Isaiah 7:14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Emmanuel.
Growing up, Sunday television was dominated by Walt Disney. Starting in 1961- the year I was born, which makes me either young or old, depending on your perspective- it was called Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, focusing on NBC’s ability to broadcast in color. That version continued until 1968, when it became The Wonderful World of Disney, because color TV wasn’t any big deal anymore.
Every Sunday evening as I grew up, “Uncle Walt” came right into my family room and introduced a story that not only entertained me- it helped me better understand the world in some way. From animated classics featuring Mickey, Goofy and the rest through live-action movies like The Parent Trap all the way to nature-oriented programming like True-Life Adventures, Uncle Walt was “must-see” television when I was a kid.
Today is the first day of Advent- the 4-Sunday season leading up to Christmas. Advent is a time of waiting and preparation. We wait for the coming of Emmanuel- God with us- and we prepare for that coming while we wait. Our District Superintendent says that we only have ONE story…and we have to find 52 different ways to tell it. And that is NEVER more true than during the Christmas season. The Christmas story is well-known, to say the least. So well known, in fact, that it easily becomes like an old shoe- comfortable but not terribly functional.
So with that in mind, this Christmas season we’re going to take a nostalgic look BACK that will help us take a dramatic look forward. Each week of the Christmas season, our Advent sermon series- A Very Disney Christmas- will meld together three somewhat unusual pieces: 1. a portion of the Christmas story as found in the Gospels, 2. Old Testament prophecy about the coming of the Messiah and, of all things, 3. a classic Disney song that helps inform the theme for the day.
Today, we gather up Sherman and Mr. Peabody, hop in the Way Back Machine and head all the way back to February 5, 1953- the day that the animated classic Peter Pan was released. We will look at the song You Can Fly and focus on the fact that being open to God’s new plan can bring about great spiritual growth.
If you remember the story, Peter shows up at the home of the Darlings. He encourages Wendy, Michael and John to go with him back to Neverland. But first, he has to convince them that they can, in fact, fly.
“Think of a wonderful thought. Think of the happiest things. There’s a Never Land waiting for you, where all your happy dreams come true. When there’s a smile in your heart, there’s no better time to start. Think of all the joy you’ll find
when you leave the world behind and bid your cares goodbye. You can fly!”
Now, I will be the first to admit that, on the surface, that is simply a collection of feel-good thoughts that rank right up there with kittens and moonbeams. But if you dig beneath the surface, you find some pretty profound thoughts. Positive attitude. Focusing on the right things. Keeping joy in your heart. Looking toward the promise of a better place waiting for you. If you can do all of those things…you can fly. Let’s look at today’s Gospel reading.
Matthew 1:18-25 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Emmanuel” (which means “God with us”). When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
Advent is all about waiting. Traditional Jewish marriage in Jesus’ time was also about waiting. The marriage customs of the Ancient Near Eastern world included a one-year waiting period, the engagement, which preceded the actual wedding ceremony. It was intended to test the faithfulness and purity of the bride. If she remained pure, the groom would lead her back to his house at the culmination of that year to live as husband and wife. If, however, she became pregnant, the marriage could…would…be annulled. Mary and Joseph were in the middle of that one-year waiting period when the unthinkable happened- Mary became pregnant.
Put yourself in Joseph’s position. He has worked HARD preparing to support his new bride. He loves Mary, and he THINKS she loves him, too. That is, until the news comes…she’s pregnant. Heart-broken, he wonders how to respond. He imagines all sorts of responses. “How could you do this to me? Who’s the father? Tell me his name!” Should he humiliate her with a messy public divorce? Should he follow the law and turn her over to death by stoning?
And then, there’s her explanation- hard to believe at best. Joseph is between a rock and a hard place. He has some hard choices to make. But he chooses the path of mercy. And notice- he does that BEFORE he is convinced of the truth. In the midst of devastation and shame, Joseph chooses the path of mercy. No malice. No humiliation. No accusations. Just tenderness. The Nazareth rumor mill is in full
swing, but Joseph isn’t going to toss Mary under the proverbial bus, no matter what she may or may not have done. He chooses to divorce her quietly, instead of having to go before a judge.
