First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
December 22, 2019
“Just in Time”
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith
Isaiah 40:28-31 NRSV
Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. God does not faint or grow weary; God’s understanding is unsearchable. 29God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. 30Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; 31but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
Matthew 1:18-21 NRSV
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 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.”
There’s a little word that keeps showing up in scripture that says a lot about God and how God works. “But.” It’s that little three-letter conjunction that links one part of a thought that’s going one direction to a second part of the thought and you end up going in a different direction.
For example, “Sally stumbled but did not fall.”
At the beginning of the sentence, things are going one direction for Sally…. down. By the end of the sentence, she’s standing firm on both feet again. All made possible with that little three-letter word: “but.”
Here’s another one: “Frank was quite ill but it was just a cold.”
Whew… with those first few words I had Frank with a terminal disease and one foot in the grave and then “but” came along and cured him.
We encountered a “but” in our scripture reading today. Did you hear it? Loosely paraphrased: “Joseph had plans to dismiss Mary quietly but an angel of the Lord came along and convinced him otherwise.”
On the left side of the “but” for Joseph was a pregnant fiancé, a child not of his making, and nothing but scandal. He had some options. He could make a big fuss over it all, which would have most likely ended up with Mary being at least ridiculed and, at most, stoned to death. He also had the option to not make a fuss and simply release her from the engagement.
Either of these options would be totally acceptable, reasonable (for him), and legal. He chose the second: quietly dismiss her and fade off into history, never to be heard from again: acceptable, reasonable, and legal. It’s the direction Joseph had chosen.
Until the angel showed up in a dream with one of God’s “buts.”
“But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.”
And with that little “but” coming along just in time, his life and the world, changed. On the right side of “but” was a third option… something not so acceptable, not so reasonable. He was being told to go ahead and marry Mary and essentially raise someone else’s child as his own. Today, we see such acts as commendable. That just wasn’t the case in Joseph’s world. So much of their future was anchored in offspring traced through the men. Not to get too deep into the biology of it all but, back then, women really weren’t considered to be contributing factors in the lineage of things, other than serving as an incubator for men’s seed to be planted and grow. Genetics, DNA, egg, sperm… all that stuff hadn’t been identified yet. So, when your fiancé shows up pregnant and you know you didn’t have anything to do with it, there’s no thinking, “well, it’s Mary’s child as much as it is Joe Schmo’s.” No, it’s all Joe Schmo’s. Marrying someone who was pregnant with someone else’s child was totally weird and entirely unreasonable. Some would say it’s even outlandish. It would not serve Joseph well. It might make things easier on Mary but she’d carry an odd dynamic into their marriage. It could turn out okay for Jesus being that’ he’d have a household to live in but he’d never play dad’s favorite should there be other children to come along later.
What is most outlandish, once you move away from Mary and Joseph and even Jesus, is that, when it comes right down to it, what is right of “but” ultimately isn’t about what would be right for any of them because, what’s right of “but” in this story is really about God…. And the world. And God and the world coming together again.
The world had been going in a direction that was so contrary to what God had intended: oppression, injustice, abuse of power, misery, exploitation of people and creation, corruption. People had made all of this stuff legal and acceptable. God had not. And, God had time and again spoken the divine “but” just in time. Think about the key stories in the Bible and most of them include a “but” just in time. Like Abraham and Sarah, literally too old to have children but giving birth to Isaac, just in time. Moses, reluctant Moses sent to free the Hebrew people from tyranny and slavery, just in time. Aged Hannah giving birth to Samuel just in time for him to become a beloved high priest and prophet who would anoint Israel’s first and second kings. The prophets spoke it in times of national tragedies with words like “See I’m about to do a new thing,” and promises of a new heaven and a new earth.
Just when it seems like there is nothing left but chaos or tragedy or the end of the world, God has a tendency to show up with a “but” and things change.
And the story of the birth of Jesus is filled with a lot of “buts.”
Mary is perplexed that she is greeted by an angel but it changes to joy when she learns that she is to give birth to the messiah.
The shepherds are frightened when they see the multitude of angels but it changes to joy when they are told to go to Bethlehem to see the newborn king.
The wise men are all set to return to Herod and let him know where Jesus can be found but they change directions when they are warned not to in a dream.
And, today’s story where Joseph is all set to dismiss Mary quietly but an angel shows up in a dream and well, you know the rest of the story.
On the left side of all of those “buts” are what is acceptable, reasonable, and legal. But when God throws a “but” at the end of those acceptable, reasonable, and legal things, directions are changed and the road ahead is often outlandish but filled with love and grace.
Think about some of those outlandish stories of our own time that might just be things that are on the right side of “but.”
Martin Luther King saying “no” to the abuses of the church and the reformation happens.
Rosa Parks saying “no” to staying in the back of the bus and a movement towards equal rights is launched.
Martin Luther King and others involved in the seeking of civil rights saying “no” to Jim Crow laws and we get closer to equality for all.
The suffragettes saying “no” to the exclusion of women from voting and the voting population increases by 50%.
Today, the people of the Little Shell tribe saying “no” to the exclusion of being federally recognized as a sovereign nation and a little bit of bad history is corrected.
Those are some of the big things that happen when people remember that God often works most powerfully on the right side of “but.” But God’s “but’s” are just as likely to be personal.
Think about some of the times that you’ve ended up on the right side of “but” and your life has turned out differently.
The dis-ease of broken relationships that haunts your waking hours and keeps you awake at night but, acceptance and forgiveness change your direction and brings comfort.
The heartache of grief that seems to never end, tears come easy, depression settles in, but, the gift of trust changes your direction from just sorrow to sorrow mixed with joy, from just tears to tears stirred together with laughter and the acceptance that all of it can exist together in one heart.
The fear of death and loss and pain and uncertainty as life moves on, but, the gift of faith changes the heart’s direction from anxiousness to assurance.
When you look at what’s on the left side of those “buts” you find the direction that goes farther and farther away from God: broken relationships; grief; fear. But when God plants a “but” in the middle of any circumstance, the new direction is that which moves us closer to God: forgiveness, trust, faith.
Instead of drifting farther away from God, God is saying, “Let’s do something different. It’s a bit outlandish and over-the-top.” That’s just the way it is with God. God will always do what God needs to do to stay connected. No matter how many times we need to change direction.
I guess you could say that one of the most important gifts we receive at Christmas is the realization that Jesus is one more way of God saying “But.” The world is different than what God intended, but…” “Your life is different than you had hoped, but…”
May you recognize God’s “buts” in life and rejoice in the new directions they will send you.