Faith in Hard Places: A New Normal
First Baptist Church
Sunday, January 20, 2019
Several years ago I went to an annual clearance sale that one of my favorite clothing stores was having. The prices were unbelievable which meant there were some great bargains to be had. Yet, it was one of those experiences where a lot of the day felt out of my control. What I mean by that is that while I certainly had control of what I liked and what I didn’t care for as well as what I bought and what I didn’t buy, it wasn’t as if they had their full catalogue available. It was one of those clearance sales where they had a favorite style of shirt but only in light green. Or, they had a terrific pair of shoes on sale but only in three sizes. My favorite of the day was a table of watches for sale. They were priced at 25% or less of the normal price, but, all of them were watches that had been engraved with names or initials of other people on the back and yet never picked up. So, you could get a great watch that was brand new at an amazing savings but it came with someone else’s name.
That day was a great reminder of how life often work. We talk as though life is completely in our control. But, lets be honest. Life is rarely completely in our control. Like being offered limited selections, we are often offered limited selections as it relates to our health, our family, our work or our living situation. Life is not always completely the result of our decisions.
But, to swing to far the other way and to say we have no control is not accurate either. Instead, how we respond to and what we choose to do with those moments where life feels somewhat decided for us often separates those of us who find a way to have joy in life from those of us who do not.
Chapter 2 of Matthew, finds Joseph and Mary having to navigate a similar set of circumstances. In some ways, we insinuated last week that the decision to go to Egypt was totally their choice as hard as it was to make. But, that is not really true. In truth, much of that choice was forced on them and dictated to them by the fact that Herod was King of Judah and that Herod was paranoid. Of course, they could have stayed in Judah and taken their chances on Jesus surviving and they also had the choice to go to Egypt which is what they finally decided to do. So, yes, they had a choice. But, it was a limited choice and the limitations came from their particular life circumstances that were outside of their personal control.
As Chapter 2 comes to a close in verses 19 through 23, Joseph and Mary get word that Herod has now died and that it is at least somewhat safe for them to return Israel from Egypt. Again, they have another choice to make but once more it is somewhat limited. They indeed have the choice to remain in Egypt or to go back to Israel as God invites them to do. And, they also have the choice to go back to the area of Judah where Bethlehem was located and where Jesus was born. Or, they could go to Nazareth in Galilee which was apparently where they were from. But, these choices too were also dictated by things outside their control.
In both areas, one of Herod’s three sons had been installed as the leader. When Herod died, the territory he ruled was divided among his three sons and as it related to the two sons of Herod who controlled Judah and Galilee, neither of them were great. Yet, the one who now controlled the region of Galilee, which is to say northern Israel, where Nazareth is located, seemed to be the lesser of the two evils. In turn, Joseph and Mary chose to return to Nazareth and to settle there back among family, back in their own environment, back home. This was the choice they made, but, in all honesty it wasn’t much of a choice.
The point I want to make is this: while Joseph, Mary and Jesus returned to Israel and it was a good thing which likely led them to relieved and happy; it wasn’t perfect nor was life just like it had been before when they had lived there as younger people and as an engaged couple. Nazareth may have felt normal in many ways, but, I am sure it also felt different and thus like a new normal.
Much of life is about these two things. Much of life is how we responded to limited choices that are often dictated by things that are out of our control and it is also about what we do with these new normals which again is a way of describing times when life looks and feels somewhat like it once did but when we clearly know that things are not exactly as they once were.
When this is our lot, I think there are two ways we honor God and live life well. I also believe these are the things that Joseph and Mary did or at least attempted to do. First, we live in these days of limited choices and new normals by actively trusting God in them. That sounds like a general statement “to actively trust God”. But, I mean something very specific here. First, by the word active, I mean that we need to jump into or back into life. Too often when life seems to be being decided for us and when we have to return to a world and day where things are the same but different, our temptation is to disengage, to withdraw, to become inactive.
