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The Weight of the World

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The Weight of the World

Christmas Day 2005

Isaiah 9:2-7, Matthew 1:18-25

Focus: The weight of the world should be on the shoulders of Jesus Christ, not our own.

Introduction: Feeling the Weight of the World

Instead of focusing on a particular facet of the Christmas story, I would like to look at a facet of the Christmas season: stress, and tie this message to Joseph’s high-pressure choice of what to do about his pregnant wife-to-be, but most of the message deals with the broad subjects of worry and control.

If you go out the doors of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City and walk  five blocks down the street, to the front of the International Building at 630 Fifth Avenue, you will see a beautiful, large statue of Atlas, the strongest man in all the world.

If you looked at that statue, you would notice that Atlas is a handsomely proportioned man with enormous shoulders, rippling muscles, bulging thighs. But he is weighted down, for he is bearing the entire weight of all the world on his shoulders.

Our society is filled to overflowing with people who feel they are bearing the entire weight of the world on their shoulders. I think of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the former secretary-general of the United Nations. During the Balkans war a few years ago he flew from New York to Sarajevo in good faith to try to bring some type of cease-fire or peace accord to the troubled land of Bosnia, which had become the Beirut of Europe. He tried to bring hope to that land. And yet, in a contemptuous rebuff of the secretary general, the leader of the Serbs refused to meet with the secretary-general and, in a sense, made Boutros Boutros-Ghali and the United Nations look foolish.

As Ghali’s motorcade drove down the streets of Sarajevo, an angry crowd jeered, disillusioned with the United Nations. They’d become disillusioned with promises of peace. Boutros-Ghali wanted to bring peace to that troubled spot. The problem was he could not get cooperation. He must have felt, as he watched the clippings of people dying in the streets, like Atlas, as if he has the whole weight of all the world on his shoulders.

Unless I miss my guess, there’s someone here this morning who feels that you have the entire weight of your world on your shoulders.

I wonder if there’s anyone here this morning who is the primary caregiver for an elderly parent or someone who is very ill, perhaps a spouse or a child or a friend or a loved one. If you are a primary or a secondary caregiver to someone who is ill or elderly, you know that sometimes you cannot do anything right. No matter what you do, it’s always the wrong thing at the wrong time. And even though you try so desperately to do what’s right, you just can’t do the right thing. Have you ever felt, in that kind of a situation, as if you had the weight of the whole world, your world, on your shoulders?

I wonder if there’s anyone here this morning who’s out of work and you desperately need employment. It’s the twenty fifth of December, and you make the phone calls, and people say, “Can we get back to you after the first of the year?” But you’ve got bills to pay, and you’ve got hopes and dreams and people depending on you. And you want your life to count and you want to move on, and tomorrow is going to be the twenty sixth of December. There’s a week ahead. But nobody seems to want to make any commitment: “We’ll get back to you maybe, say, the middle or the end of January.” If you’re in that situation, you might have come this morning feeling as if you’ve got the weight of the whole world on your shoulders.

There could be people here who have personal lives that are, frankly, in disarray. They are feeling and bearing the burden of the stress and strain of life. They’ve got decisions to make about children or decisions to make about their own life and career future or some decision that must be made. Frankly, they don’t know what to do. Is there anyone here who just feels in your own soul as if you’re bearing the whole weight of all the world on your shoulders? It’s all up to you—these decisions, these Christmas preparations. Everything is on your shoulders.

I. The Weight on Joseph’s Shoulders

In Matthew 1:18-25, we learn that Joseph felt as if the whole weight of the world was on his shoulders. Let’s read this passage together now. If you have your Bible with you, please turn to Matthew chapter 1 and follow along as I begin reading at verse 18:  “Now this is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit.
Joseph, her fiancé, being a just man, decided to break the engagement quietly, so as not to disgrace her publicly.
As he considered this, he fell asleep, and an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. "Joseph, son of David," the angel said, "do not be afraid to go ahead with your marriage to Mary. For the child within her has been conceived by the Holy Spirit.
And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."
All of this happened to fulfill the Lord's message through his prophet:
"Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and he will be called Immanuel (meaning, God is with us)."
When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord commanded. He brought Mary home to be his wife,
but she remained a virgin until her son was born. And Joseph named him Jesus. “

 In order to understand what Joseph was going through, you’ve got to understand a little history of the ancient Near East. You’ve got to understand that in that ancient Near Eastern world in which this story is set, there were three stages of marriage.

