God chose us

How often do we hear the phrase, these are troubling times, or these are not normal times? I must hear it at least five times a week and I have to admit that I have said it myself. Many people are scared and I think that some people are truly afraid that they or someone they love will fall ill and die; but I think that the majority of people are more afraid of the fact that they cannot control the future. We do not know when the COVID-19 pandemic will end, we do not know how many people will die from the pandemic, we do not know how long the economy will take to recover, we do not know if we will ever go back to the way it was. The disciples did not know either. They did not know how much longer they would have with Jesus. They knew the end would come, and probably soon, but they did not know when. They also did not know what it would be like after Jesus left. They did not know who would lead them? They did not understand how or why God could send them the messiah, take him away, bring him back and then take him away again. All these things, these unknowns, are troubling, and I do not mean intellectually, they are troubling to the human heart. I think that one of the reasons we find our current situation troubling is because, deep down, we know that there is truly nothing we can do except wait.

Thomas, who was clearly worried, told Jesus that they did not know how to follow him to where he was going and Jesus responded by telling them that if they know him then they know his father and that is how they, we, will be able to go where he is going; to this, Philip, who appears to be making it look like her gets it, which he doesn’t, replies by asking Jesus to show them the father so that they will then know what to do and where to go. This situation reminds me of so many conversations I have had with students about assignments. When I assign a presentation, I will inevitably get a thousand questions. How long does it need to be? Ten minutes. Do I have to do a PowerPoint? No. Then what can I do? Anything you want? Can I do a Prezi? Yes you can. How many slides should I have? I thought you didn’t want to do a PowerPoint? I changed my mind. So, how many slides do I need? As many as it takes to fill ten minutes. What should be on my slides? Your research. Can I have pictures on my slides? To which I want to say, No the slides have to be blank, no words, no pictures, not even a background color, I want you to just stand there with a blank screen and stare at the class for ten minutes and then I will give you an A; but of course that is not how I respond,  I try to respond calmly and without sarcasm, just as Jesus does as his disciples, once again, try to understand what he is telling them; which begs the question, what is he telling them?

Sometimes I think the gospel writers purposely hide their messages in metaphors, wrapped in enigmas, wrapped in classic idioms, and then, for good measure, they fold all of that into another metaphor just for good measure. In this particular chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus is explaining several things, but I think that the most important, for today, is that it is through Jesus that we find our connection to God; but that is an over simplification. Jesus is our connection to God because Jesus is God, he even says it. He says, and I am paraphrasing, “I am in the father and he is in me, but if you don’t believe because of that then believe because you have seen me do amazing things, things that only God can do. He doesn’t stop there though, he goes on to talk about how those that believe in him will also be able to do the work that he has done and they will need to because he is going to be with his father. God coming to live among us is a choice. It was and is a sign that God has chosen us, we did not choose God, God created us and then God has spent the rest of time choosing us, not out of a sense of duty, not out of obligation, but because God is love and has chosen to not be God without us. God could have very easily spoke creation into existence and then gone away and left us to our own devices; but God did not do that. God spoke and then God stuck around and that gives me comfort. It gives me comfort because there are so many things right now that are just uncertain, things that I wish I could control, but I can’t, and it is comforting to know that no matter what I do, no matter what we do, God will always choose us; even when we don’t choose God, even when we focus our attention on ourselves and ignore the command to love one another, God still chooses to love us and doesn’t ask for anything in return. The entirety of scripture points to this; the entirety of scripture is the story of God reaching out in love to creation and creation turning its back. What makes the coming of Jesus so fantastic is that God, who desperately wants us to love him in return, came to show us how to do it, to give a road map and what I find even more amazing is that Jesus didn’t say Love Me and worship me like a movie star, he said take care of each other, and then just before he returned to the father he sent the holy Spirit to be among us and in us so that they could continue to guide us. So if we really love God, need to heed the Holy Spirit and take care of that person over there, and that person over there because God loves them just as much as God loves us, and if we love them and care for them we are loving God because the Holy Spirit is not just in us, it is in everyone. At this very moment loving God means that we need to love our neighbor by staying away from them and it means that everything that we have built, the economy, our work, our fun, our lives must be put on hold as an act of love; love for neighbor and love for God. Amen.

