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Why This Jubilee? Shepherds

THE KIRK OF KILDAIRE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH

CARY, NC

www.kirkofkildaire.org

A sermon preached by Joseph Welker, Jr.

Why this Jubilee? Shepherds

Luke 2:8-20

December 11, 2016

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by other, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

Always, always, year after year… we find ourselves back here… Always, year after year… we enter the season of Advent… God trying to get our attention… trying to break through our busyness and parties and shopping and traffic… the texting, Facebooking, and amazon shopping… the card writing… I sort of feel for God… how will God break through all of that?

Always, year after year, God is trying to break through the end of year pressures at work and school… the deadlines… all the deadlines… and then there is church… all of our activities…well intentioned… but still busy…

Maybe you can sympathize with the anxious note written to baby Jesus:

Dear Lord, I feel tired before it’s even started.

The cards (should I bother?)

The presents (who to buy for?)

The decorations (real or artificial?)

The family (enough said)

The crowds, the hassle, the weather-

Wake me up when it’s all over.

I know I shouldn’t feel this way

But if I’m honest,

Advent-

It makes me weary just thinking about it… 1

Every year God works to break through all of that with a simple message… meant to lift the burden… trying to share the message given to those shepherds long ago… living and working in the fields day in and day out… just doing their job… God wants to share with them and with us, the

“Good news of great joy for all the people… to you (to us) is born this day… that day long ago… a Savior who is the Messiah the Lord… “

You may remember that later he would grow up to say, “Come unto me all you who labor and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest…”

How will God do this? Often, as we are hearing this morning, God uses song.  That is true in the Christmas story…. As if to make sure they (and we) don’t miss the point… God sends a heavenly host… a choir of angels—who have been practicing for this moment to break through from heaven to earth… to praise God and sing: “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among whom he favors”

It is then… after they have heard the angels sing… that the shepherds are moved to drop what they are doing,  to leave the flocks behind (risking losing sheep left alone in those fields)… all in order to see this thing that has taken place….

So often for me it is music that opens my soul to hear what God is doing…

That’s why on the day after Thanksgiving (and not a day before!) I pull out my CDs (and some of you your mp3s) … and begin listening to Christmas music… God breaks through to a soul that has carried many a burden… feeling all lost and alone… with a song to remind us:

“Good Christian friends rejoice with heart and soul and voice… Jesus Christ is born to save…”

And the burden becomes a little lighter…

I open my CDs and think of Mom as I listen to one of her favorites—sung at her funeral:

While shepherds kept their watching
Over silent flocks by night
Behold throughout the heavens
There shone a holy light…

The shepherds feared and trembled
When lo above the earth
Rang out the angel chorus
That hailed our savior’s birth

Go, tell it on the mountain
Over the hills and everywhere
Go, tell it on the mountain
That Jesus Christ is born

I hope you know that today, the music you hear is not a concert… it is a gift of God… it is an angelic message God is using to try to break through to us… God wanting to reach deep into our souls to tell us: no matter our condition, situation, station in life… no matter what burdens you are carrying,  there is good news of great joy God is sharing for us and all people… to you and me and the whole world, Christ the Lord is to be found here… bringing peace, hope, love and joy… This is good news indeed!

News that when you hear it, you will want to share… it is that good… news that will put a song in your heart… And who knows… maybe like the shepherds, when you go back to your routine… who knows… you too might be joining the shepherds and return, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Amen!

1 Peter Thurston

Why This Jubilee? Joseph

THE KIRK OF KILDAIRE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH

CARY, NC

www.kirkofkildaire.org

A sermon preached by Joseph Welker, Jr.

Why This Jubilee? Joseph

Matthew 1:18-25

December 4, 2016

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by other, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

Average Joe… if we had met Joseph that’s what we would have called him… In many ways, he was like most of the men in his village: a working class carpenter or stone mason… paying the bills, helping his neighbors…He had dreams of marriage and family like everyone else… Just an average Joe!

My image of Joseph is that of the quiet man in the manger scene holding a lamp over Mary and the baby Jesus on a dark night… keeping watch… just like every man whose wife gave birth…

What you don’t see is all that is going on inside this quiet man… his inner world had been in turmoil 9 months earlier… the events that led to that night were far from easy… and he had had a few sleepless nights… trying to decide what to do. What the right thing to do was in a very hard situation.

Joseph, Matthew says, was a righteous and just man… who wanted to please God and do the right thing… and it is easy to forget that this was far from easy… the pregnancy and birth. He looks so peaceful holding that lamp.

