I usually don't post my sermons here, because I believe that sermons are always written with a particular congregation in mind, and the congregation I serve is quite different from the group gathered here at Jake's place. But, as Christmas approaches, it seems appropriate to transition from a focus on news about the Episcopal Church to some thoughts more relevant to the season. As it is late, and I'm not inclined to write another sermon, the one for the Fourth Sunday of Advent that I've already prepared will have to do double duty:
It’s almost Christmas, but not quite yet. On this fourth Sunday of Advent, we have to set aside our knowledge of how the story turns out, if we are to appreciate the situation in which Mary and Joseph find themselves in this morning’s Gospel.
This young couple have just become engaged, when they discover that Mary is with child. Uh-oh. Joseph decides to call off the wedding, in an attempt to limit the public disgrace. But then an angel appears to him in a dream, and tells him it’s ok…that the child to be born will be a Savior.
You have to give Joseph some credit here. Angel or no angel, I’m not so sure I would have stayed by Mary’s side in that situation. But Joseph does. Their lives, of course, are turned upside down. Their dreams of a quiet life in Nazareth just flew out the window. Why? Because God had a better plan. And by being faithful to God’s leading, they were deeply blessed.
Sometimes I think that we are all inclined to give up a little too quickly. We think we are following God’s will, but things don’t go as we thought they would, and so we decide the whole idea was a mistake. Maybe we heard God wrong. And sometimes, I think we give up just before the miracle. Because it just might be that it isn’t a case of miscommunication with God, but more a matter of God’s vision being bigger than ours. Sometimes, even when we don’t understand why things seem to be falling apart all around us, we have to place our faith in God. Because maybe God has a better plan.
We can see this throughout history. When the Germanic hordes exploded out of Eastern Europe, and sacked Rome, the center of Christianity, many thought that the Christian tradition was doomed to extinction. Even St. Augustine of Hippo, that great Doctor of the Church, struggled to understand how such an awful thing could happen, which moved him to write “The City of God,” in which he emphasized that our faith must not be placed in things temporal, but in things spiritual, which will endure any kind of attack. In the end, the Vandals and the Visigoths did not destroy Christianity, even though they could have. Why? Because God had a better plan.
During the Reformation, the unity of the Christian faith seemed doomed as more and more groups broke away to do their own thing. Wars were fought between some of these groups. It did not seem possible that Christendom could survive this terrible time. But we did. Why? Because God had a better plan.
In this country, after the Revolutionary War, there was some question if the Christian tradition known as Anglicanism would survive. The Anglican clergy, as part of the Church of England, were required to offer prayers for the King of England. Quite a few of these clergy, who became identified as Tories, British sympathizers, had to hightail it to Canada or back to England, in fear for their lives. A few of the Anglican clergy decided to pray for the Continental Congress instead of the King, so they survived. But by the end of that war, the number of Anglican clergy had been greatly reduced, and we had no Bishops, and little hope of getting the English to cooperate in consecrating one for us. Anglicanism in America seemed doomed. But God had a better plan.
During the Civil War, entire dioceses broke away from the Episcopal Church, forming the Confederate Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church never recognized the Confederate Church, and continued to list the bishops of those dioceses on their rolls. At every General Convention during that war, when roll was taken, the Confederate bishops were simply marked as absent. It appeared that there was a good chance that war would not only dramatically change the makeup of our nation, but also of the Episcopal Church. But after the end of the war, all the Confederate bishops returned, and were seated in our House of Bishops once again, with little said about the matter. That terrible war did not destroy our nation, or our Church. Why? Because God had a better plan.
Some years ago, while I was rector of a parish in California, I went through a very difficult time in my personal life. I resigned my position, and went to work as the program director of a homeless shelter. I had no intention of ever returning to the ordained ministry. Yet here I stand before you today. Why? Because God had a better plan.
In 2005, a little church over on Green Street got this idea about how we might expand our ministry by moving a few blocks to a former Roman Catholic Church. This crazy idea met quite a bit of resistance from the Diocese, with whom we needed to partner in order to make this dream a reality. Just before Christmas, about this time two years ago, we got our answer from the Diocese. And the answer was no. But we didn’t give up. We had faith that this was God’s will for our congregation. And here we are. Why didn’t we just give up? Because we were convinced that God had a better plan.
When you hear all the predictions from the pundits about the decline of Christianity, and the demise of the Episcopal Church, take them with a grain of salt. The experts have been wrong before. And I believe they are wrong now. Things are getting shaken up in the Church right now. There’s little doubt of that. But I place my faith in the living God. And I believe God has a better plan, that most likely no human has even dreamed of yet.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote these words:
And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.
Mary and Joseph loved God. They were called to serve God’s purpose. And they were faithful to that call, even when it seemed that there was little hope of things working out for the good.
May we not be discouraged when we hear the messages all around us forecasting gloom and doom. If we love God, and faithfully seek to live our lives according to God’s purposes, all things will work together for good, because God has a better plan.