God is With Us! Advent 4(A)

[RCL] Isaiah 7:10-16, Psalm 80: 1-7, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25

Fourth Sunday in Advent, and one wonders: What remains to be said about the season?

Year after year, preachers and priests must wonder: How can one tell the story of Jesus’ birth without falling into historical and cultural clichés, without being accused of mythologizing? Or: Without being accused of not following the Scriptures word for word? How can we make the familiar exciting again?

It is so difficult to preach on the birth narratives that most pastors and priests find it easier to let the story be told by the children, in their Christmas pageants—something beloved by almost all parishes. Presenting the story of Jesus’ birth dramatically, rather than in a sermon from the pulpit, may be the better solution. Why try to retell the most beautiful story ever told when it is already written so simply and perfectly by Matthew and so masterfully by Luke?

The simple beauty of the story as found in the two gospels cannot be improved upon. Only great artists have found another way – through their works of art – to help us see with new eyes. Centuries later people still flock to the world’s great museums to see depictions of the Birth story by the finest of painters. A few well known artists come to mind: da Vinci, Caravaggio, El Greco and so many others not as well known. Their creations tell the stunning story of God entering the human realm. Nothing proclaims the Christmas news as movingly as some of these works. And it is not only visual artists who accomplish this.

The most evocative poetry has been written about that one night in Bethlehem, while the great composers continue to lift us to a heavenly realm when as they sing of this unique birth. Please, pause for a minute and try to think if any song as exquisite to your ears as the melody and words of “Lo, how a rose e’re blooming on tender stem hath sprung . . .” And now recall the words of Christina Rosetti’s poem, “In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood still as iron, water like a stone . . .” Each word is a jewel.

Now sing it to the melody by Holst and let you heart melt within you. Isn’t that the ultimate Christmas feeling? This is a deliberate question. At Christmas time we want to feel, not to think. This is why children are so happy at Christmas; they allow themselves to feel anticipation and joy without worrying about practical details that ultimately don’t matter.

When we grow up and reach maturity, we tend to examine the words we say and sing. We ask questions about their meaning, questions that in all probability cannot be answered. “If the birth of Jesus really happened as the gospel writers tell us, what happened to the promises of peace on earth, good will toward all human beings?” After we look at the world around us and despair of the answers we do receive, many of us turn to books and theology, and that too is helpful. It is good to examine the questions, but let us admit it: these are at best intellectual exercises.

Let us instead throw ourselves into the music and drama of the story and perhaps then we shall find peace and even joy. It is undeniable that visual art, music, poetry, and drama take us out of ourselves as they communicate the gospel story in ways that bring us peace and even joy. The story of Jesus from his birth to his death and resurrection is the perfect drama.

The great Dorothy L Sayers in her masterpiece, The Man Born to Be King, writes that for the dramatist the theology in the story of Jesus “locks the whole structure into a massive intellectual coherence.” She continues: “It is scarcely possible to build up anything lopsided, trivial, or unsound on that steely and gigantic framework.” And she fulfilled this conviction by writing, in 1943, her twelve radio plays on “The Man Born to Be King.” Very few had attempted a dramatic presentation of the life of Jesus before her. Only medieval plays and the depiction in Oberammergau had done so. Yet, the ancient Greeks worshiped by going to the theater; seeing the great tragedies of their myths was a religious experience. Theater started as a religious expression.

We also, citizens of this already troubled twenty-first century, enjoy the emotional appreciation of the nativity story fully when we see it acted out. But it doesn’t mean much in the long run unless we make the effort to move from the enjoyment and emotion to this “massive intellectual coherence” which is so effective as drama. We cannot remain starry-eyed in the worship of an infant; we must move forward to the ministry of the man Jesus without losing the mystery of the divine drama. How can we possibly tell in ordinary words this stunning, startling event of God’s breaking through in what has been called “the scandal of particularity,” of the Timeless entering Time?

It so troubling to many of us in this season to talk to Christians who speak of the coming of Jesus without trembling at the thought of the Incarnation, of God deliberately taking on flesh! This fearful, truly awesome reality has become so ordinary for us that we mention it without really taking it in. It is such an unprecedented event, this unique event in history, that Matthew and Luke tell it in the simplest terms but with heavenly imagery.

And therein lies the drama. A very pregnant virgin and her husband travel over difficult terrain from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Both the virgin and her future husband are visited by angels. Angels break through and sing of glory after the baby is born, while animals and the poorest of the poor gather around a little baby to sing of peace and good will. How else can something so dramatic be told in order to shake us out of complacency?

