In the third or fourth grade there was a teacher in our school named Mrs. Rapp. And by most of the ways that kids judge a favorite teacher, Mrs. Rapp didn’t do real well. RARE to even crack a smile, never tolerated misbehavior of any kind, quick to reprimand and punish, always in control of the entire classroom, authoritative and heavy-fisted. There’s probably a little exaggeration in there, and I’m not trying to knock her as a person, but through 8-year-old eyes she was pretty tough. If you know how big a deal it was in the 3rd grade to be sentenced to “silent lunch”, when a teacher could call for the entire lunchroom to sit and eat without a word to each other, then know that Mrs. Rapp would declare silent lunch at the drop of a hat, and we all knew it was for real.
So guess whose number came up when it came time to be drafted into her classroom in the 3rd grade? No, not mine. My brother’s. And where I was always absolutely sheepish and shy, especially in the face of authority, my brother was more sure of himself, and bold, creative, energetic, and too smart for his own good (maybe making him hard to motivate/entertain in class). So needless to say sometimes I think he and Mrs. Rapp had their clashes.
One of the ultimate means of punishment at our school was “the wall”. The long brick wall of the school-building directly adjacent to the playground. Right there close enough to the action that it was torture to be stuck with your back to it at recess, watching but unable to even talk to your friends. I hated the wall and spent maybe a collective ten minutes on it all my years a the school. Sometimes it seemed like my brother had a permanent membership card. Now, he was a good kid like I said, and mostly I think just talkative, but with Mrs. Rapp that was trouble. At the time I was scared for his life, but looking back I like it a lot. I appreciate the way he did, because looking back it’s how most of us felt and wished we’d done — he stuck it to the “woman”, he wouldn’t take her junk sometimes, her tyranny. He stood up for himself, the “little guy.” Well done.
Because I, and most all of us, know what some of that feels like, the desire to stand up for ourselves and not be controlled, or kept quiet or held down. Seriously, does anybody like those feelings? Do you like backseat drivers, or people looking over your shoulder or being harshly critiqued? Do we like being babied against our will? Or told you can’t do so-and-so, or just don’t do it. Do we like having our choices made for us?
No. No. No. We hate it.
For all of us there are those times when we do want something akin to all that. I bet you. What about when we have a ridiculous decision to make, and all the options sound equally good or bad, and we just don’t know what to do? Do we ever wish even slightly that somebody would just step in and choose for us and let it be done with?
What about when we face something we don’t feel prepared for or equipped to succeed at? Do we ever wish somebody would swoop in and do it for us, or at least get it started? Okay, back to the third-grade mindset, what about something like a science project? “Aww, Mom! I don’t know where to start, you do it.” That’s not usually a cool feeling to me, to be ready to ask that, besides our parents weren’t ever much to do that sort of thing for us — but have you ever known the wish for that kind of crisis-intervention?
And what about when we just don’t know what the future holds, and there’s big stuff on the line? Do we ever wish somebody could step in and assure us of the road ahead, or map out how it’s going to go?
Okay. Then as much as we say sometimes, “Let me be me! Don’t tell me what to do or how to do it. Don’t control me.” The next breath, under certain circumstances, can be, “Why didn’t somebody step in and stop me? Or stop them or that from happening? Why didn’t somebody warn me? Why did I have to choose? Why wasn’t I given all the info ahead of time!?” And so on.
Does it sound very fair? Particularly when I bet that most of us put responsibility for all that on God’s shoulders, one way or another. I mean, think about it, I bet some of the times we get maddest at God, the times when our relationship with God is most in danger, are those when God doesn’t step in and take the reins the way we demand it. If our relationship with God is going to begin in a deep way, or even just survive over time — if we’re not going to totally resent God — maybe foremost it will take FLEXIBILITY.
We see that at work in Matthew 2:13-21. The basic Christmas story has kinda wrapped up, the part we put into pageant form. We’re at a point when things are supposed to finally just be fine for Mary, Joseph and their newborn Jesus. They weathered the scandal in Nazareth, survived the trek to Bethlehem, have met the shepherds, heard about angels, been visited by strange wise ones who followed a star — altogether they’ve had, literally, that “halleleujah” moment. Because Mary and Joseph’s crazy faith/hope have finally been confirmed. Things have come true and the great work is done — the baby is here now. Mission accomplished. But the very next thing we hear, immediately after the wise men left, Mary and Joseph receive another message, because of the danger posed by King Herod: “GET UP AND GO.”
We can relate, some of us. Do you ever work for carrots? As in, don’t many of us work towards something that we dangle out in front of ourselves as motivation to get through the work day or week? What are they? Our pay, our salary. Weekends, vacations, happy hour. Personal satisfaction maybe. A certain meal or certain comfort or certain person at the end of the day? So imagine that at the end of the 14-hour day from hell, with the perfect bubble bath already warm and drawn, candles lit, music playing, and afterwards the perfect meal with the special someone waiting, just as your toes hit the water, the phone rings and you gotta go back in. After all the preparation, just about to enjoy the reward…time to get up and go again. Hello, Mary and Joseph.
Can you imagine the conversation between Joseph and God? It’s the middle of the night in Bethlehem after all these wonderful events, and God speaks through the angel:
God:Get up and go, they’re coming to kill you.
God:Get up and GO.
Joseph:But what will I do? How will we survive, will they need carpenters? How do we know Herod won’t catch us on the way? … Wait, wait. … Why not send those angels right back? … They can take care of Herod. And we can go ahead and set Jesus on his throne now, and it’ll all be already done… The Messiah’s rule can begin… Aww, I bet this is what you had planned all along–
God:Get up and go. Now.
Joseph:How long will we stay in Egypt?
God:I’ll let you know.
Would any of us struggle with that? Maybe some of our very calendar-keeping people… “How long do we stay in Egypt?” “I’ll let you know, so pay attention to your dreams.” Whaaat? Flexibility is the word.
And now the bigger deal, what’s huge here, is that it’s not just Mary and Joseph whose lives are on the line in this moment…but also Jesus’.
And with Jesus in danger, so is the fate of humanity, and of all creation, that Jesus came to save. Everything God had ever done in all creation, everything prepared since the beginning, hung on Jesus’ life. And STILL God entrusted it to the decisions Mary and Joseph were making, because God’s not a “take the reins” kind of God, as much as they might have wished it.
He is severely invested in our freedom, and leaves it to us. Think what that means for us, and our relationship, for God to put that much at stake in the hands of this carpenter and wife, to hear the dream, actually listen, get up and go. Now think what’s entrusted to you. And realize that God loves you and me enough to never force us to do anything. God has never forced anybody to do anything.
So we also see the danger in Herod of an abuse of our freedom to choose. He decided, “I’m not on board with what God’s doing here, I’d rather hang onto this kingdom for myself.” And his choices produced great suffering for many, many of the innocent. That’s the weight of our freedom.
But ultimately we also see the great gift of obedience in Mary and Joseph and later in Jesus. That to get up and go, to follow, even to the death, is where we find our fullest, most abundant life.