Sunday, December 26, 2010

December 19 Sermon (Advent 4)

When it comes to the Nativity, we think of Mary & Jesus, the animals in the stable, the angels singing overhead, the shepherds who will come leaving their sheep, the magi bringing gifts and Joseph.

Joseph is always there but he does seem at times to be a side character, not as important as the others. I think of a Nativity Icon, that captures all the different stories of Christmas and there Joseph sits in the corner of the icon, with his head resting in his hands wondering what has happened…

But it is Gospel of Matthew who reminds us of the importance of Joseph, b/c Matthew tells us that Jesus is named by the angel to Joseph in a dream. Dreams play important roles in the lives of so many characters in the bible. For Joseph, when he heard the angel speak to him in that dream, he had a decision to make. Joseph was engaged to be married to Mary. He found out she was pregnant. He knew it wasn’t his. What was he to do?

He could throw her out, and make a huge stink and let everyone know about the child conceived out of wedlock. He could get the people to ostracize her, maybe even stone her to death. But Joseph was a righteous man, and he decided to dismiss her quietly, a generous and merciful act. But in that dream an angel of the Lord appears to him and everything changes. I think the poet and author Rainer Rilke captured that moment:
AND the angel, taking due pains, told the man who clenched his fists: But can't you see in her robe's every fold that she is cool as the Lord's morning mists?

But the other, gazing gloomily, just murmured: What is it has wrought this change in her? Then cried the angel to him: Carpenter, can't you see yet that God is acting here? Because you plane the planks, in your pride would you really make the Lord God answerable who unpretentiously from the same wood makes the leaves burst forth, the young buds swell?

He understood that. And now as he raised his frightened glance toward the angel who was gone already . . . slowly the man drew his heavy cap off. Then in song he praised.
It is a startling dream and it must have shook his soul, but in the end he did praise, he did accept it.
“Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit, and you will name him Jesus and he will save his people from their sins.”
Joseph had set his mind on leaving her. He could have said no to the angel. But Joseph does not, he listens, he takes Mary as his wife. And Jesus is born. And all will change because of this child. The words of Isaiah ring in our ears:
“The young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” and “he will refuse the evil and choose the good.”
One of my favorite nativity sets I have seen has Mary lying down and Joseph standing holding the baby Jesus. Not only did Joseph say yes, but he indeed became Jesus’ father and loved him as his own. When we hear these readings we look back, we can see God's saving work in Isaiah and in the Gospel of Matthew. God has sought out men and women to be in relationship with their God, the creator, and to guide them toward salvation.

In each reading God speaks of salvation through the birth of a child. For our God is the Lord of heaven and earth, of the history of nations and from the greatest in Israel to the least; for Emmanuel, God is with us. Let us follow Joseph's example: The willingness to change our mind when confronted by God’s word and God’s spirit. The courage in the midst of fear to follow God’s way even if one does not know where it may lead. In the words of W. H. Auden:
To choose what is difficult all one’s days As if it were easy, that is faith. Joseph, praise.
May we have the courage and faith of Joseph, to say yes to God, to welcome the birth of Jesus at Christmas with all the anticipation and hope that we have had this season of Advent. For it is a time to rejoice and as Madeline L’engle put it:
GOD did not wait till the world was ready, till . . . nations were at peace. God came when the Heavens were unsteady, and prisoners cried out for release. God did not wait for the perfect time. God came when the need was deep and great… We cannot wait till the world is sane to raise our songs with joyful voice, for to share our grief, to touch our pain, God came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

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