Sunday, December 18, 2016
Fourth Sunday in Advent
Shepherd of Israel, may Jesus, Emmanuel and son of Mary, be more than just a dream in our hearts. With the apostles, prophets, and saints, save us, restore us, and lead us in the way of grace and peace, that we may bear your promise into the world. Amen.
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 fulfill 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, ëGod 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.
All readings for this week
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Questions for reflection
1. How does Joseph’s acceptance of Jesus and Mary into his life model extravagant hospitality for the United Church of Christ today?
2. What situations lead you to ask for a sign from God, a word of leading? What new paths might God be calling you to take?
3. Do the people of your congregation experience themselves as vulnerable? If not, what is the foundation on which your assurance is built?
4. How do we name Jesus in our lives: does it matter that Emmanuel is in our midst, each day?
5. Do we name ourselves disciples of Jesus? Do we think of ourselves that way, each day, and let it affect how we live our lives?
Reflection by Kate Matthews
Our Advent readings have certainly built up our hopes and expectations, with promises about war turning into peace; gentleness, not violence, becoming “the norm” even in nature itself; and all of us coming home at last to the God of healing, wholeness, and reconciliation. We’ve been looking forward, not backward, in this season of anticipation, and this week’s focus reading brings us to the long-awaited moment of God’s dramatic “new thing,” God’s fresh, new act in the drama of salvation. While we hear the story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Luke from Mary’s perspective, here, in the Gospel of Matthew, we get Joseph’s point of view.
Things get interesting very quickly. Matthew’s economy of words doesn’t provide a lot of details but does help us to understand what’s going through Joseph’s mind during these extraordinary events. Even so, scholars don’t interpret that information the same way: is Joseph’s plan to “dismiss her quietly” a merciful thing to do, or an act that frees him from dealing with the situation and leaves Mary to the mercies of a culture that might exact a much harsher punishment, perhaps even death? Richard Swanson offers a fuller discussion of the latter interpretation in his excellent book, Provoking the Gospel of Matthew: A Storyteller’s Commentary, but many others draw a gentler picture of this mysterious figure in the infancy narrative.
Two Josephs, two stories
For example, David Bartlett makes an intriguing comparison between this Joseph and his ancestor in Genesis: like the earlier Joseph, this one “reads dreams to receive God’s revelation…travels into Egypt in fulfilment of a divine plan he does not altogether understand…[and] is a ‘righteous’ man.” Another way to read the text is one that we might connect with most meaningfully: Joseph as a man who wants to be observant and faithful to the Law but also answers to an inner sense of compassion and mercy (we might say, the Spirit) when he chooses not to humiliate Mary with a public divorce. After all, the early Christians of Matthew’s community (just like us today) struggled with this question of obeying the heart of the Law while remaining faithful to the imperative to love one another.
For those early Christians, the word “righteous” didn’t mean hypocritical or judgmental, but faithful and good, and Joseph is surely faithful and good, the text tells us. He strives to obey the Law but perhaps not strictly: “Joseph is already facing the ‘you-have-heard-it-was-said-but-I-say-to-you’ tension that will be displayed in the Sermon on the Mount (5:21-48),” M. Eugene Boring writes, “the tension between the prevailing understanding of God’s commandments and the new thing that God is doing in Jesus.” Boring calls this “a central problem” for this tiny ancient community, but believers in every age have struggled with what to do when what we’ve been taught to do conflicts with what our hearts know is right and good. What then is true righteousness?
What was expected of Joseph?
Alyce M. McKenzie provides one of the most helpful reflections on this scene, observing that Joseph was no minor player in this drama but had a crucial role, for “he must accept Jesus as his son and give him a name to seal the relationship.” To accomplish this in the face of what appeared to be expected of Joseph (divorcing Mary), God sends an angel to him, in a dream. McKenzie deftly weaves the call of God and the response of a willing, faithful person like Joseph: “In his sleeping state, Joseph allows God to speak to the depths of his heart and to propose a resolution to the dilemma that his human reason had failed to discern.”
