Advent 3,  December 11, 2022 JOY

First Reading: Isaiah 35:1-10

1The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
  the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
 like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly,
  and rejoice with joy and singing.
 The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
  the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
 They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.
3Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.
4Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
  “Be strong, do not fear!  Here is your God.
  He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense.
  He will come and save you.”
5Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf        unstopped; 6then the lame shall leap like a deer,
  and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
 For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
  and streams in the desert; 7the burning sand shall become a pool, and        the thirsty ground springs of water;
       the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
  the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
8A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way;
 the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people;
  no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
9No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
       they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.
10And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
  and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their         heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness,
    and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Psalm: Psalm 146:5-10

5Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help,
  whose hope is in the Lord their God;
6who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them;
  who keeps promises forever;
7who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger.  The Lord sets the captive free.
8The Lord opens the eyes of the blind; the Lord lifts up those        who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. 
9The Lord cares for the stranger; the Lord sustains the orphan and        widow, but frustrates the way of the wicked.
10The Lord shall reign forever, your God, O Zion, throughout all    generations. Hallelujah! 

Second Reading: James 5:7-10

7Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. 8You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. 9Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! 10As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

Gospel: Matthew 3:20-25

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.

Children’s Sermon  “The Lion and the Mouse”

A Lion lay asleep in the forest. A Mouse came upon him unexpectedly. Roused from his nap, the Lion laid his huge paw angrily on the tiny creature to kill her. “Spare me!” begged the poor Mouse. “Please let me go and some day I will surely repay you.”  He was generous and finally let the Mouse go.

Some days later, the Lion was caught in a hunter’s net. Unable to free himself, he filled the forest with his angry roaring. The Mouse quickly found the Lion struggling in the net. She gnawed the ropes and soon the Lion was free.

So what was the joy of the lion about?

What was the joy of the mouse about?

Let us pray.  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, my Rock and my Redeemer, the source of my joy!


Today is Advent 3.  We are entering the third week before Christmas and preparing our hearts for the arrival, the advent, of the Christ child.  Today we focus on JOY.  Traditionally on Advent 3 we light the third candle in the Advent wreath and for many will it be a pink candle. 

         We are approaching Christmas through the Gospel of Matthew.  We have a challenge because Matthew’s account does not focus on Mary, the Bethlehem manger scene, or the shepherds and angels.  His version embraces the ugliness of lives then…and now!  He opened with a long genealogy with names we cannot pronounce and barely recognize. So we saw in Advent 1 that by knowing the prophecies God has given through those ancestors and how he always fulfilled them, we find hope for the promise of Christ’s return.  Last week we focused on Matthew’s honest report of the challenge Joseph faced when he, betrothed to Mary, had to figure out what to do when he learned Mary was pregnant.  Problems that arise on our journey often undermine our peace as we search to live our faith with integrity.  HOPE, PEACE and now we focus on JOY, our banner for today, as our story continues to unfold in the middle of political intrigue and social unrest.

         We have laid the Biblical account next to the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a modern day Christmas story that pulls similar themes into the reality of our baby boomer generation.  We put it next to the Biblical account to try and bring Christmas truth into modern lives.  It takes the Christmas story out of ancient Bethlehem into modern Bedford Falls, out of a carpenter under the thumb of Rome to a building and loan owner under the thumb of the bank examiner.  As each of our heroes, Joseph and George Bailey, grapple with their problems within the framework of their belief system, a chorus of prayers ascends to heaven.  Second class angel, Clarence Oddbody is sent to help George Bailey and an angel of the Lord is sent to help Joseph.  As God steps into the problems of our life that we meet between now and the promised future, we live in JOY as we recognize God’s hand in life.  But let me not get ahead of myself.

…an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream…

         When writing my master’s thesis, I used as a backdrop Social Cognitive Theory developed by Albert Bandura of Stanford University.  He proposed that life events have psychological, sociological and environmental factors but the author also posited a fourth category, “fortuitous events.”  They are

         “chance encounter as “an unintended meeting of persons unfamiliar to each other”. A fortuitous event is an environmental experience that is unexpected and unintended. The everyday lives of people are affected to a greater or lesser extent by the people they chance to meet and by random events they could not predict. One’s marital partner, occupation, and place of residence may largely be the result of a fortuitous meeting that was unplanned and unexpected.”

Even a secular scientist is willing to admit the possibility of what we would call “an angel appeared” that impacts the course of history.

         Joseph is a righteous man and seeks to live his life trying to please God.  He decides to quietly divorce Mary rather than have her stoned.  We do not know if she had an opportunity to explain to Joseph “her truth” for women had little voice then or if Mary was powerless in this marriage arrangement but we do know the angel told Joseph not to be afraid.  The point I want to make is that God is a significant factor in the reality that is unfolding and speaks as we encounter the problems of life.  Often we may recognize his voice and often we miss it.

         George Bailey stands on the bridge contemplating the suicide solution to his financial problem.  His insurance policy will cover the missing money and then some.  The solution is not perfect for death by suicide is often not recognized by companies but in crisis we often do not think clearly.  George cannot think clearly in his desperation but his friends realize something horrible is wrong and pray.  God reaches into George’s experience through Clarence but it takes George a while to understand. 

