Keawalai Congregational Church
United Church of Christ (USA)
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Sunday, December 19, 2010
“God with Us”
When I met with the members of our Sunday School teaching team a few weeks ago, several of the mothers of children who are in our Sunday School program said they were interested in putting together a Christmas play. They wanted to know what I thought.
They found a catalogue with a set, props and costumes. There was a script. They were going to include some carols and several of the children were willing to be in the cast that would include Mary and Joseph, the innkeeper, three wise men as well as angels, shepherds, and a host of talking animals.
I sensed their excitement but I also sensed some hesitation, of their wanting to know what I thought. I was not about to discourage them from their undertaking and so a commitment was made to place the order for set, props and costumes.
Copies of the script needed to be made. Rehearsal times and dates needed to be scheduled and in the weeks that followed Jaqueline, Pülama, Kate, Laura, Emily, Kamalu, Külia, La‘akea, Anna, and Simoné were named as cast members.
I was asked on several occasions if I was interested in sitting in on one of the rehearsals but I declined. I decided I wanted to wait to see the play.
There was at least one rehearsal to which I was privy but only in passing. I could hear the children rehearsing here in the church. The speakers on the outside of the church were on and so their voices were very loud and clear whenever it was someone’s turn to speak into the microphone.
It was during that particular rehearsal that I could hear one of the cast members going through a “melt down.” He was crying. Mom was offering words of comfort and reassurance. I imagine this may have happened more than once and that it included other children.
We talked about having the children perform the play at our ten o’clock worship service. When I asked one of the parents how long the play was going to be, she said around 15 minutes. So after several weeks of hard work, occasional meltdowns and the chaos that comes with any production of a Christmas play, our children will have (had) their claim to 15 minutes of fame in their one and only performance of a Christmas play.
The Christmas play as they presented it drew upon two different stories of Jesus’ birth. One is drawn from the account of Jesus’ birth recorded in The Gospel According to Luke and the other account is found in our reading this morning from The Gospel According to Matthew.
The play itself was for children and as such it was age appropriate. There were angels and dreams as well as shepherds who follow a bright star and wise men who bring gifts. There was a kindly innkeeper and loving parents and a baby boy and the stable of animals.
But a closer look at the story reveals a less than perfect picture. Aaron Klink, a Westbrook Fellow in the Program in Theology and Medicine at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina points out the following: “In the weeks before Christmas, many . . . invest a great deal of time and energy in trying to achieve that picture-perfect Christmas.” “Many . . . forget just what a scandal the incarnation and the virgin birth really were, that behind the pretty nativity lies both a wonder and a scandal.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, Bartlett & Taylor, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2010, page 92)
We are reminded in our reading from Matthew that the preparations for the first Christmas were far from perfect. We are told Joseph was a righteous man.
Because he does not know the cause of Mary’s pregnancy, he is afraid that she has been unfaithful. Being engaged was equivalent to being married. In such instances any infidelity may be counted as adultery.
We can only imagine his dismay when the angel appears to him in a dream and essentially tells him, “You know that woman to whom you are engaged? Well, she is häpai. She is very pregnant and you are not the father.”
Because he was a righteous man, Joseph decides to quietly end the relationship by sending her away. He is determined not to expose Mary to public disgrace. Some say he may have made his decision based on regret; others say out of kindness.
Whatever the case may have been Joseph realizes the start of their relationship is far from perfect. That is the scandal.
But the angel reassures him, “Do not be afraid,” (Matthew 1:20) and then instructs him to name the child, “Jesus.” By doing so Joseph acknowledges that he is Jesus’ father and that Jesus is his son, and now a part of the family line of King David.
“Somehow Joseph has to trust this strange news that this child is from the Holy Spirit; that he already has a name, Jesus; and that he will save people from their sins.” (Ibid., page 94) In the end Joseph remained faithful to Mary because God intervened in an unexpected way through an angel in a dream. That is the wonder.
Klink also points out: “ . . . unexpected things, things outside of convention can often be wonderful signs that God is at work. Amid all our less-than-picture-perfect Christmases, the Christmas trees that are not quite as perfect as we want them to be, the lives that are not as perfect as we want them to be, God does something new.” (Op. cit.)
I know about less-than-picture-perfect Christmases in my own family. I was speaking with a colleague and a friend recently as we compared our memories of family gatherings at Christmas time.
She said that their family gatherings would begin well enough but as the weekend progressed from one day to the next and as the amount of alcohol consumption increased, a moment would come when all of the old resentments would bubble to the surface and overflow in a cascade of verbal and sometimes physical assaults. I know of such things.
It was hard not to be drawn to the warm and fuzzy images of the Christmas story – of Mary and Joseph, the innkeeper, three wise men and the angels, shepherds, and the host of animals. While I still find some comfort in such images I also find great comfort in knowing that even for Joseph and Mary things were less than perfect.
What matters most about the Christmas story is knowing that in the birth of Jesus, God has entered into human history to bring love and to restore us to a right relationship with each other and with God. In that sense the Christmas play that was)be presented by our Sunday School children reminds of what we have come to believe: “Now every year at Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ because he brought the good news of God’s love to the world.”
For such good news, we give thanks to God. Amen.
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