Months earlier, he had received the news that Mary was pregnant. “found to be with child”… is the way the translation put it. “Right”… “found to be with child”  — sounds like it just “happened to her”…  When was the last time you ever shared with someone that your wife, daughter, friend was “found to be with child”… Joseph  had to wonder… who the father was,  because he knew he was not the father…

We forget how hard it was for him… perhaps we think of him quietly accepting the news… but nothing could be further from the case. This news came out of nowhere… it is the news you never want to hear:  “My wife… my husband… my fiancé… has cheated on me…”

It is the news you hear in your life that causes your world to crumble…

This had to be so hard for Joseph: The wheels have just come off Joseph’s well ordered life. He had it all figured out… they had it all figured out… there was the betrothal… then marriage (sent out the announcements to family and friends, “save the date”) … then getting on with their lives in a small village.  That was the plan… They would live happily ever after….  Then he hears… that his fiancée Mary is pregnant.

How would you feel? We know how Joseph felt:  When he got the news he was angry… very upset.  I know that is now what our English Bible says… Our NRSV says, “when he resolved to do this”… translated elsewhere, “when he considered these things”… but both may miss the original… The same word for “consider” in Greek is also the word for angry… or very upset. I don’t know why English translations don’t say that… maybe they want to keep Joseph quiet… holding a lamp… a passive saint without feelings… but that is not what the Greek says… the Greek says he was upset… angry… and who can blame him!

One of the few Carols  (and there are very few) mentioning Joseph says it this way… called the Cherry Tree Carol:

When Joseph was an old man, an old man was he
He married Virgin Mary, the Queen of Galilee
He married Virgin Mary, the Queen of Galilee

And one day as they went walking, all in the garden green
There were berries and cherries as thick as may be seen
There were berries and cherries as thick as may be seen

Then Mary said to Joseph, so meek and so mild
“Joseph, gather me some cherries for I am with child”
“Joseph, gather me some cherries for I am with child”

The Joseph flew in anger, in anger flew he
“Let the father of the baby gather cherries for thee
Let the father of the baby gather cherries for thee” 

The question is, “what will Joseph do with his anger (or as a therapist might say, ‘how will he process his anger!’… his sense of betrayal”? What would you have done? What would a righteous and good person do?

What is Joseph to do? It’s not simple, is it.

He could go down to his friends at the synagogue and ask… and they might say, “Just do what the Bible says. You can’t go wrong if you do what the Bible says.” How about that for an answer… Which is fine until you read what the Bible says… Joseph’s Bible said, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”… sometimes called retributive justice. “I don’t get mad, I get even”…  What would this look like? Public shaming? Not sure… but when you are mad you will find some way to get even…  That’s one answer from his Bible.

There’s another… follow the law… the law of God… Do you know what the law said: I’ll tell you what it said: From Deuteronomy 22: “She is to be taken out and stoned to death in front of the people.”

That’s what the Bible says.  They call that equal application of justice. [i] You will treat Mary just as you would any other adulteress.

(I wonder if Jesus was thinking of this story when he encountered the woman caught in adultery… everyone was ready to stone her and he says, ‘Let those without sin cast the first stone’)

But think about this: If Joseph had followed the law of Deuteronomy… Jesus would never have been born.

So, what is Joseph to do. He is a good man, and he loves his Bible, and he knows his Bible and he has read his Bible…

Which has led him, I believe to another powerful verse of Scripture that seems to be the decisive one for him. It comes from Micah:What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness or mercy and walk humbly with God”…

He will make his choice based on doing justice and loving mercy…  because he believes God is at heart a just, loving and merciful God.

So he decides that he will not harm her, abuse her, expose her, ridicule her or demean her value, her dignity, or her with. I will protect her.” He will treat her with mercy because the prophet says that’s the way we should treat others… and because he believes it is in the very nature and character of God to be slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

Joseph, average Joe, is one of the most undervalued and most amazing characters of the Christmas story.

Fred Craddock says, he is the first person in the New Testament who learned how to read the Bible. Like Joseph, we are to read it through the spectacles of the grace and goodness and the love of God.

If in reading the Bible you find justification for abusing, humiliating, disgracing, harming or hurting, especially when it makes you feel better about yourself, you are absolutely wrong.  The Bible is to be read in the light of the character of God. As my old friend own on the other side of the mountain in East Tennessee used to say over and over again:  “Well Craddock, I know one thing. God is just as good a Christian as we are.” That’s not bad; that’s not bad at all.

