“Salvation Comes in Unexpected Packages”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
23 December, 2018
I have a brother who, as a young adolescent, went through a phase where he was embarrassed to be from Wisconsin. It was when the Dallas Cowboys were at the top of their game, and the Green Bay Packers weren’t. He used to say he was from Texas—though there’s no way he could possibly remember living there, because he’s a year younger than I am, and I have no recollections of life there. Although he was born in San Antonio during our dad’s medical internship in the Army, he was barely two years old when we moved to Wisconsin, where my dad is now buried and my mother still lives in the only house that any of us kids really remembers. (My brother now lives in Michigan, in the same city our maternal ancestors were from.)
I wonder whether Jesus ever felt a similar sort of embarrassment about being from Nazareth. If it weren’t for Jesus, Nazareth would have just about nothing to say for itself. A long, sideways-oval-shaped settlement nestled within some rather steep Galilean hills, it spanned about 650 feet from north to south and 2,000 feet from its east-to-west borders. In total, that’s about 30 acres, though based on archaeological evidence, as little as one-third of it was inhabited. When Jesus was growing up, there were probably about 400 people in the village. So, imagine a village about the size of the membership of this church living on a total of 10 acres of land, whose residents were observant Jews “clinging to traditional Jewish culture in a world that had been radically affected by Greek thought and culture.” Just over the hill, within walking distance, was Sephoris—the luxurious Greek-style capital of Herod Antipas. Situated as it was, about twelve miles southwest of the Sea of Galilee, Nazareth was essentially a nondescript dot on the map; no one in the world would have thought it was a locale that nurtured greatness. But it’s where Mary and Joseph had settled, and that’s where they raised their son.
It wasn’t Joseph’s or Mary’s decision to go to Bethlehem. That was determined by Emperor Augustus, when he set the rules for the census registration. So, despite the fact that Mary was fairly pregnant, the young couple was forced to make the 90-mile southward journey to the town of Joseph’s roots. One of his ancient ancestors included King David, and it would have mattered to the Emperor that Joseph and his wife be registered and counted in that place. It also served to fulfill what the prophet Micah had foretold hundreds of years earlier, when he proclaimed: “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” (Micah 5:2)
Although the child who would one day be called Savior, Son of God, Prince of Peace, was bornin Bethlehem, as surely as my brother is fromFond du Lac, WI, Jesus was fromNazareth in Galilee. And as John recounts in his gospel, Jesus’ own peers wondered, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
We know the story so well by now, it’s easy to forget or minimize what a scandal Mary would have been—especially to Joseph and his family. She was probably not much more than thirteen years old, and although they were engaged to be married, both their families knew they were still too young; they weren’t ready. In such a small town, everyone knew everyone else (and everyone else’s business—it was even smaller than Hollis!). Their families were poor, but like the rest of the community, they were devout Jews who respected tradition and took care of their relationship with God and with their neighbors.
I like to imagine that Joseph went to work building fine homes in Sephoris during the day, where he observed the worldliness of the more affluent culture, and returned home to humble Nazareth where he spent his spare hours building a modest home in which to live with this young woman he was learning to love. They would never be rich—but he’d seen the callousness worldly wealth could foster, and it wasn’t worth the trade-off in his mind. He figured that by staying in Nazareth, they could live modest lives and practice their Jewish faith quietly, beneath the radar and political turmoil that seemed to be ramping up everywhere, especially in larger metropolitan areas, as the Romans asserted more and more control in the region.
But all of a sudden, Joseph was faced with a crisis when Mary announced that she was expecting a child: How could this possibly be happening? She expected him to believe that she had been faithful to him—that she was innocent and pure, when he knew he had nothing whatsoever to do with creating the child she was carrying? What sort of madness was this?
And yet, Mary sang a lyrical song about God’s mercy, and the strength with which God was toppling the powerful in the world from their thrones, while filling the hungry with good things. He heard her conviction and awe when she said, “[M]y spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.”
