When I was a teacher, some of my favorite stories to read to a group of five-year-old’s were stories that flipped common narratives on their head. Stories which could be told backward and forward, but when you added a different perspective, things changed quite a bit. Our gospel lesson today, while you have probably heard it, turns a common understanding of the Christmas story on its head.
Today, we get Matthew’s shortened version of the birth narrative of our Lord. Luke’s version, which we will hear in a few days as we celebrate Christ’s birth, is much longer, and it focuses on Mary. When it comes to the big holy days, over the centuries of Christianity, we’ve gotten a sort of “milkshake” version of the birth and death of Christ, where the details from the four gospel accounts all comingle, shaping and informing each other, and that makes it hard to parse out what actually happens in the individual gospels. Luke’s version has shepherds in the field and the newborn Christ in a manager, but what we hear today in Matthew’s gospel is much less detailed and far less quaint. This birth narrative offers up Joseph’s perspective on how things went down.
Joseph, being a righteous and good man, had plans to send Mary away quietly; their legally-binding contract for their impending marriage would be broken and rather than pursuing the expected course of shaming and publicly disgracing Mary for being pregnant with a child before they were married, Joseph set his intentions to do so quietly. Matthew tells us that “just as he had resolved to do this, an angel appeared to him in a dream,” it was as if Joseph had been anxiously praying before sleep came. It is as if Joseph, delaying sleep in hand-wringing anxiety, worried about what to do when faced with an impossible choice. The angel comes and says what angels are wont to come and say, “don’t be afraid!” Don’t be afraid, the angel said, the child is born of the Holy Spirit, and Joseph is convinced by the angel’s appearing; after Mary gives birth, Joseph names him Jesus.
Even though Matthew’s version gives us less to play with in our pageants and less imagery to help invision that holy night, there are many things that are deserving of our attention. For a man of this time, there is definitely an expected pattern of behavior for one who finds himself in a similar situation. But Joseph, goes above and beyond even the honorable thing of dismissing Mary quietly, even though in his day, that would have been the most gracious thing that one could possibly expect. But not only does he continue in the course to wed Mary, but he also gave up things that were considered rights for men of his time. Joseph chose to not publicly shame a woman who seemingly defied him, and the right to name his first-born son after himself. To take ‘Jesus’ as the child’s name is for him to choose to not force his own way; Joseph, clearly a man of deep faith, is certainly not a might makes right sort of person.
One of the dangers for the way in which we approach holy and righteous people in the history of our faith is that we laud and magnify them, like we do the holy family, and in that we forget that they were human. It’s so easy to forget that Mary and Joseph were afraid; that they felt the pressures of society and the expectations put upon them. And when we forget that they were human we can forget that their witness and their actions require us to do the same in faith as well. So how, then, do we hold the witness of Joseph on this Advent 4, and how do we hold space for these final days of Advent, even as we hear Matthew’s version of the Christmas story told today?
Joseph’s witness calls us to go above and beyond; his actions point us toward the life Christ calls us to even before Christ is born. What we see here in Joseph’s heeding of the angel’s pleading is someone who not only was a good person or willing to let their life be ruled by their faithfulness, but someone who chose to see beyond the surface. Joseph models for us how to choose to live life as if God really is with us. Joseph did it because he recognized, even before Christ was born that Mary was the bearer of God incarnate, and that God was with us. And even though we hear the story of Christ being born today, we still find ourselves squarely in Advent. We are still waiting in the dark, just where we started. There is no doubt that for Mary and Joseph, just as for us that hope has begun to be a bit more palpable; we’re still in the dark, but we can see the light of Christ start to peek in.
In these last few days of Advent it’s important to remember that when we act with bravery and generosity in the face of a world and society that demands that we constantly take from others, the world changes. It’s important for us to remember that when we refuse to relent to the systems that demand that we put those we love above those with whom we have very little in common, we change the world. It’s important for us to remember that what was true for Joseph is true for us today, that God is with us, and when we hold on to this hope, even in these last dark days of Advent, the world changes. The world changed when Joseph acted faithfully, and I’m convinced the world changes when we follow his example.
The story of Matthew’s version of Christ’s birth is the story of not knowing if we can keep our promises to each other; it’s the story of being unsure of how we ought to treat each other, when the world expects one thing, and we are compelled another. It’s the story of a fraught night spent in restless prayer and dream; it’s the story of a man who chose to believe that God would dare come to be with us, even when he knew how the story would end. It’s the story of deep and abiding hope, not the cheap hope that is disposable and will be tossed out when the calendar turns to 2020 that overlooks the difficulty of this story or the fact that it starts in the dark.
This story is marked with distress, feelings of betrayal, and the fear of what might come next. And this, this, is why Advent 4 matters; this is why we can’t jump ahead to Christmas. Because it’s not into a peaceful snow globe, where all was happy and peaceful trough which God entered into this world, but through a situation marked by uncomfortable conversations and difficult decisions that lean not toward expectations, but toward an inextinguishable hope that God is, in fact, with us. That God, in all of God’s holiness, cares enough about us to come down and become incarnate. That God would choose to take on our soft and fragile form and be born into a difficult situation. That God shows up in the darkest days to be with us; that God is with us, not just through the Christ child soon to be born, but thorough examples of faithfulness like Joseph. That God shows up and is with us when we, like Joseph, go out into the world and go above and beyond what is expected of us.
May the remaining days of this holy season of waiting in the dark be increasingly lit by the light of Christ; may we follow Joseph’s example in these final days before Christ’s birth to see those who are cast off. And may each of us hold dear to the truth we can change the whole world changes when we, like Joseph and Mary, choose to believe that God really is with us, even as we wait in the dark.
A sermon delivered on December 22, 2019 to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY for Advent 4A on Matt. 1:18-25.