Follow the Light

Follow the Light

Is it just me, or does Christmas get more complicated every year?  Online shopping has made that part of it easier for some, but there are lots of decisions to make, lots of complications to negotiate, lots of questions to answer:

  • Are we staying home, or do we go to Grandma’s?
  • What do I get my dad who has everything?
  • Do we decorate before Thanksgiving, or do we wait?  And if we wait, we’re going to be squeezed to get it done.
  • What if Aunt Martha can’t come?  What if Cousin Eddie can?
  • What are we going to feed these people?  How many are we feeding?  Where will sit everyone?  When am I going to find time to get to the grocery store?
  • How much are we going to spend?  And how do we keep from spending more than we plan?
  • What happens if dad starts talking politics over Christmas dinner?

Complicated.

There’s a reason why Yorgi Yorgessson’s 1949 song still gets airtime in 2017.  You know the song, right?  I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas.  Yorgi goes in hock to buy presents.  He wants to get his wife a pretty nightgown but doesn’t know her size, so he gets her a carpet-sweeper instead.  He seeks solace for his stress in a local bar and drinks too much.  He barely gets to sleep when his kids barge into his bedroom and yump on the belly and wake him up early.  His head is exploding, his mouth tastes like a pickle.  He steps on a skate and falls on a tricycle.  His family shows up.  His aunt and his wife’s Uncle Louie get into an argument around the dinner table.  Other relatives yoin in the fight that spills out into the yard and just as someone on the radio says, “Peace on earth, everybody; good will toward men,” one of the family slugs Uncle Ben.  No wonder at the end of the song Yorgi sings, “I’m glad Merry Christmas comes just once a year.”  Complicated.

Sort of makes you long for the easy, peaceful first Christmas, doesn’t it?  “Oh, if we could just have a Christmas like the first one when Jesus came into the world.”  Baby cooing.  Mama smiling.  Angels singing.  Shepherds worshiping.  Just makes you sigh and say, “Ahhhh.  Oh, for an uncomplicated Christmas.”

I hate to spoil your illusions here at Christmas time, but that first Christmas had more complications than trying to do open heart surgery with a mechanic’s tools in the back of a moving pickup on a bumpy road.  And it started with Mary’s simple response to the angel.  I invite you to open your Bible to Luke 1:38.  Here’s the backstory: God determined the time was right to send the long-awaited Messiah.  God determined to send his Son through the womb of a poor virgin Nazarene girl named Mary who was engaged to a working-class Nazarene carpenter named Joseph.  God dispatched the angel Gabriel to give Mary the news that she would conceive and give birth to the Son of the Most High God who would take the throne of David and rule over his people.  Mary had one question, a fair question: “How can this be since I have never been with a man? V

But no one’s life was complicated more than Jesus.  Leaving the glory and security of heaven, the Lord Jesus humbled himself, took on the form of a servant, became flesh, lived a full life among us, subjected himself to temptation and to evil and to the worst humankind could do to him.  And we humans did the worst: we crucified Jesus on the cross.  But this was God will.  Jesus became obedient to the Father even to the point of death on the cross so that he could die for our sins.  Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness and only the sinless blood of Jesus is potent enough to buy our forgiveness.  Jesus died for our sins.

But that was not the end of the story.  On the third day, Jesus rose from the dead, and God exalted him and his name above every other name, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow and tongue confess that he is Lord to the glory of God the Father.  But it was no easy road for Jesus to get there.  It was as complicated as it gets.  But he played his part.

All the Christmas characters did.  Complication was not the issue for them. God provided the light.  They followed the light they had: complicated or not.  And that’s all that mattered to them.

    Gabriel told her the Holy Spirit would overshadow her and God would make this happen because nothing is impossible with God.  Gabriel didn’t have to argue Mary into this.  He didn’t have to answer a hundred questions.  He didn’t have to deal with Mary’s excuses of why she wasn’t right for this job.  Centuries before, when God called Moses to lead Israel out of Egyptian slavery into the Promised Land, Moses had a bunch of excuses why God should get someone else to do that job.  None of that from Mary.  This is what she said.  Hear the word of the Lord … (read the text).