Look for Jesus

This week is usually referred to as a low Sunday because attendance drops significantly compared to Easter Sunday. It is common to see a significant increase in attendance on both Easter and Christmas because, for some reason, everyone all of a sudden decides that they need to pay attention to God; I like to refer to this as the birth and resurrection society because those are the only services we see them at. At any rate, this week is post Easter, and it appears to be considered a less important week, but truly we have never lived in a time other than post Easter. Every Sunday for us, even the one we call Easter Sunday, is post Easter because Easter occurred more than 2000 years ago; and we have never seen a resurrected Jesus, which may be why so many people avoid church.

Even the people who witnessed the resurrected Jesus had doubts and poor Thomas is forever known as doubting Thomas because he had trouble believing the news; but is that fair? If you look closely you will find that none of the disciples believed it at first, so why should Thomas be singled out? Well, by focusing our attention on Thomas we are completely missing the point. The point is not to warn us that doubters are bad, it is to show us that even when we have doubts, Jesus, God, is still right there with us, patiently waiting for us to understand. Thomas needed to see and touch the wounds to believe, although we do not actually know that he did touch them, it only says that Jesus offered and then Thomas declared his belief, which Jesus responded to by saying “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Jesus could have rebuked all of the disciples, including Thomas, for their lack of faith, it certainly would not have been the first time he did so, but instead he was gentle; he was patient; and he gave them what they needed; he not only gave them his teachings, he gave them the visual proof they required; but in addition, John has made it clear that some people will not have the benefit of visual proof, and they will be blessed for their faith, which is how Jesus rolls according to John, he finds a way to give us what we need; so how does Jesus give us what we need in 2020?

Since we have been in isolation and have expanded the use of digital media, I have noticed a significant increase in participation in services. Our nightly Compline service averages 19 people and our Sunday services average 94, which is quite higher than our normal Sunday attendance. It is important to realize that these numbers do not mean that we are getting that many people all at once, with the digital world people can utilize our programming at any point, and I know that many people do. The question we should be asking ourselves is why? Why are so many people, near and far, taking advantage of our online services? What it indicates to me is that there is a hunger for God. Now this hunger could be related to the pandemic, as there is typically an increase in interest during times of tragedy and fear; but I don’t think this is the only reason, I think that there is a deeply rooted desire for connection; a connection to community and a connection to God. If we learn anything from our time in isolation it has to be that we can never go back to the way it was before; we have stumbled into a new way to bring the church to the world and we can’t stop now.

Earlier I said that we have never seen a resurrected which, I think, could be the source of doubt for many people, but it is not entirely true, I know that I have seen Jesus many times. I have seen him in the eyes of the people I used to greet at the essential’s pantry; I have seen him carrying baskets of food down the aisle at St. Philip’s; I have seen him walking beside me during an Out of the Darkness Walk; I have seen him in the hug my grandfather gave my mother when she thought her world was ending; and I have seen him in the world’s response to disaster, when we focus our attention on making sure people have the shelter, food, and care that they need. Jesus is everywhere, God is everywhere, and we all have the potential to see the resurrected Jesus every single day, but we have to look and that’s where the trouble starts. Even though Jesus is with us at all time, we don’t know how to recognize him, so we forget. The whole purpose of the Gospels is to give us a tool to know the teachings of Jesus, and the purpose of his resurrection is to help us change our thinking, to change the way we live. Jesus did not die on the cross for our personal sins, he died to show us the way out of a life to sin. If we die to our sinful selves, to the things that keep us from God; meaning if we lead a life based on the Gospels, then we will experience a resurrected life; and when we do experience that life, even if only for a moment, we need to remember that it is a gift, and it is a gift that we are expected to share. No matter how long it takes us to come to God, no matter how long it takes us to understand, no matter how long we doubt, God, Jesus is patiently waiting and once we get there, once we understand, God will continue to walk with us. I am reminded of the chorus from my Great Grandmother’s favorite hymn, “In the Garden”, which goes like this “And He walks with me and He talks with me, And He tells me I am his own; And the joy we share as we tarry there, None other has ever known.” God does walk and talk with us, God does bring us joy and when we experience that joy there is nothing else like it; so look and listen for God; look for the resurrected Jesus in everyone you meet; Look for Jesus in yourself; look for kindness; look for patience; look for love; and remember that when you see those qualities you are looking at the face of the resurrected Jesus.

