Advent 4A, December 18, 2016

December 19, 2016

Plan B

Matthew 1:18-25


18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do 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 as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.


As most of you know, Sharla and I have a house in Little Rock. It’s a place we’ve had for more than 20 years now, and it’s been under construction for the last 18 years. We knew we needed more room when we bought it, but it took me about 2 years to figure out that I was the only carpenter I could afford to hire. Once I had that experience of laying floor joists and then standing on a floor that I had built, construction became a bit of an addiction. It’s hard for me to finish things before I begin new things, but Sharla has sort of operated as the construction manager, so I don’t move on to new projects without her understanding and approval. This compulsion I have to add on our house has worked pretty well for us. I get to buy tools and cut holes in our walls, and occasionally we have new rooms to occupy.


I currently have a couple of unfinished projects, and it’s not unusual to find me on a Friday or a Saturday doing something that I may or may not fully understand. If you’re ever in Little Rock on a Friday or Saturday you should call and see if I’m engaged in some kind of project. I don’t want to brag on myself, but it’s sort of amazing what you can do if you spend enough time doing it. And I think that’s one of the things that I’ve learned from my work as an amateur carpenter, plumber, electrician, and mason. You don’t really have to know everything about what you’re doing to get started on something, and once you get going it usually becomes really clear what you should have done.


So one of the things I learned early on was the value of using good screws for construction. It takes a little longer to put things together with screws, but it’s so much easier to take things apart when they’re held together with screws. A nail-gun can fasten boards together instantly, but it takes forever to undo things that are held together with nails, and you tear it all up in the process. It’s so much easier to unscrew a doorway that isn’t quite right than to pull boards apart that aren’t in the right place. And high quality screws are so much better than cheap screws. The heads don’t strip out easily.


Some people may know how to do things right the first time. What I know is how likely it is I’m going to have to do something over and how valuable it is to be open and equipped to back up and start over. I would have been miserable at actually working in the construction business. Give me enough time and I can do good work, but I’ve discovered that I generally have no idea how long it will take me to get something done.


My capacity to back up and do something over isn’t a particularly efficient way to operate, but I don’t think it’s an unusual way to get things done. In fact that’s the very thing I see Joseph doing in this morning’s passage of scripture. Joseph had a plan, and it was a reasonable plan. When he found out that his fiancé was going to have a child that he had not participated in conceiving, he decided he would break off their marriage in a manner that would bring the least unfortunate attention to Mary. Joseph was doing the most honorable thing he knew to do, but it turns out that there was a more faithful thing to be done. Plan A was very reasonable, but Plan B was the one that was going to change the world, and Joseph had the good sense to make the shift.


I consider this story of Joseph having a plan and then replacing his plan with a new plan to be very endearing. Joseph is the kind of person I understand. I haven’t had the kind of dream that he had, but I know what it feels like to change my course of action. I think that’s probably a universal experience. I’m reminded of that old saying, If you want to make God laugh, make a plan. It’s not unusual for any of us to find ourselves in need of a new direction, and while new plans can be unsettling or disturbing, they can also be divine.


I’ve mentioned before that I’m a big fan of Richard Rohr, a Franciscan monk, who does a lot of writing and lecturing about what it means to be a Christian in today’s world. He believes that our challenge as Christians is to recognize that we are sons and daughters of heaven and earth. And it’s not easy to hold those two identities together. Such dual residency can create dilemmas for us. It’s not easy to take care of our business on earth in a way that honors our allegiance to heaven, but that’s what we are called to do.


And often it’s when we get too focused on the business of earth that we come to see how we’ve neglected our business in heaven. I’m not saying that Joseph was unconscious of what God was doing when he decided to break off his engagement with Mary, he was actually trying to be sensitive to her situation and true to his understanding of his faith tradition when he made the decision to break off the marriage, but this business of heaven can be very unpredictable. It’s easy to do the wrong thing before we do the right thing, but that’s not so bad. The bad thing is not to be open to those promptings we get from the Holy Spirit to go in new directions.


