MARY & JOSEPH
Here we are at Advent 4. Christmas is just a few days away. Jesus is about to be born in Bethlehem. The shepherds are on the hillside waiting for the angels that will appear to them and the wisemen are travelling from the east. It’s all coming together.
Coming together, however, is not exactly how we might describe the rest of the world right now. If anything it sometimes feels like everything is falling apart. In fact, the entire year of 2020 is one for the history books but most of the reasons are not things we want to repeat anytime soon. I know that a lot of people will be celebrating Christmas in a different way this year. We’re now in the grey zone and many families are not able to get together the same way they would normally. Like many of you, we’re going to have fewer people at the dinner table at the Gilliland house this year. And then we have to try to figure out creative ways of being together when we can’t physically gather.
But even in a time when everything seems to be falling apart, we still celebrate Jesus’ birth. Look at Mary and Joseph for a moment. As Jesus’ birth approaches, do you think they are in ideal circumstances? Hardly. Mary is an unwed expectant mother, engaged to Joseph who has to travel to Bethlehem for a census and brings her along with him even though the birth is imminent. They arrive at Bethlehem only to discover that there is no room at the inn. But they do find a stable which is better than nothing. And so they hunker down for whatever happens next.
No, it’s not ideal but I also imagine that Mary and Joseph are able to count their blessings. The Bible doesn’t tell us this but I expect they have some family support in the area since this is Joseph’s home town and it would be a terrible breach of hospitality if no one came to the stable to offer assistance, including food, blankets and whoever might pass for a midwife in the town. So Mary and Joseph are not destitute. It’s just not what they would want when having their first born child. Who can blame them if they are more than a little disappointed at the way things are working out?
I think that sounds familiar for a lot of people right now. Lots of things about this Christmas season are not working out the way we would hope and there are some disappointments about that. Like I said earlier, family gatherings this year are much more limited than usual. John is coming home for a few days because he lives alone but he’s been very careful what he does for the past couple of weeks. Rebekah is a student and coming home for Christmas and she is also being very careful what she does. Neither one of them want to infect Ruth or me. Stephen and Amanda aren’t coming home although they booked the time off work months in the hopes that they could. But when Windsor Essex entered the grey zone, they made the hard decision to stay home in London. I have to tell you that that was disappointing because we haven’t seen them much during this pandemic and were so looking forward to having them home for a few days. And what do we do with Andrew, Heather and the kids? They live close by and we see them quite often so I suppose we could argue that they are part of our bubble. But do bubbles really exist when we’re in lockdown?
I get it. It’s tough. It’s disappointing because the things that we planned to do aren’t going to happen the way that we planned them to happen. I also understand that we’re not the only family going through this. Everyone, in one form or another, is asking the same kinds of questions. Everyone is making choices about whether or not to follow the guidelines and all of us know people who have no intention of following the guidelines. And that too is disappointing because there is a part of all of us that says, “If I’m going to follow the rules, than you should too. Why am I making the sacrifice when you’re not willing to do the same?”
It’s true not only with our families. It’s also true of the church. We had some good things planned leading up to Christmas. We were hoping to move to the sanctuary on Sunday and we were so looking forward to that. It hasn’t been a problem worshipping in the Fellowship Hall. We’ve been able to keep people safe and at the proper social distance. It’s all worked out well but it’s not the sanctuary and, let’s face it, if we had our druthers, we’d rather worship in that space because it’s just nicer.
And then there were the plans for Christmas Eve. We didn’t think we could fit everyone who wanted to come to worship into one time slot, so had planned two worship experiences this year. The first one was going to be at 7:00 pm and would be sort of like our usual Christmas Eve worship with lots of music and carols – although no congregational singing of course. For the second worship, we were going to try something new – a candle light Christmas Eve communion worship. I used to do that in Espanola when we ministered there and it was always one of my favourite worship times of the entire year. It was quiet, worshipful and Spirit filled. We had a system set up where people could make reservations online in order to ensure that we did not get overcrowded. Lots and lots of work was done to make things work well and safely.
But all of that too has been put on the backburner. In lockdown, all we can have is ten people in worship. If we were to do that, how do we decide which ten can come? And who does the ten include? Does ten mean ten maximum or is it like the funeral homes where the ten does not include the funeral home staff but does include the minister and the mourners? We don’t know the answers to those question and, quite frankly, it doesn’t matter because we aren’t about to offer in person worship for only ten people. So we’re back to doing everything online.
That’s disappointing and it’s even more disappointing when we hear about churches that are planning to go against the guidelines and, in doing so, are endangering people. Not only are they putting their own worshippers at risk, they are making the rest of us look bad. But we can’t change that. They will do what they will do. All we can do is act faithfully and with integrity and do our part to curtail this pandemic before it gets any worse.
