4th Sunday in Advent
December 18, 2016
We are now very deep into the season of Advent. As we try to grasp what it means that the creator of the heavens and earth, of all matter and life, of all things, seen and unseen… took on human flesh… became one of us… became our brother and friend, at the same time he became our savior and teacher. As we try to grasp what that means, a strange and painful scene emerges in today’s Gospel lesson.
All of this mystical wonder begins in a terrible mess. We have this story of a simple working man… a member of a conquered and oppressed people living in a dirty and forgotten corner of a vast empire. He is engaged to a girl… who he has discovered is pregnant before their marriage. And he’s not the father. That is a mess.
Mary and Joseph are common, ordinary people; so we can relate to them. And we can imagine what it would be like to have this crisis suddenly erupt in our lives… the terrible disappointment, a broken engagement, broken dreams, a moral dilemma; people’s whole lives completely upended… a terrible mess of a situation.
This situation of great disappointment, uncertainty and brokenness is the setting for God’s arrival. We stand as witnesses as God makes the mess of the lives of Joseph and Mary part of his saving work in the world. Today, as we prepare for the joy of Christmas, we are reminded that God reveals himself in the messes and troubles that afflict the lives of his people.
God’s angel reveals to Joseph two wonderful names that Mary’s baby will have. The first is “Jesus,” which means “God Saves.” The other is “Emmanuel,” which means “God Is with Us.” These names remind us that Christmas is an event like creation itself; and we are like Joseph. Our role is to stand aside as God acts… and then let our lives and selves be redefined and reshaped by those acts.
The names “God Saves” and “God Is with Us” remind us who God is and how he works in the world. They remind us why we live in hope even when life overwhelms us, even when our lives are a mess… even when our limits, weaknesses and failures fill our lives with grief, even when the world around is us confusing and frightening.
Advent and Christmas are seasons of promise… promise that our lives shine with hope, because God’s pleasure… God’s will and his way… is to enter the mess of human life to bring healing, joy, and new life to us.
Joseph is called a “righteous” man in today’s lesson, first and foremost, because of what he does not do. He does not force his way. He does not put his honor before the well-being of others. He doesn’t impose his sense of justice on others in order to protect himself. Rather, he listens to God and follows where he leads.
Certainly, Joseph’s decision to take Mary as his wife will create problems for Joseph. It will get people to gossiping in market-places and streets around the community. Any decent, self-respecting man would not accept a woman like Mary. They would have her condemned and put to shame in order to show what they stand for.
Joseph provides a critical model for us as we prepare ourselves for Christmas. He shows us the proper response as the Kingdom of God enters our world and our lives.
We are not the source of goodness or greatness. We do not have the power to start or stop God’s work of creation in Christ and the unfolding of the kingdom of God in our world. Yet we are called to be a part of this transforming event… just as Joseph (and Mary) were.
God is the actor. He is the source of power and goodness in this world. Our choice, then, is either to assert our puny selves and pursue our own pathetic agenda of self-interest… to follow our delusions of self-importance; or to trust in the goodness and grace of God and let him lead us and work in our lives the blessings of his kingdom.
God commanded Joseph to take Mary as his wife, putting aside his own ideas about what is honor, what is right. Joseph does as he is commanded.
Recognizing that the miracle of Christmas lies far beyond our power does not mean we have nothing to do. Quite the contrary, like Joseph, Christmas calls us to a life of action. We are called to follow God away from selfishness and fear. We are called to open our hearts, soften our will and let ourselves become a part of what God is doing. We are called to let Christmas enter our lives and change us forever.
Joseph was called to put aside his selfish pride in order to accept Mary and love her and her son, even though that would invariably mean public embarrassment. Mary, of course, was called to a very a difficult task bearing and raising this son in a situation where she had no real control or understanding.
Like Joseph and Mary, we are all called to be a part of God’s kingdom of grace in this world. And like Joseph and Mary, if we heed that call, we will get swept up in activity and be led into places we would never go if left to ourselves. We will see the world in a new way… and that will lead us to live in a new way.
Our Gospel lesson has a messy beginning. But as we see, God is Lord of our messes, just as sure as he is Lord of the universe.
As Lord of the mess of our small and common lives… and as Lord of the mess of our world, God is always present and moving, drawing new life out of loss and broken dreams, making our lives… with all our disappointments, failures, and weaknesses… a part of his work, taking hold of our hearts and weaving us beautifully into the fabric of his kingdom.