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Keeping Jesus Alive

Date: 29/12/2013/Speaker: Chong Lip

Good morning church. I hope everyone here had a meaningful Christmas connecting/reconnecting with friends and relatives (and hopefully God). I’m Chong Lip and it’s my pleasure to end with the sermon this year. Please join me in prayer: Dear God, Grant us an open heart and guide us as we explore your word for us today.

This week’s lectionary passages seem to me to be on first reading very dull (in other words, very straightforward) One of them, Psalms 148 is totally on thanksgiving and praise, which I can understand given it’s post Christmas jubilee. So that leaves me with just Matthew 2:13-23. Let me read it for you.

Matthew 2:13-23
2:13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”
2:14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt,
2:15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
2:16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.
2:17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
2:18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
2:19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 2:20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.”
2:21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.
2:22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee.
2:23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazarean.”

We are not doing the passage justice when we read it as it is, without trying to imagine the thoughts, struggles and emotions of Joseph and Mary as they embarked on this journey. This is my version of their account from Mary’s perspective, recorded through her diary, and this is by no means biblical (but I try my best to stay true to the spirit of the text)

In the diary of Mary:

Those were really strange men with flowing and flowery robes that visited us. My baby Jesus, if only you knew what blessings you have brought us. I hope they have a safe journey back, the bread and fruit I’ve prepared for them will sustain them a day or two. Imagine how pleasantly surprised daddy will be as he sees all this treasure the men has honoured you with little one. I hope you enjoy the feast I am preparing tonight to celebrate this special day.

Dinner went well. Joseph enjoyed the pigeon and Jesus had his first taste of meat. (I have been corrected that young babies don’t eat meat, but drink milk) Joseph couldn’t help enthusing about his plans to build a bigger house, employ a nanny to assist me with Jesus and so on. I just smiled at him and nodded. He’s still such a boy at heart. God, thank you for this man who loves us so much. It’s going to be a great sleep tonight, with the bright star overlooking us.

Initially I thought Joseph had a nightmare. He grabbed me in the middle of the night and said we had to leave now- Jesus is in danger. Even in the darkness I could sense his fear. I wasted no time. Questions can come later. I gathered the necessary provisions near the front door as Joseph packed and loaded them onto the 2 camels that we had. Jesus was awakened in the midst of packing and started crying. I know I shouldn’t but I almost snapped at him. It was hard to stay calm as I shuffled through what little we had in this short span of time.

Dawn was approaching. We had to leave most of the treasure the men left behind. They will burden us in the journey and make us prime targets to robbers along the way. I took one last glance at our house before Joseph nudged the camel forward. Jesus was safely nestled in my bosom. Strangely, he stopped crying the moment we left the house.

Where in Egypt were we heading to? Until when? What other instructions did God give you? Are you sure it was God speaking to you? These were burning questions in my mind as we journeyed on. I looked over at intervals, hoping that Joseph will provide these answers without my prompting. On the third day I asked him. He broke down in tears and said he wish he knew. We will brave this together. I assured him, we will. I cried along with him.

And so we survived 40 days and 40 nights in the pass the plains, valleys and desert. I thank God for the strength to carry on and chuckles that Jesus spontaneously bursts into. It can be such an encouragement in the darkest of nights. It’s ironic he doesn’t know he’s the cause of all this hassle. I pinch his tiny cheeks.
We decided to stay at the first village we chanced upon. We had enough of the wild life. There were a few families of Samaritan Jews residing there and we thought we can adapt to this, and so this became our temporary home.

Time flies. Has it been a year since we fled from Herod? I’ve grown to like this village. Recently, our neighbours invited us for a meal after Joseph helped them fix a broken roof. They even slaughtered a chicken for us to celebrate Jesus’ 3rd birthday.

That night, Joseph shook me up again. We can head back home now. He said. Tears welled up in my eyes. This is home too. He nodded and said we have till noon before we set off. In this time, we can say goodbyes to our friends. Throughout the night, I baked cakes for the families that have embraced us. This is a little memento I can leave behind for them.

I waved back at Sandy and her family, tears falling freely. This time, we left with much more valuable treasures- the friendships and ties we’ve made.

The journey was much simpler this time. Jesus could walk now, and did not need me to carry him throughout, which had caused me severe back strains. I wondered what is in stored for us, back to the land you were born in Jesus.

For some reason, Joseph gets more paranoid the closer we reach Judea. He is convinced that the current ruler has not forgotten about Jesus. Remember the senseless slaughter of the innocent children Herod ordered he said. I shuddered and prayed for those many innocent souls and their families.

Later, a vision from God confirms his suspicions and we move further up north to Galilee, to Nazareth, this small village where Joseph grew up. We can make do with that, just like we always have, as long as Jesus is alive and safe with us.

I hope you can see clearer their aspirations and struggles through this narrative. The map on the screen shows their long and arduous journey.