It’s so much easier to live as a child of the earth than a child of heaven. I had a conversation with a friend the other night that I don’t speak with often. He’s got a good sense of humor and at one point he asked me how the Lord’s work was going. I told him I thought it was going ok, but that God doesn’t come out and say much to me. I told him I thought I would probably hear something if I was terribly off track, and so I interpreted the silence to be a good thing.


I wish I could tell you I got clear messages from God, but I don’t get them any more than the rest of you. I’ve known a few people who claimed to get messages from God, but I never believed the voices they were hearing were actually from God. I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen, but I don’t believe it regularly happens in such obvious ways. I believe our communication with heaven is generally very subtle, but I believe it happens.


We’re told that the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, which in itself is a pretty subtle manner. There were no corroborating witnesses to his dream, so he could have chosen to remain with his reasonable plan, but he chose to believe that what he heard in his dream was real and from God.  I don’t generally have dreams that change the course of my life, but I do know the feeling of being prompted to do something.


I have a preacher friend who I don’t see often, but he’s someone I try to stay in touch with. He doesn’t live far from Jonesboro, so I sent him a text one day last week to see if he wanted to meet for coffee the next day when I was going to be in Jonesboro. We met and it turned out that he really needed someone to talk to about a few things. He told me that God had lead me to get in touch with him. I didn’t really know that’s what had happened, but I’m inclined to believe that he was right. That seems to be the way in which God operates. We don’t get loud messages from God, but we have these people or situations that appear on those little screens we have in our hearts, and we need to respond to those subtle promptings if we want to be children of heaven as well as of the earth.


I saw another preacher friend last week who has a different problem. I believe he needs to listen to his body telling him he needs to be a little less responsive to those situations and individuals that well up in his heart. He’s helped create an outreach program within his community that has become incredibly effective. They distribute food, they provide hot meals for people, and they even provide housing for a few individuals and families. It’s an amazing program, and he has been the primary organizer and facilitator of the outreach center, but it’s worn him out. He’s really tired, and he rarely is able to have any down time.


The work he’s doing is great, but I don’t believe our allegiance to heaven should cause our earthly lives to become unbearable. Of course as soon as I say this I’m reminded of how Jesus’ faithfulness to God caused him to die on a cross. I do know that it’s generally very demanding on our earthly lives to abide in the kingdom of God, but I don’t believe God calls us to engage in the kind of work that makes our earthly lives unbearable. We aren’t just children of heaven. We are also children of earth, and it’s important for us to be present for our friends and families and to engage in work that’s both beneficial and sustainable. We need to be attentive to the word of God in our lives but we also need to hear what our bodies are telling us.


So there’s this balance we are all challenged to strike in order to fully live as children of heaven and of earth. I don’t think it’s unusual for us to let our lives get out of balance and for us to see the need to embrace Plan B. I say Plan B, but there are probably Plans C, D, E, and so on. In order for us to fully live as residents of heaven and earth, we are always in need of some adjustment.


This wasn’t the last dream Joseph had in regard to his role as the father of Jesus. He would soon be warned in a dream that he needed to pack up and get away from the threat of bodily harm to this child that God had provided for him, and Mary, and the world. This baby would grow up to be the perfect embodiment of a resident of heaven and earth, and he would empower us to live similarly balanced lives.


There’s an awesome responsibility that comes with accepting Jesus as our Lord and savior. It means that we can’t just listen for the demands of the marketplace to provide us with the information we need to shape our lives. We’ve also got to live with sensitivity to the voice of the Holy Spirit that provides us with the information we need to make those adjustments that will enable us to abide in the Kingdom of God as we go about on earth.


You might say we are to construct our lives with screws instead of nails. Nails are quick – especially when you use a nail gun, but it’s not unusual for us to make significant adjustments to the way our lives are shaped. I’m not saying there aren’t situations we need to nail down for good and as quickly as possible. Certainly there are some behaviors and undertakings that we need to steer clear of, but God has not called us to be rigid statues set in concrete. We are to live our lives in perpetual response to those subtle but powerful promptings of God’s Holy Spirit. And in so doing we are able to establish full residency in heaven and earth.


This possibility of fully living on earth and in heaven was perfectly revealed in this child that was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born to Mary and Joseph. It’s a gift to abide in the kingdom of God. May we be perpetually open to the new ways the living Christ appears to us.


Thanks be to God.




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