St. Paul gives it a try in the opening greeting of his letter to the Romans, the passage we read today, and ends up trying to contain the immense drama in 102 Greek words that form one long sentence. He speaks of “. . . his Son, who descended from David according to the flesh and was declared Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead,” and the sentence is still not finished.

He trips over his words in speaking of this astounding event. But when writing to the Philippians he succeeds fully in utter and profound simplicity: “He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,” he says of the eternal, the cosmic Christ. This is what Matthew means when he writes that the angel said to Joseph: “. . . 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.” We imagine Joseph hiding his face and thinking, “I don’t understand any of it, but I will do as you say.”

The excellent American folklorist, John Jacob Niles, heard three words sung in the Appalachian town of Murphy, North Carolina and went on to compose the heart-breaking, simple melody and words of “I wonder as I wander right under the sky how Jesus the Savior did come for to die. . .” We must never stop wondering.

To move from drama and simplicity to the greatness and baroque richness of Bach and Handel, is to experience fully the reality that God dwells also in the beauty of sound. The whole drama of the biblical story of the Christ, from the Fall to the song of the angels and beyond, is found in Handel’s masterpiece Messiah. Those of us who have sung this oratorio through many years have memorized, together with the music, the words of the great prophets. Thanks to Handel and his brilliant lyricist, Charles Jennens, who poured over the Authorized Version, countless folks who have never read the Bible have memorized the most beautiful and comforting words of Scripture!

“Comfort ye my people.”

“Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked, straight. . .”

“He shall feed his flock like a shepherd and carry them in his bosom.”

And from today’s lesson: “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel, God with us.”

God with us! What a wondrous promise. What a loving reality. Hold on to that. Hold on to the drama of the Eternal entering Time, of the Invisible becoming Visible in the face of Jesus, a baby in human form who grew up to show us the heart of God. And enter into the season of Christmas with the feelings of a child and the meditations of wise Christians. Immanuel: the mystery and glory of the Incarnation.

Katerina Whitley lives and writes in Boone, NC. She has used drama in her five books published by Morehouse and also in her novel of the first century, A New Love, published by Material Media. For more on her retreats and dramatic presentations visit her website. www.katerinawhitley.net.

Download the sermon for Advent 4(A).

The faith of Joseph, 4 Advent (A) – 2013

December 22, 2013

Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

In our gospel lesson for today, the spotlight falls on Joseph. On this last Sunday of Advent, before we gather to celebrate the birth of Christ, the mystery of God coming to us as a child, we have this story about an ordinary, quiet, faithful man named Joseph. Joseph might have been uncomfortable in the spotlight. But our gospel asks us to look closely at him, because through the quiet faith of this ordinary man, God was accomplishing extraordinary things.

In the history of Christian reflection on the birth of Jesus, from the heights of Renaissance art to the folksiness of Christmas pageants, Joseph is almost never front and center. In paintings of Mary and the child, Joseph is often absent. If he is present, he seems set off uncomfortably to one side. He seems like a guy who is not too fond of family pictures. When the camera comes out for the family photo, Joseph is like the husband who is a bit embarrassed by the whole thing. He knows that as wonderful as pictures are, they distort reality, because life isn’t all wonderful moments. Life is more about the grace of daily obligation, the hundreds of small decisions we make every day. For Joseph, a carpenter, a man who was probably more comfortable working with his hands than talking, life is more like finding the right tool for the right job than a series of photographable moments.

In Christmas pageants we all know who the star is: Mary. While we’ve all probably heard plenty of stories of little girls who were disappointed because they did not get to play Mary in the Christmas pageant, there are fewer stories of little boys who felt slighted because they didn’t get to play Joseph. If you are a little boy, you want to be one of the three kings, or, if not a king, at least a shepherd so you can wear a bathrobe and your father’s tie wrapped around your head. After all, when you think of Christmas pageants the images that probably come to mind are of Mary and the baby Jesus, the three kings bearing gifts, shepherds and angels, maybe even oxen and sheep. Joseph almost seems like an afterthought.

If Mary was the first to hear the good news of the birth of Christ, Joseph must have been the second. But for Joseph, the news that Mary was pregnant was anything but good at first. In fact, it must have been quite a shock, because he knew the child could not be his. Our gospel says, “Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child.” In those days, there were two steps leading to marriage. The first was betrothal. This was a legally binding period that lasted a year before the couple actually married and started living together. If anything happens during the betrothal to dissolve the relationship, it’s legally the same as getting a divorce. Mary and Joseph are in this first stage, legally bound to one another, awaiting the day of their marriage. So when Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant, it is not good news. It’s bad news, very bad news.

Joseph, like any man in his position, might have felt hurt, humiliated, disappointed and even angry. But Joseph must have been a man of few words. At least, Matthew does not tell us what Joseph was feeling. What we do know is that Joseph was an ordinary man. He learned the woman he was engaged to was pregnant. He knew the baby wasn’t his. He drew the obvious conclusion. What more was there to say?

But Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man, which means Joseph loved God and tried to follow God’s law. In all things, a righteous man will try to follow the commands of God. So when Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant, he turns to God’s law for guidance. According to the law, he has two options. His first option is to bring charges against Mary in public. He could publically accuse her of the sin of adultery. The penalty for adultery under the law is death. His second option is to divorce Mary privately. In the presence of two witnesses, he can write out a paper of divorce and present it to her. In this case, there would be no public charges against Mary. There would be no penalty. People would eventually find out that Mary was pregnant and unwed, but she would be at least spared the public hearing and punishment.

Because Joseph was a righteous man, he had to choose one of these options. As much as he might have loved Mary, he could not disregard the law. He could not put his own will above the will of God revealed in the law. To do so would be to say that his relationship to Mary exists outside of their relationship to God. Unthinkable. He was a righteous man. But as Joseph surely knew, God’s righteousness is always tempered with mercy. He decides to dismiss Mary quietly. Righteousness tempered with mercy.

Then something extraordinary happens to this ordinary, righteous man. Joseph has a dream, and in this dream an angel of the Lord says, “Joseph, Son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her womb 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.”

This is an amazing revelation! Yet, how does Joseph respond to this extraordinary news? Matthew’s narrative is terse, but it fits exactly the character of Joseph. He responds like the ordinary, righteous man that he was. When he awoke from his dream, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded. Period. Joseph was a righteous man. He spent his entire life trying to follow God’s commands. Out of a lifetime of devotion to God and to following God’s law, Joseph knew when he was being given a message from God. He needed no extra words, no extra explanations.

The young Mary, when she had heard the news of the birth of Christ, quite naturally asked, “How can this be?” But Joseph was older. The fruit of a lifetime of devotion to God’s law are eyes and ears attuned to the Lord. Joseph would have known the passage from Isaiah: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’” When Joseph awoke after the angel of the Lord told him he should take Mary as his wife and name their child Jesus, that is exactly what he did. No extra words. No extra explanations. Joseph, an ordinary man, a faithful man, a man of few words, did what the Lord commanded him to do. He had been doing it his entire life.

The wonder of this story is that through the faithfulness of an ordinary man, God was doing something extraordinary. The amazing news that God is sending his son to be born of a virgin, to be the Savior and Redeemer of the world, is working itself out in the faith and obedience of a humble man like Joseph. The angel proclaims the miraculous news that God is coming among us as a little baby, and unlike Mary, who responds with joyful exuberance by saying, “my soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” Joseph speaks no great words. Joseph was not a big talker. He was a carpenter, a practical man.

Joseph was also a faithful man, but he didn’t need to make a big show of it. He listened for God’s word, and he tried to follow it. And when God spoke to Joseph in a dream, Joseph got up and did all that the Lord commanded. He married Mary. He got them to Bethlehem. He named the child Jesus. And through his no-nonsense, faithful response, God was working out his plan for the salvation of the whole world. And this is amazing!

 

— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is the associate rector of St. Anne’s Parish in Annapolis, Md., and co-author of “A Man, A Woman, A Word of Love” (Wipf & Stock, 2012).

Ready or Not, Advent 4(A) – 2007

[RCL] Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

Here we are, on the fourth Sunday of Advent. Christmas Eve is just around the corner. Ready or not, it’s just about time for the Christmas story, told by carol, by pageant, by Sunday school children in bathrobes and tinsel halos. And when we say “the Christmas story,” we usually mean Luke’s version of the Christmas story. You know, the one with the shepherds kneeling at the manger, sheep illuminated by all the heavenly host. The spotlight shines on Mary and the baby. Joseph is there too, of course. Although Joseph usually doesn’t get any speaking lines, unless he gets to ask for room at the inn, or to inquire “please, isn’t there somewhere my very pregnant wife can lay down?” But that’s a story for Christmas Eve.

Here on the fourth Sunday of Advent, we also hear the Christmas story, but it’s the one told in Matthew’s gospel. Here, in Matthew, we hear the Christmas story from the point of view of the father. Well, er, not the “father” exactly.

Joseph is decidedly not the father of Jesus. And when Joseph hears that the woman to whom he is engaged is pregnant, and he’s not the father, he assumes what any normal person would: Mary has been unfaithful. And Joseph, being a righteous man, plans to dissolve in form the engagement commitment that apparently has already been dissolved in fact.

But Joseph soon learns that the disruption of his plans for a nice simple home life with his bride and his dreams of becoming a father are not actually the stuff of soap opera drama. His question of “Who’s the father?” is actually part of a much larger, divine drama in which he will play a pivotal role – but not the role of father, exactly.

