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Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.
I love these words by the late author Frederick Buechner.
Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.
Today, this Sunday after Christmas, we’ll look at how beautiful and terrible things alike are part of the first Christmas, and all our Christmases, and all our lives.
We know that in these lives, fear – and the shutting down emotionally that comes with fear, and the paralysis that comes with fear – can be our default reaction to all this.
But on this Sunday between Christmas and New Year’s, I want us to see how the Spirit of God, through the second chapter of Matthew’s gospel, and its account of beautiful and terrible things surrounding the birth of Jesus, gives us an invitation to a particular way of being with God in the world that is so much stronger, so much more wonderful than our fear. And I want to teach you a way of practicing God with us in beautiful and terrible things, a way of being with God that I’ve recently heard called conspiring prayer.
Let’s begin with the start of Matthew 2. These opening couple of verses I just decided to read yesterday, so they aren’t on the slides.
Matthew 2:1-2 (CEB)
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. 2 They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”
I love the account of the Magi. Sometimes they’re called the three kings, sometimes wise men. But really they’re magi – astronomers, sorcerers, priests in the Zoroastrean religion of ancient Persia. I’ve always been fascinated by them. I like their taste for adventure and travel, their grand gestures of giving, and their sense of wonder.
It’s with the magi in mind that I’ve been doing a bit of star-gazing myself this week, planet-gazing really. I wonder if any of you have too. I’d read that Jupiter and Saturn were going to be closer in the sky than they’ve been in 800 years. And that if the sky wasn’t cloudy, we’d be able to see them, even near city lights. People were even calling this Juptier/Saturn alignment, when they’d be so close they’d almost look like a single star, the Christmas star. A unique celestial event like the Magi saw in their day.
So it’s been my Christmas quest this week to see this. It’s not been easy for me. There’s a short window when this happen at night, and I can easily lose track of time. The sky’s also been cloudy on the Southwest horizon when I remembered to look. And that’s the very spot these planets appear.
So my first couple evenings looking, I couldn’t see them – too many clouds, at least from the hilltop where I live. But I could see Mars. This week, Mars has been this reddish looking dot not far from the moon. And it’s been beautiful to look up, and see the moon 239,000 miles away, but then look just a few degrees away, and see what looks like a red star that’s actually another planet, and know I’m looking at an enormous something that is 80,000,000 miles away. Amazing.
But then last night, just when I was about to make dinner, I saw a friend post on facebook that you can see the Juptier/Saturn thing, so I ran out – running the ½ mile or so from where I live to this little hilltop lookout spot where you can see clearly to the Southwest. And there it was, the planet of Jupiter, looking like a bright white circular star above the horizon. And if I sort of squinted hard enough, I could also see, just to its right and a little lower, something I was pretty sure was Saturn as well.
And so there I was, looking at four different planets with my own eyes – the earth on which I stood, Mars up by the moon, and off on the horizon, over 500 million miles away, Jupiter, and just next to it, over a billion miles away, Saturn.
It was pretty great. I mean, it didn’t launch me on an epic quest like the magi – not yet at least – but it was pretty great.
Beautiful things will happen. And on some other Christmas, some other year, there’s a whole sermon that stays here – on why we need wonder, what it does for us, how faith in God can grow our capacity for wonder.
But listen, we’re putting 2020 in the bag this week, and for most of us, this has not been a wonderful year. Beautiful and terrible things have happened. And I think it’s something about the experience of year-end that I find myself continuing to think about them this week. The terrible ones in particular.
So it’s helped me again to remember that this is all part of Christmas too. God invests in our world eyes-wide open to its mess and pain and terror. Let me read for us the end of Matthew chapter two. It’s after the magi have given their gifts and gone home, without reporting on Jesus’ whereabouts to King Herod, who ruled over Judea.
Matthew 2:16-23 (CEB)
16 When Herod knew the magi had fooled him, he grew very angry. He sent soldiers to kill all the children in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding territory who were two years old and younger, according to the time that he had learned from the magi. 17 This fulfilled the word spoken through Jeremiah the prophet:
18 A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and much grieving.
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she did not want to be comforted,
because they were no more.
19 After King Herod died, an angel from the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt.20 “Get up,” the angel said, “and take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel. Those who were trying to kill the child are dead.” 21 Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.22 But when he heard that Archelaus ruled over Judea in place of his father Herod, Joseph was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he went to the area of Galilee. 23 He settled in a city called Nazareth so that what was spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled: He will be called a Nazarene.
