A sermon for Advent 4; Isaiah 7:10-16, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25, Psalm 80:17, 16-18
Boyfriend: “What would you say if I asked you to marry me?”
Girlfriend: “I’d say ‘DUCK’!”
Boyfriend: “Duck? Why?!”
Girlfriend: “Because my father will want to shoot you.” (not always romantic.com).
This just goes to show that some things haven’t changed a whole lot in 2,000 years. Mary is engaged to Joseph. That means a lot more than engagements mean today. It is a legal contract with stiff penalties for breaking the engagement. According to Deuteronomy (22:23-27)
23 If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, 24 you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.
This morning’s Gospel story opens after Joseph has already decided what to do (Boring). Its opening is full of heartache (Lose). Joseph is a righteous man, which means he keeps the law but it also means he is a just man (Boring). Joseph is engaged to Mary who is unexpectedly pregnant. He decides to keep the law, but by quietly sending her home. In the face of a disgraceful situation, with all its heartbreak, Joseph’s makes a rational, gently ethical decision (Epperly). Though distasteful, his troubles will soon be over. Joseph heads off for a good night sleep.
We are always encouraged to get a good night’s sleep. I expect that was exactly what Joseph was hoping for. Only the dreams that come with a deep sleep can be so disruptive, they can change your world (Epperly). Ask Joseph. He falls asleep, deeply asleep. And then ~ then he dreams.
In his dream, he is spoken to by an angel, a divine messenger from God. The message turns his world over. Joseph is told Mary’s child is of the Spirit. He is not to be afraid He is to go ahead with his marriage to Marry, as socially unconventional and shameful as it is (Harrelson). The child will be named Jesus, and he will save God’s people from their sins. Perhaps Joseph in his dream remembers Isaiah: Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel” (Isaiah 7: 14) Whether it be the angel or the citing from Isaiah there was some credence or importance to the message because Joseph … did as the angel of the Lord commanded him. (Matt 1:24)
It is Joseph’s actions that captured me this morning. He displays the obedience Paul refers to in Romans when he writes as part of being set apart for the Gospel … to bring about obedience of faith (Romans 1:1, 5) (Ellingsen). We already know Joseph is righteous because he follows the law. But, righteousness is more a quality of one’s relationship with God (Pankey). One measure of Joseph’s relationship is that he is also open to the divine mystical, this time a divine message in a dream (Epperly). We learn that he is righteous by his actions, that are counter-intuitive, and difficult; it is a near certainty that some of his neighbors whispered over fence lines. We have to learn from Joseph’s actions because Joseph never speaks; not in this story never ~ in all the Gospels does Joseph say a word (Hoezee).
Joseph’s actions reveal his mysticism. Part of being open to the mystical is to be open to divine power that is at work within us that is able to accomplish more than all we can ask or imagine, (Ephesians 3:20) (Epperly). I doubt that Joseph ever imagined that he would be the pseudo father of God’s son on earth. Being open to the mystical is to accept the unexpected. Jesus himself is unexpected. That God did not choose an accomplished priest, a Pharisee, a Sadducee or an accomplished politician is unexpected. But he chose a rather ordinary man with his own doubts and questions who wanted to do the right thing but needs angelic guidance to accomplish it is all the more startling to us (Lose). Think of how startling it is to Joseph. Joseph’s righteous mysticism allows him to be part of the apocalypse, the revelation of the divine secret for the future of the world known in Jesus’ birth. (Sakenfeld) (Allen).
Joseph’s face to face with the unlikely manifestation of the presence of God in the here and now is a model for all of us who encounter a divine message through an Angle, the Spirit, Jesus or God’s divine self (Allen). His acceptance and actions make him a part of the message that the birth of Jesus signals that the final transformation of humanity and the cosmos is underway and that the community, we, can remain faithful even in the face of conflict and chaos because they can believe that the transformation is already in process (Allen). Joseph’s story reminds us that it can be safer to keep God at a distance; because when we are in God’s presence, someone is going to tell us a truth whether we want to hear it or not. One the other hand it is Advent; and Advent is a time to see divine light, to reorient our lives to that light and to share the light, the light, of the truth of God’s presence (Lewis). This story also reminds us to be wary of those who speak of Christmas, or Jesus’s birth, without trembling at the mere thought of divine incarnation that God would come to us, in human form (Whitley). Mary was troubled. Joseph was troubled. To speak so lightly of Jesus’ birth as to not be troubled may demonstrate a shallowness of soil in which roots, cannot take hold.
Joseph’s story reminds us that God really is with you and there is a messenger with a special message, just for you. What are your dreams? what divine message is there? How is God communicating with you? what is your divine message? what is your calling? In the face of significant disappointment or heartache, how do you respond? With rational – ethical – gentleness; or some other way? Do you remain open to the mystical; open to more than we can ask or imagine? Joseph sets an ethical example for all of us. His behavior reminds us that ethics is acting in ways that follow God’s calling not social customs; even those we have long attributed to God.
Today is the 4th Sunday of Advent. In six short days, we will step into Joseph’s story. It will be our turn to receive and hear an angelic messenger. It will be our choice to fully live into the message, or not. It will be another opportunity to test God, to accept divine restoration, to be set aside for the Gospel, and share our faith in the divine mystery that has and continues to form our lives so that in all we do we bring grace and peace to all from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Allen, Ron. Commentary on Matthew 1:18-25. 18 12 2016 <http://www.workingpreacher.org/>.
Boring, M. Eugene. The Gospel of Matthew. Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. X!! vols. App Olivetree.
Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 18 12 2016. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/>.
Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 18 12 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly>.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Hoezee, Scott. Advent 4A | Matthew. 18 12 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel>.
Lewis, Karoline. The Good News of God With Us. 18 12 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.
Lose, David. Advent 4 A: God Really With Us. 18 12 2016.
not always romantic.com. shotgun-wedding. n.d. 16 12 2016. <https://notalwaysromantic.com/shotgun-wedding/21546>.
Pankey, Steve. “Jesus’ other name.” 18 12 2016. Draughting Theology.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.
Whitley, Katerina. “God is With Us! Advent 4(A).” 18 12 2016. Sermons that Work.