(The following meditation was offering at the Jazz Worship of Broadway Christian Church at Rocheport, Missouri on Saturday evening, January 18, 2014)
All’s Clear Timothy L. Carson Matthew 2:19-23 Jan 18, 2014
One of the things we gloss over in the Christmas story and its aftermath is peril. King Herod talks to visiting Magi about the birth of a rival king and then goes about liquidating the young males in Bethlehem to take care of the problem. The Magi return by a different route home to avoid him. The Holy Family flees to Egypt to avoid him. Joseph waits to come back home until after Herod dies to avoid him. The whole story is filled with peril and avoidance and dodging and weaving. Getting Jesus born is risky business. And as we discover getting out alive will be impossible.
I have been thinking a lot about all that dodging and weaving, the survival instinct laced with dreamy angel-filled intuitions. I can only conclude that we have sentimentalized and sterilized the Biblical story until it becomes a weak reflection of itself.
What we’ve omitted is one of the most important things, namely, the simple truth that If God is going to be doing anything it’s always in the context of a mess. And that’s because that’s how life really is and God comes to life in all its actuality, the way it is.
God comes in the middle of conflict, before the issues are settled, while chaos rules, when threats are real and people suffer and die. That’s where God is to be found, in the indescribable joy and perplexity of it all.
Let me give you an example. When Joseph perceives an “all clear” in an angel-filled dream he heads back to Israel from Egypt, but he can’t just return as though nothing has happened in the meantime. Herod may be dead but his successor is just as nasty. No, when he goes back he still has to find a new home to settle, ply his trade and raise his family. Nazareth gets the nod.
So even when a clearing is made it is not like you can return to business as usual; that’s not the case.
God might make a way for us in the wilderness but it’s not a way back to what was before. In fact there is nothing left of what was before, not as it really was.
Think about your life. Something happens and you have to go to Egypt. When the worst is over you can return to normal but normal isn’t really what it used to be. Some things have changed forever and other things take their place. And most importantly we have changed and when we return nothing can ever be the same. The truism “You can never go home” is literally true because home is unalterably changed because we have changed.
In Joseph’s case a new threat simply took the place of the old one. No, if he got a break it was just half of one, a half of a break; his homecoming required improvisation which is about all any of us can do on the way through life.
So here is the word of encouragement if you can call it that: In the same way that the world Jesus was born into was messy, so ours is, too.
In the same way that God wrote between the lines to fulfill sacred purposes, so God does now. Against all the odds Jesus got born into that kind of world and Jesus still gets born into this one. That is, there is still room for Jesus to make his way through the brambles to find a place in my life and yours, in this tangled world that is not always hospitable to the One who made it.
If you have ever read A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving you will remember the story of the strangest birth of the strangest person who brought the strangest truth to the strangest circumstances. Irving begins his story this way:
“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice. Not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God. I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”
The truth-telling Owen, with his creaky voice, waits for his destiny to appear, the moments for which he must have been born, and then, when no one else would do or could do he was there and ready.
And being there and being ready is the least and best we can do. If we are go move through this complex and beautiful and terrible world we can do so gracefully if we wait, if we ready ourselves for the next great opportunities of God, if stay nimble on our feet and dare to start over again and again. Joseph must find a new home, Nazareth, when he returns, and we must find a new home time and again for there’s no going home or at least to the one we remember.
For me it is a comforting thought that Joseph and Mary carried the young Jesus with them on this weave through peril to their next stop. We all know the peril never ends, especially for Jesus, but there is something consoling about that image of carrying the One who will later, in one way or another, carry us.
We don’t have to be the Magi or the Holy Family or Owen Meany in order to make the perilous journeys of faith. But we do need to borrow their courage, their persistence, and trust that to follow without knowing the end of the story is the story. That’s how God makes way through the peril of the world, not easily or directly, but around and through and in the mess that is not about to get any less messy.
And the end of the story is that they came to Nazareth and put down roots, at least as deeply as roots can be planted, until one day, after many years, a young man walked out of Nazareth and left his family behind. He was walking toward his destiny, too, one that continued the twists and turns his family had always known, avoiding the worst until at last the worst could no longer be avoided.
There finally came a time, like there comes times for you and me, when what must be faced can no longer be avoided, and when that time comes we pray for the grace to walk tall and prayerfully in the presence of one carrying us all along.