When Life Is Not What You Planned
Matthew 1:18-25 December 22, 2019
Rev. David J. Clark
I was talking with someone the other day about Iowa’s iconic cultural attraction–the cow sculptured out of butter at the Iowa State Fair. People patiently stand in a long line under the hot August sun and sweltering humidity for their chance to walk by the window of a cooler to gaze upon the majesty of a life-sized cow sculpted out of butter. But there is more than just a cow in there, every year there is something else, a new creation. One year it was butter Neil Armstrong commemorating the moonwalk, another year a butter Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. I see you are trying to figure out how to get to Iowa in August. There was even a movie, called Butter inspired by the Iowa butter cow.
Several years ago, a Catholic church commissioned the butter sculptor, Sarah Pratt, to create a butter nativity scene. She thought it was a weird idea, but she lives on a teacher’s salary with four kids. She had fun in following a long artistic tradition of using the faces of family and friends as the models for the faces of the nativity characters. At first, she worried about keeping the sculpture outside, but you don’t have to worry about it melting in December. She finished the project and the congregation was very happy with all the attention it brought to the church. It turns out, however, that if it gets too cold unfortunate things happen to sculpted butter. Poor Joseph’s face froze and fell off so Sarah had to figure out how to help him save face.
Losing Face to Help Someone Save Face
And maybe it’s fitting that Joseph was the one to lose face, because in the Bible story, Joseph is the one who is willing to lose face to help Mary save face. I love the fact that before any angels show up, Joseph decides not to react out of bitterness and resentment when Mary turns up pregnant. Instead, he chooses to show mercy and dismiss Mary quietly. He doesn’t shame her or expose her for what must have seemed like a ridiculous story about how she wound up pregnant. Instead, he is willing to look like the jerk who abandoned the woman that everyone would assume he got pregnant. He decided against reacting out of his hurt. Instead of retaliation, he chose mercy.
Remember Joseph is the man who raised Jesus and had a huge impact on Jesus’ approach to life. Maybe when Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy,” Joseph was in the back of his mind. Maybe there was something of Joseph in him when he taught us to turn the other cheek and overcome evil with good and when he told the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you.” Maybe there was something of Joseph’s influence on the night Jesus was betrayed and he was in great anxiety and prayed, “Not my will but thine be done.” That enabled him to stand up for the dignity of so many faceless others.
I wonder if Sarah were to follow you around all week if she might be inspired to use your face as the model for Joseph’s face because you will have done something this week born out of grace and mercy rather than out of spite and hurt. Imagine your face sculpted in butter! Can you release the spirit of Joseph that is within your heart this Christmas?
Maybe you don’t have to win the argument this year at the family Christmas table. Maybe you just decide to give someone a break they didn’t deserve. Maybe you don’t have to bring up an embarrassing moment in someone’s past just because you think it’s funny. Maybe you don’t have to react out of your hurt by someone else’s slight, or hurtful behavior and take the high road instead of retaliating. Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy. The more you give mercy to others, the more you are able to give it to the person least likely to forgive you. Not God. God’s mercy has already been extended to you. I’m talking about you. Often the hardest person to forgive is yourself. When you are less critical of others you can learn to be less critical and unforgiving of yourself.
When Life Changes our Plans
In scripture, Joseph comes across as a supporting cast member. He doesn’t have much of a speaking part in children’s pageants and his posture in nativity sets usually resembles something like a question mark as if he’s asking, “How did I wind up here; this wasn’t my plan?”
Joseph reminds us that life seldom goes according to our plans so we have to find a way to deal with it. Consider what happened to Joseph’s plans. He probably envisioned a normal life, a long engagement, get married, throw a big party, wait for a while, have some kids, raise them to learn his trade. But then all of a sudden, Mary turns up pregnant. How could he believe her wild story? Why couldn’t she trust him enough to just tell the truth instead of fabricating some cockamamie story about angels and the savior of the world?
He devised a new plan: Plan B, a reasonable, sensible plan. He would break up with Mary but not in a way that disgraced her in the community where she could have been stoned to death.
An angel appears in a dream, saying, “Fear not.” The angel tells him to stay with Mary and to name the child Jesus. He will be called Emmanuel which means, “God with us.” Sometimes God interrupts our plans and offers us a dream instead. The kind of dream that says to us: Be less sensible. Take the risky way once in a while. Open yourself up to new things God may be doing in your life. Be like Joseph and Mary. Say yes to the things God would bring into your life that you didn’t plan for. Is there some good you can do that tugs at your heart but you don’t do because your plans don’t have time for it? Maybe you listen for God’s spirit coming from within and decide that the good you can do is more important than your plan right now. Sometimes we are so obsessed with our plans that we don’t leave room for what God would do.
