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Monday, December 20, 2010

Sermon from December 19, 2010: The Fourth Sunday in Advent

“Which Means God Is With Us”
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen (Texts: Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25)

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace from the One who is, who was, and who is to come, in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

I have a small collection of art depicting the Holy Family, for obvious reasons, and I especially am interested in how Joseph is depicted. I have a beautiful carving in olive wood on my desk which shows Joseph squatting on a stool and cradling the infant Jesus in his arms. But I also have a greeting card which reproduces a medieval fresco of the Nativity, and Joseph is about half the size of Mary, and shoved off to the side with a frown on his face and rather negative body posture, as if this all is a great annoyance and bother. And if you look at art showing the Holy Family, a marginalized Joseph is not all that uncommon.

Two weeks ago during the forum we were hearing about Joseph’s role in the infancy narratives, and we sang one of the few carols which mentions Joseph at all. But as we sang, I was reminded of a lovely carol about Joseph that I have on several recordings, “The Cherry Tree Carol.” It’s a text that likely dates to the 15th century, and the story in turn comes from a legend in the apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. What made me think of it, relating to our Gospel today, was what it says about Joseph.

Now when I say it’s lovely, I mean that the music is beautiful. As a fellow Joseph, there’s nothing lovely that I can see in its treatment of my namesake. In that, it’s more like my picture of the grumpy Joseph in the corner. It begins, “When Joseph was an old man, an old man was he, he courted our Mary, the queen of Galilee.” Well – that double repetition of how old he was seems just a bit out of line, doesn’t it? The carol then tells that Mary becomes pregnant, without her husband’s help of course. Then on the way to Bethlehem they pass a grove of cherry trees, and Mary asks Joseph to gather some for her, “for I am with child,” she says. What happens next is jarring: Joseph replies to her “in words so unkind,” the carol says. He tells her that the one who “brought thee with child” can just go ahead and get her some cherries to eat. A holy petulance, this is! The carol ends with Jesus in the womb commanding the cherry tree to bend down, and Mary is able to eat fruit without Joseph’s help.

But I’m struck by the understanding of human nature, the empathy of the tradition which produced this text. Surely there must have been moments like that for Joseph, times when he simply was exasperated or even sad at what was happening to his life. His dreams of a life with Mary were shattered before they began by this unlooked for and undefended pregnancy.

So on this Fourth Sunday of Advent we’re faced with this truth, through Joseph’s eyes: sometimes God’s plans for us are mighty inconvenient, or deeply troubling, or even painfully hard to bear. Lost sometimes in all the sentiment we might feel for this story is the reality of the upended lives of Joseph and of Mary as this child grows in her womb and prepares to be born.

And that’s only a foretaste. Because this child will be causing that kind of unrest and discomfort his whole life. That’s what happens when God shows up to live with us.

It’s interesting that Christmas cards rarely hint at Jesus’ true purpose.

You never get a Christmas card that says, “Merry Christmas. Take up your cross and follow Jesus.” Or, “Happy Holidays – the greatest thing you can do is give up your life for a friend.” Or even, “A blessed Christmas – love your enemies.” And yet, that’s the kind of wisdom this holy Child came to bring. The disruption in his earthly parents’ lives was only the beginning.

The promise Matthew makes today is that this Child will be Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” A good name indeed. Until you comprehend what that means.

Once God comes to be with us, God starts talking to us and leading us into new ways of life. I remember once a woman came out of the women’s room laughing and told me what she’d overheard: a little girl was saying, “Why do you always have to be so near me, Mom?” It’s actually a good thing, of course. But it doesn’t always feel that way. And so it is with God, who by being with us, won’t leave us alone.

God keeps on being with us, near to us, calling us to ways of justice and peace and self-giving love – this is the way Jesus talked and walked and preached. It was attractive to many. And very offensive to many others.

As we heard last week, Jesus comes to guide us to paths that lead to God. He points humanity, points each of us, down roads that are very different from our own. And however mushy we want to get at Christmas, the end result of this impending birth is change for us. And, like Joseph, like that little girl, we may not always like it.

God’s whole reason for coming in person was change for us.

And again, it’s in the child’s name, now from the angel’s voice: “Jesus,” which means “God saves.” “Because he will save his people from their sins,” the angel says. But for Jesus this isn’t some judicial exchange. He doesn’t come simply to remove consequences or even punishment for our sins. He comes to save us from them. To bring us into new ways without sin. If this were only a court proceeding, Jesus could have done that from heaven. No, God’s point was personally to lead us away from paths that lead to sin into paths that lead to life. And that means change.

So if we’re going to worship this coming Child, we must remember to worship the man he became. A man, though also God, who called us to new lives.

New lives which reflect the justice of God – that all people live safely, freely, and in peace. When we do things or support things which do not bring that about, or which prevent such justice, this child, this man-to-be, calls us to change.

And new lives which reflect the love of God – that all people have value and worth in God’s eyes, and are precious, and that we are to give our lives for each other. When we do things or support things which do not show that love, or which prevent people from knowing it, this child, this man-to-be, calls us to change.

God needed to come because we were and are destroying ourselves and this world. God chose to come, to be with us, to show us the way to end that destruction and to find life. When we killed this child, this Son of God, God overcame our hatred with resurrection life. And now, risen, continues to stand at the head of new roads, new paths, encouraging us to follow.

Ultimately, that this child, this man-to-be, is God-with-us is good news.

Because instead of standing in judgment over us, condemning from on high, God abides with us, dwells with us. God experiences our pains, our joys, our sorrows, our hopes. God enters the depths of our lives and simply is with us. Not necessarily taking the pain away, but always holding us and keeping us alive through it. And making our joys richer by being with us.

Because God has come to us in this child, this man-to-be, we know we are not alone. We don’t have answers for a lot that life throws at us. But we belong to the One who does. Who is with us in the best and in the worst.

I hope that Joseph found this joy, too. I’m actually pretty confident he did.

If Matthew’s depiction of his character can be trusted, we can be sure he was a good father to this child. And I hope that, if he did feel petulance at times as the carol suggests, he also felt the awe at the presence of God in this child. You see, that’s our awe, too. Yes, it can be terribly inconvenient to have the voice of Jesus so near, and sometimes frustrating and often life-changing. When God is with us, God’s always calling us in love to change, to be different, to be like Jesus.

But then, we remember with joy – ah, yes, but God is with us. God is with us. We are not alone. We are loved with a love beyond death.

And so of course we pray, “O come, O come, Emmanuel.” Which means God is with us.

In the name of Jesus. Amen

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