Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Wrestling and Christmas

But as he considered these things . . . an angel appeared to him in a dream (Matt. 1:20)

In our house last week the focus was getting through exams. In fact, the focus was not merely on getting through, but doing well. That’s why I didn’t give much thought to the email that came from my son’s wrestling coach: the email that explained the practice schedule over the Christmas break.

I shared the content of the email with my son on Sunday night. He was not enthusiastic.

School’s out and Christmas is coming. That combination makes for one of the best times of the year. Wrestling practice doesn’t fit in to that very well. Enough wrestling. It’s Christmas. It’s time for a break.

He’ll end up going to the practices, but I understand how he feels. Sooner or later we all feel like we’re tired of wrestling, tired of grappling with the lives we live in order to get things pinned down and figured out: schedules, payments, deadlines, needs to be met and appointments to be kept. A relentless wrangling of moving parts. Who doesn’t get tired of that?

And then there’s the life of faith. We had thought that following Jesus might make things better, more manageable, less exhausting. Thus our surprise when we discover that following Jesus also involves some struggle. Once again, we’re wrestling. We’re like Jacob. Jacob wrestled with God and lived – but he walked for the rest of his life with a limp (Genesis 32:22-28). Maybe you’re limping too. Christmas is a tough time for wrestling. But we are hardly the first to know this.

The story of Joseph’s discovery of Mary’s pregnancy is a wrestling story. Matthew gives it to us in spare language. Mary is pledged to Joseph, the marital commitment in place without the full benefits and living arrangements of the marital relationship. This is when Joseph discovers that Mary is pregnant. And this is when the wrestling begins, unseen and yet strenuous. Joseph grappling with God, grappling with his own heart and mind.

Again, Matthew shows us none of this except to say that Joseph “considered” how he could divorce Mary quietly and thus protect her from public disgrace. But can such “considering” be anything less than anguish and pain? How long did he “consider?” How many sleepless nights, how many bitter questions hurled at heaven? How many tense conversations with his beloved? How many fake smiles at neighbors as if all was well?

And even once the Angel has appeared and Joseph has taken Mary as is wife, the difficulties are hardly over. Craig Keener notes that Joseph’s decision to go ahead with his marriage was a decision to sacrifice his own reputation. The wrestling surely didn’t stop. Wrestling mingled with waiting until the birth in the Bethlehem stable.

Many of us come to Advent wrestling and waiting; life has us in a head-lock and we’re trying desperately to find the right move that will loosen its grip. With the Psalmist we ask “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts?” (Ps. 13:2). Christmas doesn’t change the fact that we’re wrestling with decisions that need to be made, decisions we wish could make over again, afflicted bodies, conflicted relationships and competing expectations. We wrestle through one challenge only to face another.

But in the midst of the wrestling, Joseph’s and ours, there is this assurance: the Holy Spirit is at work. To see it may require waiting, long waiting and still more wrestling. But God is active in your wrestling story, even – perhaps especially – at Christmas.

What opponent will you wrestle today?

Grant to us, O God, the patience to trust you in all things and the strength to wrestle long until we see your hand at work: show your hand in the difficult situations, the perplexing questions, the stubborn circumstances that refuse to budge. Be present with us in the struggles of this day, making us confident as we wrestle and wait in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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