Rev. Danielle K Bartz December 13, 2020
Matthew 1:18-24 “Change of Plans”
Last December, I was spending several evenings in the church building. I normally would not be here much at night, but in December 2019 I found myself here more evenings than usual. Between various meetings, our weekly Taizé services in the chapel, and just the general busyness clergy experience in December – I was here more evenings than I wasn’t. And in the week leading up to Christmas – I was not alone. I walked into the dark sanctuary one night to get a lighter for the candles in the chapel, when I noticed a bat flying around. Now, most of you know that bats are not at all uncommon in our church building. In fact, bats are such frequent guests in our building that they don’t even faze me. So – that evening I didn’t think much of the bat flying around in the sanctuary. But, when I was back the next evening, that bat (or perhaps another one) was still flying around – and something occurred to me – we were just a couple of days away from our Christmas Eve worship service. An evening when our building would be packed, filled with hundreds of people, many of whom only worship with us a couple of times a year. And all of the sudden, I began to worry.
Now, to be clear, I know that bats avoid people. I know that a bat would not fly around in a room with lights on and filled with people – just like the sanctuary would be on Christmas Eve 2019. I know that. I knew I shouldn’t worry, but that didn’t stop me. Here is the scenario I created in my mind: it would be Christmas Eve, the sanctuary would be packed, our choir loft would be full, and the service would be moving along beautifully. And then all of the sudden a larger than life bat would start swooping around. And chaos would erupt. People would start screaming and running for the exits. Nick, one of our choir directors, would try to save the day by swinging at the bat with a tennis racket. Some would be yelling for people to not panic, but no one would listen. Kids would start to cry and the people driving by on Broadway that evening would see streams of people running out of the building. Then I would run out into Broadway, robe and stole flying – trying to calm everyone down and get them to come back into the building. People would record the entire thing on their cell phones, and it would go viral on the internet. And then First Congregational would get a reputation – and not a good one. I even told myself that it would lead to the demise of the church.
If you didn’t know – I have a very vivid and active imagination.
That is the story I told myself because I saw a bat flying around an empty and pitch-black sanctuary a couple of days before Christmas Eve. And even though I knew better and knew there would not be a dramatic problem – my mind began to spin scenarios. All of the plans we had made, all of the work our musicians, choir, and I had done would be ruined. Nothing could be worse, I thought, than a bat ruining our plans for Christmas.
I don’t think I am the only person who worries about plans getting changed or interrupted. I think on some level most people hate to have their plans changed, especially ones that have included a lot of work: either physical or emotional work. Perhaps you don’t spin wild stories in your head like I do about how even a possible disruption of a plan Could spiral out of control. And perhaps you are one of those people who are so easy going and flexible, that even a dramatic change in plans don’t faze you. But my experience is that most people struggle in some way when the future they had planned is no longer possible.
At the beginning of 2020, we all made plans. We had an idea of how our year was going to go. We planned vacations, we looked forward to carrying on old traditions, we had an idea of how our year might look. Then, of course, everything changed. All of our plans changed – some slightly, some very dramatically. However you imaged your year going at the beginning of 2020, is likely not how it went. And that is a loss. It is something we have all been grieving this year. For me, the loss of the worshipping traditions we have established here at 1st Congo has been really hard. It makes me think back to my over-active imagination during Christmas Eve 2019 – when I spent most of the service scanning the ceiling of our sanctuary for a bat, instead of looking out at your faces. And I wish that I had known then what I know now – that it is not the disruption of the plans that matter, what matters is how we respond to that change.
I have been thinking a lot about that this week because I have found myself in awe of Joseph as he responds to the dramatic change in his life. Historic tradition makes it safe to assume that Joseph and Mary had been betrothed to one another since Mary was born. Their families had arranged their marriage, and as soon as Mary was of age – she would be married to Joseph and join his household and extended family. There wasn’t an option, here, for either of them. It was an arrangement between families that followed closely the religious laws and practices of the day. The future, therefore, for Mary and Joseph was pretty predictable: they would get married, Mary would bear Joseph’s child, they would promise that child in marriage to another family, and their families would continue to grow and thrive in known and understandable ways. But, when Mary was found to be pregnant before the marriage was complete, everything changed.
I am not sure it can be over-stated what a problem this was going to be. Mary’s pregnancy was grounds for divorce, a complicated disruption for anyone in any time. Furthermore, Mary’s pregnancy was also grounds for her execution. A divorce would have brought tremendous scandal to both families, and a pregnancy before marriage could lead to death. Everything Joseph had planned on for his future was changed.
The scripture describes him as a righteous man, making it clear he did not want to make anything worse for either of their families or for Mary. Which is more than admirable, it was extraordinary. By “dismissing Mary quietly” as the scripture says, he would have likely saved her life and both of their families could have potentially recovered from this change.
But, when the angel visits Joseph and explains to him that the child Mary was carrying in her womb was none other than God taking on human flesh, Joseph didn’t argue. Joseph didn’t say to the angel that going through with the marriage to Mary would cause too much chaos. He didn’t react in anger or even frustration when he was told that his future was going to be completely different than he had planned. Instead, Joseph takes everything he thought he knew about his future and threw it to the wind. He responds to the angel’s call with grace and faith. He takes Mary as his wife, offering her protection, offering the Christ-child protection. Offering to love and nurture Emmanuel – God with us.
The angel appeared to Joseph with news of change. News of disruption. News of an entirely different future than anyone could have possibly imagined. But the voice of that angel also brought Joseph a promise of something extraordinary. Joseph was able to hear that promise through all of the chaos that he was likely experiencing. Joseph was able to hear past the noise of the world, and the world’s expectations of him, and instead hear the voice of God calling out to him. Yes, everything would be different now and it will be hard. But, as the angel said to him, there was no reason to fear – God is with you.
The example of Joseph is one for us to lean on and even try to emulate as we approach our season of Christmas. Everything is different this year. And in a lot of ways everything is harder. In 2019 I couldn’t imagine anything more disruptive to the traditions of Christmas than a bat flying around the sanctuary. But now, I am trying to hear past the noise of the world and listen for the voice of God. The voice of that still-speaking God that is saying to us all: do not be afraid, God is with you.
Let us pray:
Gracious God help us to meet you as you come to us.
Help us to prepare your way in our lives,
and to announce your coming in love to others.
Take, O God, what we give and transform it, to your glory.
Take, O God, what we do and transform it to your acting.
Take, O God, what we say and transform it to your singing.
Take, O God, what we live and transform it to your creating.
Lord, hear our prayer….
Lord, hear too our prayer for those rough places in our lives
and in the lives of others that we name before you.
Fill the valleys with your light,
level the uneven paths with your grace,
and grant that your Spirit might so move us and others,
that your saving presence might be visible to all.
Lord, hear our prayer….
Lord, on this Sunday of preparation,
this Sunday which celebrates your love,
help there to be hope in our lives and peace in our churches,
and love in our world.
We pray all of this in the name of Jesus Christ who taught us to prayer together by saying…Our Father…