Think about a moment in life when everything went according to plan or everything went just how you expected. You got the job you wanted; you got the grade you feel like you earned; your baby was born happy and healthy; everyone made it safely home for the holidays; the turkey was cooked just right and the tree looked just how you imagined. What a gift these moments can be. Sometimes I feel like we don’t realize just how much of a “gift of grace”[1] these moments in our lives really are.

Now think about a time when your plan was completely derailed or things went exactly opposite of how you expected. The job was lost, you failed the test, health complications came up, pregnancy complications arose, and the turkey dried up in the oven (or in our case at Thanksgiving, went rotten in the over-night bringing process).

I don’t know about you, but I hate when things don’t go how I anticipated. Whether or not it was me who made the plans in the first place, I often have assumptions of how a certain event or day will go. It’s easy in the face of unmet expectations or unraveled plans to get frustrated and let those feelings carry on for the rest of the day.  Even when an event went just fine (but maybe not “perfect”), it’s a common tendency to throw in a negative comment, negating the positive that occurred, “Dinner was great, I’m so glad you all could be here, BUT I wish I wouldn’t have overcooked the turkey.” The negative “but” lingers in our minds and leads us on a self-critical trail of what else could have gone better, rather than just appreciating the dinner and the people gathered and letting go of what we cannot control or change.

We celebrated Christmas of course this week and I wonder how many of us, in January of 2018, would have predicted how this Christmas would go?  You may be carrying around grief you did not anticipate to have this Christmas. You may have had new family dynamics or new relationships enter your family that brought joy in a way you wouldn’t have imagined. Though many of us like to make plans in advance, maybe without even realizing it we have been improvising all year long, adapting to the changes in the world, in our church and in ourselves.

Our scripture reading from Luke 2 today fast forwards us from the incarnation to the Passover festival 12 years after Jesus’ birth.  It’s the only glimpse of teenage Jesus that we get in the canonical gospels. So we jump from “no crying he makes Jesus” lying in a manger to 12 year old Jesus who is too smart for his britches.   Though he is already exhibiting extraordinary gifts of insight and teaching, this 12 year old is 12 going on 30 and has enough wisdom (and sass) to amaze the most revered Rabbi’s and parents in Jerusalem.  Parents, that sounds about right, doesn’t it? 

Mary finds Jesus and says, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Listen! Your father and I have been worried. We’ve been looking for you!” Jesus replies, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that it was necessary for me to be in my Father’s house?”

You can just feel the eye roll coming off the page can’t you?

Tell me, what parent of teenagers hasn’t stood in the bewildering tension where you are both amazed at the growth and talent in your child and disgusted at their defiant attitude and body language?

Mary and Joseph had traveled for several days celebrate Passover in Jerusalem.  On the way back home to Nazareth, Mary and Joseph realize Jesus is no where to be found in their caravan of family and friends.  It’s like a 1st century prequel to the movie Home Alone, except Jesus makes it to the destination and gets left behind. If this happened to you and your kid, you would surely go back to get them….feeling annoyed, angry and even scared. I imagine this is how Mary and Joseph might have felt when they realized their almost teenage son was no where to be found.

Their plan to continue their journey back home unraveled at the seams. So they improvise and spend multiple days searching for him. Even if we know good and well that life is not perfect and does not always go how we anticipate, the curve balls we encounter can hit us like a ton of bricks or at least make us extremely annoyed.

When you think about it, Mary and Joseph had been improvising since they first got word of God becoming incarnate.

Mary hears an angel tell her she is going to give birth to God’s son, whew!….improvise.

Joseph finds out his fiancé is pregnant BEFORE they’ve been married. Improvise. 

The teenage couple decides to go forward with “God’s plan” but then the census happens and they have to make a long journey to Bethlehem. On top of that, when they arrive, the guest room is full and they have to sleep in the living room of someone’s house. Improvise, improvise. 

Unexpected visitors showed up to visit the new born king. Then word gets out that Herod wants to kill all the baby boys in the Empire under 2 years of age and the holy family must improvise once again and become refugees fleeing to Egypt.  

What about the story of Jesus’ birth seems to go according to plan?  The incarnation of Jesus Christ unfolds like no-one could have predicted. The incarnation has the word improv written all over it. The overarching plan for God’s redemption of the world sets into motion the improv of the incarnation and in turn, the improvisational nature of those who follow Christ.