“I am the Lord’s servant,” said Mary.  “May it be to me according to your word.”  Then the angel left her.”

And so began the most complicated Christmas in the history of the world.  Because we know how it ends, we lose sight of how difficult this was for those involved.  This was no Hallmark card Christmas.  This was work and this was angst and this was gut-wrenching and this was people doing things way out of their comfort zones to respond to the light God gave each one to follow.

I

Consider Mary.  Pregnant without a husband and the husband to be knew he wasn’t the father.  Suspicious glares.  Whispers of “Harlot,” when she walked about town.  Her only defense a far-fetched story that nobody, including Joseph, believed: “Angel visitor … virgin conception … Son of God in my womb … assume the throne of David … reign forever.”  Yeah, right.  Joseph was on the verge of breaking things off.  Mary’s only respite: those months she spent with her pregnant, older, out-of-town cousin named Elizabeth.  And then when it came time for the birth, God said, “It’s got to be in Bethlehem.”  We’re talking a 70 mile or so journey on foot or on some beast of burden.  Complicated.  But God showed her enough light to follow, and she followed against hardship and opposition and criticism.  “I am the Lord’s servant.  May it be to me according to your word.”  That’s Mary.

II

Consider Joseph.  Don’t think he didn’t catch a lot of abuse over this too, not to mention a lot of unsolicited advice: “Dump the little harlot, man.  Be done with her.  There are plenty of fish in the sea—purer fish—far better than Mary.”  It was hard for Joseph.  He was a righteous man.  He loved Mary.  He wanted to do the right thing.  He thought the right thing under the circumstances of his fiancé carrying a child that wasn’t his, meant breaking things off.  He would do it quietly.  Minimize the embarrassment for Mary.  He had a good heart.  That was his plan.

But Matthew tells us that before Joseph could do the legalities he had to do to end the relationship, the angel of the Lord came to him in a dream, confirmed Mary’s story, told him to marry the girl, and when the baby came, he was to name him Jesus because Jesus would save his people from their sins.  When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel told him to do.  He made Mary his wife but had no sexual relations with her until the baby was born.

So God gave Joseph a little light on the matter.  Joseph followed the light.  And it didn’t make things easy for Joseph.  He had to bear the scorn of the community.  And he had to get a full-term wife all the way to Bethlehem in time for the birth.  Talk about pressure.  Did he worry about every false contraction Mary had on the journey?  Did he worry that he might not get her to Bethlehem in time?  Following the light God gave him complicated Joseph’s life considerably.  It would have been a lot easier to dump Mary, be a hero for works-based righteousness, and just keep on making tables, chairs, and cabinets for his clients.  Joseph didn’t use Mary’s words but he lived them: “I am the Lord’s servant.  May it be to me according to your word.”  That’s Joseph.

III

Consider the shepherds.  They were minding their own business outside Bethlehem, tending their flocks at night when an angel of the Lord showed up surrounded by the blinding light of God’s glory.  Scared the bejeebers out of them.  And changed their schedule on the spot.  “Go to Bethlehem and see this Savior who is Christ the Lord.  Go quickly.  Go now.”  

They were overwhelmed by all that glory, but there had to be at least one of them who was more practical.  There’s at least one in every crowd. “What will we do with the sheep?  What if they stray while we’re gone?  What will the owner do to us if we lose the flock?”  Leaving the sheep to go into Bethlehem in the dead of night was not as easy as it sounds, not as easy as it appears in your nativity scene at home.  There were calculations to be made, costs to be counted, risks to take.  But they took them.  They went.  I don’t know if anything happened to any of their sheep that night, but I’m pretty sure I can say this: not one of them ever regretted that decision for the rest of their lives.  God gave them some light.  They followed the light.  They didn’t use Mary’s words, but they lived them: “I am the Lord’s servant.  May it be to me according to your word.”  That’s the shepherds.

