"God is near! Rejoice!"

December 21, 1997 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon  Philippians 4:4-7

Rejoice always! That’s what the apostle Paul wrote. Always? Even in the middle of the last minute rush to Christmas? Rejoice? Even when you’re up ‘til 3 in the morning, finishing and wrapping presents ... on Christmas day? Rejoice? Even when the gift you receive isn’t exactly what you had in mind, or even in the same universe - or the gift you give fits in the same category? Rejoice? Even at those awkward moments when you get together with family you haven’t seen for ages and remember (again) why it is you don’t invite them over more often? Rejoice? Even if there are no family or friends with whom to gather? Rejoice? Even when the ideal of Christmas doesn’t match reality? Rejoice?

This week is, indeed, a time for rejoicing. The challenge, however, is not just to live for the moments when everything fits together perfectly, when the stage is all set for joy to happen. The reality is that the moments when things are just right or when we are fully prepared - these times are very rare, if they exist at all. The Christmas story, itself, is not a picture perfect occasion. And yet, it is one of the most joy-filled tales in the Bible.

The circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus were hardly ideal. If you had been Mary or Joseph, is this how you’d want to bring your child into this world? No, they weren’t refugees, in the strick sense of the word. However, it was not by choice that they were away from home when their child was born. Forces beyond their control mandated that they be on the road - something about a Roman census. At least that’s the story as we have received it from Luke.

A far greater force, also beyond their control, was pushing them to this place called Bethlehem. Rejoice always? Even when you know it’s almost time and you haven’t a clue as to when and where this birth will take place? Rejoice? Even when this child growing inside your wife is not your own? Rejoice? Even if you wonder (deep down) whether your husband really will stick by you since he has no claim on this child? Rejoice?

The Christmas story, as we have received it, leaves many questions unanswered. Why did Mary have to travel with Joseph at such a time? Were there no relatives with whom she could stay? Where were her parents in all of this? What about his family? Did this couple have the support of loved ones, or were they in this alone? The scriptures don’t say. Did they actually get married before Mary gave birth? Matthew’s gospel says "yes," Luke’s account is a bit fuzzy on the matter, the point being that things weren’t necessarily working out as either Mary or Joseph would’ve planned. The thread of good news, though, is that, amid it all, something bigger than this couple, greater than the current head of the present world power, was at work.

"Rejoice in the Lord always," the apostle Paul wrote. On this particular occasion, that’s about the only way one could rejoice ... in the Lord. Even when the only accommodations are much less than desirable, rejoice in the Lord. Even when those who stop by are not really of your choice, rejoice in the Lord... We have an idealized vision of shepherds visiting, but fail to remember that in those days, shepherds were the questionable characters you wouldn’t want showing up at your back door.

Suppose, for a minute, that you did not make it to the hospital and your child was born in your car by the side of some downtown road. Along comes a gang, who stand gawking. That’s (sort of) the story as we have received it. Only, these inner-city toughs have a different rap song to sing. Something about angels, and glory, and peace - words that seem out of place in such a setting, but truly fit, in the strangest way. "Rejoice in the Lord always." Indeed, what else can you do? Luke says (in one translation I like - The Message, by E. Peterson) that "Mary kept all these things to herself." Wouldn’t you? She "kept thinking about all this, and wondering what it meant." (2:19 CEV)

The Christmas story for us has, in some ways, become a bit too familiar. We’ve romanticized it to the point that we can lose the connection to our daily experience. Things didn’t turn out as that couple planned, but they did turn out as they were supposed to turn out, as God intended. Of course, hearing this story in this way broadens the scope of what we’re about just now. We’re starting to wonder about what God intends to happen in our stories, Christmas or otherwise.

Now, when I talk about God’s will, I prefer to leave a number of doors open, for I don’t believe that we are pawns on some gigantic chessboard which God moves from place to place as he wills. We have minds of our own. We make choices of our own free will. God doesn’t maneuver us about until the game is over. We are free to make our own plans, or to act on impulse. Even so, God is moving in ways we cannot begin to fathom, beyond our best plans or worst impulses. God is like a weaver who takes various strands of material and shuttles it in and out of eternal threads, pulling it together into a great tapestry. If you would look closely, however, at the material which the weaver shuttles before he does so, you might wonder what is coming into being. Some of it may be highly questionable. Does this really fit?

Our lives are made of this material. At times it feels pretty shabby, doesn’t it. During this season we feel the strange texture of our lives a bit more intensely. Here are both the best and the worst, side by side. In children’s eyes we see both wonder and greed. Hearts are a bit more open than usual at this time of year, which is both good and bad, for we while we can then experience the joy of relationships, we also are exposed to the possibility of pain that comes with it. Our generosity, which is a wonderful impulse, is often pretty self-serving if we are honest with ourselves. This material, of which our lives are made, is strange mixture of wool and silk, both scratchy and smooth. With this material, the Great Weaver fashions an eternal tapestry.

In reading the story of the first Christmas, we are privileged to see the design which came out of it all. However, the living out of it was no romance novel - just like our everyday lives. Only in retrospect can we begin to see the hand of God. To rejoice in the middle of it all, before we have this hindsight advantage, is an act of faith, believing that (even when it doesn’t feel like it at all) "God is near."

Last week, a dear sister, who only a few weeks earlier had vowed with her groom to be faithful "in sickness and in health," experienced a pain in her chest which took her to the hospital. Why should that vow so soon be tested? This is a rotten time of year to be sick, and yet people are. Health or other problems aren’t stopped by Santa Claus. While there is a happy ending for our sister, for many others there is not. "Rejoice in the Lord always?" When I read that instruction from the apostle Paul, I don’t hear in it a blind optimism which demands joy from us even when there is no joy available. That would be a terrible burden to bear, even at Christmas time. What I do hear is a resource which we can draw upon always. "God is near."

That is the real source of any joy we encounter along the way, isn’t it? This joy isn’t the "silk," the smooth experiences when things go right in our lives. Funny thing is, we often find it in the "wool," the scratchy times when things go every which way but loose. Joy is like a glimpse, albeit brief, of the tapestry, the design God is weaving - and the trust we have that the Lord is moving the shuttle through it all, even when we cannot see it happening.

Isn’t that what Mary "kept" out of her experience in Bethlehem, what she "pondered in her heart" throughout her life with this ordinary and yet extraordinary boy to whom she gave birth?

The good news of the Christmas story is not just what God did so long ago in a distant land. That is a story we need to remember over and over again! However, the joyful news, that we "keep" and "ponder in our hearts" is that God is at work in our own lives, even when we can’t see the movement of the shuttle weaving a tapestry. "God is near!" Even when circumstances feel like they’re out of control. "God is near!" Even when we’re at our wit’s end. "God is near!" Even when our family behaves like families often do. "God is near!" Even when we’re alone. "God is near!" Even when Christmas doesn’t feel like we think Christmas should. "God is near!"... "Rejoice in the Lord!"

Of course, things often do go right (more often than we do give God credit, am I right?). And families do pull together in remarkable ways. And acts of kindness continue to surprise us. And we find a satisfaction in Christmas, this season we’ve piled high with all sorts of emotional baggage, which often does go beyond our expectations, though many times in the most unexpected ways. This happens, though, because "God is near!"

So, my friends, "rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!"

1997Peter L. Haynes

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