Monday, December 8, 2014

How Can It Be?

Mary said to the angel, “How can this be…  Luke 1.34a (NASB)

The Christmas season is well upon us.  We are all getting Christmas cards, and Hallmark is smiling along with Wal-Mart, J.C. Penney and VISA.  We carry a lot of Hallmark moments around in our heads and hearts, don’t we? 
 There are the snapshots of snowy Christmas days. 
 There are serene scenes of embraces and tender family moments. 
 Hallmark reprints a thousand different ways to say it for lovers. 

The problem with Hallmark moments, however, is that they end!  And then you are left with real life!  

One preacher put it this way: 
Do you know what the best part of Christmas is? 
Being together with members of your family. 
Do you know that the worst part is? 
Being together with members of your family.[1]

Norman Vincent Peale once said that people are so stressed out today they can’t even fall asleep in church.[2] 

Every year I struggle with that…no, not falling asleep in church, but sensing that the stress of holiday survival is someday going to do me in! 

And, so I sense that you also have that – too much going on and too little time; we are hurrying, busy, and stressed!

Every year Elizabeth and I vow we are not going to get caught up again; every year I wind up eating my words along with too much turkey and Christmas junk food. 
The question I want to ask out loud, right here in the church, (of all places), begs to be addressed:

Is Christmas the Problem?

I know people, even committed, Bible-believing Christians who say they hate Christmas.   HATE!

Now, I know they don’t mean the coming of Christ; I know they are talking about the media Christmas-glitz, meaningless hurry, and debt-creating overspending in which we all get trapped.  However, the fact that the question has to be asked at all raises the possibility that Christmas really is the problem; not the real Christmas of God’s incredible priceless gift of a Savior - but the way we go about celebrating Christmas. 

Popular best-selling author John Grisham has even written a book entitled “Skipping Christmas” about a husband and wife who decide that they won’t participate this year.  They bought $6,000 worth of gifts last year, and this year with the daughter off to college they’re not going to do it again; not even a tree to decorate!  So they spend $3,000 on a cruise instead.  Stress is a motivator!

This morning I want to offer a couple of thesis statements for us to chew on during the next days of Advent:
#1.  Christmas IS the Problem of our Stress;
#2.  Christmas is ALSO the Solution for our Stress!

How can something be the problem and the solution?  That’s like my doctor saying, Brownworth, you’re 40 pounds overweight…better stock-up on Snickers!  Like Mary said, how can this be?

Well, since contradictory theology won’t work, let’s look at Joseph.  The first Christmas brought him all sorts of problems.  But it also brought the solution – Jesus, the Christ.
This is how Jesus the Messiah was born.  His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph.  But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Joseph, her fiancé, was a good man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly.  As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.  “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.  For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit.  And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”   Matthew 1:18-21 (NLT)

Consider Christmas – the Cause of Our Stress;

Joseph was Heartbroken

Joseph was preparing for marriage and a life with the love of his life.  Mary was beautiful and Joseph was working hard at building a career.  Betrothal in those days was legally already a marriage – only the bride and groom didn’t live together.  (How different from today when many couples live together without thought of marriage).

But Mary became pregnant.  To Joseph it shattered his dreams and hopes for a respectable life.  In our text it is Mary who said, how can this be?  But Joseph was thinking it too; it had to have crushed his heart.  Christmas stress indeed; Joseph came to the first Christmas without tinsel, twinkling lights or fruitcake. 

Joseph was Humiliated

Joseph anticipated snide remarks and social snubbing because of Mary’s condition.  The Bible tells us Joseph hatched a plan to divorce Mary privately.  It was likely he did not want her to go through the kind of public humiliation he knew was coming. 

It seems strange in our day that it would affect a couple so deeply to have a baby without being married. 

I know something of this.  Elizabeth and I married in 1967.  I had been inducted into the Army five months prior.  We had made the decision to get married if I got orders for overseas, but we didn’t share that with anyone but our parents. 

When the orders came I phoned Elizabeth to tell her I had nine days furlough before shipping out.  We met with the minister, bought the stuff and had a wedding three days later.  I’m certain some of our friends and relatives were watching Elizabeth’s waistline and doing the math for the next several months.  (Jennifer, our firstborn, came along four years later; so there!).

Joseph was Hunted

Sticking with Mary brought danger into Joseph’s equation.  Mary had several liabilities.  As a convicted adulteress she could have been stoned under Jewish law.  But she also claimed to be pregnant by God…the Pharisees would’ve had a field day with that one.  They hung Jesus on a cross for that kind of claim.  Mary could have gotten the death penalty for blasphemy.

