep their eyes open during my sermon.  One woman kept yelling unintelligible sounds as I spoke.  I could sense my words dying about three feet away from the lectern. I was convinced that no one was listening.  

    When the service was over, I went around and greeted each person before they were taken back to their rooms.  Sometimes I had to awaken them to do so.  When I came to the woman that had been yelling out, she said, “Thank you for coming.  I have often wondered why God allows terrible things to happen to us.  Now I have my answer.  Thank you!” 

    The nurse who was attending to her looked as though she did not know what just happened.  She whispered to me, “I have been caring for this woman for several years and those were the first words I have ever heard her speak.” I came away feeling as though God had said, “Dick, just keep talking and let me take care of what happens with what you say.”  From that moment to this, I have done just that.

    We have to remember that the evolutionary process of human history has taken thousands of years.  When Jesus taught, he wrote nothing that was preserved. There were no printing presses to duplicate his message.  When he was killed, his disciples scattered.  All of them except his cousin John were martyred.  Peter was crucified upside down.  The Apostle Paul was sentenced to death in Rome.  What is most curious is how any record of Jesus’ life and teachers survived for thousands of years.  

    Not everyone understands or cares about his message and all of us have to be at peace with that.  What is happening in creation among our species is not our plan; it is God’s plan. Our role at this phase of our evolution is to hold on to our peace as did Mary and Joseph and not try to predict anything based on what we think needs to happen.

    Each of us can become like hardened soil during a drought.  Two or three inches of rain may fall but it does not help.  The ground is too hard for the water to seep down into the roots of various life forms. Such hardened soil is often made up of years of hearing religious talk and listening to stories that are a challenge to believe. People have also become immune to evangelists in their past that used fearful images to motivate them to repent.

    God is at work, however, using even one or two faithful individuals who never give up trusting God for the outcome of human history.  Sometimes that hardened soil weakens in people and hydration begins.

    One Christmas a convicted murderer serving time in a prison wanted to gather a number of fellow prisoners to present a Christmas program for the other inmates.  He had been a musician who had become a follower of Jesus through the Christian Prison Fellowship. He approached the warden with his idea and was greeted with a very chilly and mixed response. Men and women in the prison had never been brought together for any program. Very reluctantly, however, he gave his permission.

    The first rehearsal was a complete disaster.  Two men broke into a fist fight over which one would sit next to a female prisoner.  Just as the guards were moving in to restore order, something happened to change the atmosphere. A large framed woman stood up and started screaming, “Sit down and shut up!”  She continued,

    Every one of you knows the kind of mess we have made out of our lives. You are behaving like animals and I’m ashamed to be with you.  This man wants to teach us to sing. Some of you may think that’s corny, but I don’t think it is. I think it’s nice that someone thinks enough about us and believes that we can pull off a Christmas program for the other inmates.  I haven’t wanted to sing for years, but maybe its time all of us try. You either sing or just sit there and shut up so that the rest of us can.

    The piano man nervously cleared his throat and thanked her for her eloquence.  He sat down at an old piano that he had just tuned with a small crescent wrench and allowed them to hear what he had in mind.  As they began to practice, something unexpected happened.  For once they were preparing to present a program for others about something God had done.  Most of them had been in the business of taking from others. 

    It is hard to imagine that rapists, murderers, prostitutes, thieves, drug kingpins, and extortionists were each placed into groups that actually produced four-part harmony. What happened was absolutely remarkable. They presented a Christmas program with Mary and Joseph.  As they sang Silent Night many of them wept because of old memories of family and friends.  It was as though God had reached through that hard, packed dirt and seeped into their hearts because one person wanted to help others remember. 

    God can create when we become the instruments that allow God’s light to shine through us. All we have to do is let go and let God.  It was Mary and Joseph, and the host of others that followed that allowed the Christ story to circulate into reaching every continent in the world, that allowed more Bibles to be printed in the native languages of each tribe on earth than any other book ever printed, and that allowed governments to frame their constitutions on the concept of love and serve one another. 

    The process is, indeed, very slow.  Some of the best words ever written by the Apostle Paul were these, “Do not conform yourselves to the standards of this world, but let God transform you inwardly by the complete change of your mind.” (Romans12:2) 

    Paul and thousands of others never surrendered their inner peace nor did they stop trusting the evolutionary process of how God creates through love.  One day the visibility of God’s will unfolding on earth will reflect God’s will in Heaven.  We have to show up in every circumstance and be willing to face the unexpected with the peace that allows us to trust that God is at work in us.

    Once my grandmother encountered a young man that burst through the back door of her home intent on robbing her.  That door entered the kitchen where she was doing the dishes.  He held a knife to her throat and asked for her purse, money and her jewelry.  Without batting an eye she said, “What would your Sunday School teacher and your mother say if they could see you now?”  Well, he didn’t know.  She said, “Have you had your supper?”  He said, “No.”  She said, “Sit down.”  She fixed him dinner.

    In that moment, my grandmother created a friend out of a young man who was headed down a road from which there is no return for so many people.  He thanked her and often came back just to talk with her.  A little love is what most people are crying out to experience.

    We can love when we hold on to our peace and trust that God’s will can unfold through us.  The Candle of Peace is very relevant to our lives when we remember that God is always in charge. It was that knowledge that supported Mary and Joseph.  That same peace is still available to all of us.  Let us learn to use it.