Susan B. Andrews has written an especially beautiful reflection on this passage; her pastoral perspective draws on the work of Walter Brueggemann about dreams in the Bible and the way they change human hearts and lives, from Jacob and OT Joseph to Daniel and the Magi, one story at a time: “So the story of God’s goodness and grace is written on one more human heart,” writes Andrews. She suggests that the righteousness of this NT Joseph “has to do with trusting intuition and imagination–being in right relationship with the dreams of God.”
Where did Jesus come from?
While I appreciate the lectionary for the structure it provides through the liturgical year, I think that there are some very important passages that we never get around to, if we only hear and study the texts in the lectionary. The Nativity narratives (or at least the excerpts we focus on), for example, are so familiar that we miss the opportunity to explore them more deeply, if we would draw on the background provided, for example, by the genealogy of Jesus at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel.
I can imagine a dramatic reading of the list of Joseph’s ancestors, following by this passage, and the perhaps jarring question that might arise in our minds: “Wait. How does the story of the virgin birth work, if Jesus is descended from the line of Joseph?” If we don’t hear the genealogy passage during Sunday worship, it is certainly worth a closer look and an in-depth discussion at Bible study. (These are things I’m thinking about, in my first Advent in retirement.)
A closer look at the genealogy makes us appreciate the between-the-lines significance of including Gentiles and women–not all of them saintly, as we might expect–in Joseph’s and Jesus’ lineage (Mary the Mother of Jesus, of course, has always been cast in almost-unapproachably saintly terms). Susan B. Andrews describes the genealogy here as telling a story of God’s “providence”: “Gentiles being welcomed, sinners being changed, transgressions nurturing transformation, fear fueling courage. It is out of a ghastly, goodly heritage that Jesus is born.” There is also the matter of women who spoke up and acted boldly (Ruth, Rahab, Tamar, etc.) being included rather than the more saintly “mothers” of Israel, although their stories are also rich indeed.
Jesus as righteous and faithful
Back to the question of “righteousness”: for the early Christians and for us today, the example and teachings of Jesus illuminated what Mary Hinkle Shore calls a “good” kind of righteousness that doesn’t mean “a slavish, inhumane attention to the letter of the law” but a wholehearted faithfulness to the spirit of the Beatitudes (which we find several chapters later in Matthew). That’s the kind of righteousness embodied by Joseph, who shows mercy toward Mary, Shore says.
Mary is vulnerable in this story, as so many women are in every time and place, and not only women, but children, the sick, those with disabilities, the old, the poor, and nature itself (our news today, for example, says that giraffes are now considered “vulnerable” to extinction). Alas, in such challenging times, there are many folks who experience the “righteousness” of some Christians not as mercy or love but as harsh judgment. Too often I find myself jumping into discussions on Facebook in defense of the church, trying to make the case that “not all people of faith, not all churches believe” whatever harsh thing has been posted by someone else who seems almost delighted to provide a word of judgment.
If Joseph provides an example for us of faithfulness tempered and shaped by mercy, how might we re-learn the meaning of “righteousness” as followers of Jesus in our own time? How might that kind of righteousness–without judgment but suffused with mercy–inform our discussions of issues like the pro-life/pro-choice debates? How do we avoid Bonhoeffer’s concerns about “cheap grace” and acknowledge the expectations, even demands, of the gospel?
What is Matthew really talking about? God, of course
As we wrestle with these questions, we know that we are not on our own: the Spirit of God remains with us always. In fact, this story teaches us something about that presence of God with us. It’s right there in Jesus’ other name, Emmanuel, “God-with-us.” Matthew’s spare story-telling isn’t concerned with providing us with a pretty nativity scene for our Christmas decorations: he has more pressing issues, like establishing who this Jesus is, and just what is going on here with this remarkable turn of events.
