So who here this morning was glad to see the snow yesterday? Aw, bah humbug! But it was at least beautiful, wasn’t it? There’s something mesmerizing about watching those delicate snowflakes falling slowly toward the ground. It’s like time becomes visible for the slightest moment. And a hush, a stillness, seems to come over everything while the snow falls. If we’re lucky enough to be inside somewhere, looking out at the snow from a place that’s safe and warm, those moments just watching the beauty of the first snowfall are pure peace.
Of course, the hours—and maybe days, depending on the forecast—leading up to the first snow are probably not so peaceful. At the first mention of snow, we zoom around buying milk and bread and eggs, in case we are snowed in for weeks. In my lifetime, I’ve experienced only one snow that kept us housebound so long we actually ran out of milk—that was the blizzard of 1978, which hit when I was a sophomore in high school. I was lucky enough to be having a friend spend the night when the blizzard moved through, so several days after it passed we tried to make our way to the grocery, giant-stepping through thigh-high snow. We gave up after about a block and a half and went home. Milk didn’t sound that good anyway. There was not much to do but play Elton John records, watch Gilligan’s Island, and eat Totino’s pizza. And at 16, that was okay with us.
But whenever we humans face a challenge, we tend to throw a lot of energy at it, trying to make sure we have what we need, that we’re as prepared as we can be. This is true whether we’re facing a snowstorm or an unexpected challenge, like an illness or trouble at work, or concern about a loved one. Sometimes we can miss out on a sense of peace and security—the feeling that God has everything under control and is watching out for us—because we are scrambling around trying to take care of things ourselves.
It reminds me of a story of four young men who were new rabbis-in-training at the synagogue. They arrived for their first day full of excitement and enthusiasm. The old rabbi met them at the door, and told them their first task was to run ten times around the temple. Eagerly, the young men took off running in their rabbinical robes. Several minutes later, panting and exhausted, the young men straggled back to the front door, where the rabbi was waiting. “Now you can come into the temple,” he said. “You needed to get to the ends of yourselves before you would be ready to worship.”
Our Old Testament lesson arises out of just this sort of situation. King Ahaz was searching for security because Jerusalem was surrounded by hostile armies, and Isaiah went to him with a prophecy, telling him to turn toward God for safety, that God’s counsel alone could be trusted. But King Ahaz responds to Isaiah by saying, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” By choosing that phrase, Ahaz makes it sound as though he’s making a righteous choice. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” is from the book of Deuteronomy, which was written by Moses some 700 years before.
But the truth was that King Ahaz didn’t want to hear what God had to say to him, because he wanted to do things his own way. Isaiah says in frustration, “O, you weary mortals!” and tells King Ahaz about a sign from God that will show him that God is truly present in the here and now. And that’s where we hear the foretelling of Jesus’ birth: “the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel,” which means literally “God with us.”
He tells Ahaz that the child will have a divine wisdom beyond his years and that the two hostile kings with which Ahaz was so concerned would be long gone by then. He wanted King Ahaz to see that he was turning away from a relationship with the living, loving God to choose a temporary, short-sighted, and self-serving solution. Even though Isaiah had gone to him with a word from God—and he had trusted Isaiah in other things—in this situation he would not accept Isaiah’s counsel or God’s help. Ahaz could have chosen relationship, but instead, he chose to go it alone, to rely only on himself and the alliances he could build.
In our New Testament reading, we learn about what must have been a huge, re-orienting moment in Joseph’s life. We know from scripture that he was a good man, respected in his town, and considered to be ethical and law-abiding. He probably went about everything the right way—doing things in the right order would have been important to him. And suddenly he learned that his young bride-to-be is already with child—all his plans must have come crashing down in that one moment.
Imagine the emotions he would have felt—anger, betrayal, grief. He was probably also sad and hugely disappointed in Mary, who must have seemed like an amazing and light-filled young woman. His plans for their future were dashed. In the midst of all these emotions, he set about making plans to quietly dismiss her from their engagement, so she wouldn’t be publicly disgraced.
But then, a communication from God intervenes. This time is isn’t Isaiah the prophet, it is an angel who appears to Joseph in a dream. The angel says, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife,” and proceeds to explain God’s plan for the world through Jesus. We learn that unlike King Ahaz, Joseph took the counsel offered him in his time of need. He could have elected to stay angry and indignant and to defend his honor by refusing to claim the child that wasn’t his, but instead, he chose relationship over self, and became an important model of faith in God’s never-ending story.
Yesterday while I was making cookies for the candlelight service, I watched The Bishop’s Wife, an old black-and-white movie made back in 1947, starring David Niven as the bishop, Loretta Young as his wife, and Cary Grant as a somewhat odd and challenging angel Dudley. It’s a good story about a bishop who’s ego has gone into over-drive as he works on plans to build a huge cathedral. His wife is sad and lonely, missing the feeling of home she felt in the smaller, poorer parish they had previously served. Dudley is an angel who comes into the situation as an answer to the bishop’s prayer, when he asks for guidance. The bishop thinks he is praying for help in raising funds for his big cathedral, but instead, God provides the guidance he needs to rebuild his life and faith.
Over and over again, we see how relationship with Dudley—as the stand-in for God—brings grace, warmth, joy, and hope to the people he meets. First the bishop’s wife begins to feel less sad, more uplifted, thanks to the encouragement and support of the attentive angel. Then an old, atheistic professor who has suffered from writer’s block for a decade begins to write again—and believe again. Next they coerce their cab driver to go ice skating and wind up reigniting his hope in humanity. And in an important scene near the end of the movie, Dudley sees the pain and struggle a prickly elderly widow is holding inside, and that softens her heart, helping her share her grief and be released from its prison.
Each person lets themselves be changed by divine closeness, by relationship with God. Joy, new life, creativity, and deeper understanding come as a result. They are open to God’s ideas for them—what God sees, what God believes is possible. That’s grace, flowing into their circumstances and healing what hurts, removing whatever gets in their way of living a loving life.
Of course not everything goes quite so smoothly, and the bishop proves to be a more difficult case than the others (I won’t ruin the ending for you, if you haven’t seen it).
But ultimately this lovely Christmas movie is about what King Ahaz didn’t do and about what Joseph did do–choose relationship with God over going it alone. In a sweet and timely way, it takes us back to the real meaning of Christmas–Emmanuel, God with us, in the here and now. Even though we may get tripped up by our egos from time to time, building cathedrals or feeling self-righteous or doing all we can to prepare for the next 50-year blizzard, we can turn toward God in any moment we choose to listen, to be receptive, to wait for a sense of God’s leading. We may need to run around the meetinghouse a few times to get to the ends of ourselves, but the effort is worth it, because the relationship we’re choosing is the One that brings life, joy, peace, and light. Emmanuel, God with us. Amen.
- OT: Isaiah: 7:13-17 (p. 636)
- NT: Matthew 1: 18-25 (p. 1)