Improv, as you may know, is a form of theatrical performance where the performance is unscripted and created on the spot. Presbyterian pastor MaryAnn McKibben Dana points out in her new book, God, Improv, and the Art of Living, that improv is about creativity, listening and teamwork[2]. It’s not about being the shining star or super witty; it’s about listening to one another, taking risks and allowing even a “mistake” to lead you to new possibilities. The goal of improv is about building the creativity, energy and common goal of the group, not just one person.

It’s principles and practice of can also lead to deeper levels of awareness and understanding of yourself, Scripture and God’s interaction with the world. 

You see, improv isn’t just a free for all. There are certain structures to the performances and roles to be played. In fact groups who perform improv comedy spend hours and even years getting to know each other and their styles and building good listening and reaction skills. It doesn’t just happen over night. But McKibben Dana is convinced that if the average person like you and me starts to use some of these improv principles in our life of faith, our understanding of God will expand and deepen.  Though there are many principles of improv, we’ll focus on just one this morning, “Yes and.”  “Yes and” is the starting point. It’s what allows a scene to progress instead of stopping it in its tracks. It means you accept the situation before you, “Yes” and then you build upon it, “And.”

Let me give you an example:

The angel said to Mary,  “Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus…The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son.”[3]  

Mary, though shocked and somewhat confused by the news, says “Yes and.” She embraces and builds upon the situation presented by the angel. Yes,” “I am the Lord’s servant,” she said… “And,”  “Let it be with me just as you have said.”

In the incarnation of Jesus, God’s overarching promise for a kingdom characterized by reconciliation, freedom, peace and love was set in motion in human form. Further, Jesus’ incarnation reveals God’s desire to be WITH US, and to heal and save us from within as an insider, not an outsider. But how this would actually play out in the world… well there were AND are many possibilities.

Even Jesus improvs and says “yes and” to God throughout his life. Though as both human and divine he knew the ending of the story, he was always being confronted with an unexpected question from the religious elite or a request for healing out of the crowd. God didn’t place a secret scroll of instructions for his ministry in the manger.  Jesus had to do a lot of improvising. He taught in the temple but also wherever he happened to be, he came up with parables to fit the context and turned interrogations back around on the questioners.

So what does this tell us about God and how God works in the world? How does this inform how we follow the living, incarnate God today?

One commentator writes, “The model of living the holy family offers is not, as is sometimes depicted in romantic paintings and portraits, that of a family perfectly ordered and without division or differences. Rather, it is of a family that lives into messy moments with the confidence that God in Christ Jesus has entered and redeems them from within.”[4]

God models for us that life is not about planning for every contingency or escaping every hardship. There are many things in life that are messy and unpredictable.  The point of living this life with God is not to “have it all figured out,” to eliminate all doubt and to be able to plan exactly how this story of redemption will unfold.  The point is to love and serve God and neighbor with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to do so we must improvise along the way.

Improv can feel nerve-wracking and make us worry of embarrassment or mistakes. But, we trust in the One who first said “Yes and” to us.  God said “YES, this is the world I created AND here is my gift to you: love incarnate, who will be able to show you that

I share in all your joys, sorrows and messed up plans. God said “YES, you are my beloved children, AND my grace and mercy are gifts you don’t need to pay back and gifts you are called to share.”

God makes improv style affirmations and builds upon them by sending Jesus to show us how we might live this way as well. Jesus modeled that there will be times when we need to say “No” in order to say “yes” to what God truly intends and that we won’t be immune to frustrations and fear. Yet, he also showed that trusting in God gives us the solid ground on which we can stand and embrace what we face and risk saying “Yes and…”

As we improv along the journey of faith, peace, hope, and healing find surprising new ways to emerge.

As we improv along the journey of faith, we affirm that Christ comes and redeems us in the midst of our messy lives, not once we’ve cleaned up all the mess.

Along the journey of faith, we remember that the improv of the incarnation was not done alone and neither is ours. For we are gifted with communities and relationships that continue to help us struggle, dream and bring about new possibilities of love and justice in the world. 

We cannot predict and plan out all that life will entail but as we follow the incarnate God, we can learn to let go of our own plans, listen again for God’s “yes,” and improvise, exclaiming “yes and”!

[1] Dana, MaryAnn McKibben. God, Improv, and the Art of Living. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018 (1-2).

[2] Dana, MaryAnn McKibben. God, Improv, and the Art of Living. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018.

[3] Luke 1:31, 35 Common English Bible

[4] Bartlett, David Lyon, and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word. Westminster John Knox Press, 2015. Luke 2:41-52 Commentary, William J. Danaher Jr.


Rev. Allysen Schaaf

Decatur Presbyterian Church
Associate Pastor for Youth and their Families