Sunday, December 23, 2007

Advent 4A

Isaiah 7:10-17; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

“I can’t believe that,” said Alice.

“Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”

Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said. “One can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Six impossible things before breakfast… It’s not such a stretch at this time a year, is it? We have to believe at least six impossible things each day just to make it through to the next day. I will get all the gifts wrapped in time, I will bake a batch of cookies that doesn’t burn on the bottom, I will get the house cleaned for our guests, I will remember all the groceries so I don’t have to go to the store on Christmas Eve…

It hardly seems possible, but Christmas is just two days away. Can you believe it? In just two days we will hear the angel choirs and smell the sweet hay and see the Savior of the world lying in a manger. In just two days we will gaze with Mary at the baby and ponder the words of the shepherds in our hearts. In just two days we will stand with Joseph and…well, stand there.

In just two days we will read again from the gospel of Luke that most familiar of Christmas stories, in which heavenly light shines on angels and shepherds and mothers and babies but never on Joseph. He is present only as a shadow might be present at the edge of the glory of God. He is in every scene, but with no speaking roles, unless he’s the one who asks if there is room for himself and his weary wife at the inn. And yet, none of the story would have been possible without him.

This morning we read from the gospel of Matthew a far less familiar Christmas story. Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. In this story, heavenly light shines on Joseph alone, while Mary and an angel move in the shadows on the edge of his scenes. Suddenly, that figure from our nativity sets whom we usually mistake for another shepherd has a life and a spirit and a voice of his own – he still has no lines, but Joseph’s actions in this Christmas story speak volumes.

“I can’t believe that,” Joseph might have said to Mary, when she told him an impossible to believe tale about how she came to be pregnant. “Can’t you?” she might have responded, pleading. “Try again: draw a long breath and shut your eyes.” But then Joseph would only have sighed sadly and said, “There’s no use trying. One can’t believe impossible things.”

Joseph and Mary were betrothed to one another, a commitment that was far more legally significant than our engagements are today. Mary’s pregnancy, which Joseph only knew was not his doing, would have brought shame upon them both. Her family would not have accepted her back, forcing her to earn her living and raise her illegitimate child on the streets. And that was the best case scenario – according to the law, she might be stoned to death for her unfaithfulness.

What a mess. One day Joseph is happily going about his work as a carpenter, dreaming of the home he will build for his wife-to-be, dreaming of the life they will build together. When he wakes up the next day, she’s pregnant, his trust is betrayed, his name is ruined, his livelihood is threatened, his future is uncertain. Joseph has every right to cast Mary out into the street, but Matthew tells us he is a man of deep compassion, a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, and so he decides to divorce her quietly, to separate himself from the mess.

Joseph’s sleep must have been fitful that night, filled with dreams of shadows and stones. But as he tossed and turned, an angel appeared to him and whispered an earful of impossible things for him to practice believing before he ate breakfast. Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid. The baby she carries is of the Holy Spirit. You will name him Jesus, which means “God saves”. Your son will save people from their sins.

At the heart of Matthew’s Christmas story is a good man who wakes up to a wrecked life. He looks at the mess he had nothing to do with creating, and he must decide whether to believe his dreams, to believe his wife, to believe God. The Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor wonders, “Will he believe the impossible and give [the tiny, helpless, powerful, vulnerable Savior] a home, or will he stick with what makes sense and let the miracle go hungry?”

Things were a mess for King Ahaz in our reading from Isaiah. The kingdom of Judah was in imminent danger of being overtaken by the powerful Assyrian army. Other smaller nations were urging King Ahaz to join forces with them against the Assyrians, but Isaiah counseled him to have faith in God’s power to deliver Judah instead. In a rare move, God personally offers Ahaz a sign that all will be well – before a newborn baby grows old enough to eat solid foods, the kingdom of Judah will be safe.

It is true for all of us, isn’t it, that life can get terribly messy. Like Joseph and his wife Mary (who, remember, utters a bewildered “How can this be?” when an angel announces the role God hoped she would accept)…Like Joseph and Mary and King Ahaz, we are daily presented with circumstances beyond our control, lives we never would have chosen, messes we can’t possibly clean up alone. We need a helper. We need a cleaning service. We need a savior.

Joseph, son of David, 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. Six impossible things to believe before breakfast. It was going to get messier before it got any easier, if it would ever be easy at all to be the adopted father, the legal guardian of God. But Matthew tells us, When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took Mary as his wife…and she bore a son; and he named him Jesus. Jesus, the Greek translation of the Hebrew name Joshua, which means “God saves.”

In this season of expectation, of waiting for Emmanuel, God-with-us, of waiting for God to come into our messiness, we learn from prophets and angels and dreams, we learn from the stories of King Ahaz and Joseph, that God is already here. God is already here, strengthening, supporting, protecting, calling us to enter the mess faithfully, knowing that God is with us.

We also learn, though, that God comes to save us in, and not necessarily from, the messes that we make and that get made all around us. God saves us by calling us to believe the impossible – that God’s love is stronger than death, that God’s peace is more powerful than chaos, that God’s light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.

In the messy Middle Ages, Julian of Norwich dreamed of God, and she wrote, “The words ‘You will not be overcome’ were said very sharply and very powerfully as a security and a comfort to be used in any tribulation that may come. God did not say, ‘You will not be troubled’ or ‘You will not have bitter labor’ or ‘You will have no discomfort,’ but ‘You will not be overcome.’ God wills that we pay attention to this word and that we be ever strong in faithful trust, in well-being and woe. For God loves us and delights in us, and wills that, in the same way, we love and delight and strongly trust in God – and all shall be well.”

The season of Advent all along has been about God coming to be with us, not just once wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger but every day of our lives, calling us to believe that with God, all things are possible, as Jesus told John the Baptist in our gospel reading last Sunday: the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised. With God all things are possible. Is it possible that we might say yes to God? That we might, like Joseph, have the courage to embrace the messiness of life, adopt it as our own, and rock it tenderly in our arms?

As we approach the little town of Bethlehem and make our way toward the stable, may we risk getting messy, may we believe the impossible, may we hold our dreams close, may we draw a long breath and shut our eyes and listen for the angels who whisper day and night in our ears, “Do not be afraid. God is here. It may not be the life you planned, but God may be born here, too, if you will permit it. And you will call his name Jesus, ‘God saves.’” Amen.

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