Sunday’s Sermon: A Rocky Start to a Miracle

Texts for this sermon: Psalm 6 and Matthew 1:18-25
* A note about Scripture readings: We’ve recently decided to start reading our Sunday morning passages from Eugene Peterson’s translation known as “The Message.” People often find this text more conversational, more colloquial, and easier to read and understand.*

jonathan toomey cover

This year, we will be using the picture book The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski (ill. by P.J. Lynch) throughout our Advent sermon series. For copyright purposes, I will not be able to share the entirety of that story within the content of these blog posts, but I do encourage you to either check this book out from your local library or purchase a copy for your own personal library. It’s an incredible story with stunning illustrations.

  • Everyone has a favorite Christmas story.
    • Books: Santa’s Favorite Story[1], The Night Before Christmas[2]
    • Movies: A Christmas Story[3], Miracle on 34th Street[4]
    • Even story-songs: “Frosty the Snowman”[5]
    • Christmas stories = important
      • Familiar words/cadences provide intimacy → help prepare hearts, spirits, minds for the season
      • Bring to mind memories of times past when we’ve experienced the story (hearing, seeing, singing, etc.)
    • And as we begin this year’s Advent journey together, we’re joining our stories – the individual narratives of our daily lives – together with the Grand Story.
      • Christian Story
      • Story of Salvation
      • Story of God’s greatest gift in the birth of Christ
      • And as we once again approach the beginning of this story, we’re going to do so through the lens of yet another story – a powerful Christmas tale written by Susan Wojciechowski: The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey.[6]
        • Before we begin reading → copy of the book at church
          • Catch up if you miss a Sunday
          • Experience the beautiful illustrations of P.J. Lynch
          • Just promise me you won’t read ahead and spoil the ending for yourself! J
  • And so, we begin … [read pt. 1 of Jonathan Toomey, pp. 2-9]
    • “The children in the village called him Mr. Gloomy.” Friends, among the glitz and glamour, the brightness and baubles of the holiday season, we are reminded that not all stories begin with an easy smile.
      • Taught from an early age that stories are supposed to have a happy beginning
        • Disney = huge perpetrator of this notion – not many of their wildly popular “Princess” stories begin darkly
          • Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, the Little Mermaid, Cinderella, even Elsa and Anna from recent hit “Frozen” → feature happy, beautiful, blessed little princesses … until that dark wicked witch/queen/evil enchantress butts in
        • Basic make-up of just about any sitcom or romantic comedy plotline or even most action movies → things are great and wonderful and blissful … until they’re not
      • These are all stories that start off with a chipper, “Once upon a time …” But what happens when the beginning of a story is closer to …
        • Once upon a hardship?
        • Once upon a misunderstanding?
        • Once upon a heartache?
        • These may not be the bedtimes stories that we like to share with our children at night, but we cannot help but acknowledge that sometimes, these are the stories that play out in our lives. These are our realities. These are our “once upon a time”s.
  • In fact, all of our stories today – our Scripture stories and Jonathan Toomey’s story – get off to a rocky start, a less-than-perfect beginning.
    • Jonathan Toomey’s story speaks of a surly, ill-tempered man whose life has been ravaged by tremendous loss and heartache
      • Man living in grief
      • Man living in pain
      • Man living in self-imposed isolation
    • Scripture story of Joseph – rocky beginning, too
      • Joseph’s first and most in-depth introduction in Scripture
        • Only other account we have of Jesus’ birth (Luke) – simply named as Mary’s betrothed[7]
