The Return of the King - Advent Week Four: "The Return of the King"
This week we are celebrating the Fourth Sunday of the Season of Advent, and the fourth installment of the sermon series, "The Return of the King." Our inspiration for this series has been the works of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, who both wrote wonderful stories about a returning king--Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Advent is a time of anticipation, but it's also a time to remember. We remember that the King of kings, Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God has arrived, born in lowly circumstances in first century Palestine over two thousand years ago. But we also anticipate his promised return when all things would be set to rights at last.
Our passage of Scripture for this week's sermon is Matthew 1:18-25, the birth narrative from the First Gospel. Matthew's account of Jesus birth is devoid of the pageantry that Luke's Gospel introduces, but it's full of drama and intrigue nonetheless. The first Christmas, according to Matthew, was not what anyone would have expected.
This time of year is full of moments that don't live up to expectations, don't you think? Far too many of us spend way too much money and energy trying to create the perfect Christmas only to be disappointed when our efforts don't produce the outcome we expected.
Maybe it's the lights that we spent all day trying to string on the house--perched on the roof, nearly sliding off to our doom... We get them all put up and then plug them in to discover that half of the strand isn't working--even though they were all working moments before when you tested them. I speak from experience here, my friends. I'm fairly certain that whatever I said after I discovered this landed me on Santa's naughty list.
Or maybe it's that special toy that your kid asked you for specifically. The one that absolutely no stores are carrying any longer, and is out of stock in every online retailer you try. And all of your friends managed to get one because they started shopping in September. And you find yourself staring at E-Bay where some nerd from South Dakota living in his mom's basement has twelve of them he bought after standing in line at Best Buy four days before Black Friday... and he'll sell you one for about 400% markup.
Or maybe it's that awesome dinner party you planned that's ruined because you had to invite that one family member who has been feuding with that other family member and they ended up getting into a screaming match outside on the lawn in front of your neighbors and the group from your church who showed up to Christmas carol you right at that moment.
I think that our search for perfection at the holidays is fueled by a desire for answers to certain questions that we feel the need to ask this time of year: "How much money is enough?" definitely ranks up there. We wonder how much we need to spend to make things "perfect", and we worry about having enough to do it.
We also ask "What will people think of me?" when we are creating moments for our kids and grandkids, negotiating our calendar and a host of other things that we assume will bring us scrutiny by our friends and loved ones. The need to maintain appearances as a happy, healthy, well-adjusted and memory-making individual this time of year can be overwhelming.
Or perhaps we ask this heavily-weighted question: "Can I recreate the past?" Christmas is an inherently nostalgic time of year, and so many of us do our best to recapture the best memories of Christmases past, sometimes to our own detriment. When our expectations inevitably fall short, we find ourselves feeling like a failure, dejected and empty.
I'm going to pull a Captain Obvious move here, but as I was thinking about the wrong questions we ask this time of year I had an epiphany...
Asking the wrong questions will always lead to the wrong answers.
I know. I have several advanced degrees, and I thought of that all by myself.
So, it stands to reason that asking the right questions will lead you to the right answers... right? Well, maybe not. It depends on who you're asking, doesn't it? I mean, you might be asking "What is the meaning of life?" which often is the right kind of question to ask. But if you are asking this question of a crack-head, pan handler on the city streets of New York---probably not going to get a good answer.
But here's something that I have learned that I know each of us can hold on to... and it works in any season of life, but particularly this time of year when we are living in expectation:
Asking the right questions about Jesus always leads to a life-changing answer.
The fact of the matter is that most people in our culture are walking around this time of year asking questions, searching for answers, trying to find perfection, and they have no idea that Jesus is the answer to all of their questions and the antidote for their addiction to being "perfect."
Funny. Things were not that dissimilar in the first century when Jesus was born. In fact the first Christmas upset the comfortable expectations and social conventions of the day so much that the life of Mary and her unborn child could have been in serious danger.
Let's read Matthew 1:18-25
18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
Joseph is described in the text as a "righteous man" or "faithful to the law." His teenaged fiancee turns up pregnant, and he knows it's definitely not his. It's apparent that despite what Mary might have been telling him about how she was pregnant through the Holy Spirit, Joseph wasn't buying it. Because he was a righteous man, a good Jew, he meant to keep the law. He could have had Mary executed for adultery, but instead he chose the least harmful approach, and one that would honestly save him from a great deal of embarrassment, too. The law does not allow Joseph to forgive and forget. He was torn between the faithful thing to do, and the faithful way to be--which were at odds. The truth of the matter is that like a lot of "righteous" people, Joseph was not asking the right questions, of the right person... Until this.
