Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Anonymous In A Crowd

Here is my sermon from Christmas Eve.  The text was Luke 2:1-20:

As we just added Jesus to our nativity, we completed the typical scene found in nearly every nativity, not matter what the material or the subject matter.  There was a list making its way around Facebook this year that purported to list the 50 worst or weirdest nativity sets, which some of you may have seen.  There were the typical weird ones, the dog or cat nativity, ones with frogs and ducks; I think the dragons and the one carved out of spam were the worst, although nothing really says Christmas to me like Jesus made from a shotgun shell.  But as I was thinking about nativity sets, and what sort of spurred the idea for this message, I was thinking of the figures who sort of play critical and important roles in the Christmas story.

If we were to tell the story, or to create a set, without the shepherds, you might ask what was going on where they were, after all they are the ones that the angels make the announcement to as we just heard from Luke.  Likewise if we were to have a nativity scene with the shepherds, but without the magi, also known as the three wise-men, you might also wonder where they were.  We need them because they are the ones who bring the gifts, one of the reasons we share gifts at Christmas.  Now the fact that this combines two different stories, one from Matthew and one from Luke, and that the shepherds and the magi never would have been there at the same time doesn’t matter, we need them in the scene together.  So we need the shepherds, we need the wise-men, of course we need Mary, nothing happens with the mother, and obviously Jesus must be there, they all play critical roles.  But that leaves Joseph.  Is Joseph necessary for this story?  What role does he play?  While he certainly does things, in the words of the old Negro spiritual, he never says a mumbling word.  His role in the scene seems to be to simply be there to look adoringly at a child that is not even his own.  If Joseph wasn’t to be there would it matter?  He is truly anonymous in a crowd.

Now the truth is we know very little about Joseph.  We are told that he is a righteous man, which is how Matthew describes him.  We should hear that to mean that he is a devout Jew, one who obeys Torah.  We are told that Joseph is a descendent of King David, and we are told that he lived in Bethlehem and in Nazareth.  Luke has Joseph with Mary and Jesus at the Temple when Jesus is 12, but that is the last that we hear of Joseph being around.  And that is all that we know about Joseph from scriptures.  The Gospel of John only mentions him as being Jesus’ father.  Mark does not mention him at all, as Jesus is referred to as Mary’s son, nor is he mentioned in the earliest Christian writings which come to us from the apostle Paul.

Later tradition developed that Joseph was much older than Mary when they were married, which would not have been all that unusual for the time, which helped to explain why Joseph was not around during Jesus’ ministry.  If Joseph was older, then he could already have been dead by the time that Jesus began his ministry.  We do know, according to Matthew, that when Joseph heard that Mary was with child, even though he had no known her in a biblical way, he wanted to dismiss her, but was told in a dream by an angel that Mary was having a baby conceived by the Holy Spirit, and that he should take her as his wife, and he did what the angel said.  Then he was told in a dream by an angel to take Mary and the baby and flee to Egypt because Herod was looking for Jesus with the intention of destroying him, and so Joseph does what he is told and flees to Egypt in order to save Jesus’ life.  After they’ve been in Egypt for a while, Joseph is told in a dream to take Mary and Jesus and to return to Israel because Herod has died.  And so Joseph does what he is told, and they return to Israel.  Joseph never says a word he simply does what God tells him to do.  He doesn’t even take what was then the male prerogative in naming his son, but instead names him what God tells him to name him which is Jesus, meaning he saves, or the Lord is salvation.  But I don’t think that we are supposed to see Joseph merely as milquetoast who can’t stand up for himself or as someone who only does the bidding of others.  Instead I think we need to see Joseph as a model for all of us in how we live our lives.

Sometimes we wonder what role we are playing, what difference we are making in the lives of others, what difference we are making in the world.  Sometimes we even will claim that one person cannot make a difference, and that I think is where Joseph comes into the story, because even in his anonymity he not only makes a difference but through those actions even helps to change the world through the birth of Jesus, the event we are here to celebrate.