This is a new and very important thing that is happening, and God is doing it. While the story tells us what Joseph did in response to events around him, Shore writes, the main character in action here is God, so “it is fitting to give God some verbs here,” for in this story it’s God whose Spirit has come upon Mary in the first place; it’s God who speaks to Joseph, calms his fears and gives him instructions, and, in the end, “comes to the aid of Israel and ‘all people according to their needs.'”
Exercising our religious imagination
This unique gift of “the God who saves” is Jesus, who is “more than the accumulated best of his ancestors,” Charles Cousar writes. Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, we watch and listen as Jesus reveals the hand of God at work in the world, undoing the damage that has been done by human sin, so this extraordinary birth fulfills what has come before, the promises and purposes of God, Cousar says: “The fresh, new act of God ushers in an age, long expected and hoped for, yet in a fashion so unusual that it could hardly be anticipated.”
Once again, those promises of peace, healing, restoration, salvation. And once again, we need to exercise mightily our gift of religious imagination to believe such wonderful things are about to unfold.
The name “Emmanuel” (God with us) is more than a nice name for a sweet baby. You might say that it frames the whole Gospel of Matthew, that it tells the story of what God is about, and for the early Jewish Christians it was especially clear that this gift of Jesus was meant to fulfill the longing of their ancestors for all people, not just their own, to recognize God as their God, too, Shore reminds us.
Beautiful values will transform the world
In Jesus, those early Christians–and Christians throughout the ages, before we got so distracted by other things–could encounter God and experience God’s saving grace, God’s tender mercies, God’s healing love. But we know that in Jesus we hear about God’s expectations, too, even though we know they are beyond our capacities, that is, without God’s grace to help us, God’s presence to make us able to accomplish more than we ever dreamed of. Those beautiful Beatitudes are hard to live up to, as are many of the teachings of Jesus. It seems that we fell back on human ways of judging and harsh standards, rather than beautiful values that would transform the world.
In my study, for example, hangs a lovely woven scene of birds and flowers, with the words from the sixth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, And yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow.” Yes, the words and image are a lovely way for me to begin my day, but do they actually shape my life? I think Joseph was really shaped by the most beautiful, most merciful, most tender words of God, from his own tradition, that he must have heard from childhood (“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne?” Isaiah 49:15).
God is the One who will save
When we are afraid or discouraged and feel we can never measure up to the demands of the gospel, we might ponder with Joseph the meaning of the name of Jesus, “he will save,” and remember that it’s God who is acting here, not we ourselves, as Charles Cousar reminds us. It’s not up to us, and yet we are called, invited, to participate in this most wonderful thing that is happening, with God’s mercies, new each morning (Lamentations 3:22-23).
In our own efforts to be “righteous,” we are promised that God is with us, helping us every step of the way, just as God helped Joseph. (Still, Joseph had to open his heart and mind to what God was doing.) In fact, that’s why “Emmanuel” bookends the entire Gospel of Matthew: it begins with a baby who is “God with us,” and ends with that child, grown, promising that he will always be with us: “In many ways,” Bartlett writes, “the whole purpose of Matthew’s Gospel is to show how Jesus is ‘Emmanuel’, God with us, and at the end of the story [28:20] Jesus will promise to be Emmanuel for the rest of human history as well.” That sure knowledge, we pray, will sustain us in every day.
A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (email@example.com) is the retired dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection
Walter Brueggemann, 21st century
“God will recruit as necessary from the human cast in order to reorder human history.”
Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart, 21st century
“Don’t be pushed around by the fears in your mind. Be led by the dreams in your heart.”
W.B. Yeats, Responsibilities, 20th century
“In dreams begin responsibilities.”
AnaÔs Nin, 20th century
“Our life is composed greatly from dreams, from the unconscious, and they must be brought into connection with action. They must be woven together.”
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., 20th century
“Righteousness is easy in retrospect.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
“All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen.”
Albert Einstein, 20th century
“True religion is real living; living with all one’s soul, with all one’s goodness and righteousness.”
St. John of the Cross, 16th century
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be a better light, and safer than a known way.”
“In the evening, we will judged on love.”
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