4th Sunday in Advent
Here they come; those Christmas readings that we know and love. We are so attached to them that we sometimes forget how radical they are. In an era when the most religious people of the day were the most invested in making space for the Messiah by being purer and holier than everyone else, God chose to step outside of expectations and come in person through an unmarried girl.
In a day when a woman could be stoned to death for having a baby before she was legally married, Immanuel causes just such a dangerous stir in two families. “How could this be?” is Mary’s question of the angel who comes to her. It’s probably Joseph’s question, too, but he’s asking for a different reason. “How could she have betrayed me?” is probably what he’s thinking. But he is not a person who’s about to publicly shame her, as is his right, and he’s certainly not the kind of man who would drag her before the authorities and ask for the stoning that could have been her fate.
Matthew describes him as a righteous man. Matthew will spend the rest of his Gospel re-defining what righteousness looks like, but we get a wonderful example here.
Rather than claiming his right to get rid of Mary, whom he is shocked to see as failing to keep her promise to him, he chooses instead to listen to a dream. We lift up Mary as the first person to believe that Jesus was the promised Messiah, but Joseph is right there behind her. Righteousness is not simply doing what has been defined as the right thing by the moral authorities, it is listening to God’s voice, and trusting that you have heard it right, and then following the prompting of that Spirit of God which has opened your eyes to a new reality.
This story is just the beginning of God’s turning the tables on everything that God’s people expected. They were looking for a new king, someone to bring back the Kingdom of David and make them a world power once again. They were looking for salvation from the Roman Empire, as the Roman Emperors imposed more and more on their religious freedom. But instead of coming as a superhero to set the Romans and other political powers straight, God comes silently, outside the law to a girl and her betrothed.
This first story of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel sets us up for more shocking events that are hard to explain if you are looking for a super-hero as your Savior. We will hear that he is the cause of a holocaust in which innocent babies are murdered, and he ends up a refugee for the earliest part of his life. This will not be his only close escape, as his ministry will involve many brushes with the religious and political authorities of his day. He will be shunned by those who were the most fervent in looking for his coming, and he will be welcomed by a motley crew of fishermen, peasants, and various kinds of sinners – immoral women, thieves, and tax frauds. He will end up dying a brutal and humiliating death, betrayed by one of his own into the hands of those who were only too glad to get rid of him. But he fooled them all, including those who most fervently embraced him in his life and ministry, by defeating death, and coming back from the grave. He asserted God’s power over the predictable and all the rules by which humans are bound, to announce a new Kingdom, the Reign of God.
It is in this kingdom that the last will be first, that those who weep will be comforted, that swords will be beat into plows. It is in this Kingdom that we are the messengers of hope and good news which has come to any and all in the person of Jesus, whose birth did not register in the annals of power in his day, but whose coming turned the world upside down.
How perfect that God knows from Jesus’ own experience what it means to be without resources, to escape with nothing but your life, to be rejected by those you most want to please. How perfect that God knows in Jesus’ what pain is like, what disappointment is like, how it hurts to lose someone or something that you cling to. Nothing that is common to human experience is unknown to God, directly and personally in the person of Jesus. Nothing we do or think can be a surprise to God. To be human means both to be loving and compassionate and also to be thoughtless and cruel. God’s love is enough to cover all our failures, and God’s grace gives us the assurance of forgiveness that makes it possible to live beyond our limitations; to love others, no matter how unlovable they may be. Now we are the bearers of God’s hope for the world.
You are invited to use the strips inserted in your bulletin to write your prayers for the future of the world, and then to leave them around the cradle at the prayer station in the back of the church on your way out. (Silence for people to think and write their prayers)
In God’s kingdom our hearts are transformed. We experience freedom to accept God’s love and to live it and give it to others. Now, like Joseph, we are the ones called to be righteous, by living God’s dreams for ourselves, our community, our world. I pray that as you hear this story unfold in the coming celebrations of Christ’s birth, that you will see how remarkable the story is, and that you will hear the remarkable story of God at work in your own life as part of it. And then, that you will take your call to be God’s own as your mission to change the world. Amen.
Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.