Matthew chapter two isn’t really about the magi at all. They’re supporting cast in the scene. The chapter is really about Jesus being born under the reign of a powerful, violent, nationalist ruler named Herod. We think we have problems with transfer of power. Herod didn’t just never transfer power – he murdered his own family members – wife, children – who he saw as threats to his reign. And here, we’re told he is so threatened by a rumor of a baby destined to be a charismatic leader of the people, that he butchers infants in a quest to stamp him out.
This can’t be what Mary and Joseph expected for the start of their parenthood of the son of God.
In chapter one of Matthew we read that Joseph, afraid of his fiancee Mary’s unexpected pregnancy, had thought about abandoning her. But he had a dream so powerful that he changed his plans. He dreams that Mary’s baby will save his people, and that this baby will grow up to be known as Immanuel, which means God with us.
And Joseph and Mary’s first year with Jesus had its wonders. There was this visit from the magi, and their luxurious gifts, the hospitality of strangers and distant relatives in Bethlehem. There were first smiles, first crawls, maybe first steps. Beautiful things happened.
But when Joseph had this dream, and Mary had her own vision of all the promise of this child, all the ways God had favored them, had come to them, I do not think they would have expected to spend Jesus’ first birthday on the run, as refugees in Egypt.
What has happened, they would ask? Where are you, God? What are you doing? And what has become of your promises?
Have you asked questions like that this year?
I remember one of the days I was most excited about this fall. I was driving to Philadelphia to pick up our daughter from college. I hadn’t seen her in months, way longer than we’d ever gone not seeing one of our kiddos. And to be honest, I also just hadn’t gone anywhere in months. I crave variety, and I’m not sure if I’d been outside our city’s 128/Rt. 95 perimeter in months either.
So I was like, this is going to be a great day. Beautiful things are going to happen.
But as I’m rushing out the door, I get a call on my cell phone from a number I don’t recognize. I pick it up, and the person on the other line identifies themselves as an ICE agent, calling from a detention center. They were calling me to tell me that the newest participant in our congregation was picked up by them and was being processed for deportation.
How could this be, I thought? See, we were part of a team of people that had conspired together to arrange this person’s freedom. Members of a law clinic knew about our church, and with the help of an immigration justice network we’re connected to, and some generous members of our community, and some other folks in people’s social networks, a number of supports were coming together to support the freedom of an asylum seeker among us.
But as I began my drive to Philadelphia, making and receiving calls the first hour of that trip, I started learning how it looked like all this was falling apart. And obviously, the pain of this story was not primarily mine, but the dear person at its center. But something about it tapped all the disappointment and even moments of despair I’d seen this year, and I found myself swearing at God. This is so terrible.
I don’t know if you’ve seen that video the ad agency Public made with people telling off this horrible year we’ve just had – I’m not showing it here, it’s pretty much all curses – but I was having one of those moments. Forget you, 2020, but with some other ways of saying it. And me being the Jesus-loving person that I am, I was spiritualizing that moment by including God in my fed up, cursing anger too.
Terrible things happen. For Joseph, Mary, and Jesus too.
The God with us story begins with Jesus born into a funeral of Rachel’s children. This is a scripture about the great destruction of Jerusalem in 587 AD, and the Jewish people off to exile in Babylon. Poetically, Rachel, one of the people’s founding mother’s weeps for her descendants. It’s a scripture that has been cited in the context of the Shoah, what we often call the Holocaust as well. It’s a weeping of death and calamity. Terrible things are happening.
Jesus will emerge from Matthew 2, and really in the whole gospel of Matthew, as a kind of new Moses – liberator of the people, a great teacher and leader to guide us all – first the Jews, and then all the peoples of the earth – into freedom and life.
But here, first, there’s a kind of undoing of the Exodus. Fleeing in terror from a tyrannical Pharoah reborn, Jesus heads back into Egypt. Terrible things are happening.
How is God with them? How is this part of the story of salvation? When terrible things happen with us, how is God with us? And where can we find God?
Well, how Gow is with us is the same as how God was with Mary and Joseph, and how God is with all of us. It’s the whole way that the Immanuel God-with-us thing works.
God is with them in a partnership, in which God is very much present, but which requires our consent and collaboration for God’s good to move forward.
It began even with Mary’s conception. The way the story sometimes is told it’s like God overwhelmed Mary and made her pregnant whether she liked it or not. Which sounds scary – does God just do what God wants, regardless of whether we want it? But no, Mary very much first gives consent. She is not going to bear the Savior, no pregnancy from God until she says, Let it be with me.