20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
I love this. In the middle of Joseph's struggle, God speaks to him. He was struggling to find answers to his questions, and the answer was right in front of him all along. Sometimes God opens the door to the future just a crack so we can see where it is that he wants to lead us.
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
This is a bit of commentary from Matthew, who wants to connect what is happening here in the birth narrative with the prophecy of the Messiah from the prophet Isaiah. This is important because his insertion of this commentary connects this narrative with the greater narrative of Israel's relationship with God, and even further with God's desire to redeem all of humankind.
24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
What God commanded Joseph to do was to accept the child in Mary's womb as his own. By naming Jesus, Joseph officially claims him, adopts him and accepts him. This would have been an extremely difficult thing for Joseph to do, and I would argue that the only way he found the faith to do it was because he finally asked the right question... of the right person.
You see, the question that everyone in first century Palestine was asking was "Who will save us?" The Hebrew people longed to be free from foreign rule, released from economic oppression and exploitation. They cried out for a Messiah, a Savior. But many had turned from God to Rome and many others had turned from Rome to the Law. They were asking the wrong question of the wrong person.
The right question should have been: "Will I accept the Savior God sends?" This was what the righteous, law abiding, questioning step-father of Jesus finally asked. In the middle of a situation that was not as it should be, God sent the Savior, unexpectedly when everyone was looking elsewhere. This was definitely not a perfect Christmas.
When Jesus arrives---everything changes.
That's kind of how it works, I've learned. We try desperately to answer our own questions or find every other way but God to solve our problems, ease our pain, fulfill the longings inside of us.
Did you know that Sin really is the choice we make to minister or to attempt to save ourselves? We try so many ways---consumption, greed, people-pleasing, addictions... Take a look around you. Do you think it's working? Do you think that we're asking the right questions, of the right person?
Maybe we just need a glimpse of the wonderful future that God has in store for us---a sliver of light that would reveal the answers to all of our questions.
Many years ago, before my wife and I got married we decided to celebrate our first Christmas Eve together by visiting a local church for a late candlelight service. We slipped into the back as the service was starting, discovering that we were the youngest people there by twenty years or more. It was the first time I had been inside of a church in several years, and honestly the only reason I agreed to do it was because I was smitten (still am) by Merideth and could not tell her no.
About mid-way through the service we stood to sing "We Three Kings" and for some unknown reason the old parody song I used to sing as a child came to mind and I decided to sing it out loud so my bride-to-be could hear it. "We three kings of Orient are--tried to smoke a rubber cigar--it was loaded--it exploded--now we are seeing stars..." She began to giggle. Then I giggled. We found that we couldn't stop giggling. It turned into snorts, then coughs, and then momentary silence. But every time we glanced at one another it would start again. Many of the older ladies sitting around us glared over the shoulders with heated looks. We snorted our way through the homily and then it was time to light the candles.
Honestly, I am surprised anyone came to light ours, but they did, frowning as they came. Then we stood there in the candlelight, singing "Silent Night." I can remember Merideth's clear, beautiful voice and the way the candle she was holding flickered when she sang. I knew we were getting married. I knew that we would spend the rest of our lives together. I knew somehow that we would one day stand together in a church--our church--lifting candles with our children. For just a moment--a tiny moment---I caught a glimpse of our future and was filled with peace.
I didn't know exactly what the next steps would be. I didn't start looking to Jesus for answers just then. But in my heart I took a step. I began to wonder if maybe there was something to following Jesus after all--despite the fact I had rejected that way for years.
I had been asking, "Do I really need saving, and if so---who will save me?"
Quietly and softly I began to ask instead, "Will I accept the Savior God sent? Will I be willing to turn my life over to Jesus?"
And ten years later, Merideth and I climbed into a rented truck with all of our worldly belongings inside and moved to the cold and windy city of Chicago so I could go to seminary and become a pastor. God opened the door just a crack so I could see what the future held. And I learned a valuable lesson: Asking the right questions about Jesus always leads to a life-changing answer.
I don't know your story. I don't know what questions that you've been asking lately. Maybe the real reason why you don't want to ask the right questions is because you are afraid that the answers will lead you where you don't want to go. Hear me on this--God may lead you to places you would have never dreamed of going, but the crazy part is---you'll want to go there... you'll want to change... you'll want to become the person God has always dreamed for you to be...
Asking the right questions about Jesus always leads to a life-changing answer. The King is coming! Are you ready for his return?