How fitting that Matthew’s version of the Christmas story is about the father who isn’t one. You see, Matthew’s got this thing about fathers. Matthew has very strong opinions about how people who follow the Son of God should regard earthly fathers and the Heavenly One.

It’s in Matthew 29 that Jesus instructs his disciples, “Call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father – the one in heaven.” Starting with Jesus, whose Father really is the one in heaven, Matthew gives those who want to follow Jesus plenty to think about in terms of reorienting our earthly relationships, including those between children and earthly fathers.

Jesus teaches his followers to orient their allegiance toward God, and all other loyalties need to fall into their rightful places in light of our relationship with God. That means privileges usually given to fathers in Jesus’ day, such as treating children as property in many ways, and authority granted to fathers, such as making decisions binding on all members of the household, were to be removed. This means a radical redefinition of family, which Jesus himself exemplifies.

In Matthew 12, Jesus is told that his mother and brothers are looking for him, and he replies, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? … Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” You’ll notice that in Jesus’ family configuration, there are only brothers and sisters and mothers, and these are whoever does the will of the only Father, the one in heaven. Earthly fathers become brothers, giving up their earthly privileges over others, and, like those who had less power than they in Jesus’ day, they too find their meaning and purpose in the will of the one Father in heaven.

As if to emphasize this reconfiguration of family, especially of fathers, Matthew’s gospel shows us a few earthly fathers. And it’s not a pretty sight. There are some real bad dads, starting with Herod the Great. This earthly dad had some of his own children murdered in order to protect his position as king. And when he hears that some visiting magi have identified a Galilean peasant’s son as a potential rival, he orders the slaughter of the children of an entire village.

One of Herod’s surviving sons, called Herod Antipas, is another bad earthly father. When he sees his step-daughter dance, he makes an oath that she can have anything she wants, even half of his kingdom. Children need appropriate boundaries, as any child psychologist will tell you, and Herod just can’t say no. When his darling child asks for the head of John the Baptist on a platter, he can’t bring himself to disappoint her. In Matthew 7, Jesus asks, “Who among you,” asks Jesus, “if your child asks for bread, would give a stone?” Well, Herod, bad father that he is, will give his child, not food and protection, but serves up a gruesome and tragic dish instead.

But even when Matthew isn’t showing us truly horrible earthly fathers, he still pushes us on what our relationship to one another should be, even to our earthly fathers. For example, early in Jesus’ ministry, Jesus calls James and John, the sons of Zebedee, to follow him. They do, and they leave their earthly father standing alone in his boat.

We get a hint at what Jesus means about becoming a new family with one heavenly Father by watching these two throughout Matthew’s gospel. When they’re acting like followers of Jesus, that is, as true sons of Jesus’ Father, they’re called “brothers”: “James and his brother John,” or “the two brothers.” But, when they’re acting like they’ve never heard of Jesus, for example, when they’re trying to get the best seats in the kingdom, or falling asleep as Jesus prays in Gethsemane, they’re called “Sons of Zebedee.”

Jesus knows it’s hard to break our familiar patterns, and that even now we may put the desires and demands of blood relatives ahead of our loyalty to our one heavenly Father and his son, our brother, and his family.

When Matthew shows earthly parents who are doing right by their children, they are bringing them to Jesus, they are asking for their children to be healed, they are letting Jesus bless them. When parents care for their children by putting them in Jesus’ care, they are acting as sons and daughters of the Father in heaven. When any one of us cares for the least, the lost, the vulnerable, the weak, the little ones in our midst, we are acting as sons and daughters of our one Father, and brothers and sisters of Jesus.

It’s at the beginning of this story that the spotlight shines on Joseph, who shows the baby Jesus the kind of care that is in line with what the child’s Father, and ours, desires. Joseph shows the kind of care that all of us are to show to those who are most vulnerable in society. Joseph follows the command of God. Joseph risks his own sense of what looks proper to the neighbors. Joseph aligns himself with someone others would call unrighteous. Joseph acts decisively when the child’s safety is at risk. Joseph is willing to act in such a way that Jesus will grow up knowing that his first allegiance is to God, and that means his family will be bigger, broader, and, yes, stranger than any family Joseph could provide. Joseph is no earthly father to be sure, but shows us precisely the sort of love our heavenly Father wants us all to show.

May we, like Joseph our brother, know and show the love of our Father in heaven, this Christmas and always.

Written by the Rev. Amy Richter
The Rev. Amy E. Richter is Missioner for Lifelong Christian Formation for the Diocese of Maryland. E-mail: arichter@ang-md.org.