          George tells Clarence that “it would have been better had he not been born.”  Has that idea ever gone through your mind?  I recognize that thought.  When our eyes shift from God to our circumstances, the Evil One can sit on our shoulder and tell us all sorts of lies.  Clarence listens to George, reflects, and gives George the opportunity to see what life would have been like had he not been born.   Erasing George Bailey, biblical Joseph, you or me from the unfolding of events here in this life, changes the whole course of history. 

         The message of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” is that every life is important impacting the whole course of history.  Every life is important.  The message of Matthew and the angel for Joseph is that God cares about every life.  The child to be born is from God.  The message to us today is that God can speak into our lives today in the midst of the problems we are facing.  Ponder how many times just the right song comes on the radio as you are reflecting.  Perhaps you pick up the phone and a dear friend has thought to call you at that moment.  Then again it might be an email, a card, a sunset or sunrise.  Of course there are the near misses when you realize you just missed an accident by a hair.  God did not remove the pregnancy for Joseph.  God did not open George’s eyes to the missing money or return the Uncle’s memory but he did grant an angel to help George get life back into perspective.  As a caveat or corollary, I will admit that God does not always intervene as I think he might.  We hear about Ukraine and wonder.  But that does not mean that God does not know and it does not mean he does not care.  It does not mean God is absent.  Sometimes we are called upon to trust.  That’s hard.

“…do not be afraid…”

         God’s message starts “do not be afraid.”  I don’t know about you but I need to hear this message more than I care to admit.  Fear is a horrible enemy.  Joseph was afraid. George Bailey was afraid.  What are we afraid of today?  If we turn on the evening news, it could be Coved, the change of power balance in congress, ethnic random violence, and of course the world scene.  Focusing on who may run for the 2024 elections, how the federal reserve will deal with interests, or Putin’s intentions can lead to genuine depression.  It could be us standing on that bridge in Bedford Falls.  Fear focuses our attention on our helplessness and we loose sight of our resources.  George Bailey runs to Mr. Potter for a loan and not to his friend Sam Wainwright.  Joseph focuses on his position in the community and obeying God’s law.  The Evil One knows how to raise fear in our hearts and so when the angel comes, he first says “fear not.”  When we are paralyzed by fear, we become paralyzed in faith also.

         As we come into church we open with the confession and absolution.  We have not done it right this last week, we are afraid of what God and other’s think.  We are afraid of how our actions have impacted the lives of those around us. We enter worship with confession. The pastor or leader then says the absolution, the assurance of the entire forgiveness of all our sins.  Wow.  As we listen carefully – all sin is forgiven in Christ – we are free to worship.  As we kneel for communion we are reminded that the elements are “for the forgiveness of sin.”  We come to church weekly because we need to be reminded that we are forgiven and we do not need to be afraid.

…the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit

         The angel continues to enlighten Joseph.  Mary’s baby is conceived from the Holy Spirit.  People who like details find this news shocking.  Like Zachariah, we are tempted to respond, “How can that be?”  Many have scoffed.  I would suggest that when I look at a flower, bird of paradise for example, I always marvel, “How can that be?”  When I watch the sunrise unfold in oranges and purples across the horizon, I always marvel, “How can that be?”  In giving birth, one moment there was that lump of pregnancy and people instructing “push” and then a small cry and a real person, a baby, was placed in my arms.  I confess, I marveled, “How can that be?”  I place the angel’s announcement in the same category of marvel.  I cannot explain the mechanics.  Knowing the science of events does not explain the miracle of life.  I hear the angel’s message as, “this is from God.”

         Not all events are so dictated by God.  If they were, we would be fatalistic and be drones or robots.  We are not victims of God’s plans.  We have free will and we have the freedom to choose our level of involvement with God. We are his children, not his toys.  Sometimes, even though we have a God who is all powerful and all knowing, we encounter experiences when knowing God is in the experience, as hard as it is, still means it is going to be tough.  Knowing God is present brings a joy not based on reality but based on presence.  Walking with a husband with a terminal disease is like that.  I would love a miracle but I also know death faces all of us, so knowing God is walking with him and me is a wonderful message that battles with grief.  Joseph will have to face social disapproval and the challenges of raising a child that the Evil One will remind him, perhaps daily, is not his.  God did not remove the problem Joseph was facing but assured Joseph that God was there and would be with him as he went forward.  Sometimes that is enough to give us the strength to take the next step.

         George Bailey walks through Bedford Falls and his life and realizes how different events would have been had he not been born.  Harry would have drowned.  Mary would have never married.  The poor would never have been helped to get a better life.  All the things he valued and had to work so hard to achieve, would never have happened.   He returns to the bridge and prays, “Please, God, let me live again!” 

JOY:  Emmanuel …God is with us…

         Joseph is told to name the child Emmanuel that means “God is with us.”  So what is your joy grounded in this Christmas?  Like the lion in our opening story, are you happy to be free?  Like the mouse, are you happy to have helped a friend?  Perhaps like George Bailey you will take time to draw aside and reflect on your life and all the ways you have been blessed in the good and rough times and you will renew your desire to “live.”  It has been a wonderful life.  You are important.  For many of us our joy is not based on the outcome of our lives for the decision is still out with the jury but like Joseph we hear the message of the angel.  We trust and believe God is with us.  Jesus is our Emmanuel.  We do not see him yet but we hold on to the promise that what is happening in our lives is known by God, cared about by God, and we know that somehow God is in it.  God is with us, the unseen guest.  And that is enough.  We can leave the results in his hands.  HOPE, PEACE, and JOY comes in the Christmas story!

Let the people of God say, “Amen!”

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