Sermon for Sunday 10 am, December 18, 2016 || Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A || Isaiah 7:10-16 ; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25|| Amy Whitcomb Slemmer
What a gift it is to be here, out of the weather, in the warmth of this sanctuary, gathered as members of a Christian community, yearning to grow in depth and understanding of God as we await our celebration of the anniversary of His birth at Christmas. In this busy season of preparation, it feels like a holy gift to set time apart to gather, listen, pray and learn.
This morning we will extend this blessing, practicing the ancient teachings of our faith as we baptize Annabelle Gillian Redding and Thomas William Gayowski, the timing of which is marvelous, as we are focused on the wonder of babies and children at this time of year.
As we think about the nativity and the pending joy and miracle of Jesus’ birth, my guess is that we spend the least amount of time considering Christmas wonder from Joseph’s point of view. Think about how we set up the crèche, with careful placement of the manger, the animals, the wise men, Mary and the baby Jesus, or famous paintings depicting the Holy Family with Mary and Jesus at the center and God’s favor shining on the two of them, or even nativity plays — Joseph is the coveted role if you are hoping to have no lines at all.
This morning I want to connect some of the Advent dots before us, and wonder together about Joseph’s leap of faith in response to what must have been the biggest surprise and unexpected twist of his life.
In this morning’s story, Mary and Joseph are engaged, but not yet married – in biblical times, engagement was the equivalent of having signed a marriage contract, but not yet cohabitating. This betrothal or engagement could have been entered into by the parents of the intended couple when each were children. The contract was binding and any violation of it, particularly, any deviation for the woman, was considered adultery, punishable by death.
This morning, Matthew treats us to Joseph’s version of events, a bit less familiar than the oft-retold Lukean version made memorable by Charles Shultz and the Peanuts gang, with the angel Gabriel announcing the pregnancy and its holy and miraculous origin to Mary.
Today we begin mid-story. Mary, who scholars believe to have been about 13 years old, has already told Joseph that she is pregnant. He knows that the baby is not his – and we are told that, rather than exposing Mary to shame and humiliation or death by stoning which would have been the custom, he has decided to walk away quietly and not make a big deal Mary’s affair or betrayal.
I used to think that Joseph’s initial inclination, while honorable, was his way of saving his own face as well. Once Mary’s pregnancy became obvious, or after the baby’s birth, people were going to be able to do the math and assume that both Joseph and Mary had violated the engagement. However, God had other plans –
And here is where we, the modern day hearers of God’s word need to lean in closely to see if we can suss out the holy sign Joseph is offered.
We can be forgiven at this time of year, a week before Christmas if we are distracted or tired and require more pointers and holy indicators of a true sign from God. The lectionary writers literally repeat the same exact – neon, university band playing, sky writing version of a holy sign three times in our readings this morning.
An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, and as angels often do – and as we have heard echoed throughout our Advent scriptures – the angel tells Joseph to not be afraid – which is like the super secret angel password – do not fear – be not afraid – that the baby is the work of God, that Mary has known no other man, and that Joseph is to marry her and raise this holy begotten child as his own.
A pretty clear and specific sign, if ever there were one.
Yet, we do not know what Joseph thought upon waking. The gospel writer throws in a bit of relevant Isaiah text to remind us of the ancient biblical prophesy of God coming among us in the form of a baby born to an unwed mother. This would have been familiar scripture to Joseph. However, we can’t discern his thoughts or inclinations the morning after that dream.
Did Joseph wrestle with whether the dream was divine or imagined? Did he debate whether he could faithfully raise a son who would not look like him, or be biologically connected to him? We skip to the good part, where he marries Mary and some months later, they head off on a treacherous journey and non-romantic honeymoon with Mary nine months pregnant, traveling nearly ninety miles to Bethlehem, which was Joseph’s home town, to register for the census.
This morning’s gospel invites us to appreciate the pause between verses 22 and 24, and give thanks for Joseph and the example that he set for us. Not just being aware of the sign, but taking definitive and probably very difficult action, to believe Mary, to believe the angel and to very deliberately become Jesus’ earthly father.
We can’t know whether Joseph was immediately comfortable with his difficult decision. Did he know the minute he married Mary that he had done the right thing, as God asked and honored the ancient prophesy? Or did he continue to struggle with his decision and his family’s origins throughout his life?
When Jesus gave his parents trouble did Joseph righteously point out it didn’t’ come from his side of the family? Or when Jesus acted as an improbable saint demonstrating early signs of his divinity, did Joseph and Mary look at each other over the dinner table, sharing the secret knowledge of his actual lineage, and the familiar insight that he didn’t take after his earthly Father?
We know that Joseph was most likely a very careful man. He was older, and he was a carpenter, eventually teaching his sons that trade. Carpenters are not known as wild risk-takers. To be a good carpenter takes a significant amount of precision, some deliberation and action once you are sure of measurement, dimensions and scope.
Marrying young Mary had to be the biggest leap of faith in Joseph’s life. Yet the ramifications for faithfully following God’s call has brought us to this morning, thousands of years and a week before we celebrate the birth of his divine son Jesus.
While we struggle to live in daily expectation of a second miraculous birth of Emmanuel, or God among us, together we affirm our belief that God will come again. And, in this season of Advent, as we await his coming, we are challenged to be continually on the look out for signs.
Joseph’s leap of faith – following the sign in the form of an angel’s direction — provides some instruction for our own search for signs. First of all, in practical terms, Joseph had to sleep so that he could dream, which meant that he had to be free from distraction, able to rest and be aware of God’s presence and available for the appearance of a comforting angel.
That may be an awful lot to ask of any one of us, particularly if you have your own infant or children at home, or are a caregiver for someone else, but as we approach this final week before Christmas, I urge each of us to intentionally set aside some period of time – even if we have to set our iPhone alarm or timer to mark this time – to quietly sit and contemplate God’s presence in the world – or to ask for or seek signs of God’s presence.
We could put this off until Saturday’s Christmas Eve service, but our experience of this final week of Advent would be poorer for it. So I hope that each of us can find time between now and then. Whether sitting in a quiet room, gazing at a decorated tree, or at a loved one’s card that has arrived, with child in lap, or loved one’s hand in your own, or with bible open on the coffee table, or a hot cup of coffee in your grasp. Get as quiet as you can and ask for an awareness of God’s presence.
You may give thanks for Joseph’s extraordinary act of faith. For taking on Jesus as his son, for being what must have been an extraordinary adopted Dad, who loved and raised his son equal to his earthly siblings.
Consider that we worship the birth of a baby, a human in its most vulnerable and dependent form, as the embodiment of God on earth, and we take our cues for how to live and love one another from this child who could have been abandoned or been raised as an outcast, but was loved and protected by his earthly parents in advance of his universe changing ministry.
This morning and throughout this week, I want to give thanks for Joseph, for seeing him with new eyes and for appreciating his enormous faith-filled act that has brought us here this morning. And I want to give thanks for Annabelle Gillian’s father Jordan and Thomas William’s father Keith and the Dads and father figures in each of our own lives whose leaps of faith of all sorts have impacted who we are and how we navigate this world.
In your own prayerful contemplations this week, you may not get an angel urging you to be not afraid, or some another neon impossible to miss- God-inspired sign, but I hope that you do encounter some signs or guides. Once you recognize a sign, the divine question becomes – what are you going to do about it? Amen.