You can’t be afraid

In 1977 the Bee Gees released their hit song How deep is your love?, which is about both the physical and emotional connection between two people and whether or not their relationship is going to last. Nicodemus is a Jewish leader who has a secret; he is afraid that people might find out that he is a follower of Jesus, which we know because he asks Jesus to meet at night so that no one will discover his faith, this is a sign that his love for Jesus is not yet very deep. He is trying to compartmentalize his faith so that he can keep it separate from the rest of his life. How many of us do the same? How many of us only express our faith in the confines of this building? How deeply do we hide our faith? How deeply do we hide our love for God?

I think that most people prefer to keep their faith to themselves because they are afraid of the reaction they may get if they share it publicly; which believe me is a very understandable concerns; however, like Jesus’ challenge to Nicodemus, we are also challenged to declare out faith publicly. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again, he must emerge from his darkness and declare his faith in the light of day because only people who do so can experience the kingdom of heaven. It appears that Jesus is impatient with Nicodemus when he doesn’t understand the metaphor of rebirth; but impatience would be inconsistent with everything we know of Jesus, instead I believe that we should see it as an invitation to allow God to work in our lives.

Our journey of rebirth begins with baptism, but that is literally just the beginning, it is the moment we say yes to the invitation. Cultivating a personal relationship with God takes a lifetime and it is hard work, not because God is unavailable to us, but because we are our own worst enemies. Nicodemus was his own worst enemy as well, he believed that Jesus was the messiah, but he was afraid to share that fact and he kept his belief hidden, only willing to acknowledge his faith in secret. Again, how many of us do the same? Lent is a time when we are invited to work towards revealing our faith to the world by allowing God to move us in new ways. Both Cannon Bob and Father Michael have talked about the fact that we don’t need to give anything up for lent, unless we are doing so to make more room for God, but what does it mean to make room for God? Well, that is something that you must figure out for yourself and if you need help just ask. It might mean adding a new discipline, but if you are like me that won’t last more than a day and then I feel guilty because I would not be doing the thing I only told myself I was going to do. It might mean going for a walk or maybe just sitting in silence. Of course, adding a discipline just for Lent falls short of the goal anyway, it falls short of making our faith something that we share in public; which is okay because faith that is hidden is often deeply meaningful, heartfelt, and genuine; but it is also small. Jesus has invited us to a new birth, a birth of water and spirit, a birth that will bring us into the light that is the love of God. A love that is so deep, so broad, and so bright that it cannot be squelched, no matter how deep we may try to bury it. The invitation to rebirth is an invitation to become mature believers and full participants in the life God has offered us, but in order to live that life we have to be willing to show our faith, we have to be willing to live our faith and not just on Sundays and not just within these walls.

Nicodemus was afraid, which I get, fear is a very powerful thing, but it is also a human thing and if we give into our fear of how others may respond to our public expressions of faith, then we are committing a sin because fear is based on us. So what might rebirth look like at this time and in this place?  How can we reveal our faith to our community? How deeply have we buried our love for God? Are we ready to step into the light and live the life God wants for us? These are not easy questions, nor are there easy answers, which is why we purposely set aside the season of Lent so that we can take some time to draw closer to God, to discern the will of the Holy Spirit, and reveal the love that is God to the world. So take some time to be with God, take some time to discern the will of the Holy Spirit so that we can live into the spiritual birth that began at our baptisms, reject the fear, and show the world that our love for God is deep, it is so deep that it charges the very atoms in our being and drives us to be Gods hands and feet in the world.