IV

Now consider the magi—Persian astrologers who noticed a new star in the sky.  With heightened expectations that something big was about to happen in the world, the Magi believed this to be the star announcing the birth of the King of the Jews.  They followed the star to Jerusalem where they inquired about this new king: “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?  We saw his star at its rising and have come to worship him.”  Talk about creating some buzz in Jerusalem.  King Herod was especially disturbed by the news.  He would tolerate no rivals to his throne.

The priests reported that the Scriptures predicted that the king would be born in Bethlehem.  Herod sent the magi to Bethlehem to do his dirty work for him: “You go worship him there, and then come back, give me his address, and I will go worship him too.”

The magi headed to Bethlehem.  They followed the light of the star until it settled over a house in Bethlehem where they found the child.  They gave him gifts.  They became the first Gentiles to worship Jesus.  And the night before they were to go back and report to Herod, God sent them a dream warning them not to return to Herod.  So they went home a different way.

They risked Herod’s wrath.  They expended much time and expense to make this journey and give these gifts.  But God gave them some light and they followed it.  They didn’t use Mary’s words.  They were not even Jews.  They probably worshiped numerous gods.  But in following the light God gave them, they lived Mary’s words: “I am the Lord’s servant.  May it be to me according to your word.”  That’s the magi.

Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the magi.  All of them followed the light they had.  It complicated their lives.  It complicated the first Christmas.

V

But no one’s life was complicated more than Jesus.  Leaving the glory and security of heaven, the Lord Jesus humbled himself, took on the form of a servant, became flesh, lived a full life among us, subjected himself to temptation and to evil and to the worst humankind could do to him.  And we humans did the worst: we crucified Jesus on the cross.  But this was God will.  Jesus became obedient to the Father even to the point of death on the cross so that he could die for our sins.  Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness and only the sinless blood of Jesus is potent enough to buy our forgiveness.  Jesus died for our sins.

But that was not the end of the story.  On the third day, Jesus rose from the dead, and God exalted him and his name above every other name, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow and tongue confess that he is Lord to the glory of God the Father.  But it was no easy road for Jesus to get there.  It was as complicated as it gets.  But he played his part.

All the Christmas characters did.  Complication was not the issue for them. God provided the light.  They followed the light they had, complicated or not.  And that’s all that mattered to them.

VI

Does that matter to you?  Are you more into Christmas or more into Christ?  Do you expend more energy getting your Christmas celebration together or getting your Christian discipleship together?  Both of those things will complicate your life.

  • Christmas can strain your nerves, break your budget, raise your blood pressure, wear you out, and then it’s done and all you’ve got to show for it are a few memories, some empty boxes, one more shirt or necklace or bottle of smell-good, a bunch of stuff to put back in the garage or the attic, and a challenge to try to make next Christmas bigger and better than this one.  Christmas can complicate your life.
  • Following Jesus will complicate your life too.  He will call you to do things that are hard for you, things that don’t always make much sense to you, things that will challenge you to the limit of any capacities you may have.  He will call you to love your enemies, forgive those who hurt you, put his kingdom and other people ahead of yourself.  He will call you to generosity, to gospel-sharing, and to 100% commitment.  He may send you places you don’t want to go to do things you don’t think you can do.

Following Jesus will complicate your life far more than Christmas.  Christmas is once a year.  Following Jesus is 24/7/365 for a lifetime.  Enjoy Christmas for sure, but let your life be complicated over things that matter and things that last.  And that begins when you can join Mary and the other first Christmas characters in saying and living these words: “I am the Lord’s servant.  May it be to me according to your word.”

Arthur Rutledge tells about an old timber man who always took his lunch pail to work.  He would set the pail down by a tree and tell his old dog to guard it until lunchtime.  One day, while the crew was working some distance from the camp, a flash fire broke out between the men and the camp.  They worked to extinguish the fire and made it back to what was left of the camp—a ravaged, smoking nightmare.  The old man went over and knelt by the remains of his faithful dog.  Tears poured down his leathery cheeks, and he said, “I always had to be careful what I told him to do, ‘cause I knowed he’d do it.”

Follow the light God gives you, complicated or not, so that God can say the same thing over you.

Preached: December 17, 2017

First Baptist Church, Hot Springs, AR

John Scott McCallum II