The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Advent 4—Year A video link
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
Seven more days until Christmas…are you excited? I’m excited. There is this pressure mounting; this momentum building. It’s that excitement that always attends that last few days before a birth; that beloved wonderment that fills us when the new is just about to be revealed, but still hidden just out of sight.
But birthing new life is always risky business. It doesn’t always go as planned. So, before we go all gooey-eyed at that swaddled babe in the manger that we will meet in Luke’s gospel on Christmas Eve, Matthew comes crashing in today on this fourth Sunday of Advent to say, “It’s a bit more complicated than that.”
You see, Joseph and Mary weren’t yet married when all this went down. They were deeply committed, engaged to be married, but they had not yet taken those most intimate steps of marriage. So, it was a bit of a surprise when Mary was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. I mean, let’s do be fair to Joseph, that would be a bit much for any fiancé to wrap their mind around, let alone their heart. Joseph was known to be a righteous man; he had an impeccable reputation in the community. People looked up to him, and there was a certain amount of pride that Joseph took in being perceived that way.
It is such a short step from living in accord with God’s way to getting hooked by the affirmations that come when people look to you as an example. Oh, the false self is a hungry self, demanding to be fed, and it doesn’t really matter to that self where the food is coming from; it just knows it wants more—and it’s not too long until you start to worry more about what people will think of you than you do trying to move with the curve ball that God has just thrown you.
God’s funny that way. Just when we think we’ve got our life figured out, and we’re at the top of our game, God comes along and says, “Hmmm, not so fast. Remember, who you are in me has nothing to do with what that amorphous “they” think of you.” But Joseph was bitten with the righteous bug, and he resolved to do what society expected him to do, divorce his beloved betrothed who was with child.
This sense of righteousness was Joseph’s core value; it was the orienting principle of his life, and while it made him susceptible to other’s opinions, it also made him want to do the right thing by way of the woman he loved. So, he resolved to dismiss her quietly because he was unwilling to expose her to public disgrace. A painful decision for Joseph, but also an honorable one.
But God wasn’t much interested in Joseph’s honor. God wanted to take Joseph deeper than Joseph had ever gone before. I don’t think Joseph took his decision lightly; I think it tore him up, and that turmoil did something to him. Joseph was so armored up by his sense of righteous duty and by his inner turmoil, that God had to wait until Joseph went asleep and his defenses were down to be able to get to him.
In that disarming, open state that comes to us when we sleep, God sent an angel of the Lord to visit him. “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, he will set them free from all those things that are sorely hindering them.”
Translated, that angel of the Lord might well have sounded like this: “Joseph, you’re going to have to lay your sense of righteousness aside; you are going to have to let that piece of your false self go, you are going to have to lean into vulnerability harder than you have ever had to lean before, you are going to have to trust without verification, trust without certainty, trust without any social support, trust that what I am telling you is true.”
Vulnerability—defined by Brené Brown as risk, uncertainty, and emotional exposure. It’s the birthplace of so many things that we run away from—like thinking that vulnerability equals weakness and powerlessness—and it’s the birthplace of all that we long for—creativity, possibility, love, new life. But you cannot get to the new life without passing through the fires of vulnerability, and sometimes, they burn, like Malachi said, “like a refiner’s fire.” I wish it were otherwise, but it ain’t so.
Joseph had to lay down the armor of his reputation and his sense of righteousness to embrace the vulnerability of relying only on the movement of God, and a dream, and the Holy Spirit.
As we prepare for this birth, what armor do we have to lay aside? What are we protecting in ourselves that is actually keeping us from receiving the new life that God wants to birth in us? What spaces in our being, in our psyche, in our heart, in our mind, in our bodies, in our souls need to be opened up and aired out if we are truly to be that mansion prepared for God’s very own self that the opening collect talks about this morning?
All this work we are called to do, by the prophets, by the angel of the Lord, it’s all to fulfill what God has always promised—that God would come to that which we think couldn’t or shouldn’t bear life and fill it with divine presence and dismantle our armor, so that we can know in the depths of our being Emmanuel—God with us.
But we are asleep to this most amazing promise; we are asleep to this most amazing possibility. We cling to our defenses, and our armor, and our reputations and call it living. But in the words of the angel, “Fear not!” God will not be deterred. God will search for that opening; God will come to us in the middle of our sleep state and send an angel crashing into our dreams to invite us and woo us into that place of vulnerability that we do not wish to go and whisper in our ear that if we just go there it will be okay.
And when we wake up, we know something has shifted; a decision has been made from which there is no going back. We have heard the angel’s call, and our hearts can’t resist the life that is yearning to be born in us. We know we have to follow this invitation; we experience it as a command from God; we can’t not follow.
So it was for Joseph—when Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took [Mary] as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
So it was for Joseph, and so it is for us. This fourth Sunday of Advent calls us to release whatever is keeping us from participating in this birth that is to come one week from today. Let God help you lay your armor down; trust that your heart is safe in God’s hands. Hear the angel’s voice, maybe in that sweet voice of Bob Marley, “Singin’ don’t worry about a thing, ‘cause every little thing is gonna be alright…Singin’ don’t worry about a thing, ‘cause every little thing is gonna be alright.”
Let that song carry you forward through your fear, and then, wake up and risk everything so that this child may be born in you, and in your neighbor, and in the world. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
December 18, 2016