Thr Rev. Cynthia K.R. Banks; Advent 4—Year A; Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25
Here’s a question for all partners who have ever accompanied your beloved through a pregnancy—who is the most important person during the pregnancy? The child, yes, but who is really the most important person in the pregnancy? The woman! Partners, especially fathers, find themselves relegated to the sidelines. An appendage to where the real action is taking place. This is true in any pregnancy. Now take that and multiply it exponentially. Your beloved partner is found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Talk about being on the sidelines. As the father, this is not even your child! You are left in the dust. So often in the Christmas Story, we focus on Mary. It’s all about Mary. But every third year, we get Matthew’s take on these events. And today, it’s all about Joseph. So non-pregnant partners, fathers, this is your day.
Now, Joseph was a man of the world, a smart man, a man of the tradition. He was engaged to Mary, but they weren’t living together, and they had had no relations. Mary is found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Yeah, right. But Joseph was an upright man, a righteous man, a kind man—he didn’t want to expose her to the public disgrace that was rightfully hers to suffer, so he planned to dismiss her quietly. It was the kindest thing he could do. She would go away, quietly. Did Joseph really think this through? What would surely await a young woman who gave birth to a child out of wedlock? What shame would still be hers to bear? What was Joseph trying to protect? Who was Joseph trying to protect? Mary, yes, but also himself and his reputation.
But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “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 is people from their sins.”
All of this had a deep resonance with what the Lord had spoken long ago through the prophet Isaiah, “Look, the young woman is with child, the virgin shall conceive (young woman and virgin being the same word in hebrew), and she shall bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, “God is with us.”
When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
For all the talk of Mary, we have to be honest, without Joseph, and his change of heart, Jesus would have had no chance in that world because without Joseph, Jesus would have had no standing in that society. Joseph isn’t some appendage to the story, but he is central to it. The promised Messiah would come from the line of David, and the line of David flows through Joseph, not through Mary. Just as without Mary’s willing, “Let it be with me according to your word,” so too with Joseph’s decision not to dismiss Mary quietly but instead to take her as his wife—without these intentional choices, there is no Jesus to fulfill what had long been promised—there is no “God with us.”
Mary and Joseph, they are both perfectly ordinary people on whom decisions rest that change the course of the world. But they didn’t know that at the time. They just did the next right thing, even if they planned to do a wrong thing before they did the right thing. Coming into alignment with God’s desire to be with us is what enabled them to change course and allowed Emmanuel to indeed become “God with us.”
So, on this fourth Sunday of Advent just two days before we will celebrate the Nativity of our Lord, how ready are you to take on the stares, the scandal, the sneers if you really take this Lord on as your own flesh and blood? Do you find the presence of Jesus just slightly embarrassing? Are there subtle, and not so subtle, ways that you plan to distance yourself from the scandalous nature of his life? He so doesn’t play be the rules; in fact, he so overturns them. He messes with good order on a regular basis, and he keeps company with all the wrong people, including people at both ends of the spectrum and everywhere in-between. His abundance and generosity so reveals our poverty as we cling to whatever we think will make us feel secure. Even while we await Christmas Eve when we can sing all those glorious hymns, are we secretly plotting our escape route and how we can dismiss him quietly before he turns our lives upside down. The angel asks Joseph to do no small thing. And we are asked to do no less.
Can we cast our fortune in with this crazy, outlandish dream? Can we trust that this One waiting to be born is indeed Emmanuel, the incarnation of God, the very touchable, flesh-and-blood stuff of God with us? Can we believe that we have a role to play, without which God has nowhere to land? Can we believe that we are called to father divinity just as we are called to bear it in our being? Can we heed a dream, risk looking like a fool, take on the possibility of ridicule and shame and all to make a way for God to become flesh in this world?
We’re not just marking time on this fourth Sunday of Advent. We’re not just waiting for the big day to come. Today is a day for intentionality and decision. Will we make space for Jesus to come into this world, or not? Will we do as the Collect suggests and purify our conscience so that Jesus Christ at his coming may find in us a mansion prepared for himself? We can stay at the surface, caught up in all the trimmings of the season, and ever so subtly dismiss our Lord ever so quietly, or we can wake up from our sleep and embrace him with our whole heart and mind and body and soul, no matter the cost in the eyes of the world.
Joseph had a decision to make. So do we. Will we play it safe and not risk the public disgrace of it all, or will go all in and claim this child as our own? As with all children, if we choose the latter, we need to know, our life will no longer be our own. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
December 22, 2013