A Sermon for 4 Advent
We are given many special characters in scripture. Men and women who were called to be saints and who lived their lives according to the spirit of righteousness. They refused the evil and chose the good, as Isaiah says in chapter 7. They modeled for us how to grapple with a challenging and sometimes disastrous world; how to look for the light of God’s countenance and how to listen for signs, some as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven. I’m not sure why Isaiah writes that we should listen for God in such a dark and lifeless place as Sheol, as it is defined as a kind of underworld. Perhaps he is suggesting that we can hear the voice of God, even in our most desperate times and places.
Last week Molly reminded us that Advent acknowledges our broken places and reassures us that God is with us, that love exists and that the light will come. Jesus sent word to John in prison that the blind and lame had been healed and that the poor had received good news. Miracles and spectacular signs!
In the Hebrew scriptures God told Moses to throw down his shepherd’s staff and it became a serpent; “don’t be afraid”, God said “grab it by the tail.” Moses grabbed it and it became a staff again. God’s omnipotence was dramatically demonstrated. The burning bush was on fire, but it was not consumed by the flames, God was present there. Last week the choir sang a beautiful setting of Mary’s Magnificat; her response to the angel Gabriel who appears to Mary in awesome glory and explains the unexplainable to her and gives her an invitation. And she says yes!
Signs of God’s presence do show up in extraordinary and ordinary places.
I like the idea that signs in modern times are less like these miraculous and spectacular wonders, and more like evidence of what God wants us to do with our lives. God breaks through into our lives too. God’s signs show up in ordinary places, less likely to be flames and visions; more likely to be a gentle reminder, a nudging, a feeling.
I am especially drawn to this passage from Mathew’s gospel about Joseph of Nazareth. These days I take great delight in watching my three adult sons become wonderful fathers. It is one of my greatest joys. I see them struggle with all the challenges and confusions of modern family life. I see that they often don’t have time to stop, look and listen, when faced with difficulty; their lives are full and it takes time and practice to slow down, to take a few deep breaths and circle back to what they know really matters. Paul reminds us in the first letter to the Romans, that we are called first and foremost to belong to Jesus Christ, to live into the grace and apostleship we have been given, however that manifests itself in our lives.
Joseph was a 1st century Jewish carpenter, who according to tradition was engaged to Mary, a young virgin. Mary appears in many gospel stories. The angel Gabriel appears to her to announce that she will bear the Christ child; she visits with her relative Elizabeth who (miraculously) will be the Mother of John the Baptist. Mary is with Jesus when the Magi come bearing gifts and she carries him through the desert on the flight to Egypt. We do not get a thorough portrait of Marys’ life, but we feel we know her intimately thru the Annunciation, the Christmas story and the Passion of Christ. Joseph is mentioned fewer times, very briefly and only in relationship to others in the gospel stories of John and Luke. The writer of Matthew’s gospel seems to feel that Joseph’s position as earthly father to Jesus is more important to explore than the other writers did. I agree with Matthew that Joseph’s story is an important one. Jesus surely needed an earthly father, God and human that he was. Jesus, like Joseph, and like all of us, would be faced with the full spectrum of human life…profound joy and unbearable agony.
Matthew’s gospel begins with a long genealogy which traces Jesus’ lineage from Abraham through David for fourteen generations, ending with ‘Jacob, the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born”. Joseph has royal lineage. Then follows the passage we hear today.
Joseph is engaged to the young girl Mary. I read that the Jewish custom at that time was that marriage was a two-step process, the first being a legal contract followed later by the bride joining her husband in his home. After the marriage contract is signed, Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant. Imagine what an overwhelming situation this must have been for Mary and Joseph. In 1st century Nazareth the stigma associated with unmarried pregnancy or adultery could lead to much disaster, everything from social disgrace to death by stoning. Joseph’s initial impulse was to break the marriage contract. I like to think that before he did anything, he did what I usually try to do when faced with trouble… he took a nap. During that nap, an angel came and told Joseph not to be afraid, that Mary’s child came from God and that the child would save us all. Joseph was a righteous man and a devout Jew, and in spite of the somewhat terrifying dream message, Joseph heard the angel and he decided to accept God’s invitation and take on the challenge of partnering with Mary and raising and protecting this mysterious infant.
Joseph the good father was there in the stable, and on the dangerous flight to Egypt. He was there in the temple, and he rejoiced with Mary at the words of Simeon and Anna. Perhaps above all, Joseph knew that he, in the end, could not protect this child. He knew, as we know, that life would sometimes be full of profound joy and sometimes life would be full of the bread of tears. Still, he listened to God-within and accepted the call to belong to Jesus Christ as we must also listen and accept.
Are we, like Joseph, listening for evidence of what God wants us to do in our lives? In this busy and (for many) challenging Christmas season, will we, like Joseph say yes to God’s invitation? Let us walk these next few steps with Joseph and Mary to the stable, listening, looking and ready to say yes.
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