The Fourth Sunday in Advent A 2016
In Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth, we don’t find the old familiar, cozy Christmas stable scene with angels and shepherds and animals. And I have to say I’m glad about that! On this fourth Sunday in Advent, with less than a week left to prepare for the celebration of Christ’s birth, I’m glad that you and I have this opportunity to ponder God’s divine action from a more down-to-earth perspective…. In a nutshell, Matthew the Evangelist helps to flesh out our understanding of the incarnation of God in Jesus by doing two things: First, in the passage immediately preceding our gospel lesson for today, Matthew provides a detailed genealogy of Jesus, reminding the reader that the family Jesus was born into was kind of a “mixed bag” with regard to their faithfulness to God’s call. On the one hand, Jesus’ lineage includes Abraham and Ruth, both of whom were remarkable examples of faithfulness in the face of great challenges. On the other hand, Jesus’ ancestors also include more questionable characters such as King David, who was a great leader until his lust led him to commit the grievous sin of arranging for Uriah the Hittite to be killed in battle. David did this so that he could take Uriah’s wife, the beautiful Bathsheba, as his own wife!… Jesus’ family tree also includes the cynical King Ahaz of Judah, whom we meet in today’s first lesson from Isaiah. Even though the prophet Isaiah gave Ahaz many chances to change course, Ahaz steadfastly refused to seek God’s guidance. His woeful ignorance and willful arrogance ultimately led to the destruction of his kingdom and the exile of God’s people. (But that’s a story for another day!…)
After providing us with a thought-provoking genealogy of our Lord and Savior, the second thing Matthew does to help flesh out the incarnation is to give us a glimpse of the very real struggle Joseph and Mary went through in trying to be faithful to God. Today I want to take a closer look at this personal aspect of the story, because for the past two thousand years it seems the church has glossed over or sanitized much of the humanity and heartbreak Joseph and Mary must have experienced. As a result, I think we’ve missed out on something significant. But if you and I look beyond staid stained glass images of the holy family to the messy, mixed up circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth, we may see a reflection of ourselves that helps us begin to understand how very human is this baby boy Mary will bring into the world by the grace of God….
Like you and I, Jesus was born into a messy world and a mixed bag of a family!… In our gospel lesson for today, Matthew has given us an early Christmas gift by opening a window that allows us to see how very real— and how very human—Joseph’s struggle was. So, let’s dive in and unpack Matthew’s gift together, so that we can discover how it speaks to our lives…. To begin with, Matthew tells us that Joseph and Mary were “engaged” or “betrothed”; in those days, this had deeper and wider implications than an engagement does in our day. In essence, Joseph and Mary’s families had entered into a binding legal contract: The couple was as good as married; they just hadn’t moved in together yet! So, breaking a marriage contract was the equivalent of divorce. In the honor-shame society of first-century Palestine, all parties to a marriage contract had a lot at stake in terms of family honor and financial stability, and so the consequences for breach of contract were quite severe: Anyone caught in adultery could be publicly tried and executed. The less severe option would be a quiet divorce. Of course, back then even a quiet divorce would have meant a life of poverty and shame for any woman who conceived and bore a child out of wedlock and had no husband to support her….
Matthew doesn’t tell us how Mary was feeling, but we can be pretty sure that the vibrant faith of this teenaged mother-to-be was tinged with fear: What would happen when Joseph learned she was carrying a child? What would the future look like in the cold, hard reality of a world where there was no place for an unwed mother and her child?… Mary’s bulging belly clearly implicated her as the guilty party, and so when Joseph found out she was pregnant, he was devastated. How could this be? Mary seemed like such a sweet, faithful young woman. He’d been convinced that she was devoted to him…but here she was…pregnant! Since it wasn’t his child, Joseph knew he had no choice but to break the engagement. He did have a choice, however, in how he chose to do so: He could divorce Mary publicly, or he could dismiss her privately. If he chose to go public, Mary would be likely be stoned to death for adultery and her family would be shamed. If he chose to divorce her quietly, he’d be sparing Mary’s life and perhaps creating space for the father of the baby to step up and do the right thing by marrying her…. Throughout that long night, Joseph tossed and turned, wrestling with the decision only he could make. Even after all that had happened, he still loved Mary and didn’t wish her any harm, so, in the end, he decided to take the path of quietly dismissing her…. Once he’d settled the matter in his mind, Joseph drifted off to sleep, only to be plunged into a strange and unsettling dream—or was it a dream?!… He suddenly found himself face to face with an angel, who brought him a message from God: ‘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….’ Just when Joseph thought he’d made a plan, he found out that God had a very different plan! I think that is something we can all relate to! I know I’ve certainly made plans only to have God send me the message through some other person or event, “Sorry, but I have other plans for you….” I’d be willing to bet many of you have had similar experiences. [Can I get an “Amen?…”]
Talking about how God has plans for us reminds me of a conversation we had at our Thursday Bible study a couple of weeks ago. Somehow we got on the subject of near-death experiences. Several people in our study group have either had a near-death experience themselves, or else they know someone who has. Those witnesses tell us two things: First, they tell us that the promise of eternal life in the light of God is true. Second, they tell us that our finite life here on earth has a purpose, because we’re part of God’s greater plan for healing and reconciling this world God loves so much…. Many of those who’ve been sent back from the other side tell us they were given the message, “Your work on earth isn’t finished yet….” As a child, I remember being amazed to hear my stepmother, who almost died of kidney failure, say that she’d been told, “Your work on earth isn’t finished yet….” I wonder: How many of you have experienced this yourselves or have heard someone else say something like this? [show of hands!…] My friends, it’s so important that we risk sharing these stories of how God speaks to our lives here and now, because God isn’t confined to the pages of Scripture or to any other “box” we humans try to put God into! On the contrary, the Spirit of God is on the loose in the world, working in the lives of God’s people and in all creation…. Wherever you and I find beauty and peace and justice and the kind of love that moves people to risk reaching out for the sake of others—that’s where we encounter the very presence of God.
Dear friends in Christ, if you’ve ever known the heartbreak of betrayal or the fear of being found out, you should be able to put yourself in the sandals of Mary and Joseph. Just imagine how much courage it took for these two ordinary people to say “yes” to the extraordinary task of bearing and caring for the Son of God! For both of them, the struggle was real, but in the end their faith enabled them to say “yes”: “yes” to the never-failing presence and promise of God, who is Emmanuel, “God with us….” As incredible as it may sound, God extends the same invitation to you and me today: Like Mary and Joseph, we are invited to receive the gift of Emmanuel, Jesus the Christ, who is the gift of God’s very self. We’re invited to receive and to bear Christ to others, because this child is given for the life of this whole world, which God loves so much. So, today let’s open our hearts to make room at the inn, as we say, “Yes! O come, O come, Emmanuel! Come and set your people free: free to live and to love wholly in your holy name!” Amen.