I have to admit, I had a hard time preparing this week’s sermon. On this 4th Sunday of Advent, just two days before Christmas Eve, our celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth into this world…it is a time of comfort and joyful expectation. This story about the announcement of “a virgin who is with a child conceived by the Holy Spirit” is often heard as one of joyful anticipation and wonder.
And the story we know so well typically focuses on Mary, who in hearing the announcement from the angel of the Lord, replies with willingness: “Here am I, a servant of the Lord.” This story – the one we hear in Luke’s gospel – continues by telling us of others who share in Mary’s excitement and wonder in her pregnancy, and together they rejoice in this news of this child that comes – the savior of the world.
But as I read our gospel story today, I noted three things. One, this story comes from the gospel of Matthew, not Luke. Two, the story doesn’t focus on Mary – it focuses on Joseph. And three, if we carefully pay attention to the details, the story we hear is less one of joyful anticipation, but rather one of complicated crisis…..a story full of messiness.
And I imagine that much like the news of any unplanned pregnancy, the announcement that Mary was pregnant was probably met with more of an “Oh crap” instead of an “Oh that’s awesome honey!”
It was a disruption in their lives, but with another twist: in those days engagement was a contractual arrangement rather than a statement of intention as it is today. It was like stage one of the marriage process – you got “engaged,” a public announcement in which negotiations of dowry and other exchanges were made, and then you moved in together. So in those days, the news that Mary was pregnant, and not by Joseph, meant she had likely committed adultery. And adultery in those days was a violation of Jewish law – and under such law, Mary could be shamed and punished publicly, leading to death by stoning. Or, a lesser punishment, but still one probably required by law for a “righteous man,” Joseph could divorce Mary.
The gospel story tells us Joseph resolves himself to pick the second option, the “lesser of two evils” perhaps, and “plans to dismiss Mary quietly.” But complicating matters, Joseph gets a visit in a dream from an angel, who basically tells him, “I want you to break from the religious law and tradition you hold so dear: take Mary as your wife. Oh, and this child, it’s a special one. It’s the savior of the world.” And the story tells us that Joseph follows the command given in that dream. But there’s no statement from Joseph that he’s a willing and glad servant of the Lord, but rather, Joseph is silent.
– And I think that silence is telling in some ways, because what would you say at such a thing?
– How would you explain a decision based on a dream that goes against any rational thought or religious value you hold?
– How will you even keep this quiet, out of the public eye, and honestly, how are you going to deal with the fact the child isn’t even yours?
I wonder, in the midst of such messiness, if there’s something pretty familiar with Joseph’s silence. I wonder, if in the midst of such messiness, if we don’t see a bit of ourselves in Joseph.
I wonder, if perhaps Joseph isn’t a little like us.
And I think that’s why this story is so hard for me to preach on today, because there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of joy, comfort, or hope in it. All it does is tell the truth – that life is messy sometimes.
Sometimes things come in and disrupt our lives, turn it upside down, throw it for a loop. Sometimes the circumstances of our lives push us to the ledge, take us to our breaking point, seem like more than we can bear. I think about the messiness of life in this world….
….remembering a shooting in an elementary school in Newtown, CT a year ago.
….remembering a shooting in a school in Colorado two weeks ago.
….I think about the looming tolls that will affect the City of Portsmouth and its people.
….I think about the loss of loved ones and friends, a failed or strained relationship, hard life transitions, our failing memories and physical abilities.
….And I think about the uncertainty that the future brings for all of us….messiness indeed.
But again, this story tells us the truth….and it gives us something to ponder, just as it gives Joseph something to ponder.
“….for the child to be conceived is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you will name him Jesus, for he will save the people from their sins. All this took place to fulfilled what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look! The virgin shall bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, God is with us.’”
God comes down….
God, Emmanuel, comes down and is born into the messiness of the world, born to a teenage virgin and an adoptive father.
God comes down, taking on human flesh and experiencing everything that living in a messy world does to us.
God comes down….and while perhaps we don’t know why we need one, he comes as a savior – Jesus, Yeshua, meaning “God saves” – one to save us from all that this messy world does to diminish and destroy life, and give us something else: a completely new way of living among the messiness of life.
And perhaps it is this announcement…this notion that God comes down to be with us among the messiness and offers salvation goes against all rational and conventional thought, a notion I honestly approach with skepticism, reservation, and frankly just seems a bit strange.
Yet perhaps, like Joseph, when we consider that all the messiness of life offers us is a series of decisions and paths that are the “lesser of many evils” – perhaps there’s something to this notion that God comes down and comes down as a savior to the people – to us. Maybe, just maybe, against all rational thought – this announcement of a child to be born is well, good news. Comforting news. Joyful news worth waiting for. News that like Joseph, while we remain silent, we dare to place our faith and trust in as we wait.
And as we near our Christmas celebration, perhaps this story is the one we really need to hear, and it’s one worth pondering in these last few days of Advent: A God who comes down into the messiness of our lives to be with us….to give us hope. To give us joy. To give us light in the darkness. To give us peace.
To give us a Savior. Amen.