Joseph left things open. He revised things. Okay. Plan C: get things ready in Nazareth for the birth. Use the old carpenter skills and make a nice crib for the baby. The census comes. Now he has to go to Bethlehem. Plan D: go to Bethlehem with Mary, who is ready to deliver at any minute; find a nice warm inn to stay in. No room? Plan E get to a manger. What, Herod wants to kill the baby? Go to Egypt. Plan F. Okay, Herod is no longer a threat, bring him back to Israel. Plan G.
As far as I can tell, Joseph never made a single plan that turned out the way he envisioned. That’s why I like him: it’s real life. We have our plans, but suddenly we find things going beyond our control. We start toward Nazareth, but find ourselves in Bethlehem. We start with one career path in mind and wind up somewhere else. We have a plan for what our family will be like and wind up with an altogether different configuration.
Since last Christmas, none of us planned on losing someone we could not afford to lose. None of us planned on getting laid-off. None of us planned on biopsies, bunions or betrayal. None of us planned on still struggling with the same addictions this Christmas as last year. None of us planned on having a family argument in the car on the way to church this morning. And none of us are planning on having one on the way home. But. . . .
Fear Not, God is With You
What happens? Life happens. Like Fred Craddock says, “If you’re going to have any joy, any purpose, any peace, you are going to have to put it together out of fragments, because you are not going to get twenty-four smooth hours in a row. It does not work that way. But the wonderful thing is that the Bible understands that…The Bible was not written by some relaxed person, all lathered up with sun-screen under an umbrella by the beach drinking lemonade. The Bible was written by people who had to put life together with short pieces of string.”
So much of our lives are beyond our control, what we would plan. Maybe in some ways that is not such a bad thing. It reminds us that we have to be open to the new things God would do in our lives. But whenever life happens to you in such a way, heed the Christmas angel, “Fear not.” God is with you even when your plans go awry. I believe that God doesn’t prevent the disruption of plans; God secures us from breaking apart when plans break down. And you just may find that some of life’s greatest experiences come from having to adjust when life does not turn out as planned.
Over and over people tell me the time of their biggest spiritual and personal growth spurts come at times when their lives got disrupted in some way. Try to see the opportunity for growth.
Plan on Changing Your Plans
I’m a planner. In October, I came up with plans for all the sermon series that will take us through July of next year. I like plans. It gives me a sense of calm of control over my life. Just knowing there is a plan calms my anxiety. So I get annoyed with a disruption in my plans. I even beat myself up for not anticipating the unexpected that that arose to disrupt my plans. That annoyance can ruin a whole day or week if I let it. The key is not to let it. To remember that my plans are not the end-all. I like the old phrase, “You want to make God laugh. Tell him your plans.”
I tell wedding couples that on the day of their wedding something will go wrong. There are just too many details. Usually, it is something small that no one will care about. Other times the mother of the bride throws up during the service. Whatever it is, just say, “O, there it is. Pastor Dave prepared us for this. We’re not going to let it ruin our day. People came because they love and support us and want to celebrate with us. They didn’t come for the decorations or whatever. We have love. Focus on that.” Couples have told me how helpful that warning was.
Sol let me share it with you. Christmas? There are a lot of details. Not everything will go according to plan. When it doesn’t. Just say, “Pastor Dave prepared me for this. It’s all his fault!”
Or. . . “Christmas is about more than my plans. The spirit of love is in my life. In the lives of everyone around me. I’m cared for beyond measure.
The message of this season is Emmanuel, “God with us.” Fear not. God is with you. Life isn’t what you planned. But so what! God is with you. And if you ask me, if you are going to have someone with you, it might as well be God — the one who has dominion over the heavens and earth, the one who makes everyday miracles, holding you with undying, love.
The message of the gospel is that no matter how fouled up our plans become, no matter how much our lives get messed up, God is still with us to help us to redeem any situation—even if we messed up our own lives. God always helps to fashion the new future out of the ashes of plans gone awry. The message of Christmas is that even this present moment can be redeemed.
I suppose that is what draws us here today. A chance for a fresh start, a new perspective, a little hope that things will go better. The failure of our plans doesn’t mean God is absent; or that we are failures. Rather it is an opportunity to remember that God is present in the messiness of real life.
This season is God’s lullaby. Like Joseph we find ourselves at the manger, wondering how we got here and seeing that our lives are part of something much larger that is unfolding that God is trying to do in this world. To spread light and love through your yesses.
Life happens. It does not always turn out as you planned. But so what? Hush. God is with you. As silent as the breath of a baby. May you feel that warmth in God’s gifts to us. May you be reminded of it in every decoration; twinkle light and Christmas carol you hear. May you be comforted by it all the days of your life, especially when they don’t go as planned. Fear not, God is with you. Fear not. God is with us and will give us dreams that surpass our meager plans. Amen.