You know, Joseph is someone that gives me hope this Christmas.   He offers such a good example for us all… He reminds me that God uses the faithfulness of average Joes and average Janes to welcome the birth of Christ.

Again as Craddock says:

“The baby is not born yet; Mary is not even in labor; but it is Christmas already because of Joseph. Through an angel, God said to Joseph in a dream,  “I want you to marry Mary. I want you to go ahead and marry her. I want you to take care of her. I have chosen you to raise her boy.”

So please do not forget Joseph. God said, “Joseph, I want you to raise the baby. You feed the baby. You care for the mother. You care for the baby.”

Thanks to Joseph we can know that when Jesus is born, the man who will teach him, raise him, care for him, show him how to be a carpenter, take him to the synagogue, teach him his Bible, and teach him his lessons is a good man and he will do  right.” [ii]

I simply don’t understand why there are not more carols for Joseph… why we don’t sing about him more…

Joseph deserves more… so much more…  So I agree with Ann Weems who wrote:

Who put Joseph in the back of the stable?

 Who dressed him in brown, put a staff in his hand,

     and told him to stand in the back of the creche,

     background for the magnificent light of the Madonna?

 

God-chosen, this man Joseph was faithful

     in spite of the gossip in Nazareth,

    in spite of the danger from Herod.

 

This man, Joseph, listened to angels

     and it was he who named the Child

     Emmanuel.

 

 Is this a man to be stuck for centuries

     in the back of the stable?

Actually, Joseph probably stood in the doorway

     guarding the mother and child

    or greeting shepherds and kings.

 

 

When he wasn’t in the doorway,

       he was probably urging Mary to get some rest,

      gently covering her with his cloak,

      assuring her that he would watch the Child.

 

Actually, he probably picked the Child up in his arms

     and walked him in the night,

     patting him lovingly

    until he closed his eyes.

 

This Christmas, let us give thanks to God

     for this man of incredible faith

     into whose care God placed the Christ Child.

 

As a gesture of gratitude,

     let’s put Joseph in the front of the stable

    where he can guard and greet

    and cast an occasional glance

        at this Child

          who brought us life.

Amen.

[i] Insights adapted from Fred Craddock Cherry Log sermons p 5-6

[ii] Craddock Cherry Log sermons p 5-6

Why This Jubilee? The Place

Micah 5:2-5a

Matthew 2:1-12

Did any of you go away for Thanksgiving? Maybe you hosted the feast in your own homes? Some who went away are likely traveling back today. I wish them traveling mercies. I don’t envy them. My family crept along part of I-85 at a snail’s pace yesterday afternoon. Some of you may have gone to your parents’ home or your grandparents’ home. I spent a few days in the mountains of northeast Georgia, where my mom spent her childhood and her parents and grandparents spent their whole lives. I’ve been visiting this rural community for as long as I can remember- nearly 5 decades. So it’s a familiar place to me – with familiar people. It’s also a thin place for me… By that I mean a place where heaven and earth seem to meet. A place with simple beauty, wide open country spaces, a place where I’ve been inspired, comforted, challenged, and even changed. A New York Times’ article mentioned this paradox about life on earth: “God transcends time and space yet we seem to seek and/or find God in very specific times and places. God is everywhere and everywhen.” Yes, I meant to say that. The author invented the word but it’s a good word. The quotation is “God is everywhere and everywhen but seems so much closer in the thin places.” I know some of your thin places: Bald Head Island or Emerald Isle or another beach. For many of our youth, it’s Montreat, where at camp, they have figurative and literal mountain-top experiences. For dozens in this congregation, it’s Pala, Guatemala, where the beauty of the land and people takes hold of the heart and conviction and commitment to help is sealed.

For Philip Brooks, an Episcopalian clergyman who lived in the late 1800s, Bethlehem was a thin place. But before I tell you about that, let me tell you a bit about him. Brooks performed the funeral for Abraham Lincoln. The war and mourning for those killed in war, the division in the country and in his congregation brought him great sadness. So he did what any of us pastors do when we need a break- he took a sabbatical and during his sabbatical, he toured the Middle East. On Christmas day to escape the busyness of Jerusalem, Brooks borrowed a horse and rode through the country- all the way to Bethlehem. That’s about 6 miles. As he arrived and viewed the starry sky over the little village, he had a sense of great awe and he marveled that God had come and been born there. The experience of seeing Bethlehem at night and then worshiping in the place where Jesus was born amazed Brooks. And two years later he wrote the words which we sing in the popular carol O Little Town of Bethlehem. His organist wrote the music. The song became an instant hit in his church and then in all the churches in Philadelphia and now it’s sung all over the world.