Uniqueness does not mean entitlement

Deuteronomy warns us that we will perish if we turn our hearts away from God; Paul tells the church at Corinth that he can’t talk to them as spiritual people because they continue to not understand what that means, they continue to be concerned with human matters and not spiritual ones, which is what the law is intended to help us do; Matthew has Jesus tell us many, kind of confusing, things that make it sound like following the law is not enough, which it isn’t because not murdering your neighbor is not the same as loving them. To love something, we need to interact with it and to truly follow the commandments of God we need to put aside our desires and our egos because all the commandments, all the laws are about relationship building, they are about putting aside the things that get in the way of the deep connection God desires for us to have with the Trinity and each other. A connection that is tied to the spiritual, not the material world of human desire and ego.

As I work with teenagers and because I have two at home, I encounter inflated egos daily. The teenage sense of entitlement is staggering to me, the tiniest thing can be twisted into a personal attack, and if they believe that you have wronged them in some way, buckle up, because you are about to be hit with the most intense barrage of circular logic you have ever experienced in your life. I think this sense of themselves stems from two sources, one is the process of transitioning from being a child to being an adult and learning to figure out everything that entails and the other is related to the emphasis our culture places on competition. I have discerned a trend in the last few years of people teaching their children that they are unique, which is fine because it is true as every part of God’s creation is unique. However, when uniqueness is combined with and corrupted by competition, we get entitlement. Uniqueness does not entitle us to dominate other people, it does not entitle us to receive better treatment, it does not entitle us to deny someone else their hope for the future; yet there are countless examples of uniqueness being mistaken for entitlement. I believe that one of the purposes of Gods commandments is to combat the idea of entitlement by asking us to build positive relationships with one another. The first four commandments are about our relationship with God. God asks us to be committed to our relationship, to set aside some time to chat, to not bad mouth God to people because we are upset that we haven’t gotten our way. The other six commandments are about our relationship with one another, but if we only focus on what is literally written in the law we are missing the point. The 4th commandment is honor your father and your mother, but what does that mean? Does it means be respectful and don’t back talk? It does mean to have respect for your parents, for the things they have done to support you. I do recognize that not all parents have supported their children, and that is unfortunate, and in those cases I would say don’t take Father and Mother so literally, replace those terms with ‘the people who have loved and supported you’ because that is what being a father or a mother is all about. The last six commandments are targeted at all the things we know are bad, like killing and stealing and we should absolutely not do these things, but if we only focus on the specifics in these situations then we are once again missing the point. It isn’t enough to just not kill your neighbor, it isn’t enough to just not steal the apple, it isn’t enough to just avoid jealousy and telling lies, it isn’t enough to just remain faithful to your partner. We have to not kill our neighbor and then talk to them; we have to not steal the apple and then share the food that we do have; we have to avoid the temptation to be jealous of our friends iPhone and be grateful for the things we do have; we have to avoid telling lies and then speak out when we see someone else doing it; we have to remain faithful to our partners and then show them why we are. We are not entitled to take a life, no matter how justified we think we may be; we are not entitled to anything another person has; we are not entitled to anything except God’s love.

Believing that we are entitled to anything other than God’s love does nothing but interfere with our ability to experience God’s love. God’s sole desire is to have a loving, spirit filled relationship will all of creation and it is our love affair with our uniqueness and how that defines us that gets in the way because by focusing on our uniqueness we are emphasizing the importance of one and not the importance of all. As difficult as it can be to work and live with egomaniac teenagers, I do so because I have hope that they will change, and most of them will and if they don’t I will not worry about it because it is not my job to change them, it is only my job to have a relationship with them where I strive to model what it means to have a deep and meaningful relationship with other people, to show them that life is not about things, or jobs, or money even though everything around them is stressing that it is. Those things are of our own making, they are simply the things we use to distract ourselves from God. Life is about people, it is about relationships, and everything that is written in the law and everything that Jesus taught points us in that direction; they point us to building relationships that foster love for creation, love for people, and love for God; but in order for those relationships to grow we must rid ourselves of the idea that our uniqueness entitles us anything other than Gods love because only then will we be ready to enter the kingdom of God.

