There is a comedian, Jon Reep, who says that you can say anything you want about anyone…as long as you follow it up with, “Bless your heart!” You know- “You are dumber than a bag of hammers…bless your heart!”
Last Sunday afternoon, my wife and I drove from our home in northwestern Illinois to the St. Louis, MO area in anticipation of two days of medical tests and doctor’s visits to see how I am doing- 1½ years after having a golf ball-sized tumor removed from my head. Monday went swimmingly- a “perfect” (my blood work) and an “amazing” (my recovery from facial paralysis) from the oncologist and another “amazing” (again, the face) and a “normal” (how my inner ear looks) from the otolaryngologist- the ear, nose and throat doctor. It went swimmingly, that is, until about 3:30PM. That was when I got a call from my neurosurgeon’s office. I was due for a CT scan and an MRI Tuesday morning, followed by a visit with him to get the results of those tests- definitive proof as to whether or not the tumor is still gone. They called to tell me that my insurance company hadn’t yet approved the tests I was due to have in about 18 hours…bless their hearts! And at about 8:30 Tuesday morning, as we sat in the drive-thru at Hardee’s waiting for our coffee, I got the call- the tests were NOT going to happen! After a year wait and a 3½ hour…the tests were NOT going to happen! Not gonna lie- it was disappointing.
BUT, in the midst of the frustration and disappointment, we got…The Opportunity. Monday evening, we found out that two of my mom’s 3 surviving sisters were in town and going to Steak n Shake for dinner. So we got to see them- we hadn’t seen them in a long time. Then, Tuesday, after our plans were…squashed…we spent the morning visiting my mom’s one surviving brother and his wife, whom we hadn’t seen for a long time. After lunch with my brother, we spent the afternoon visiting with a couple we have known…forever and haven’t seen in a LONG time. On the way home, I turned to my wife and I said, “Well, that was NOT the day I had planned. But apparently it WAS the day God had planned!” In the midst of uncertainty and difficulty, I was given…an opportunity. Sometimes, the best outcomes grow out of the most unlikely sources.
Today is the first Sunday in Advent- the season leading up to Christmas. The word “Advent” comes from the Latin word “Adventus” and it literally means “coming” or “arrival.” So during the 4 weeks leading up to Christmas, we focus on the coming and then the arrival of Jesus- Emmanuel- God with us- The Greatest Gift of All. This year, we will walk the journey Mary and Joseph walked as they traveled to Bethlehem and drew closer and closer to the arrival of a baby in a manger Who would literally split time in half…and change the world.
If you remember, Mary was visited by an angel who told her that not only was she pregnant- she was carrying God’s Son. And Joseph, who was about to quietly divorce Mary for being pregnant, was ALSO visited by an angel, who told him that everything would be OK. And then…we fast forward to the singular event that sets this whole “last act” in motion. Sometimes, the best outcomes grow out of the most unlikely sources.
Luke 2:1-5 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. It was the first time a list was made of the people while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.
A woman lost her purse in the bustle of Christmas shopping. It was found by an honest little boy who returned to her. She looked in her wallet and then said, “That’s funny. When I lost my purse, there was a $20 bill in it. Now there are twenty $1 bills.” The boy nodded and replied, “That’s right, lady. The last time I found a woman’s purse, she didn’t have any change for a reward!”
So, let’s spend a few moments on the “back story” to this pilgrimage to Bethlehem. You’ve got two major players mentioned in this passage- King Herod the Great and Quirinius. Let’s see who they are and how they fit in.
In 63 BC, the Roman general Pompey sacked Jerusalem- the famed and fabled city was now under complete Roman rule. By the time the 1st century BC was drawing closer to the end, the Romans had placed the area under the control of King Herod the Great. It’s important to understand that, as powerful as Herod was, he was still what’s known as a client king- a puppet of the Roman Empire. He was, fully and clearly, under Roman rule and was therefore completely subject to orders from Rome…including the ordering of a census. So Herod the Great could be relied on by Rome to serve their interests. Sometimes, the best outcomes grow out of the most unlikely sources.
That’s Herod the Great. Then we have Quirinius. In some translations, Luke 2:2, which is the information about Quirinius, is in parentheses and is presented as not being important at all. Who was he? Quirinius was the governor of Roman Syria, appointed to that position because he had distinguished himself well as a soldier in Roman-held North Africa. Then, in 12 BC, he was made Consul of Judea and was sent there to, among other things, to carry out a census for tax purposes.
Census-taking was quite common in the Ancient Near Eastern world- they seem to have taken place every fourteen years. The date of this specific taxation recounted by Luke could well have been in 5BC, which is one of the reasons that many scholars think that Jesus was actually born a few years before the spot where we see the split between BC and AD. This census was carried out using the Jewish method- each going to their own city- rather than the Roman method. This would have been to try and placate the locals who were under Roman rule- to help maintain order.
In these 5 short verses, Luke established some very important points.
1. He helps us understand the political situation of the time and place- why Jesus’ birth took place in Bethlehem.
2. He let’s us know for sure that Bethlehem was the town of David- supporting Jesus’ claim of being the Messiah. And
3. he establishes the humble circumstances of Jesus’ birth.
