St. John's Episcopal Church

Sermon given Sunday, December 22, 2019

The Fourth Sunday in Advent

The Rev. Carol Hancock


St. John's, Centreville
December 22, 2019
4 Advent A
Matt. 1:18-25
     God of new beginnings, meet us where we are on our journey, imperfect as we are and use us in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
     The Rev. Deon Johnson an author and priest writes:
     "It was a daring plan. For eons, God had tried to get the attention of people. Through prophets, poets, and priests, God had tried to get the attention of the people God loved. God had yelled and whispered, stayed silent and shouted, but people were deaf to God's call. God appeared in dreams and burning bushes, spoke through pillars of fire and fine manna from heaven, provided water in the wilderness and lands flowing with milk and honey, and still, the people wouldn't listen. It was a language barrier, God thought. "They can't hear me." So, God spoke louder and bolder."
     "Fiery prophets and judges and kings spoke with God's voice. They tried their best to call the people back to the love buried deep inside, but the words fell on deaf ears. Humanity thought they were "self-made" and so they ignored the messengers and the message. They created idols of wealth and greed and worshiped on the mountains of commerce an idol called Fear. Fear preached a gospel of scarcity, me first, and self-centeredness. The people were divided one from another and surrounded themselves with others who looked and thought and talked alike and God's heart broke. "They were made for love," God said. " 
     "So, God hatched a daring plan. Instead of poets and prophets, instead of manna and messengers, instead of fires and floods, God would become flesh and blood. The creator of the universe, the One who called the cosmos into being with a word, the great "I Am" would take human flesh. But how?"
     "A baby. Babies by their very presence inspire hope for the future. But God as a baby had to be special. Not the baby of a powerful queen or a savvy politician, but a helpless baby, born in a backwater town. God was going to become a nobody. "I will be Immanuel - 'God with us' - to show them the face of love." But what if things go wrong? What if something happened to God as a helpless little child? That was the chance that Love was going to have to take." (end quote) (1)
     In todays gospel from Matthew, we read about God's daring plan. Mary has said yes to the angel, to be the mother of Jesus. I am sure that had not been a part of her life plan as she looked ahead to her future. And then there is Joseph to consider. He finds out that his fiancĂ©, we might say, is pregnant. I am sure that had not been a part of his life plan either. Because he is a righteous man, because he tried to live the way he understands God wants him to live - with love, and compassion toward others - he does not want to see Mary hurt.
     Most likely, Mary and Joseph had completed a marriage contract so they were legally bound together. However, they often continued to live with their respective families until the marriage ceremony, which could be quite some time later, when she would move into the groom's house. If adultery or pregnancy happened during this time of engagement, the punishment could be divorce or even death.
     So Joseph is justified in divorcing Mary, but he plans to do it quietly, unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, until an angel appears to him in a dream. The angel tells Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife because the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. They will call him Jesus and he will save people from their sins.
     When Joseph awakens from the dream, he does as the angel commands and takes Mary as his wife. Joseph not only makes a home for Mary and Jesus, but he is considered Jesus' father. It is not a biological issue but a legal one. Jewish law read that if someone says, "This is my son," then it is so. Joseph gives Jesus his lineage which is very important. Because Joseph is descended from David, so now is Jesus, which fulfills what the Old Testament prophets have said. The first 16 verses in the first chapter of Matthew traces the lineage from Abraham to David to Joseph. So the scriptures are fulfilled.
     This story about Joseph, a righteous man, who finds himself in the middle of troubling circumstances not of his doing, looks at the mess that surrounds him and decides to believe that God is present in it all and that God has asked him to do something. He believes that God sent the angel to tell him to take Mary as his wife and to help her raise this child Jesus.
     Don't many of us have lives like this? Life is going along okay, and then things happen that are beyond our control, and we find ourselves in the middle of a mess that we did not create, with lives that we would not have chosen for ourselves. We are tempted to walk away from it and go back to a life that we have some control over. But then a still, small voice says, "Do not fear. God is with you." It may not be the life you had in mind, but God may be born in the midst of all this, if you allow it.
     God needs us to be God's partners to do God's work in the world, just as he needed Mary and Joseph to give birth to Jesus. Sometimes God's work is hard and uncomfortable. Sometimes it doesn't make us look good. But God is in the midst of it all.
     Over and over again, from Abraham and Sarah to Jacob and Joseph and Moses to King David, other prophets, and Mary and Joseph, God continues to bring word of comfort and promise. "Do not be afraid. I am with you." (2)
     We are called to trust in the promise of God and not to be afraid - not to be afraid of the trials and tribulations of life, not to be afraid to stand up for the Kingdom of God. Not to be afraid to take action on behalf of those who are suffering in poverty, not to be afraid to stand with and speak up for those who have been pushed to the margins of society.
     When we find ourselves slipping back into fear, and we are looking for a sign of God's presence in the world, we need to remember that the church is the body of Christ in the world. We can turn to the other ordinary, sinful, frightened people who are sitting in the pews right next to us and know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God is here in our midst. God is with us in this place and in this life, supporting us and strengthening us and loving us always. Amen. (2)
(1)  The Rev. Deon Johnson, rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Brighton, Michigan, published in "Sermons That Work"
(2)  "Synthesis", Advent 4, article by Susanne Metz

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