Sermon: The Best Laid Plans
Scripture: Matthew 1:18-25
Preacher: Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location: First Presbyterian Church Fort Lauderdale
Date: December 22, 2019
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
A country carpenter from a small village considered to be a backwater no-nothing town in northern Israel. His expectations for life would have been simple and straight forward. He would grow up to learn a trade, find a girl, get married and live near home. He would start a family and grow old with his wife living a simple life, in a simple village, with simple but similar surroundings. He knew he would never grow to become rich and famous; simplicity was his lot and he gladly accepted it; like all men, he just hoped he could provide a decent living for his future family. You see Joseph is not different from any working-class man you or I know.
We are not certain if his engagement to Mary was arranged as was Jewish custom or not; all we know is that his fiancée was pregnant, and he had nothing to do with it whatsoever. We learn that Joseph is a good man, too. Scripture describes him as a righteous man. Whereas it was his male right to publicly parade his teenaged fiancée before the public authorities and declare her unfaithful, Joseph made a personal decision not to do that; Nazareth was a small town; this is where he was going to live and create a life with all these people he had grown up within the village. So before Spirit even told him about Mary’s “situation”, Joseph had decided to handle things quietly, discreetly. There must have been love in his heart for her already because being a good man, he did not want to throw Mary under the bus of shame in their small town; it would have been easy enough to do.
No, Joseph took stock of his life, his plans and his new predicament and he goes to bed to “sleep on it.” It is there in the depth of his dreaming unconscious the Lord God speaks to him about all that is about to take place. “Joseph, it’s going to be okay. Things are not what they appear to be on the surface. Mary has been faithful to both you and me and she has a call to fulfill, just as you, I may add, have a call to fulfill as well. I know you thought your life was going to go and end up a certain way. Joseph, I’m sorry, that’s not going to happen. What is going to happen is that you are going to be a daddy and you will name your son, God Loves and Saves His People – you will call him Jesus. I know the plans you have made have been dumped on their heads, but I want you to remember that even though the course of your life has changed and has been altered, my love and presence with youth will never fade away. Trust me: I’ve got this.”
In the course of his dream, Joseph is reminded of an obscure text written centuries before by the prophet Isaiah (7:14) during a time when things were not going well for Israel. It was written at a time when the country was divided into two and the world and ways, they had grown accustomed to were about to fall about them. In this midst of Isaiah’s chaos, God promises a young girl, a virgin, would give birth to a son and would call him, Immanuel – God is with us. God told Isaiah that when things look their bleakest, look for the improbable and for the impossible because that is where God is going to show up.
God is telling Joseph the same thing. As Joseph sleeps and his mind is churning away seeking understanding, the Spirit of God tells him that his life is about to take an unexpected turn. God tells Joseph that just as things are looking their bleakest, Joseph is to look for the improbable and for the impossible because that’s exactly where God with us will show up. In the midst of chaos, God, through this developing baby, is forging an improbable, impossible pathway of hope.
Joseph and Mary, both of whose lives are seemingly rolling along without any problems as they are innocently trying to plan a future for themselves like any modest, simple Jew of the first-century world that they begin to get peppered with life’s interruptions and intrusions causing them to readjust their plans. Have you ever had a plan in mind and then for whatever reason you had to change courses in mid-stream? Well, take heart! It’s a biblical reality!
Years ago, in Mrs. Richter’s English class in high school, we had to read poems from old, dead obscure authors and we wondered out loud, “Why am learning this? It doesn’t make any sense!” It’s only after the smoothing of my teenaged hubris through almost sixty years of life’s tumblings around in unfulfilled plans, redirected paths, and unforeseen events from health to poor judgments that I finally understand Mrs. Richter’s purpose for exposing us to these bards. One of them I had to learn was from Robert Burns, a Scottish poet from the late 1700s. It is called simply, To a Mouse.
The beauty of this poem I can see today (that I could not recognize as a young man who was trying to get the captain of the cheerleaders, Marian Chan, to notice me) is this: We are to pause and look at life’s interruptions and learn from them. The poem is about a time when Burns is out walking in a newly plowed field and notices a mouse scampering about. Burns places himself into the life of this little mouse and imagines what it must be like to have one’s house, all neatly arranged and stocked for the winter to be ripped up and destroyed by a farmer’s plow in late fall. Let me share a few stanzas from Burn’s To a Mouse:
Little, silky, cowering, timid beast,
Oh, what a panic is in your breast!
You need not start away so hasty
With bickering prattle!
I would be loath to run and chase you,
With murdering paddle!
I’m truly sorry man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union,
And justifies that ill opinion
Which makes you startle
At me, your poor, earth-born companion
And fellow mortal!…
…Your small house, too, in ruin!
Its feeble walls the winds are scattering!
And nothing now, to build a new one,
Of coarse green foliage!
And bleak December’s winds coming,
Both bitter and piercing!
You saw the fields laid bare and empty,
And weary winter coming fast,
And cozy here, beneath the blast,
You thought to dwell,
Till crash! The cruel plough passed
Out through your cell.
That small heap of leaves and stubble,
Has cost you many a weary nibble!
Now you are turned out, for all your trouble,
Without house or holding,
To endure the winter’s sleety dribble,
And hoar-frost cold.
But Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Often go askew,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!
“The best-laid plans of mice and men often go askew.” Joseph may not have known Burn’s poem in the first century, but he sure knew what Burns was talking about! Joseph’s life gets plowed over in ways he neither asked for, could imagine, or consciously wanted at the time. And it is right here we discover the Advent promise and hope, beloved:
When our lives have taken a hard turn when our plans fall through, relationships fail, or our health deteriorates, we hear Spirit’s voice to Joseph as though God were speaking to you and me. We hear God speaking to us in our own plowed-over dreams, “No fear. I got this. Even though life and its circumstances seem out of control, even though everything seems uncertain and swirly right now, regardless of whether you think you even believe in me…Immanuel! God is with you!
And that is the power of Christmas: When things seem so beyond our control, that’s precisely the place we are to look for God’s presence. When things seem most improbable, when life seems too impossible, that’s where we look for Immanuel, God with us. Let’s be honest: The best-laid plans of mice and men often go astray and off the rails. And we know that we know that we know that in the midst of it all, God is with us! Immanuel! Amen.
Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
401 SE 15th Avenue
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301
© 2019 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.
 The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 See original at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43816/to-a-mouse-56d222ab36e33. The poem used in the sermon is an English version and does not contain all the stanzas of the original.