So this is a story about a couple being forced to travel for three days, WHILE the woman is “great with child”, in order to satisfy the whims of a powerful empire and their despotic local ruler. A simple Galilean peasant travels to Bethlehem at the decree of the Roman emperor. Easy, peasy, one, two, threesy.
At least, that’s the “lower story” explanation for this event. But regardless of what Rome and/or King Herod think, there is SO much more to this tale. Actually, it is the fulfillment of the divine King’s plan. The “upper story” is that God orchestrated the entire event specifically to enter the world and be a more direct presence in the lives of His people. This was NOT simply an historical event that can be verified and explained. This is…an opportunity. This is an opportunity for all the right elements, in both Heaven and earth, to come together for this one, singular, miraculous event. This is an opportunity for God to break into time and space and…change everything. This is an opportunity for the infinite and the finite to collide and be melded together in a way that can, thankfully, never be undone. Sometimes, the best outcomes grow out of the most unlikely sources.
So, it’s clear that Luke, our Gospel writer of the day, wants to establish both the historical and chronological anchors of Jesus’ birth. There are definitely some “nuts and bolts” here. But it is also clear that he offers a much deeper understanding of the events that simply that. This is the “stage setting” for the greatest story ever told. This is the beginning of the singular moment that will literally split time in half. This is…The Opportunity.
John Wesley is the founder of United Methodism. He had a theoretical structure for for reflecting on and understanding his faith that has become known as The Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Obviously, the “quad” in the word “quadrilateral” points to there being four parts…and there are. They are Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience. But I had a seminary professor who talked about this structure as, instead of a 4-legged table, a 3-legged stool. The idea is that the legs of the stool are Tradition, Reason and Experience- equal parts, all supports the whole. But the SEAT of the stool, capping the whole structure off and serving as the “glue” that binds the whole thing together, is Scripture.
So in that model, we are to let Tradition, Reason and Experience equally inform us on how to understand something. Tradition- what does history have to say that informs me? Reason- what makes logical, reasonable sense to me? And Experience- what do the things that I have actually done tell me? And we are supposed to weigh all of those against, or sift them through, Scripture- what does God’s Word tell me?
When I apply Wesley’s “3-legged stool” to today’s topic, I come to a specific conclusion. When I intentionally consider Tradition, Reason and Experience and then filter those three through Scripture, I am convinced that God is squarely in The Opportunity business. God provides opportunities to us…on a regular basis. Of that I have no doubt. The question is what we DO with those opportunities.
Think about the opportunities that God provides. He provides people with the opportunity to do all kinds of things. There are those opportunities that are physical- opportunities to walk away from addictions, to improve our physical health. There are those opportunities that are relational- opportunities to mend previously broken relationships, to build new, healthy relationships. There are those opportunities that are spiritual- opportunities to grow in your relationship with God, to step out in faith and get more involved in ministries that reach farther and deeper…helping connect more and more people to Jesus Christ.
Again, today’s passage reminds us that God is very much in The Opportunity business. And I am absolutely convinced that He is offering us an opportunity that isn’t offered very often…or at least not accepted very often. We have been given the opportunity to do things here at this church that most United Methodist churches only dream of. For example, we are, as of early November, absolutely current with our bills- even our obligations to the conference are current. And if you have been a United Methodist for very long at all, you are QUITE familiar with having a special “March to the Manger” offering in December just to try and pay off “conference claims” before the end of the year. I remember years in the ministry where I was on vacation the week between Christmas and New Year’s, visiting family in southern Illinois, holding my breath, waiting for the email that would tell me whether or not we got enough money on the last Sunday of the year to get out of the red. This year, as long as the offerings in December continue as they have, we will end the year in the black without having to ask for extra money. If that doesn’t seem like much to you, let me assure you…it is!
And that’s just a symptom of what’s going on around here. More than 50% of all the United Methodist Churches will end this year with not one new member. We will end the year with somewhere around 25 new members. More than 50% of all United Methodist Churches will have not one baptism this year, while the average, nation-wide is under 3 baptisms/year. We will end the year with 8 baptisms. The average United Methodist Church will average 88 people/week in worship attendance this year. We will close the year right at a weekly average of 250. The average United Methodist Church will end this year with an average of 10 people…10 people,,,in some form of Christian Education each week. We will end the year with an average of 125/week. Sometimes, the best outcomes grow out of the most unlikely sources.
God is moving in powerful ways here. I pray that you can feel it, sense it, see it. I sure can. And I, for one, am in NO hurry to see it end. I don’t know about you, but it simply doesn’t get much better than seeing more and more people being reached for Jesus Christ. If we were doing all of this simply to pad our numbers or be able to brag to other churches…we would be absolutely missing the point. But…we aren’t. We are fully committed to connecting people to Jesus Christ. That is the yardstick by which we measure everything we do here.
My wife and I were given The Opportunity on Tuesday…one we didn’t see coming. Mary and Joseph were given The Opportunity…one they didn’t see coming. We have been given…The Opportunity…one we didn’t see coming. But now that we are in the middle of it, it is clear. And as we move through this Christmas season to the end of the year and into a new year, I for one can hardly wait to see what God has in store for us in 2016! Sometimes, the best outcomes grow out of the most unlikely sources.