We are facing many disappointments this Christmas season but in the face of those disappointments, let’s turn back to Mary and Joseph. Nothing is working out for them the way they had hoped. Away from home. A baby on his way – right now. No room in the inn. Stuck in a stable. This is not the way they had planned to deliver their first born son. This is not the way it is supposed to be.
But Mary and Joseph carry on. It doesn’t matter that they are away from home. It doesn’t matter that there is no room in the inn. It doesn’t matter that they are in a stable with the animals. It doesn’t matter that things aren’t turning out the way they had planned. Jesus is coming and, as every mother knows, when a baby decides to come, there is no stopping him or her. What will be will be. So bear down and push!
It’s interesting that Mary, even in the early stages of her pregnancy, understood that this pregnancy was going to be a blessing. In Luke 1, She visited her cousin Elizabeth to tell her the news. If you recall the story, Elizabeth also was expecting a baby who would eventually become John the Baptist. The story tells us that as soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s voice, the baby in her womb leapt for joy and she said that Mary would be blessed.
Elizabeth offers her blessing to Mary and Mary picks up that blessing. Listen to what she says in Luke 1:46b-55 (NIV):
“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
Elizabeth says that Mary will be blessed because of the child whom she is carrying. Mary feels that blessing. Listen to what she says. She says that her soul glorifies the Lord. She says that her spirit rejoices in God her Saviour. She feels so blessed that, of all women, God has chosen her for this ministry, to be the mother of the Messiah of all creation. And then she says this in verse 48. She says that from that day on, all generations will call her blessed. People will see what God has done through her and they will acknowledge the unique place that Mary fills not only within the church but in all creation.
This is, in fact, so true because not only is Mary blessed, and not only will all generations acknowledge that she is blessed, but all generations will also be blessed because of her child. Listen to what he will do. His mercy will extend to all those who fear him. He will bring down the mighty but lift up the humble. He will fill the hungry with good things but send the rich away empty. And he will fulfill the promises that God made to our ancestors.
This is a story about blessings, blessing upon blessing and still more blessings. These blessing flow out from God. They are carried by the Spirit into all creation and all the world is blessed. Blessings upon blessings upon blessings upon blessings. Blessings beyond number, blessings without end. Eternal blessings for all people because of this tiny baby born in Bethlehem and laid in a manger. Blessings overflowing with blessings.
And it all starts out in a seemingly disappointing way. A young couple, away from home. No room at the inn but going into labour with only a manger to lay Jesus’ head. This is not the way the had planned to have their first born. Nothing is going as it should and there is ample reason to be disappointed. And who knows? Mary and Joseph are human; maybe they are disappointed. But when Jesus comes, that disappointment dissipates and they experience the blessings of God in their midst.
This Christmas, we must resist the temptation to dwell on our disappointments. It is so easy to do that. It is so easy to think about what we can’t do. It is so easy to focus on our limitations. You may be tempted to go there but remember this, that even in the midst of global pandemics, God is here and we are blessed. Yes, I know that we may not be able to get together as we normally would do but we can still connect in so many other ways; what a blessing! Yes, I know that there may be fewer people at the dinner table on Christmas day but that means that there will be more leftovers and I do love Christmas leftovers; what a blessing! Yes, I know that lots of traditions are going to be altered this year but perhaps this is an opportunity to create new traditions; what a blessing! Let us not dwell on our disappointments but let us count our blessings.
I had a taste of these blessings just this week. Like many of you, I am weary of Covid-19. It has messed up so many things and caused so much hardship and heartache. I find myself being very selective about the news that I watch on TV. When something comes on about Covid-19, I turn it off after about two minutes. I don’t need to hear a report on the status of the pandemic in B.C. or Alberta. I don’t need to hear about how many new cases there are in Windsor Essex or Ontario. I don’t need to be told one more time about the importance of wearing a mask and keeping social distancing. And it’s not that these things aren’t important. They are very important but when we’re doing the things that we’re supposed to be doing and trying to follow the rules as well as we can, eventually it all just becomes repetitive and I stop paying attention. Some people have called it Covid fatigue and I think we all know what that means and what it feels like. We just want it to end. But it’s also true that while we may be done with Covid, Covid is not done with us. Despite the Covid fatigue that we feel, we must continue to be diligent and do what we are supposed to do. What makes that easier to do is that even in the midst of news overload and Covid fatigue, I have still found blessings.
On Tuesday morning, I was home getting my breakfast and had the Your Morning show on CTV. I like that news broadcast because they make a special effort to report lots of good news stories. I appreciate that because there is still a lot of good going on in the world that we need to know about.
