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The Disturbing Gift
Psalm 89:1-8 (responsive)
This is a wonderful time of the year. For three weeks we have been getting ready. Now Christmas is on the way. Even our little children, excited about gifts and trees and Santa, know that it's really Jesus who's on the way. We welcome again the recollection of how it all began.
Even non-Christians know the basics of the story: Mary has a baby and it's from God; the manger, stable out behind the inn, wise men, and shepherds all praising this tiny infant who will change the world.
Even though it's bitter cold, it's a warm time of the year. Even the tight-wad buys a gift for a needy family; that's part of what Dickens' story is all about. We see in even the most hard-hearted and insensitive people a hint of a smile and a glimmer in the eye. It's Christmas time.
Mary had a baby. Mary's and Joseph's parents had arranged their marriage. A young girl, barely old enough to have a child, had been betrothed to Joseph. So, they weren't married yet, and they hadn't "been together" as we say, but theirs was more than an engagement; it was locked in and legal. If Joseph had died, Mary would have been considered a widow.
Her life was settled. She knew just what to expect.
Until one night, when an angel, Gabriel, told her that she would become pregnant, and the baby wouldn't be Joseph's. You can imagine - women can especially imagine - what a shock that would be.
At first Mary is terrified that an angel is talking to her. Right at the beginning Gabriel says, "Don't be afraid." How could you not be afraid? Then he says Mary is going to become pregnant and she isn't even married yet! How long do you think it took her to ask herself, "How's Joseph going to take this? How am I going to explain this to my family and friends?"
Her quiet, settled world is suddenly shattered. Jesus is coming into her life and disrupting everything. Her life is turned upside down.
Everywhere Jesus goes a huge wake of disruption follows. Shepherds peacefully at work in the fields, laughing and talking and sometimes dozing off, are shocked by a bright light and the announcement of an angel. They're terrified. But the angel promises good news. They hear this shocking news out in the field and suddenly they are up and off to see this infant child. Their lives are changed.
Peter and his friends are deep in the routine of the fishing life. They know their trade, and their life is pretty settled; their biggest worry is whether the water will be too rough to fish. If it is, they spend the day mending their nets. It is a good life - calm and secure.
Then a young preacher comes along, and he calls them by name. They drop their nets - and their former life - and go off with him to God knows where. Now, all of a sudden they aren't sure where they will stay at night or where they'll get their next meal. And, of course, the religious leaders always seem to be out to get them. Their settled life has changed dramatically.
Matthew, the tax collector, makes a good living, or at least a good bit of money anyway. Sure, his job is morally questionable but it pays very well. Then he meets Jesus and his tables are overturned, and his life is turned around, and he doesn't have anything he had before - except now he sleeps well at night. His ordered life is gone.
When Jesus is well into his ministry, his family decides he's nutso. They decide to do a family intervention so they track him down to rescue him from himself. Jesus is speaking to a crowd of people so they talk to one of his disciples, who goes to tell Jesus that his mother and brothers and sisters are here to see him. Jesus turns and asks, "Who is my mother and who are my brothers and sisters?" Then, turning to his disciples he says, "Here are my mother and my brothers and sisters."
Can you imagine - maybe mothers can especially imagine - what that felt like? Your own son says these unrelated followers are his brothers and sisters and mother? What was it like for Jesus' family as they walked home that night without him?
The soft lights, the beautiful music, the manger and star, and all the emotions that go with them can be deceptive. It might lead you to think of "gentle Jesus, meek and mild." But be careful of that tiny baby. That innocent, little newborn can disrupt your life. Like Mary and Joseph, like the disciples, like short Zacchaeus up the tree, like the money changers hawking wares in the temple, this one, who was born in the manger, can turn your world upside down.
A young preacher just finished his PhD and finally found a church to serve. He knew the Bible message; he had practically memorized the prophet's cry for justice and freedom. Now he is at home thinking about the sermon for this Sunday. The phone rings. It's a young woman, Rosa Parks, who has been arrested.
Suddenly the word of Jesus about equality and freedom isn't the topic of a thesis paper, but a frightening situation he must face head on.
This man, who certainly would have been known as one of the great preachers of our time, became a man who changed the course of our country, and in many ways, the world. Why? Because God called him and because he took seriously the life and teaching of the one born in the manger.
A young woman, not long out of high school, heard a call to spread the good news of Jesus. She left home, went to training, and then spent months moving through Spain, Morocco, and other parts of North Africa speaking and acting out the gospel. Often what she did was illegal in a Moslem country. Sometimes they traveled at night escaping one town and moving on to another. She was scared a lot of the time. Her parents worried all the time. This Jesus brought disruption.
A college classmate of mine from central Ohio moved to the border of Nicaragua a few years ago. He lived there to rescue people who were fleeing government abuse. His life was in danger. His family and friends worried about him everyday until he came home.
During the Viet Nam war a pastor I worked with sent an unusual check to the IRS. As he filled out his taxes, it ate away at his spirit that some of his money might be used for a war, which he believed unjust. Finally, he wrote out the check he had to, then cut his finger and smeared the check with his blood.
He attached a note saying that he was sending this money in protest because he feared it may be used to kill innocent people in war. He did it even though he knew there would be IRS ramifications.
Be careful of this baby in the manger. He looks so innocent and sweet, but often our lives are disrupted when we take him seriously. Common fishermen have become towering examples of faith. Crooked businessmen have become faithful disciples. He has drawn young people and old to witness around the world. He has filled ordinary people with courage. He has frightened and disappointed his mother and broken her heart. In the process she became more than she ever dreamed she would be.
Yes, and he saved the world, and you and me.
© Richard J. Henderson 2008