I believe most of us here have moved house before and are aware of the effort and emotions involved. Recently, I experienced it first-hand as Simon and myself shifted to Balestier. Perhaps we can all learn a thing or two from Mary and Joseph, as they flee from Bethlehem to Egypt. Their circumstances were very different from ours.

-They moved in the middle of the night (oil lamps, maybe fireflies in a jar back then, no electricity)

-Had little time to spare (Dawn is quickly approaching)

-They had no idea where they were moving to (Egypt is a very big place-and they were more like Refugees like tourists!)

-No trucks, professional movers to help pack and wrap stuff (just Mary, Joseph and maybe a few camels or donkeys)

– An annoying baby to handle (who can only cry and not give a helping hand)

-They had to cross the Sinai Desert, plains and valleys (which is not a land flowing with milk and honey)

-Sitting on a gold mine (remember the gold, myrrh and frankincense)

So how did they manage to prepare for such a sudden crisis and make their escape? I believe the main crux is that they knew their priority- ensuring Jesus stays alive. If they pack too much, they risk delay, if too little, they may not survive. They packed the essential items they will need to survive the arduous journey-basic food and water, enough money to last the journey and build a new home in Egypt and suitable clothing to endure the cold desert nights and harsh sandstorms in the day. All the other stuff would be a bonus. They cannot bring everything along, and some stuff have to be left behind.

My hunch was that much of the myrrh, frankincense and gold that the wise men bestowed upon baby Jesus were left behind. Imagine what a cosy nest they could have built together with the wise men’s treasure. All the fancy dreams of a bigger house they discussed a few hours earlier was shattered as they fled to Egypt.

At the closing of 2013, how many of us have had our dreams of good health, material comfort and stability shattered, a promotion denied, KPIs not met, lacklustre GPA scores? It may or may not be as dramatic as Joseph and Mary’s case. I think it is very tempting to blame God, ourselves, our pastor  , others and continue harping on it even no one or even if God is to be blamed. Mary and Joseph simply moved on. The Bible didn’t document how they felt or dealt with it, it would have been helpful. When one door closes, you have to open another door, or else you will be stuck in the closet, in limbo. Joseph and Mary entered a new phase, a new community in Egypt as they moved on, in faith. We have to learn to move on and not dwell on the ‘what could have been’ as it’s pointless. We don’t want to be like Lot’s wife who turned into a pillar of salt as she looked back at Sodom and Gomorrah, a symbol of being physically present but not truly living-because she could not forget and forgo her lost dreams and old hedonistic lifestyle that Sodom and Gomorrah provided.

Again shortly after Joseph and Mary have settled in, God says the coast is clear; Herod, your child’s oppressor is dead, you can return back to Israel. The whole family has to uproot itself and turn back to Israel. For the expats, I’m sure you know what I mean. Note to self, you will constantly be dismayed/shocked/disappointed/happy at how circumstances change, but do not lose hope and to move on, always remembering your priority- Jesus-and keeping him alive in your heart!

Let us all look forward to 2014 with renewed confidence and hope, and leave the baggage of unmet expectations, broken dreams and hopes behind, which suffocates and smothers the Jesus in us.

We are not done with the passage yet, it is very rich and there are a few more lessons to glean from it. Let’s look at it from another angle. Let’s assume Joseph and Mary didn’t leave the treasures behind. There are two scenarios: First, they can find a secret spot, mark it, then hide and store the treasures near their house with the intention of coming back to it if they do come back or  attempt to carry the treasure along with them in the journey, both options at the expense of delaying the journey and jeopardising Jesus’ life. The latter option of lugging the treasures around has the extra unintended risk of enticing merciless, opportunistic robbers prowling in the non-policed desert to murder them for their treasures. It is ironic that the treasures the wise men of that age bestowed were as marginally helpful (or in other words, not very life giving) in protecting Jesus’ life. Are we guilty of having misplaced emphasis on ‘treasures’, busily accumulating and storing them on earth, knowing full well they are temporal, at risk of neglecting Jesus and investing our relationships with others in the chase for more? I’m sure you have heard of the verse from Matthew 6:19-20 exhorting us to store treasures in heaven where rust and moth doth not destroy.

I confess I fall into both categories. As much as I try to be non-materialistic, I do clamour for the next camera lens to have, the next gourmet meal I can easily live without. I hoard stuff, everything that has slight emotional value to me I keep somewhere. My stuff is dotted all over the place, so much so that it causes a strain in my relationships with my mum (as she tidies the place) and Simon as he is a very neat and organized person (significantly more so!). I have an untested theory that the more stuff you have, the more distraction you have between God and you. You can simplify your life, and I’m glad that the move allowed me to re-evaluate my priorities and keep what I think I really need. But it comes at a cost, it was a draining and traumatic process to review each item and decide whether it gets discarded or kept. It is really difficult for me to distinguish between whether something is valuable or mere baggage, if not I wouldn’t have kept it in the first place right?