I see this all of the time. Our health isn’t what it once was, our spouse is no longer there, we are living in light of a particularly bad moral decision – life has to go on, but, we don’t want to be a part of it anymore for life is now different. So, we cope by withdrawing. Yet, while natural, this doesn’t solve anything.
I am not saying that engaging and jumping back into life in these moments is easy. It is not. But, I am saying it is best for the quicker we begin to live life again, to adjust and figure out how to make a go in this new world, the better we will be. We do so, trusting God every step of the way which is to say trusting that God is with us, trusting that God will surround us with good people and good friends in the midst of the hard days and trusting that God will get us through.
Simplistically speaking, this is what I see Joseph and Mary did. They don’t stay in Egypt, they come home. They don’t hide for fear of Herod’s son finding them, they return to normal life. They don’t shelter Jesus in spite of the worries I am sure they had. They reengage albeit in a very different time in their lives and they trust that God the Father is with them and guiding them.
There is a book out that is popular in leadership circles these days called Canoeing The Mountains. It is about the importance of making unexpected adjustments as leaders. The title comes from a moment in the Lewis & Clark Expedition when the group reached the Continental Divide on the Missouri River. At that moment, everything they expected to find, everything the experts said they would find and everything that they were prepared to find turned out to be wrong. They expected to find the Missouri at this highest point becoming a gentle downward sloping river that they would simply glide down all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Instead, what they found were more peaks in front of them and an equally treacherous river to traverse. In that moment, when the unexpected came which severely constricted their options, they had two choices. They could dismiss what was there and give up or they could take things as they were, make adjustments and jump in. (Canoeing The Mountains, Tod Bolsinger, 2018, pg. 25-28)
This is our ongoing dilemma. Life is going to give us the unexpected. Life is going to limit our choices. Life is going to give us new normals. Will we abandon the journey and turn inward or will we embrace the new normal and jump in? God invites us to do that by living out an active and engaged life with faith in his presence and companionship each step of the way.
There is also one more thing here. The other thing I think we do in these moments is to serve God by serving others. Now, I know this sounds completely out of left field but let me explain what I mean. When we feel that life isn’t treating us fairly, the worst thing we can do is turn inward and make things all about us. Instead, a healthy dose of serving God through severing others and of engaging in some ministry or mission to those whose lives are far more challenging than our own provides a welcome corrective to our self-pity.
I sense this is what Mary and Joseph did too. Honestly, I have no direct Biblical support for this other than their ongoing and unflinching support of Jesus. We never find Mary and Joseph making the story about themselves. We never find them using Jesus for their own ends or gain. From the moment he is born until the moment he exits the scene, in our limited glimpses of them, Mary and Joseph seem focused on serving their son and making every decision in light of what was best for him. With the spotlight off themselves, they were able to be healthy and to live healthily.
Whether we are going through a major life change or a minor one, most of us can relate to the focus of today’s worship. Most of us have a sense of what it feels like when many of our choices are limited or just out of our control. And, most of us understand what it feels like to have things happen that leave the normal aspects of life feeling new or different and thus we understand the temptation to run away or to avoid life. We know what it is like to have a pity party.
If that is us, let me challenge us this year to find some meaningful way of serving others. It might be through our church or through some other group. But, if we can and if we will take the focus off of ourselves and put it on someone or something else on a regular basis, it will help us in marked ways.
The famous country music singer and businessman Jimmy Dean is remembered for a few great lines over the years beyond those that appeared in his songs. My favorite may be his statement that “being a Baptist won’t keeping you from sinning but it certainly will keep you from enjoying it”. Dean’s most famous quote, however, is right on target with today. He once said, “I can’t change the direction of the wind, but, I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination”.
“I can’t change the direction of the wind…” which is to say that a lot of things are beyond my controlled, imposed on me from outside and they limit my life and choices.
But, “I can adjust my sails…” which is to say that I can control how I respond. I can control my trust in God. I can control my ability to reengage. I can control my service to others which gets the attention off myself.
In turn, I can still reach my life destinations even when so much of life is decided for me. Amen.