The devotional book titled Why This Jubilee? explores Brooks’ lyrics and challenges us to delve deeper into their meaning:

“Let every heart prepare him room” – There is some irony in that there was no room in the inn for Jesus. Too often, over-crowding is a problem for us in the present as well. “What Jesus wants is a vacancy, an opening, some room. He can’t be crammed into our hearts if we keep everything we’ve ever accumulated.” We have to do some letting go. To say yes to Jesus we have to say no to other things.

“God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.” – What are these blessings? They are certainly richer, more lasting than anything than we can buy, wrap, wear, eat or drink… The blessings include knowing that we are not alone. Being loved. Being forgiven. Having a path/ The Way set before us. Trusting in a good future.

“O come to us abide with us.” – God has COME but God’s reign is not established. Sometimes we may feel all alone but we are not. God is with us.

“The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” – Jesus meets our fears and alleviates them. Jesus meets our hopes and fulfills them if they are worthy of fulfillment. All of humanities’ hopes and fears are met in Bethlehem because of the one born there- Jesus the Messiah. It is so strange to think that Jesus, the Prince of Peace, came first to Bethlehem and yet today, as one poet described it, “how eerily still we see thee lie: with trenches, barbed wire, fences, walls, and military checkpoints.”
The Scripture Lesson this morning tells more about this place, Bethlehem, and the one born there. Way, way before Philip Brooks wrote about Bethlehem, Micah wrote about it. Eight centuries before a manger became a cradle for divinity, Micah, a prophet, and a contemporary with Isaiah, said, “You, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the littlest clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel.” Bethlehem had been special to the Hebrew people for centuries: David had been born and anointed king there and his ancestors Ruth and Boaz had met and married there. Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel was buried there. But it is Jesus’ birth that cemented Bethlehem in history for us. Bethlehem was such a strange choice for this wondrous act of God. Bethlehem was small and old and poor. It had little industry or trade. It was similar to hundreds of other little villages around. Jerusalem or Rome with their impressive buildings and distinguished citizens with thriving business and seats of power were not God’s choice. Rather, the Son of God was born not simply in a lowly little town but in the lowliest of accommodations there- outside a crowded inn, possibly in a stable or most likely, in a cave where the animals were kept. “Bethlehem (does) not seem the sort of place a sensible God would choose as the pivot on which all history would turn.” But God often makes this point. Don’t ever discount what appears to be small and powerless.