So if you have not already planned your priorities or resolutions for 2014, I hope that you will consider simplifying your lives and invest your time in people and relationships, not just in accumulating stuff(which has a high potential of becoming baggage).

To guide you along, I have done some homework for you. In “The Jesuit guide to everything” by Father James Martin, he offers us a few steps of increasing difficulty, to have less clutter in our lives.

1)      Get rid of whatever you don’t need (this is relatively simple. After a while of dumping unnecessary stuff, the process becomes simpler! )

2)      Distinguish between wants and needs, the “nice to have” vs “need to have” (this forces us to question our value systems and does need reflection and some thought)

3)      Get rid of things you think you need, but can actually live without (I am proud to s  ay that I wanted a hairdryer for ages, but have recently decided while writing this sermon that I can live without it. Just have to dry my hair using the old fashioned way- with the towel.)

Another option is to share what you have. Is it really important to have possessions all under your name? (Just food for thought, I’m not advocating communism here- though it’s an ideal outcome, the mechanics of it from history is a disaster) Of course I am not saying you should share mobile phones, toothbrush, refrigerators etc, but stuff like your cars, cameras, homes which you don’t use all the time, especially when you are abroad, can be considered). Huey Ko shared an article on Facebook on the sharing economy, a concept that has intrigued me. It is “a sustainable economic system built around the sharing of human and physical assets. It includes the shared creation, production, distribution, trade and consumption of goods and services by different people and organisations based on a set of values that often includes trust, transparency, economic empowerment, creative expression, authenticity, community resilience and human connection”. I believe the church described in Acts 2 exemplifies such a community, and may we propose that as One Commonwealth, as Free Community Church, we can aspire and be that community as one of our mission. I think we caught a glimpse of that as we pooled together talents, gifts and resources during the Big Commune in June/July this year..

Now, all along I have been talking about moving house and setting priorities from a single person’s perspective. As much as it is a solitary affair to sort out your own stuff and priorities, at some point it’s good to involve people to hasten/evaluate decision making and execute tough decisions for you (to sift the baggage from the essentials), especially when it is too hard to do it yourself because of emotional attachments or memories. Joseph and Mary had each other, and a crying Jesus. I had Simon and a few peeps from Younique around to help instill some criteria as to dump or keep certain categories of stuff. (I fondly remember Titus, the arbiter of taste he is, being tasked with throwing away 95% of the huge number of gift/shopping bags that Simon had hoarded for ‘just in case” scenarios that didn’t make the cut of being fashionable enough) It also helps us articulate why we keep certain stuff, certain dreams and hopes, does it sting our heart or do we merely bate an eyelid where a particular item is dumped away or a particular dream is questioned and put down. So here’s a tip, keep a few close friends handy, to keep you accountable and help shape your priorities as we move into the new year. You do not have to do it alone! I know we put ourselves in a much more vulnerable space if we are to involve others inside this intimate process, but I like how this Proverb sums it up: As iron sharpens iron, one man/or woman sharpens another.

Then again, this may sound like a dampener, but even with our priorities set right, I believe that God does not have all the answers that we want or need at a particular point in time. Actually God is very vague in the commandments he gave to Joseph. He says go to Egypt but didn’t say for how long and which location, only do it now. Then when God tells Joseph to go back to Israel, he didn’t specify whether it was Bethlehem which was in Judea or some other district. Only when Joseph did some detective work seeking out the marketplace gossip on his own did he find out about Archelaus, Herod’s son who was still in power over Judea. He was afraid and cautious, so he took his own precautions and headed to where he knew best-Nazareth in Galilee. I believe that Joseph had his suspicions confirmed through a dream after he had his initial suspicions and fear.

So what does this mean for us? It is uncomfortable knowing that we may not have all the answers at the onset, and that we have to be mindful even as we take the first step in obeying God. After sharing this, at least (I hope) we are prepared with the idea of embracing the unexpected – but that we will get through IN FAITH, not blind faith, but active, participatory FAITH. God’s ways are higher than our ways, and we don’t know what is next. But we are not alone in this big scheme of things, we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, basically each other, women and men of history, characters in the Bible, to testify of God’s love and faithfulness to us even in the unknown, so don’t despair (too much).

In conclusion, I hope that in your own solitude, you will be able to reflect on your priorities for the new year, accord ample time to grief over your broken hopes and dreams, but do remember to move on and hatch new ones and give thanks for everything good AND bad for the year. Hopefully we will to make an effort to simplify our lives and involve a few friends, our partners more as we move on, you never know what nuggets of truth they may drop and how these may change you(for the better!)

Let us pray

God, we pray that Jesus stays alive in our lives, not just during Christmas, but even as we move from valleys to the mountains, pass the deserts to land flowing with milk and honey, when Herods and Archaeluses’ are after us, in 2014 and beyond. We pray we will not let the baggage of broken dreams, wrong priorities weigh us down and suffocate you in us.

We pray also for FCC and for all of us not for an easy year, but a challenging and fruitful one, where Your will be done, not ours. [/column]