I was sort of half paying attention as I was putting peanut butter on my toast and I heard they talk about Covid-19 one more time. Someone was going to get a vaccination, the first one in the city of Ottawa. I thought, “So what. This is just another Covid story and do I really want to see a needle stuck into someone’s arm?” I confess that I was having a grumpy morning and reached for the remote to turn the TV off. But then I thought to myself, “Wait a minute. This is important. This isn’t just another Covid-19 story. This is the beginning of something that will change the lives of all of us.” And so I put down my knife and left my toast half done. We have an open concept kitchen family room so I walked into the family room and closer to the TV. And rather that turning it off, I turned up the volume. And I watched as one nurse prepared the arm of Jo-Anne Miner for an injection. Jo-Anne Miner is not a political figure. She isn’t someone from the hospital administration. It isn’t a doctor in charge of some department or other. She’s a personal support worker in St. Patrick’s Home which is a long-term care facility in Ottawa that provides assisted living & respite care to vulnerable people. She’s just an ordinary person on the front lines doing extraordinary work under extremely stressful conditions.
It took a matter of seconds to administer the vaccination but, when it was over, I realized that I had huge smile on my face and a tear in my eye. I had been blessed.
Afterwards Jo-Anne Miner was interviewed and said, “I just hope it’s the start to everybody wanting to take the vaccine to help our city become COVID-free.” I hope she’s right. She also said she’s happy to know she will soon be able to work with residents at the home knowing that she, and they, will be safe.
I’m glad I watched the news. I’m glad that I didn’t turn it off because it started my day with an unexpected blessing that I cherished. We need to resist the temptation to dwell on our disappointments and look for the many ways around us that God has provided us with blessing upon blessing. Those blessings are for you and they are for me and when you feel blessed, you are far more able to bring blessings to others. This will be a difficult Christmas for all kinds of people but God has given you the ability to be a blessing to others, to make a difference in their lives as Jesus has made a difference in yours.
Through Mary, all people have been blessed. This year, you have the opportunity to bless others in Jesus’ name.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
Holy God, we come to you with a renewed sense of your love and compassion. Your strength is seen in the might of winter storms and blazing comets. Your power is evident in the raging oceans and thundering waterfalls. Your love is shown to us in a tiny child born to us in Bethlehem.
We approach the day when we celebrate Jesus’ birth and are reminded, once again, of your presence in our lives. Thank you for the various ways that we can share the Christmas story with a world that needs to hear about peace on earth and good will to all people in the name of Jesus, the baby born in a manger in Bethlehem.
We, also, pray O God, those for whom Christmas brings sadness. We lift up in prayer those who remember loved ones who are no longer with us, especially those who are experiencing the first Christmas after the loss of a significant person in their lives. We pray for those whose are living with the loss of health and security. We pray for those whose Christmas will be poorer because of a downturn in family economics through job loss, strikes or other financial hardships. We pray, also, for those who are experiencing depression at this time of year; touch them with a special measure of joy.
We remember Canadian soldiers throughout the world who are striving to keep warring factions apart long enough to talk through their problems. Thank you by putting themselves in harm’s way, they are keeping others from harm. Bless them as they are away from their families during this special season.
Heavenly Father, we look forward to the coming of the Christ Child of Bethlehem into our hearts and lives. God of the coming Christmas, may we come to appreciate what a wonderful and special gift he is. We pray all of this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE
December 20, 2020 / Advent 4
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Luke 1:47-55; Ps. 89:1-4, 19-26 (Alt. Resp); Luke 1:26-38; Rom. 16:25-27
CALL TO WORSHIP
Let us sing of the constant love of God;
And proclaim the Lord’s faithfulness forever.
The love of God lasts for a lifetime;
God’s faithfulness is as certain as the sunrise.
We await the one who came as the child of Bethlehem.
Holy is his name, the name of Jesus.
O God, you are the Father of the Child of Bethlehem. You, also, are our Heavenly Father. We ask now for your nurturing presence in our worship. Sit with us. Sing with us. Pray with us and speak with us. We look with confidence toward the birth of Jesus. Enable us to prepare our hearts for his coming into our lives. We open our souls to your cleansing Spirit. Amen.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
Holy God, you are trustworthy and true. You are infinite and mighty. You are gentle and compassionate. Why is it that in our forgetfulness, we turn from you? We wander from your path of righteousness and we fall from your way. Yet, with gentle hands, you pick us up and set our feet back upon your path. We have no right to ask for your mercy but you supply it in endless quantities. We come to you with our confessions.
ASSURANCE OF PARDON
We, who had forsaken God’s way, have found forgiveness in the Lamb. He is the Lamb of God who came to reconcile us and make us free. He is the one whose birth in Bethlehem we await.
DEDICATION OF OFFERING
In gratitude, O God, we bring the work of our hands. We pray that all of our efforts and energies may be used for your purpose in your Creation. Enable us to reach greater heights than human endeavours can accomplish and give us the faith to try our very best. Amen.
We have heard the Word of God. We have been reminded of the power of God’s love. We have experienced the Spirit working within and among us. We are equipped for the ministry of Jesus. Let us go and share his love with the world.