There was so much snow, and the roads were so bad that we cancelled both services this morning. Here is the sermon I was prepared to deliver this morning.
This Sermon is based on the readings for the fourth Sunday in Advent in Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary.
Isn’t this just great… You plan and prepare. You spend all this time making sure that everything is arranged and ready. You’re finally confident that you know how it will play out… and then something like this happens. Mary gets pregnant!
Imagine ho Joseph must have felt. Beginning his career, trying to make a name for himself, betrothed to a young woman named Mary… Everything was in place. Life was moving forward in a predictable and safe way. The future seemed bright. And then things changed. People were beginning to stare. They were whispering but the voices were getting louder and it was hard not to hear them. He needed to do something and he needed to do something fast before the whole thing crashed and burned…
And what about Mary? How could she do this to him? They were betrothed, as good as married. There was only one explanation. She had betrayed him. And she had done it in a pretty significant and public way. How could he face her after what she had done to him. She had hurt him badly. And in the process she had brought shame upon him and upon his family. How could he face her? How could he face his family? How could he face his friends and community? This was such a mess!
There was a way to save face, to assert himself, to show that he was in charge. The law allowed him to publicly condemn her and to have her… But no that was just too awful to think about. How could he live with her blood on his hands? It’s just so hard… The only thing to do is to send her away, to dismiss her quietly, let her own family figure out a way to deal with the shame and the pain. This is just so terrible… What an awful mess…
An awful mess… What kind of place is this for a savior to be born? We’ll talk a lot in the coming days about the stable, about a child born in poverty and laid in a manger. But today we are called to consider something else. A child, a son, born amidst a storm of controversy, under the scornful gaze of neighbors and the wounded eyes of family; a child born to a mother who was not yet married, disgraced, dismissed, set aside… Into this awful, wounded, painful mess… Emmanuel is born?
An angel of the Lord comes to Joseph in a dream and tells him something pretty remarkable, unbelievable really, that the child Mary is carrying has been conceived by the Holy Spirit; that the son she bears will save his people from their sins. In the dream the angel tells Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife and the angel tells Joseph to name the child.
Name the child! To name him would be to claim him, to accept him, to adopt him as his own. What Joseph wants and needs most at this moment is to distance himself from this terrible mess; from the scornful eyes of his neighbors, from the wounded and apprehensive faces of his family, from the woman who had hurt him so, and certainly from the child who would be a constant reminder of this painful and awful mess. Name the child? Forgive the girl? Live into the mess? How could he possible do that?
It’s important to note that there is more than one story being told here, more than one voice speaking. We have the story of a young couple whose life has been thrown into chaos and a decision that Joseph must make. We have the narrator Matthew telling the audience, but not the characters in the story, that the child that Mary is carrying is the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy and a promise made to the people of Israel. And we have the story of God breaking into the world in a new and unique way, as a child, conceived out of wedlock, to a girl betrothed to be married. It’s this last story that calls out for our attention on the fourth Sunday of Advent.
Emmanuel, God with us, isn’t born in a palace to wealthy and influential parents; isn’t born into a life of privilege; isn’t born into an antiseptic birthing suite as the climax of a fairy tale romance. The story of the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, of Emmanuel, God with us, is a messy story filled with the real people, real lives and real pain. It is a story that is “real” in so many ways that it is hard to deny.
Hard to deny… Our collect for the days asks God to purify our conscience so that “Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself” but today’s Gospel reading begs the question. Into what kind of mansion is Christ born? It seems pretty hard to deny. Christ, Emmanuel, God with us, is born into real mansions, real lives, filled with confusion, hurt, pain, even doubt. God comes to us where we live and move and have our being, into the messiness of our lives, and places God’s very self in our hands, a child to tend and nurture and love.
We need to pay attention to those other stories too; to the young family thrown into chaos and the decision Joseph makes, his decision to expose himself to the mess and the pain that results in the creation and not the destruction of family, community, and life; to the fulfillment of the promise, of the ancient prophecy, and the faithfulness of God that will draw all of creation into the light saving us from ourselves and from the darkness that threatens us. But we may never get to hear, or tell those stories if we aren’t ready to embrace the “real” story in today’s Gospel reading.
God isn’t waiting for us to finish all of our preparations and planning. God doesn’t need us to have everything arranged and ready. And God certainly doesn’t care whether or not we have a clear vision and understanding of how everything will play out in the end. What God wants us to do is to be still, to remember the dream, and to acknowledge the pain, the hurt, the frustration, the woundedness, the messiness of our lives and to be ready and willing to meet God there, in the middle of it all, as a child to tend, nurture, and love.