A sermon for the fourth Sunday of Advent, December 18, 2016
St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California
This morning, it was dark when I woke up, and it was dark when I started driving from Sacramento to get here in time for the eight o’clock service. The days are short and it’s a dark time of year.
The Gospel of Matthew starts at a dark time for Joseph. Unlike the Gospel of Luke, which tells the story from Mary’s perspective, the Gospel of Matthew begins by reciting forty-two generations of Joseph’s genealogy and then we find Joseph in a very dark and difficult situation. The woman to whom he was betrothed was going to have a child and he was not the father. Remember, the first churches where the Gospel of Matthew was read did not know anything of the Gospel of Luke—of the Annunciation of the Angel to Mary, her journey to meet Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, the journey from Galilee to Bethlehem, the shepherds or the manger.
The story opens with this man in a crisis. It’s a life turned upside down. You can feel his despair and his resignation when it says, “Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” In that cultural context, he could see no way out. Life was over, hope was gone.
“But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.” The reality of Joseph’s world was that this sort of baby, this sort of wife, were just not possible, his expectations of life going forward just couldn’t happen—he couldn’t imagine a way forward. But then—he had a dream. In the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph’s story moves forward by dreams just like the Joseph in the book of Genesis, who was forced to go down into Egypt and then saved the children of Israel in the transformation of Egypt and making a place for them to thrive.
So just as Joseph had decided to put Mary away, an angel appeared in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary for your wife.” Do not be afraid. That’s a statement that’s much more radical than our 21st century American culture might be inclined to think. In Joseph’s time, being told not to be afraid wasn’t akin to our everyday nostrums, like “Live in the present.” No, in Joseph’s time, having a child who came from wherever violated the structure of the villages, and of the nation, and of religious and cultural propriety. Everybody was going to be ostracized and everybody was going to suffer. His wife would be regarded like a prostitute—would it even offend God to take such a woman as your wife? But the angel persists: “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.”
In this dream a new world, a new picture, a new hope takes shape. None of the facts, indeed none of the difficulties, really changed, but God entered in, and brought hope. And this hope was not so much to address Joseph’s personal issues, but God’s blessing for all people.
In our lesson from Isaiah, King Ahaz, a much earlier descendent of King David, refused to look for God’s sign—he wanted to look to himself and his own solutions to the wars he faced with the neighboring nations. “I will not put God to the test,” in other words—“let’s not let God have anything to do with our business.” Then the prophet says to him: “Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary God also? Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall call him Immanuel.” The sign from God brings a new perspective, a new picture, a new world. Ahaz was refusing to see and God sent the sign anyway; Joseph could not see and the angel appeared in that dream. With Jesus, God had a different idea for the world. “God’s son, descended from David according to the flesh and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by the resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship,” as St. Paul put it.
The good news for the church is the same as it was for Joseph. “Do not be afraid … the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. he will save his people from their sins.” The years ahead were not easy, safe or secure for this young family, and Christians should not expect those things for themselves, either. The soundness of this beautiful church building is due to our family moving forward in hope to build it, work on it, and keep it up. Yesterday we opened our doors and welcomed children with special needs and their families, because the hospitality of Jesus is why we gather at all. “They shall name him Emmanuel, which means, God is with us.”
So Joseph awoke from sleep, and he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took Mary as his wife and had no marital relations with her until she had borne that son; and he named him Jesus. His hope is our hope—to welcome Jesus and to live simply as servants of Christ. It is in that that the glory of God is in the life of this world and its people.