This continues in Jesus’ childhood as well. God is joining humanity for our collective healing and liberation, but God needs our collaboration for the whole thing to move forward. We need to partner with God for God’s hopes to advance.
There’s risk for God too. In investing Godself in an infant child, God is strangely vulnerable as all infants are.
God woos, God speaks – like when God speaks to Joseph in this second dream, this time prompting Joseph to flee danger with the family. But God needs Joseph and Mary to get moving, or God incarnate, will die before Jesus ever utters a word. God’s plans invite and require our participation if they are to work out.
The same continues through the life of Jesus, when some people cooperate with Jesus in their own healing and others do not or can not. And when some people welcome and respond to Jesus’ teaching and others do not or can not.
And this continues for us today.
Beautiful and terrible things will happen. And God will be with us, as an encouraging, healing, inviting presence, that we can pay attention to or not, that we can respond to or not, that we can collaborate and conspire with or not.
Let me tell you how that worked out for me on that trip to Philadelphia, and let me tell you a way you can do this in any beautiful or terrible time in your life as well.
When we struggle with our faith because of the terrible things that happen, God isn’t angry or offended. God knows what it’s like to be a person and knows how hard it can be.
In my case, on that day in mid-November, I think God knew I needed encouragement. Because it started to come in buckets. I had a lot of extra time to pick up my daughter, and so I had chance the way down to visit the Palisades – the green space between the Hudson River and the Palisade cliffs in New Jersey, just north of New York City. My grandparents spent time there as kids a century ago, and there I was, walking, exploring, in all that beauty.
And I had time for two conversations on that trip as well. One more of a mentoring conversation with one of you, where we were imagining together God’s paths for your future, how you might come more fully into your calling for good work in the world. And the other was with one of our church Board members, where we were imagining together some long-term planning for the church on how Reservoir as a community might come more fully into our calling for good work in the world.
Maybe because I was refreshed by all that. Or maybe because I was in the mode of collaboration with God – remembering that good things happen when we ask God what God is doing among us and how we can participate. But some energy opened up to do that with this ICE situation. I prayed for my new friend. And the thought that came to mind was: I should send an email to the team of people in our church who were supporting them and let them know they were being deported. And then a couple days later, I had the thought: you know, I bet if I just cold call this prison up in Maine where ICE told me they had transferred my friend, and if I introduce myself as a reverend, I bet someone will open up to me with information. And my Jewish colleague in the immigration justice network was like: well, hour housing for this person fell through, but I’ll ask around about other people who might provide temporary housing.
And I said to God: you know, we’re doing all we can. If more freedom is in the cards here, we need you to do things we can not do. And lo and behold, a couple days later, we hear that ICE is not going to deport our friend, but plans on releasing them again. And while all this is happening, one of you reads my email about this person’s lack of housing and pending deportation and something of God comes awake in you, and you think: we have an extra room where I live. There’s no way we shouldn’t be using that for hospitality right now. It’s Christmas after all: how can we not be open to the vulnerable stranger?
And so, with the movement and power of the Spirit of God, and with the creative, collaborative conspiring of people seeking to follow God, this little story of healing and freedom moves forward.
God is always with us, friends, even in terrible things. The question isn’t: are you here, God? Or are you good, God? The question is: what are you doing, God? What good ideas do you have? And how can I participate in them?
Mark Karris calls this conspiring prayer. When we recognize that God answers prayer both through what God does, and also through what God’s creation does with God. So we pray for what we would like God to do. And we let God we are willing to participate in what God wants to do. And we ask God for ideas on how we can participate in what God wants to do.
Conspiring prayer is more work that just telling God what we want God to do. It take our willingness to participate in what God might want to do. But it engages our heart and mind more, and it’s also more likely to get more results.
There’s an old cliche that says we should pray like it all depends on God and act like it all depends on us. But I don’t think either of those things are true. When we do what we care about in life, it never all depends on us. And when we pray, it also never only depends on God. God is looking for God’s creation to participate in God’s healing, loving, freedom work among us.
So we can act like things depend on God and us and others, and we can pray like it depends on God and us and others as well.
That’s what Mary and Joseph did. That’s what Jesus did. And that’s how the work of God with us moves forward as well.
Let me close with that whole quote from Buechner about the beautiful and terrible things.
“The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you. There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it..”
Beautiful and terrible things have happened this past year. In the year to come, I expect more of the same. But here is your life, and here is the world. We wouldn’t be complete without you. Don’t be afraid. God is with you. God loves you. There’s only one catch. God is your partner, and all God’s presence and gifts will only be ours if we reach out and take it.