        • As far as context goes, the text that we read today is what kicks off Jesus’ birth narrative according to Matthew. The only thing that appears before it in the gospel is that long list of Jesus’ lineage (“Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob” all the way down to Joseph, Mary, and Jesus).
      • And what a difficult introduction this is for Joseph! Imagine what this must have been like for him.
        • Engaged to Mary – text: Joseph discovered she was pregnant.[8] → I don’t know about you, but I can’t help but wonder how Joseph found out. Did Mary tell him? Was she starting to show? Did he hear a rumor?
        • However it happened, Joseph discovered Mary’s delicate situation, and being “chagrined but noble” (as our text put it), Joseph “determined to take care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced.”[9]
          • Hear Joseph’s pain in this
          • Hear Joseph’s discomfort in this
            • Rocky, rocky start
          • And we can sympathize with both Jonathan and Joseph’s rocky starts, can’t we? We want things to be happy, to be peaceful, to be comfortable and acceptable and copacetic. We don’t like conflict. We don’t like pain. We don’t like hardship and struggle. But sometimes that’s where we land.
            • Hear frustration and distress caused by this predicament voiced in Ps – text: Please, God … treat me nice for change … Can’t you see I’m black and blue … My bed has been floating forty days and nights on the flood of my tears. My mattress is soaked, soggy with tears.[10] → Haven’t we all had moments … days … weeks … maybe even years like this?!
              • Sounds like Jonathan Toomey’s journey – after the deaths of his wife and son: Jonathan Toomey had packed his belongings into a wagon and traveled till his tears stopped.[11]
  • So here we find ourselves at the beginning of another Advent journey – a journey during a season which is marked by a certain amount of darkness, both in terms of the church calendar and of nature itself.
    • Darkness of the shortening days and lengthening nights
    • Darkness of the world waiting for the birth of a Savior
    • Darkness echoed in the words of our ps: I can’t sing in your choir if I’m buried in some tomb! I’m tired of all this – so tired.[12]
    • And yet, in the face of this darkness, despite whatever rocky beginnings our stories may include, there is a growing light – the light of the coming Christ Child.
      • theologian Barbara Brown Taylor’s new book: Learning to Walk in the Dark[13] → addresses idea of finding God in those dark places
        • Scary places
        • Lonely places
        • Bleak places
        • Taylor reassures us: Even when you cannot see where you are going and no one answers when you call, this is not sufficient proof that you are alone. … Here is the testimony of faith: darkness is not dark to God; the night is as bright as the day.[14]
      • See God’s brightness shining in the ps: My requests have all been granted, my prayers are answered.[15]
      • See God’s brightness shining in Joseph’s story: While [Joseph] was trying to figure a way out, he had a dream. God’s angel spoke in the dream: “Joseph, son of David, don’t hesitate to get married. Mary’s pregnancy is Spirit-conceived. God’s Holy Spirit has made her pregnant. She will bring a son to birth, and when she does, you, Joseph, will name him Jesus – ‘God saves’ – because he will save his people from their sins.” … Then Joseph woke up. He did exactly what God’s angel commanded in the dream.[16]
      • And I promise you there is light in Jonathan Toomey’s story, too … but I’m not going to give that part away. For that, you’ll just have to come back next week.
        • Waiting for the rest of Jonathan Toomey’s story = appropriate because sometimes we have to wait for the light
          • Difficult in our culture of instant gratification – answers and shopping and communication and just about anything we want literally right at our fingertips
          • But that’s what this season of Advent is about: waiting and watching as that pin-prick of light grows ever brighter and ever closer in the darkness.
            • Light of hope
            • Light of salvation
            • Light of Christ
            • Amen.