Stage one was the engagement stage. Parents often promised their children to one another in marriage, and they were engaged often when children were born, as infants, or when they were 2 or 3 or 4 years old. They were engaged to be married to someone, but engagement was not legally binding.

Stage two was the betrothal stage. Betrothal occurred when that child had grown. Often girls entered betrothal when they were 12, and boys often entered betrothal when they were 16. Betrothal stage was the voluntary ratification of the engagement parents had entered into some years ago. The betrothal stage was, in fact, legally binding. You weren’t technically married, but it was a legally binding stage that lasted for one year.

In order to get out of it, one party had to issue a certificate of divorce to the other party. During that one year in betrothal, neither member of the betrothed party were allowed to engage in any sexual relations with one another or with anyone else. If they did, it was not only known as adultery or fornication, it was known as a severe breach of the Jewish law.

And then stage three: after the one year of betrothal was the actual marriage ceremony itself.

Mary and Joseph are in the betrothal stage of their relationship. They have been engaged to be married, but now they’re in this one-year betrothal period, which explains why, although they’re not legally married, Joseph is resolving in his mind to issue to Mary a certificate of divorce.

Joseph’s dilemma: he feels he’s got the weight of the world on his shoulders because he knows he’s been faithful to Mary. But his lament is that it doesn’t seem she’s been faithful to him.

Still, he’s not going to make a big deal out of it. He resolves to divorce her quietly. He shows his character. He shows his maturity. He’s not going to be immature as some of these people today who run to one of the TV commentators or to Oprah Winfrey. He kept things quiet. He loved Mary, and yet his heart was broken because he wanted to be her husband. But he decided to divorce her quietly.

Then an amazing thing happened. An angel of the Lord appeared to him and said, “Joseph, do not fear to take Mary for your wife. For the child that is within her is not a child of another man. It is, in fact, the child of the Holy Spirit. This child that will be born should be named Jesus. (In Hebrew, Jesus means ‘Jehovah is salvation.’) You shall call his name Jesus for he will save the people from their sins.”

You put yourself under the weight of that. This may have been a young man, maybe as young as 16 or 17 or 18. You just try putting yourself under the weight of a promise like that. It weighs you down. But the miracle of the story is that Joseph—although he must have wondered, What will they think of me? What will they think of Mary? What will they think of us? What can it mean that our son is going to be the savior of the world and forgive people from their sins?—he did as the angel of the Lord commanded. He took Mary as his wife but knew her not until she gave birth to the child. And they called the child’s name Jesus.

II. Releasing Control

In this story, you and I learn a profound truth that is so crucial for all of us to learn, especially those of us who sometimes have felt as if we’re bearing the whole weight of all the world on our shoulders. And the truth simply is this: Let God bear the weight of your problems.

God never meant for us to bear the whole weight of all the world on our shoulders. But you and I do it. We’re self-centered. We’re control oriented, and we try to bear the whole weight the world on our shoulders.

The miracle of Advent is the immediate government of our lives and of the world was never meant to be on our shoulders. The government of the world shall be upon his shoulders, Christ’s shoulders. That’s why he came to bear the weight of the world on his shoulders.

I heard of a man who was bearing the weight of the whole world on his shoulders. His name is Dr. George McCauslin. Dr. George McCauslin was one of the greatest YMCA directors this world has ever seen. But some years ago, he was serving a YMCA out in western Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. And in that western Pennsylvania YMCA that was losing membership, that had financial difficulties and terrible staff problems, George McCauslin found himself working 85 hours a week. He found himself getting little sleep at night. He took little time off. And when he was off, he was worrying and fretting about the problems of this YMCA.

He went to a therapist who told him he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He had to learn somehow to let go and somehow to let God into his problems. He didn’t know quite how to do that.

So George McCauslin took an afternoon off, took a pad and paper, and took a walk in the western Pennsylvania woods. As he walked through the cool woods, he could just feel his tight body and his tight neck start to relax. He sat down under a tree and sighed. For the first time in months he relaxed.

He got out his pad and paper, and he decided that he would let them go, the burdens of his life. He wrote God a letter. He said, “Dear God, today I hereby resign as general manager of the universe. Love, George.” 

Then with a twinkle in his eye that is so characteristic of George McCauslin, he said, “And wonder of wonders, God accepted my resignation.”

Is there anyone here who needs to resign as general manager of the universe? Is there anyone here who is trying to fix every problem, fix every person, shape up everything, get everybody just as you want them to be. Are you trying to shape up children and grandchildren and spouses and friends and neighbors, before the holidays end? Are you trying to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders? Do you need to resign as general manager of the universe?