A call to adventure

In the Lord of the Rings Trilogy Frodo Baggins leads a simple and comfortable life. He is wealthy, has one of the most comfortable homes in the village, and he spends his time reading, fishing, and going to the pub with his friends; he has everything a young man could ever want; one day, the wizard Gandalf shows up and urges him to leave everything behind and set off on a quest, which turns out to be a quest to save the world. Joseph Campbell, a professor of literature, called this moment in a story the Call to Adventure and said that such moments signify “that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity to a zone unknown.” All of us face these types of turning points in our lives, a moment when we sense a desire to shift our focus away from ourselves and onto something with deeper meaning.

Peter, Andrew, James, and John were all issued a call to adventure and as fisherman, they were not likely leading comfortable lives as the fishing industry was heavily regulated to ensure that the profits flowed into the treasury of the elite, so it is unlikely that Jesus’ first four disciples had it as easy as Frodo Baggins; instead their lives probably hovered around the subsistence level, meaning they worked hard every day so that they might be able to eat. I find it hard to understand why these men would drop everything and follow a stranger just because he asked them to. Even if their lives were nothing to write home about, I am sure that they had the same fears we have all had about losing our livelihoods, about not being able to pay that one unexpected bill and if they did have those fears, how could they just drop what they were doing? How could they walk away from their families? Their friends? Their community? How could they answer a call to adventure that would take them away from their entire life?

As we unpack what Matthew is trying to tell us in this passage, I think that it is important that we remember he is trying to convey a message, not the historical record, so what message is he trying to convey? If viewed within the context of the entire story of Jesus, Matthew is showing us that following Jesus takes commitment. It requires a willingness to commit our entire selves to a new way of living, the four fishermen left their lives behind, not fully aware of what they were getting themselves into, but they really had very little, if anything, to lose; leaving meant only that they were walking away from a bad situation. A situation with no social mobility and an existence bordering on the verge of homelessness and starvation. Jesus gave them hope that life could be different, in fact his teachings about the good news of the kingdom promised that things would be different, but to participate in the kingdom we must be prepared to change. We can assume that these four gentlemen were willing to make a change because we know that they put down their nets and went with Jesus.

In the past seven years I have spent a great deal of time reflecting on God’s call and as I reflected on the scripture for this morning I was reminded of some of the times I felt change was probably necessary, but also scary. They were times when I felt as though nothing made sense anymore; things that I loved, things that had always been a source of support and inspiration, left me feeling empty and it felt as though nothing would change that. Little did I know that God had plans for me; exciting, frightening, and hope filled plans. I imagine the same was true for the four fishermen. They likely felt stuck, they likely felt like change was necessary, but had no hope that it was possible. I believe that when a person hits rock bottom, whether it be physically, financially, socially, or emotionally they are finally ready to shift their focus away from themselves and onto something with deeper meaning; and they are finally able to actually hear God’s call; not because God wasn’t knocking the entire time, but because they were too busy worshipping false idols to hear the knock. For the four fishermen, their idol could have been the belief that their existence, the life that they were leading, was the only option for them, because that was how their society was structured; but Jesus showed them that there is another way and that way rejects the social, economic, and political norms of human society; it promises that all is equal before God. Jesus demonstrates this by treating every person the same, he does not discriminate based on age, gender, nationality, race, or any other category we can think of. Every person who comes to him and asks for healing is healed; every person who asks a question, receives an answer; every person who is hungry, is fed. No one is turned away. This type of equality, in fact the entire concept of equality, was a radical idea in the 1st century, and unfortunately it seems to be a somewhat radical idea in the 21st century as well, because even though we talk about equality being a core value of our society; our collective actions rarely live up to that value. If our actions matched our values no one would go hungry; no one would freeze to death under a bridge; no one would die of a curable disease; and no one would feel ashamed because they have a mental illness. God has invited us all to go on an adventure; God has called us change our spiritual center of gravity away from the things that we believe are important, away from the things that separate us and onto the things that will bring about true equality for all, we simply need to answer God’s call and let God’s vision for the kingdom guide us.

