Advent 4 – December 22, 2019
Matthew 1:18 – 25
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 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 his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and 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.
I love this story. You know, we know almost nothing about Joseph. We know he’s a carpenter and we have a glimpse into his life through this story. Even in the church we don’t pay much attention to Joseph.
The readings that we proclaim each Sunday are set out in what we know as the Revised Common Lectionary. The Sunday lectionary is broken up into three years, A, B, and C. Currently we’re in Year A. And this is the only Sunday in all of the Sundays of Advent in all of the years that we hear this story. In Years B and C the 4th Sunday of Advent is always about Mary. Today….today we get to hear Joseph’s story.
For me, Joseph is an amazing man. He’s full of compassion that led him to the decision to quietly dismiss Mary rather than opting for a more public, humiliating and completely legal dismissal that had the potential to see Mary stoned to death.
He was open to a change of heart and to stay with Mary in the midst of this scandal that would have changed how everyone in town looked at them. Make no mistake, there was nothing easy about his decision. And yet he was willing. He listened to the unexpected, saw it as the work of God, and he willingly obeyed.
The “work of God” aspect of this story is one that can catch us in the midst of our own controversy. Was this a virgin birth or not? It’s a question that continues to fuel debate, even today. For some people, the virgin birth is a necessary foundation of their faith. Other people don’t need a virgin birth to ground their faith. Listening to how people perceive this story, it’s an either or. There’s a right way of looking at it and a wrong way.
I wonder, when we get lost in the debate about how Jesus was conceived if we might miss the deeper point of this story. Ironically perhaps, the clue to the deeper meaning is also at the crux of the debate. “The child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit,” says the angel in Joseph’s dream. Hearing those words, we’re faced with a choice this morning. Do we want to talk about whether or not we believe in the virgin birth? Or, do we want to take a deeper look at what the author might mean when pointing to the Holy Spirit?
I decided to take a deeper look at the Holy Spirit. This is not the first time in the Canon of the Bible that we hear about the work of the Holy Spirit.
At the very start of Genesis, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” The Greek word for Holy Spirit is “pneuma”, wind. God’s Spirit moved over the deep of the waters leading to a new beginning. (Genesis 1:2)
In the Book of Numbers we read the story of Moses speaking with God. Moses has become frustrated by the people he was leading and their constant complaining. He’s finally reached the end of his rope and he tells God that he can no longer carry all the people. They have simply become too heavy. God tells Moses to gather 70 elders and bring them to the house of meeting. There God will take some of God’s Spirit that rests on Moses and place it on those elders. God’s Spirit is shared as Moses’s leadership is then spread across a group of leaders. (Numbers 11:17, 25)
In the First Book of Samuel we read the story of Samuel anointing Saul. God’s Spirit fills Saul and he prophecies. His role as a leader of the people begins. (1 Samuel 10:6, 10)
Recorded in the Book of Isaiah, we read the prophet’s words as he describes that the spirit of the Lord God is upon him because he has been anointed to “bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners… to comfort all who mourn.” (Isaiah 61:1, 2b)
God’s Spirit appears and something new begins.
God’s Spirit is working in the lives of Mary and Joseph and the birth of Jesus brings a new beginning. It’s a new beginning that is God-driven. Human beings did nothing to bring this about. It’s all about what God is doing in the world.
In this moment we hear the news that God is about to put skin on and dwell amongst us, helping us to see and to know a new way of being in the world.
In the moment of Joseph’s dream, God is inviting him to participate in this new beginning. By taking Mary as his wife, Joseph is stepping into this new beginning that God is at work creating. By naming Jesus, he’s acknowledging Jesus as his son and deepening his participation.
Joseph strikes me as being a very strong man. His faithfulness in listening and obeying God in the unexpected events of his life is, well, amazing. The dream we’re told of this morning is filled with challenges. Joseph is in the middle of a scandal now that his fiancé has found herself to be with child. Societal standards would have Joseph leave Mary. Whether or not he did that quietly or publicly seemed to be his choice. But leaving her was the expected response. Really there was no other option.
Until that dream. We’re not told that Joseph even had a second thought once the angel had told him what he needed to do. No complaining. No arguing. He simply awoke and did what he was told to do. Immediately. The dream must have thrown him off. In it, Joseph was being asked to turn his back on social custom and throw himself, all of himself, into a scandal that would have been the talk of the town for a good long time.
I suspect that Joseph had a good understanding of what it meant to be anointed by the Spirit of God. He likely knew the stories from the Old Testament like the back of his hand. He knew that when unexpected things happened, it might just be the Spirit of God working to bring about something new.
It may be, that because he knew the stories so well, that when it happened to him in that dream, he immediately recognized what was going on. Maybe he’d even had unexpected experiences in his life that turned out to be God’s Spirit bringing about something new so when he had that dream, he could simply wake up and utter a whole-hearted, faithful, “YES”!
Experiences, whether they’re from stories we hear, or from our own personal journals, help us to recognize patterns that can shape our responses. It wasn’t that long ago that St. Jude’s had one of those unexpected moments. Many of you will remember our working together with First Presbyterian Church to organize a summer reading program that we called Read and Feed. It was a powerful program that invited participation from a wide number of parishioners from both congregations.
At the end of each program year, we were overflowing with happiness and fulfillment as we’d watched a group of at-risk kids arrive with tentative steps unsure of what to expect. By the end of the program they had made many new friends and had developed a confidence in reading that they hadn’t demonstrated when they arrived. It was an amazing program to participate in.
Then the schools began to offer longer summer reading programs that accomplished the same tasks. Responding to declining enrollment in Read and Feed, the program ended. The hole that it left provided an opportunity for God to do the unexpected and to call us into a new kind of ministry.
It was the birth of the Non-Snap Essentials Pantry initiative. We noticed that something was missing for all those who live with food insecurity. There’s a bunch of stuff that never gets provided. Dish soap, laundry soap, shampoo, toothpaste, toilet paper and other paper products. The list goes on and on. It was an overwhelming undertaking. We felt called to respond to this need and had no idea how to start.
By listening and responding with an enthusiastic “Yes”, we’ve been able to connect better with those who attend our food truck give-aways. By sharing our story, we’ve received a very generous grant from the Diocese of Eastern Michigan to help us as we move forward. That grant was tied to our Non-Snap initiative as well as our food trucks and our Spring Lunch program. So next year, in 2020, we will double the number of food trucks we offer and we will pay for the three additional trucks. And we’ll continue to supplement the food that we give away with our non-snap products.
When we’re met with unexpected circumstances, it may just be that God is at work inviting us to participate in something new. Joseph knew what it meant to listen to God. He wasn’t expecting to have a dream that told him to stay with Mary, despite the controversy such a marriage would invite. He wasn’t expecting to marry the woman who carried the child that wasn’t his. But the Holy Spirit was involved. And that meant this was a new beginning. A new beginning he would embrace.
Today, that invitation is being extended to each and every one of us. Our journey through Advent has brought us to the brink of another new beginning. Emmanuel, God with us, is about to appear and call us again to participate. What will our answer be?