[1] Hisako Aoki. Santa’s Favorite Story: Santa Tells the Story of the First Christmas. (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster), 1991.

[2] Clement Clarke Moore. “A Visit (‘Twas the Night Before Christmas)” in Sentinel – Troy, New York, 23 Dec. 1823.

[3] Jean Shepherd, Leigh Brown, & Bob Clark. A Christmas Story, released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio, 18 Nov. 1983.

[4] Valentine Davies & George Seaton. Miracle on 34th Street, released by 20th Century Fox, 2 May 1947.

[5] Jack Rollins & Steve Nelson. “Frosty the Snowman,” originally recorded by Gene Autry & the Cass Country Boys, released by Columbia Records, 14 Dec. 1950.

[6] Susan Wojciechowski. The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey. (Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press), 1995.

[7] Lk 1:27.

[8] Mt 1:18.

[9] Mt 1:19.

[10] Ps 6:1, 2, 6b.

[11] Wojciechowski, 6.

[12] Ps 6:5b-6a.

[13] Barbara Brown Taylor. Learning to Walk in the Dark. (New York, NY: HarperOne), 2014.

[14] Taylor, 16.

[15] Ps 6:9.

[16] Mt 1:20-21, 24.

December newsletter piece

advent candles FB cover

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. For those who lived in a land of deep shadows – light! Sunbursts of light! You repopulated the nation, you expanded its joy. Oh, they’re so glad in your presence! Festival joy! The joy of a great celebration, sharing rich gifts and warm greetings. … For a child has been born – for us! The gift of a son – for us! ~ Isaiah 9:2-3

Of all the passages of Scripture that we read during the Advent and Christmas seasons, this has always been my favorite. Maybe it’s because I’ve lived my whole life in the Midwest – a place of beauty, to be sure, but a place that, during the winter months, can feel cold and dark. Surely “a land of deep shadows.”

And in our lives, how often have we found ourselves walking in darkness? There are any number of things that at times can and do blot out the light, plunging our hearts and our spirits into darkness – illness, fear, uncertainty, stress, grief. We continue to move through life during these times, but we still feel that darkness. It eclipses everything else and dulls our reaction. Isaiah’s words may have originally been spoken for the people of Israel, but they continue to resonate with us today. Surely, we know what it’s like to be people who walk in darkness.

For the church, Advent is a season of waiting … a season of expectation … a season of darkness as we anticipate the coming of the Light. Today, it’s easy for us to forget that part of Advent. Our to-do lists are so long. We have cookies to bake, presents to buy and wrap, trees and homes to decorate, carols to sing, loved ones to visit, favorite holiday movies to watch, Christmas cards/letters to write and send. We are surrounded by the glitz and sparkle of advertisements and lights. But sometimes this light only serves to make the darkness feel even thicker, even heavier, even darker.

And yet, in the face of this darkness, Isaiah speaks of another Light – “sunbursts of light,” even! The Hebrew word that Isaiah uses is the same word that gets used to describe daybreak, a Light so vivid and bright that it seems almost alive. In the face of our deepest darkness, this Light shines. And as John’s gospel tells us, this is a Light that cannot be extinguished.

What came into existence was Life, and the Life was Light to live by. The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness; the darkness couldn’t put it out. ~ John 1:4-5.

And where do we find this Light? In his own beautiful way, Isaiah tells us. “For a child has been born – for us! The gift of a son – for us!”

There is light in the eyes of a baby. There is light in a baby’s smile, in a baby’s laugh, in the peaceful look on a sleeping baby’s face. But the Light that this child is about to bring goes beyond that light. The Light that is coming is one of salvation and grace and peace beyond measure. The Light that is coming will banish every darkness forever and wrap us in a love that we cannot even begin to imagine. This is the Light for which we wait during the Advent season. This is the Light which dawns anew for us each Christmas morning.

And so in the midst of this dark and cold season, in the midst of the twinkling lights and the red and green sprinkles, we pray …

Come, Lord Jesus, come.

Catching Up …

oops

So I realize it’s been a while since I posted any sermon’s. Oops. I’ve had a little bit of trouble adapting the formatting of my sermons to this blog, so when I got a week or so behind, it got a little overwhelming. We did a 3-week sermon series on stewardship in early fall – stewardship of money, stewardship of time, and stewardship of the heart. We followed that with a sermon 6-week series that looked at the 5 different types of ministry that Paul lays out in Ephesians: The gifts that [God] gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ (4:11-2). If I get the chance, I will try to catch up and post those series later on. However, I have since decided that trying to catch up on posting a few months of sermons all at once might be a little crazy.