 

 

The path to joy

In my last homily I focused on the idea of a savior and I asked you to wrestle with the idea of what you might need saving from. Symbolically we need saving from the darkness, whatever that may mean for you. Over the past month we have been using the idea of light as a symbol for God and we have explored the meaning of light in our own faith as we have lit the advent wreath and talked about the symbolism of light in our lives. These activities culminated with the lighting of the Christ Candle, which symbolizes the arrival of the long-awaited savior, who brings joy to the world. For many people it is easy to feel joyous during the Christmas season, there are many reminders for them of the joy that they have in their lives, but there are also many people who struggle to see “the light in the darkness”, who struggle to find a source of joy. They may feel alone or abandoned; they may feel as though they are stuck in an impossible situation. For some these situations look like poverty or homelessness; for some it is a struggle with substance abuse; for some it appears as depression or anxiety; and for others it may simply seem like their life has no purpose. Regardless of the reasons, the good news is that Jesus, the light of the world, the Word that became flesh and lived among us, has provided a path to joy.

In The Message, which is contemporary rendering of the bible, Eugene Peterson says “The Word was made flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” What would it look like if God moved into your neighborhood? I can remember living in at least seven different neighborhoods in my life, all of them different, and I struggle to think why God would have moved into any of them. None of them were ever dangerous, I was never surrounded by abject poverty, and I can’t remember ever feeling like my neighbors were in great need, so why would God even need to come there? Well, arguably God needs to be everywhere, because God’s saving presence has little to do with any of the struggles we can perceive. God is not going to end poverty and crime; God is not going to fix our annoying neighbors, not because God can’t, but because these things are human problems that we have created by the collective choices we have made. Jesus did not come to live among us to end these human problems, he came to show us that if we make better choices then these problems will go away on their own. God’s saving grace, in the form of the teachings of Jesus and the ever-present Holy Spirit, can and does provide us with a path to joy, but that path is neither straight nor easy. I have often spoken of the need to put God first in our lives, which does not mean that we need to spend our lives in isolated prayer, instead it means that we need to embrace the Holy Spirit and mimic the life of Jesus as best we can because I have news for us all, God already lives in all of our neighborhoods, because God lives in us. Jesus was the word made flesh and within that flesh resided the wisdom of the God life. That wisdom has been passed to us through scripture and to ensure that we are able to understand it God has given us the gift of the Holy Spirit to help us interpret and act on that wisdom; but in order to do so we have to be willing participants, which is why we need a savior. We need a savior to help us make better choices so that we can live God centered lives. If every person, and I mean every person, chose to live the God centered life as Jesus did. If every person chose to live as we have been called to, then most, if not all, of the problems that lead to the struggle to find joy would disappear.

Let’s not kid ourselves though, the likelihood of every person choosing to lead a God centered life is slim to none, so then why bother? Well, everyone needs to answer that question for themselves, but for me it is simple. Embracing the God life and striving to place God at the center of all that I do has led to the healing of many wounds and it has given me the strength to hope that others will also find the healing power of God. Through God, I have overcome many things, I have emerged from some very dark places and I have found joy in my life and that joy is what pushes me to help God forge a better world. The path to joy is long, it is difficult, and it requires a great deal of effort. It requires that we embrace our role as active participants in the God life, it requires us to be the eyes and ears and hands of God. I think that Teresa of Avila, who was a 16th century Spanish nun, put it best when she said, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassionately on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”  By embracing the God life, by being the body of Christ, we are all capable of helping God bring change to the world. Sometimes that change will be small and we won’t be able to detect and sometimes it will be so profound that we will be awestruck, the degree of change is irrelevant because measuring our effectiveness is a human thing, not a God thing, our job is to just be willing participants in the process. Amen

bethlehem-clipart-joseph-trip-19

The Gospel today is a very familiar one, Joseph is getting ready to quietly dump his girlfriend because she is pregnant and he isn’t the father, but before he does it he has a dream in which an angel tells him it’s God’s baby who is going to be the promised savior and he needs to raise it. I can tell you that scholars have a field day with this passage, but I will not bore you with the details of that because there is a far more important message in this story that I believe are worth spending some time on, namely, God’s work often upsets comfortable social conventions.