Adultery, blasphemy, and then, later Joseph had to take his little family to Egypt to escape Herod’s holocaust against children.[3]  Sticking-by his vows was a costly experience for Joseph.

The first Christmas was stressful for Joseph.  He was heartbroken, humiliated and hunted.  It was a financial, emotional and spiritual drain, this turn of events.  He was picturing wife-kids-dog and white picket fence kind of life.  What he got was over-taxed, shamed, confused and run out of town.  Is this first Christmas not the most stressful life you’ve heard about?

It is easy to second-guess God at this point.  Wouldn’t it have been so much easier to bring along the Messiah after Mary and Joseph were married? 

Didn’t that make more sense?  I’m certain Joseph had that very thought many times over the next years. 

On this side of history we can point to the prophecies of a virgin giving birth[4], and the flight to Egypt[5], but with Joseph this all happened so quickly.  What was God up to?  Where was this all going?

Joseph didn’t know what was in God’s heart at that first Christmas.  In the same way, you don’t know what’s in God’s heart concerning YOU in this Christmas.  It caused stress for Joseph, and we are no different than he.

Following Christ causes stress! 

The world did not understand then, and they certainly don’t understand now.

Consider Christmas:  the Solution for Our Stress;

So, how can Christmas be the solution when Christmas is the problem? 
Consider Joseph again:

Joseph’s Mercy Brought Insight

The angel who explained God’s plan to Joseph had not yet arrived when Joseph devised his plan to privately divorce Mary.  I believe it was this act of mercy – Joseph attempting to spare Mary the adultery charge – which included Joseph in God’s plan.  I believe that is why the angel appeared to him and explained God’s heart in the matter.

I also believe we would see a lot more insight, a lot more of the move of God’s Spirit in our lives if we were as inclined to mercy as Joseph.  I know we would experience more peace.  People who experience ongoing peace are not simply the “lucky ones” who don’t have any stress in their lives; some of the most peace-filled people I know have more difficulties than most.  It’s just they are mercy-driven people who experience grace to overcome the stress which fights against our peace and the purposes of God. 

Many of us here in this building have little clue of the purpose of God in our lives.  And so we fight the stress of the situation, we kick against the pricks[6] as Paul did, instead of living in grace and mercy as we give out grace and mercy.

Insight, understanding what is really going on, or the purpose for our trials and joys, is the key to having peace over what is happening.  Bad stuff annoys or worries us; good stuff, if it is not connected to some real higher purpose simply crowds our lives.  Understanding God’s purposes is the light that dispels the darkness, and mercy – personal mercy towards those around us is the key that unlocks that door of God’s grace.

Joseph’s Obedience Brought Blessing

God’s Word says that Joseph did stick with Mary.  He took all the humiliation and being hunted; he took all the risks, and hung-in with Mary all the way.  He raised Jesus as his own and taught him the carpenter trade.  He named him Jesus, Joshua (God saves), and protected him.

Joseph braved the first Christmas, with all its stress – and in his life it meant raising the savior right in his own home.  It meant seeing the salvation of the world standing there in the temple a dozen years later, teaching the teachers.  It meant being right up close to the sinless perfection of Emmanuel.  It meant a Godly household in the deepest, truest sense of the word. 
 Can we call that a blessing? 
 Can we count that all joy? 
 Can we call that the solution for stress? 

Epilogue to the Story:

In this life Joseph never saw Jesus’ earthly ministry.  Evidently he died early in life.  We do not hear of Joseph later than when Jesus was about twelve. 

Some folks would evaluate that as being short-changed; Joseph went through all the stress of the first Christmas, put up with public humiliation, heartbreak and being hunted, and all he got out of it was an early grave.

Now, that might play out if you’re into judging on what you can see.  But that is the opposite of faith.  Joseph trusted God, was merciful to Mary and obeyed God’s leading.  These are acts of great faith, even though Joseph never saw the blessings worked out in his life. 

Mary asked the question, how CAN It BE? 

She (and Joseph) answered the question with:  it can BE what He desires it to be! 

And when you do that, the stress of hurrying through another Christmas season will dissolve like a snowflake on a hot stove.

[1] Touch the Family by Paul Decker, on
[2] Bell Peals for Thee, Weekly Livestock Reporter, 9 February 1989, 5a
[3] Matthew 2.1-16 records Herod’s search for the Messiah, killing all children less than two years of age.
[4] Isaiah 7.14
[5] Hosea 11.1
[6] Acts 9.5

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