Somewhere south of Nazareth, in the hilly Judean countryside, a couple called Elizabeth and Zechariah were going through a crisis both similar and different. Like Mary and Joseph, these two needed to adjust everything they understood about their lives, and about the profound mysteries of life more generally, because the unthinkable had also just happened to them. After years and years of trying to conceive—long after having given up on the idea of having a child of their own—Elizabeth discovered that, like her much younger cousin Mary, she was pregnant. The difference was, Elizabeth was far beyond normal childbearing years. Mary, on the other hand, was so young she may not even have been sat down yet for “The Talk”, much less recovered from that conversation. But both of them had accepted that God’s ways are not our ways, and they were learning that God loves the element of surprise. Both of them knew that the life in their wombs represented salvation, inconceivable as the notion was to either of them (to say nothing of the whole world!) prior to that moment. As they embraced, and listened to each other’s stories of how they had observed God at work in their respective universes of experience, they came to realize that salvation comes in unexpected packages. They also started to understand themselves in completely new ways; they began to comprehend that they themselves—yes, even they—could give birth to God’s salvation. Because salvation abides in the truth that, despite our brokenness and the many ways we disappoint ourselves, God, and others, we are nonetheless the beneficiaries of God’s unconditional love, redeemed from the messes we help to create, as well as the messes we just find ourselves in, in life.
In our scripture texts this morning, each character knows that the world needs a savior. They had been yearning for one—praying for God’s Messiah, the one who would help desperate people know that salvation is at hand, that God is with us. That peace, hope, joy, and unconditional love canbe known. That they were not alone, that God had stuck with them. They knew their need for a Savior. They longed for one—just as surely as you and I do.
They, as much as you or I, ached for release from captivity to the diminishing practices and messages of this world. Those things that enslave us to what othersmight think of us. That inhibit our ability to trust. That short-circuit our boldness to reach out with love and compassion, because we fear we might be hurt or embarrassed by unreciprocated love or compassion. Because we have not yet learned or trusted that ungrudging sacrifice is accompanied by untold blessings. Like generations before and after them (right on down to today), the characters and first audiences of our holy texts feared scarcity. They feared feeling forgotten or abandoned. They longed to be great, to feel important. To be cherished and adored. They, like you and I, wanted to know how to feel more fully alive and accompanied by the empowering presence of love, joy, peace, and hope—instead of constantly trying to deaden life’s pain with whatever our numbing agent or escape of choice winds up being.
What is salvation, if not liberation from the fears that plague us, the anxieties that unnerve us, and keep us from experiencing life’s wonder and grace?
The world—especially in this holiday season—will try to tell you that joy can be purchased. That peace can be delivered tied up with a bow. That hope can be placed beneath the Christmas tree. That love is commodifiable, able to be consigned to a neatly-wrapped parcel. And that our ability to share these things is limited to those whose names we know and whose experience of the world is harmonious with our own.
Certainly, the salvation we long for canbeglimpsedin our exchange of gifts. We get a tiny taste – an amuse bouche, if you like, of God’s great banquet of salvation – in this week of festivities, with the musical gifts we’re enjoying this morning, and the feasts of food and laughter at the gatherings we might participate in across the coming week.
But if all we’re enlivened by is the lovely lights, the ribbons and wrappings and material present exchanges, the fabulous but fleeting flavors of table food, or the festive merriment that fades as soon as others disperse, then we miss the deeper joy, peace, hope, and love—we miss the fullnessof salvation God is trying to deliver to us.
If our Christian story of divine incarnation is clear about anything, it’s that God refuses to be bound by human expectation: salvation can come to us, delivered by the most surprising people, arriving in the most unlikely of places. Salvation comes from godforsaken places like Wisconsin (if you’d asked my teenaged brother), or Nazareth. Sometimes, it arrives in the most humble of places, like a smelly cattle stall in Bethlehem—which, as the birthplace of King David, might have expected to receive the King of Kings in a place somewhat more grand. It might just arrive by way of a poor, scandalized worker like Joseph. Or, from an unwed teenaged mother like Mary. From a barren, resigned old woman like Elizabeth. Salvation comes in unexpected packages.
Friends, Christmas is coming—very soon! The One we’ve been hoping for, waiting for, watching for: our Savior is coming. Heaven and nature will sing along with the angels, just as they have for every generation since those shepherds were out in the fields watching their flocks by night. Our Savior, Christ the LORD, may not come exactly as you expect. So, keep watching. Wait with eager anticipation. Joy to the world . . . the Lord is coming! Amen.