Under 1st century Jewish law, Joseph had every right to kick Mary to the side in a very public and shameful way, but he didn’t plan to do that, he planned to quietly dissolve their relationship and move on, which speaks volumes about Joseph’s humility and gentleness as a person and as a son of God. As nothing with God is an accident, it should not be a surprise that God would choose such a person to be the caretaker of the messiah. Joseph, who was clearly a faithful man, was ready and able to provide a good home for Mary, but the fact that she was pregnant had the potential to ruin him socially, which doesn’t just mean his status, it could mean his livelihood. Their community would not have batted an eye at them parting ways over Mary’s pregnancy, but Joseph didn’t do that. Instead, because God asked him to, Joseph stayed with Mary and he adopted Jesus as his own, and he turned his world upside down to love and protect a tiny little baby. Joseph’s actions were not typical, they were rooted in a quiet trust in God, who had asked Joseph to upset his social norms and the amazing thing is that he did it, he trusted that God would have his back and based on that he stayed with Mary and together they raised their family.

As we move towards Christmas, we are going to be tempted to proclaim that the savior has come, but before we do so we should be asking ourselves a very important question, which is why do we need a savior? When Isaiah foretold of the virgin birth of Emmanuel the Israelites were in the midst of their captivity in Babylon; when Mary and Joseph were upsetting social norms their home was under the control of the Roman Empire and a Jewish monarch who was more concerned with his own power than protecting his own people from the Romans; and when Matthew reminded his readers of Isaiah’s words he did so approximately 70 years after the birth of Jesus when the Israelites were under the direct control of a Roman governor. There is a very clear need for the hope that someone will save them in all these situations, but what do we need saving from? We do not live in captivity, we are not slaves to a foreign power, we are not forced to live under the rule of a foreign governor; so why then are we getting ready to shout for joy that the savior, the messiah, that Emmanuel has come? I think that if we dig deep and if we ask ourselves some tough questions; questions that will be difficult to answer, questions that may lead to a need for change in our lives, then we will understand why we need a savior.

The most profound and difficult question I was ever asked was asked within the context of a discernment group. Everyone at the daylong seminar was trying to figure out what God was calling them to do with their lives. So, we sat in groups of three and within our group we each took turns doing one of three jobs, timekeeper, question asker and responder. When it was my turn to be the responder, I was asked the same question as everyone else and after I answered it, the same question was asked again and again, and again, and again, until the time had expired. Every time the question was asked, I found myself digging deeper and deeper for my responses. My initial response was superficial and rehearsed; my second response was less rehearsed, and by the 4th or 5th time responding my responses were beginning to become genuine and far more God centered. The experience was profound and even though it was more than four years ago I can still recall the joy and sense of relief I realized what God was asking of me. The question that changed my life was, what do you want? There was no other context given, just what do you want? By the time you answer this question for the 4th time within three minutes you will find that the thing that you want most in life may not actually be what you initially thought, that was certainly true for me.

The question for today is, why do we need a savior? Well, I needed a savior to help me figure out my purpose and with the help of The Trinity, to make the changes in my life that are necessary to fulfill that purpose, which is to treat every human being with the respect and dignity that they deserve. This is a lofty goal, it goes against the social conventions of our time, which pressures us to compete to be the best at everything and is probably an impossible goal to achieve; but I believe it is the goal that my savior came to give me, so when Christmas arrives I will praise God for giving me the gift of Jesus, who has taught me that no matter how much pressure I may feel to focus my energy on my own desires, there is only one desire that truly matters and that is the desire to share Gods love with the entire world, which does not come from out there, it comes from the Holy Spirit, who resides in here. Joseph chose to follow the path God put before him, instead of what society expected of him, he chose God over self, and that is the key to understanding why we need a savior. Jesus, Emmanuel, represents a way of being that changes lives, but that change will only come if we willingly and consciously participate in the process and put God first. Amen.