And then…the angel comes, in a dream. And God’s incredible, scandalous, world-altering plan is fully revealed to Joseph. The angel assures Joseph it’s OK- all is well, Mary’s baby isn’t of man, but of God. And then…it’s over- the angel is gone. As soon as Joseph wakes up, he obeys. He violates all the customs of his day, bypasses the one-year waiting period, immediately takes Mary into his home, and begins to care for her as they prepare for the birth.
There are 4 parts to this story, and each part has something to say about how we respond to hard times and difficult choices. The story begins with Great Expectations. “Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph”. It was the best of times. Then, quickly, it switches to Great Disappointment. “But before they came together, she was found to be with child.” We don’t know when or how Joseph found out, but he knew. It was the worst of times. It was hard times. And he was deeply disappointed.
Then the story shifts to Great Joy. “Joseph, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and he will save his people from their sins.” Joseph’s joy knows no bounds. Life is real. Life is earnest. Once Joseph understands the truth, the story moves to Great Obedience.
Busybodies lined every street corner of Nazareth, all of them watching Mary and Joseph walk by. Mary was 7 months pregnant…and they could do the math. Joseph tried to explain, “An angel told me the baby is God’s.” “Sure, Joseph- I believe you! And I have a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you, too!” After a while, he stopped trying to convince them. But despite what anybody thought or said, Joseph remained obedient to God. He flew.
A person’s true character comes out under stressful times, which can either be moments of growth or devastation…or both. In this story, we see Joseph’s true character. He counts the cost of discipleship, faces the hard times, and makes the difficult choice. What will it cost him to respond to Mary in a Godly way? Joseph thought he would marry the girl, settle down and live the quiet life of a carpenter in Nazareth. He was hardly seeking greatness– he surely didn’t imagine we’d be sitting here 2000 years later talking about him. But he gave up HIS plans to instead become the earthly father of the Son of God! Joseph may have given up a
lot, but look how richly he was blessed! He was flying.
Sometimes we have to decide whether or not we’re ready and willing to pay the price– to live with the consequences of the choices we make. If we want to live Godly lives, we have to be able to cooperate with God’s plans and purposes. Are we willing to settle for second best only because we’re unwilling to submit to God and immerse ourselves in THE best? Or are we ready to fly?
What do you live for? Is it worthwhile? There are a LOT of folks out there who aren’t really living—they’re simply existing. Punching the clock, literally and/or figuratively, going through the motions, limping through their days, waiting. Waiting for Friday. Waiting for the weekend. Waiting for vacation. Waiting for retirement. That’s NOT living. That’s treading water. God made us for SO much more than treading water.
You CAN make a difference. And you don’t have to go anywhere to do it. You don’t have to quit your job. You can make a difference right here and you have PLENTY of non-work time in which to do it. It all comes down to what you do with your time, what’s important to you. Your church has SO many ministries in place that have LOTS of room for more people to dive in, rolls up their sleeves and get busy. And on top of that, there is LOTS of room for even more ministries. What new idea has God planted in your heart?
There is ONE thing holding us back from being a major force for God in Northern Illinois. It’ not money. It’s not this building. It’s manpower. What’s keeping you from stepping out in faith and fully committing yourself to being involved in what God is doing here? What is it that holds you back from more than Sunday morning attendance? What is it that you are doing that is more important than what God has in mind for you? I can only speak for myself, but the second…the SECOND…I admitted that NOTHING I was doing was more important than what God had for me…my life…and my joy…took off in directions I could have never imagined.
Do you make a real difference in the world? If the answer is, “No”, then the next question is, “Do you WANT to?” Do you want a life that matters? Do you want to help change the world? Then take Joseph’s lead and be a part of something greater than you. Take a leap of faith and see if you can fly.
Isaiah 9:6-7 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.