Monday, December 24, 2018

“The Most Unexpected People, for Just Such a Time as This”

            We have now arrived at Christmas and the celebration of God’s love for us, made manifest in the birth of the Christ-Child.  During Christmas Eve services this year, I want to focus my Proclamation on the characters whom the Gospels describe around the infant Jesus.  These persons were Mary and Joseph, shepherds who had come in from the field, and Wise Men from the East.

            For the past several months at Christ United Methodist Church, where I pastor, a recurrent theme in our worship services has been a verse from the Hebrew book of Esther.  In this story, Esther is an orphaned young Jewish girl, living exile with other Hebrews in Persia.  Esther is under the guardianship of her uncle, Mordecai.  Even though a Hebrew, Mordecai has risen up through the ranks in the King’s Court, until he becomes a high official.  As the story unfolds, Esther is chosen by the King to marry him and become the Queen. 

After a period of time, Mordecai discovers a plot by another high court official to have all Jews living in Persia executed.  Mordecai implores Esther to intervene, using her power as queen, to overturn this planned genocide.  At first, Esther hesitates to get involved.  It is at this point in the story, where Mordecai says to Esther:  For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” (Esther 4:14)  Esther responds to her uncle’s challenge and takes the necessary action to overturn the plot.

Esther was a most unexpected girl, whom God chose for a special time and purpose.  As Mordecai expressed it, perhaps God had chosen her “for just such a time as this.”  Over the past months, as I have reflected on this theme and studied the scriptures, I have discovered that frequently God chooses the most unexpected people for “just such a time.” 

God chooses the most unexpected people for special times and purposes.  In the Hebrew scriptures, for instance, God chose Rahab, a pagan cultic prostitute, to help Hebrew spies escape from the city of Jericho.  Rahab was a most unexpected person, chosen by God.  Similarly, Moses was a criminal fugitive, fleeing Egypt after murdering someone.  Yet, God chose Moses to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt to the Promise Land, where they eventually settled.  As a fugitive from the law, Moses was a most unexpected person.  In the New Testament, God choses Paul to become a missionary to the Gentiles, sharing the story of Jesus and establishing many of the first churches.  Yet, previously, Paul had been an active opponent of Christians, arresting them for sharing their faith.  Paul was the last person we would expect to become an Apostle and missionary to the Gentiles.  Yet, God chose Paul.

Again and again and again, throughout the scriptures, God choses the most unexpected people for “just such a time as this.”  I believe this is true in the Christmas story as well.

·         Mary, the Mother of  Christ.  Mary was a young girl in an extremely patriarchal society, where women were regarded as the property of their husbands or fathers.  Mary was also from a poor family, living in a small village.  Then, Mary became pregnant.  We can be certain that she was judged and dismissed by the people around her as just a young, ignorant girl who had gotten herself pregnant.  In so many ways, she was a most unexpected person to be chosen by God to be the mother of the Christ-Child.  Yet, God chose Mary.

·         Joseph, the Earthly Father of Christ.  Joseph was not a prominent or important man in his society.  He was a builder and just “an average joe.”  He was a most unexpected person to become the earthly father of the Messiah.  Yet, God chose him for just such a purpose.  And, Joseph listened to God.  He accepted Mary, loving and caring for her throughout her pregnancy.  After Jesus was born, Joseph obediently fled with his family to Egypt, until it was safe for them to return to Nazareth.  Then, Joseph loved and cared for Jesus, as he grew from infancy to adulthood and up until the beginning of his ministry.  God chose Joseph.

·         The Shepherds.  Today, we have a positive view of shepherds.  We think of them as involved in a noble profession, similar to ranchers and farmers.  Yet at the time of Jesus’ birth, shepherds were a lowly, scorned group.  Most people viewed shepherds as a shiftless, dishonest people, who grazed their sheep on others’ pastures and were not to be trusted.  They were a most unexpected group of people.  Yet, according to Luke, the shepherds were the first group of people to hear the good news that the long-awaited Messiah had finally been born.  Of all the people to be chosen as “the first to know,” the shepherds were a most unexpected people.  Yet, God chose the shepherds.

·         The Wise Men.  While the shepherds were poor, the Wise Men were very rich and affluent.  Yet, they were pagans, not devout Jews.  Although we call them “Wise Men,” a more accurate appellation would be to call them astrologers.  They were pagan religious leaders who studied the stars.  They were from either modern-day Iraq or Iran.  They were a very unexpected group of people to discern the birth of the Jewish Messiah through the appearance of a star.  Yet, God chose the Wise Men.

When we step back from our manger scenes and reflect upon who is around the baby Jesus, everyone is a most unexpected person.  There was something “wrong” with every single person.  Yet, God chose each of them for “just such a time.”  God is always choosing the most unexpected persons for a special time and purpose.

This raises an important question for each of us, as we celebrate Christmas this year.  Are we also the most unexpected persons, whom God is choosing for a special purpose for “just such a time as this”?  We live in an age which has many similarities with the time in which Jesus was born.

At the time when Jesus was born, many people suffered from hunger, poverty, or serious disease.  Economically, there was a large chasm separating the very few wealthy persons from the vast majority who were poor and struggling.  There were also severe political divisions between “zealot” Jews who wanted to overthrow the Roman Army versus more accommodating Jews who tried to thrive within the given power structure.  And, there was significant corruption and deceit within the government.  Finally, there was a deep-seated spiritual hunger among the people.  There were deep antagonisms between religious groups, such as the Sadducees and the Pharisees.  And, frequently false teachers arose, claiming to be the Messiah, only to be exposed as a charlatan. There was great spiritual turmoil.

Our current age is similarly dark and chaotic.  Even though the United States is the richest and most affluent country in human history, there are many citizens, who are hungry, homeless, poor, and without healthcare.  For example, Bread for the World estimates that 1 out of 7 Nebraskans are hungry, while there are 13 million children living with food insecurity in the United States. Economically, there is a widening income and power gap between the wealthy few and everyone else, which is very disturbing because it will certainly undermine our democracy.  And, as at the time of Jesus’ birth, there is a great spiritual hunger.  Many persons desperately seek to find meaning in their lives.

We live in an age which is very similar to the situation when Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the wise men gathered around the baby Jesus.  So, the question is this:  Are we those most unexpected people whom God calls for “just such a time”?  How is God calling us to respond?  What can we do as followers of Christ?

If you are searching for a Christmas Eve service in the Lincoln, Nebraska area, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church.  Our Christmas Eve services are at 7 pm and 11 pm.  Both services are candlelight services, meaning that we will conclude with individual lighted candles as we sing “Silent Night.”  At the 11 pm service, we will also celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Communion.  Our building is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska. 

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

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