Our scripture passage proclaims the message of Jesus as the promised one… Jesus is qualified to be the Messiah because of his birthplace, because he will be a shepherd-king AND he is identified as a king by those who have brought him gifts. The visitors who have journeyed from afar show that Jesus is King not only for Israel but for all. We don’t know very much about the wise men- also called magi or scholars or sometimes astrologers. We know they are from the East but no one is sure where that is- perhaps it was Persia but it could have been Babylon or Arabia. Wherever they are from, they have left that place because they believed they were given a sign – the rising of a star unlike any other -and so they have set out to find a newborn king. Most scholars believe their pilgrimage took almost two years. The scriptures don’t tell us. But we know that after Jesus was born, the magi show up in Jerusalem inquiring about him.
Matthew seems to be emphasizing that Christ’s birth is for all people…
Eugene Boring points out that “the magi are Gentiles in the extreme, characters who could not be more remote from the Jewish citizens of Jerusalem in heritage and worldview.”
Alan Culpepper, another pastor writes, “Here is a meeting of two worldviews- Jewish and Gentile, devout and pagan. The magi, seekers, could not find Christ without the guidance of those who had the Scriptures but why were those with the Scriptures NOT going to worship too? No delegation of chief priests and scribes from Jerusalem goes to Bethlehem to see Jesus.” No, there are no chief priests or scribes in our crèches. Nativity scenes are void of any powerful political or religious figures. But these guys were affected! Herod was affected. He was frightened – and all Jerusalem with him. Apparently the city of Jerusalem, including the religious leaders “cast its lot with the Roman Empire, as represented by Herod.” As will be the case at his death, even at his birth, when he is simply a lowly babe, those in power conspire and seek to end him. If you remember the story, or if you read ahead in Matthew, you know that Herod orders the execution of all children in and around Bethlehem who are two years old or younger. Jesus is safe because his family has fled to Egypt. Only after Herod’s death do they return- but not to Bethlehem. Instead they made their home in Nazareth, thus fulfilling another prophecy about Jesus. I love this footnote I found in The Interpreter’s Bible: “The contrast between Herod and his power and Jesus and his vulnerability (he’s just a baby)- and Herod with all Jerusalem while Jesus is alone, with just his lowly parents -causes us to ask ‘How does goodness survive when evil has both conspiracy and the sword?’ The answer is in the governance of history above and beyond the wit of the wicked.” God will always win!
But let us return to the story at hand…
The magi travel from far away to find Jesus and upon finding him they worship him. I have been studying this story and reading commentaries and blogs for a month now and there are 4 points I want to share- points that bring the story a bit closer to us:
#1- (Working Preacher)- “The Magi didn’t come looking for Christ through preaching, sacrament, a welcoming congregation or a vital social ministry. They came after studying the night skies. God’s call comes in many ways. We must remember that it is not limited just to those who feel comfortable in church sanctuaries on Sunday morning.”
#2- Ours is such a technological, mechanical, scientific world… yet like the magi (wise men of their time), we yearn for something greater than we know, something better. There is moral poverty in almost every political, social and economic system. We feel powerless in the face of international violence and terrorism. The world sometimes feels out of control and sometimes following Christ might be a bit like following a star… it seems like a crazy idea, it takes us out of comfort zones; (it puts us in judgment zones) and it requires us to have an imagination, a dream, and a persistent faith…
#3 – (Eugene Boring) “One of the tasks of the church is to continue Matthew’s witness that the yearnings even of those who do not know fully what they seek are met in the act of God at Bethlehem.
We must be prepared to welcome the magi in our mist, people from other places, ethnically and spiritually, so they too may know the One whom they seek.” Jesus is not just for some, but for all- for us and for them, for insider and outsider alike, for those who believe like we do and for those who believe differently. Jesus has come even for those who struggle to believe in God at all.
And finally, point #4- The wise men found God and then they worshiped him. This reminds me of the first question in the Westminster Catechism, a teaching tool that many of you perhaps memorized- “What is the chief end of man?” In modern language it would be “What is the purpose of humanity?” The answer- “To glorify God and enjoy God forever.” Yes, but that can be harder than it sounds. An Episcopal priest asked “After the shimmering splendor of the star’s light and the wonder and mystery (of seeing the Christ child) did it make a difference back home on the mundane Monday Morning of taking out the garbage, of changing the diapers, balancing the checkbook, paying the bills,” attending the meeting, driving the carpool, calling on clients, going to the dentist, figuring out what to do about the stain on the carpet and what to do about the grinding noise the car makes when you take a corner too sharply?
What was life like for the magi after they found Jesus? We do not know.
What is life like for us after we have seen Jesus?
W.H. Auden sums it up – “To those who have seen the child, however dimly, however incredulously, the time being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.”
It is far too easy for us to lose our sense of wonder and mystery. It is far too easy for us to lose the capacity to hope and dream. It is far too easy for us to lose the joy… It is far too easy for us to follow the Powers that Be. It is hard to follow Jesus.
And so we sing and we pray: “Oh Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us… Be born in us today.” Jesus doesn’t just come to Bethlehem. He comes to us, to our hearts, by the Spirit.

I invite you now to reflect on some questions. In the silence and space of this sanctuary, I ask-
Where is a place you have seen Jesus?
How did you get there?
What was the encounter like?
Did anything change back at home? Why or why not?
Has there been a recent sign in your life that could be from God?
What do you have that you can offer to God?

Let us pray:
(Adapted from Evan Drake Howard’s Rekindling the Hope of the Manger)
O God of manger and mystery, we receive this Advent season as a gift from you.
Let us follow you again to Bethlehem, where our hearts can be filled with wonder at the Christmas miracle. And may that miracle convict us and shape us. Amidst the stresses and uncertainties of our lives, lead us to you, that we might rejoice in your presence. Help us look for you not just in places and among people where we would expect to find you, but also where your presence takes us by surprise and forces us to reexamine our values and faith. Thank you that you go with us wherever we go. You are with us in our times of celebration and our times of desperation. Help us to persevere in our journey of faith, that fear may give way to confidence and hope. Enter our thinking, our dreaming, our coming and our going, our doubting and our believing, that we might find the discipline and commitment to always seek your Light. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

Benediction
You’re going to be busy, I know it. Busy buying and wrapping. Busy decorating and baking and partying. Busy taking family photos and sending cards and well wishes for the Christmas season. Busy getting ready to go to Grandma’s house or making other travel plans. But don’t neglect to go to Bethlehem. Go to Bethlehem and behold the King, Jesus our Lord.
The Blessing of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit be with us this day, this season and always. Alleluia, Amen!