Joe was a pastor at a small rural church, and as they approached Christmas their organ broke.  I’ve served a rural church and when things like that happen it’s not as easy to get it corrected as it is in the city, and so Joe’s organ was not going to be repaired in time for Christmas, kind of a big deal, and so he got together with Frank who was his organist, and he gave him a poem he had written and asked him to write a tune for a guitar to be used at the Christmas Eve service.  Now I have to say that Joe is a lot braver than I am in wanting to try and introduce new songs on Christmas Eve, that is never something I would try.  I think Christmas Eve is sort of like when you go to see an old band, and they want to play all their new songs, and you want to say, I don’t care about that.  I want you to play your best old songs at the beginning, again at the end and a couple of time in between that.  And so on Christmas Eve we sing the old classics.

But that’s not what Frank and Joe did, instead they introduced a new song and it quickly became one of the favorites, not just of the congregation, but for all the church.  In fact it was this song that was sung during World War I when the troops on both sides stopped fighting for an unofficial Christmas Day truce, and the soldiers came out to celebrate together, but the only hymn they could sing in different languages that all the soldiers knew was this one.  Some of you probably know Joe and Frank are Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber who wrote Silent Night, now one of, if not the, most popular Christmas Hymn.  Two men from a small rural town, who probably though that some days they were toiling in anonymity and insignificance, and yet we remember them today, and will sing their hymn to conclude this service.  They were not Bach or Beethoven, and yet they have made a difference in the world and in your lives.  They are in many ways just like Joseph.

The simple fact is we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t believe that one person could make a difference, that one person could change the world, if we believed that we wouldn’t be here to celebrate the birth of Christ.  But of course it’s more than just Jesus, we are called as followers of Christ to make a difference in the world, that even when we are anonymous in the crowd that we too can make a difference.  “Behold I bring you good news,” the angels say.  I bring good news for you, for each of you, “and this shall be good news for all people, for you has been born today in the city of David, a savior, who is the messiah, the Lord.”  The savior has been born for each and every one of us, for you and for me, the princes and for paupers, for teachers and for preachers, for the retired and the retiring, for the known and for the unknown, even for those of us who are anonymous in a crowd, for all of us, because God so loved the world, because God so loved us.

God has a plan for each and every one of us, something that we are called to do, someone we are called to be, and what Joseph shows us is that even when it seems that we are playing an insignificant role, a role that seems unimportant, maybe even unnecessary, and yet can make all the difference in the world, just the difference that Joseph must have made to Mary on the cold, dark night so long ago, that just his very presence in that moment, and in the earliest days of Jesus’ life, he made a difference.  He may have never said anything significant, but he made a difference, and what he did was enough.

 Do we realize the difference we can make, or are making, in the world simply by being present for another person?  Simply by being a presence of hope, presence, joy or love?  Mary made a difference, the shepherds made a difference, the wise men made a difference, Joseph made a difference, and of course Jesus, the greatest gift the world has received, made a difference, and Jesus called on us to go make a difference.  In our lives sometime we feel anonymous, forgotten, unimportant, wondering what it’s all about, and we forget about the difference we can make in the world, because when we change just one person’s life we change the world.  But here’s the good news, is that it’s not really about us at all, just like it’s not really about Joseph.  It’s about God working to accomplish what was intended in the creation.  It’s not really us changing the world at all, because God is already changing the world, and God is using us to do it, we are doing what God is calling us to do, which means that sometimes the hardest thing is simply to surrender ourselves to God and follow what God is calling us to do, just as Joseph did.  We are all crucial pieces in God’s plan for the world, just like a baby born to insignificant parents, in an insignificant town, in an insignificant part of the most important empire of the time, and sometimes that change can be as simple as a smile and a thank you.

Rev. Howard Thurman was dean of the chapel at Boston University where had a profound impact on the thinking of then a young Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who then went on to change the world.  Rev Thurman wrote a poem entitled, The Work of Christmas:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins,
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart

Joseph was called by God to make a difference for Mary, and he did.  Mary was called to carry a baby for the world, and she did.  The shepherds and the wise men were called to come and see the baby and they did, and then they went back home and proclaimed that the savior, the Messiah, the Lord had come.  What is God calling us to do?  Whose lives are we being called on to change?  Can one person make a difference?  Not only can they, but they do every single day, even when they, even when we, are anonymous in a crowd, because God is calling to us on this night.  God is calling on us to make a difference in the world, one person at a time, just as Jesus has made a difference in ours.  “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”  We can make a difference, we are called to make a difference, just as the wise men made a difference, just as the shepherds made a difference, just as Mary made a difference, just as Joseph made a difference, just as Christmas has and continues to make a difference.  May it be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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