III. The Weight on My Shoulders

I’ve learned this again and again and again in my life. I resign as general manager of the universe, and I give God my problems. But then sometimes I want to take them back and say, “I wonder how God’s doing with that?”

Thomas Tewell relates the following story: Some years ago, God spoke to me so dramatically about the truth of Advent, the truth that the government of my life and our lives shouldn’t be on our shoulders but on Christ’s.

I was dealing with a family I loved very much. They were in their mid-sixties. The husband was Charles, and the wife was Alice. Alice was really an emotionally disturbed woman—wonderful and gracious but disturbed because three members of her family growing up had committed suicide. Alice lived under the weight of what society told her: Some day she too might take her life, some people had said to her. Alice lived under the weight of all this.

Charles, her beloved husband, was the only one who could calm her down. He made sure she got medication. He made sure she got to the hospital when she needed it. He made sure she got to therapy. He was one of the most patient men I’d ever known. He had a wonderful way of keeping Alice calm.

But one day Charles became very ill, terminally ill. I’ll always remember the day that Charles died. We talked to Alice, prayed with her. Several of us in the church decided that Alice needed to go into a care center. She couldn’t live alone. And so, thinking we were operating out of goodwill for her, we strategically planned an elaborate strategy to get her to sign herself into a care center.

But all of our strategies failed miserably. She sternly refused. She said, “I can make it on my own, and I’m going to do it.” And no matter how much we tried to strategize to get her to sign herself into a care center, she would never do it.

One night in the middle of all this, I had a dream. In my dream I was asleep. (I must have been very tired—I’m asleep in my dream!) The telephone rang. My wife Suzanne went to the phone and answered it and came running to the bedside and said, “Tom, you’ve got to wake up. Charles, Alice’s husband, is on the phone.”

I said, “Honey, he can’t be on the phone. He died a couple of weeks ago.”

She said, “I know. You better come quickly.”

So I ran to the phone and picked it up. He said, “Tom, this is Charles.”

I said, “Charles, I’m so glad to hear from you.”

He said, “I understand you’ve been dealing with Alice.”

I said, “I have.”

He said, “I’ve got a little bit of advice for you.”

I said, “I’m so glad you called. What do you have to say to me?”

He said, “Listen carefully. You can love Alice, but you can’t fix Alice. And loving her is enough. Well, Tom, good talking to you. Good bye.” And he hung up

(After I hung up, I must say I did have this thought in my mind of all the things I should have asked him like: Where are you, Charles? How do you get there? Who is with you? What does it look like? But I didn’t ask him any of that.)

When I awakened the next morning, I resigned as general manager of that situation. We let the strategy go—no more manipulation, no more trying to get her to sign herself in. All we did was love Alice. We took her meals. We cared for her. People went over and talked to her. They visited with her. They invited her to parties. They drove her to church.

And one day several months after Charles had died and I had this dream, I took her communion one day because she wasn’t feeling well. And some elders and I served her communion.

After communion she said, “I want to talk to all of you. I’ve been thinking this house is so much for me to take care of, and my life is complicated. What would all of you think if I would check myself into a care center? You know, I really think it would be the best for me.”

And when she signed herself in, she did it with dignity, standing straight and tall, knowing that she had made the decision for herself. And I learned a great lesson. I learned that God is far better able to manage the world than I am. So I resigned as general manager of my universe.

Conclusion: Putting the Weight on Christ’s Shoulders

Has anybody else ever done that? Or do you need to do that today? 

If you cross the street from 630 Fifth Avenue, the International Building where Atlas is, you’ll go right in the front door of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Go down there on the left-hand side, and almost all the way up by the altar on the left-hand side you will see a statue of Joseph holding the baby Jesus. Jesus’ arms are outstretched, and he’s got a smile on his face as radiant as the sun. As you look at Jesus the baby with his arms outstretched, it’s almost as if he’s got the whole world right in his hands, and it’s light.

If you go by that statue, you need to ask yourself a question: “Is the immediate government of my life on my shoulders or on Christ’s?”

Putting the government of your life on Christ’s shoulders is what Christmas is all about. If you’ll do that at this Communion table today, then the words of Isaiah 9:6 will live in your heart when he said, “Unto us, unto us, unto us a child is born. Unto us a Son is given. And the government will be upon his shoulders. And his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”

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