Scripture – Matthew 1:18-25 – Fourth Sunday of Advent – December 18, 2016
‘Tis the season to be blindsided. Even if you’re a planner and you’ve got your holiday tasks enviably organized, tis the season for a surprise out of nowhere with the potential to derail the best laid plans. True story: two days before Thanksgiving this year, when I had planned to bake a pumpkin pie that evening, the grocery store I frequent was out of nutmeg – out of nutmeg – try making a pumpkin pie without nutmeg. Right now, if you had planned back in the fall to give your child a Hatchimal for Christmas, you’re scrambling big-time to find one. Welcome to the club of us parents-gone-by who scrambled for Cabbage Patch Kids and Tickle-Me Elmo. Those hiccups pale in comparison to a colleague of mine who is thrilled to have her adult children fly in from all directions to spend Christmas at her home this week, just in time for her refrigerator to break down with repair folks noncommittal at best.
These are the “blindsides” we can make light of and know all will be well in spite of. But tis also the season for everything moving joyously along toward Christmas when we or someone we love is blindsided by …a heart attack, a crippling drunk-driving accident, a drug overdose, a divorce demand, a deadly diagnosis…and our worlds are turned upside-down, forever changed, and when it happens now …it’s just in time for the holidays. Just when it seemed that life was running along fairly smoothly, according to at least some loose plan, the bottom falls out.
Matthew’s scripture this morning does not reveal how Joseph learned that Mary was with child. The passive voice the author uses, even in other translations, just leaves it that “she was found to be with child.” Was the carpenter humming in his workshop one day when a neighbor came by and offered him congratulations? Was it another young woman in town, perhaps jealous of the betrothal, who gladly spread the gossip? To start with, Matthew’s gospel is the only one which develops the character and role of Joseph, so we can’t look to Luke or elsewhere for more information. From historical and social context, we learn betrothal or engagement at that time was equivalent to marriage; infidelity counted as adultery. We know from other scripture stories what happens to adulterous women. Even with missing details, I think we can safely say that Joseph was blindsided: perhaps happily preparing for and looking forward to wedded life with the virgin Mary and out of nowhere the bottom falls out.
Countless times we have lifted up together the admission that we humans cannot possibly know the future. We can never be sure of the content of the next moment. Life as we know it can change in an instant. So we use qualifying phrases like “God willing” to cushion ourselves from the realization that we really have no idea. And that’s why we find it so important to say “I love you” and at every parting.
Blindsided though he was, we read that Joseph is a good guy, a decent man, a righteous man, in some translations a “just man” and he doesn’t want to expose Mary to public disgrace, which if taken far enough could mean death by stoning. He’s planning to dismiss her quietly, better for both of them really. Then verse 20 reads: “But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream…” Having absorbed the bottom falling out of his impending marriage, having wrestled with what to do next, Joseph reaches his decision to discreetly let go of Mary, and with the finality of that resolution, a decision finally reached, a plan made for tomorrow, he lays down to go to sleep. Just when he had resolved to do this, God steps in.
My friends, Baby Jesus has not even been born yet, and we have good news of great joy already this morning because we are reminded that just when the bottom falls out of our lives angels rush in. Just when the world crashes in and we have no idea how we will recover, when we find ourselves on the brink of abandoning all hope, the love and compassion of God shows up in unexpected places at completely unscheduled times to pick us up and carry us through the muck and the mire, to lift us up out of that quicksand.
Anyone of us who has lived through the stark situations of terminal illness and death, of fatal accidents, the surprise of sudden death, of disabling sorrow, of paralyzing fear, knows that just when we are about to give up, the phone rings, the doorbell buzzes, some one or some sign arrives revealing the love and compassion and direction of God through our angelic friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, even strangers who simply show up and who by their hands, their hugs, their holding our pain, say to us, “Do not be afraid. God is with us.”
My sisters and brothers in Christ, during this season we hold in tension the sad and fearful blindsiding surprises right next to the happy and Holy surprise of the birth of Jesus.
• We see Aleppo on the news as we decorate the tree.
• We are reminded of the anniversary of Sandy Hook as we write our Christmas cards.
• The threat of global warming hangs heavy as we take the pies out of the oven.
• The incessant flashes of political discord exist right next to the blinking Christmas lights on our lawns.
• Our hearts won’t let us forget the people in our own community who are hungry as we carve the turkey.
• Our voices raised in joyous carols reach the ears of God right next to the moans of pain and injustice.
Yes, just when we think all is well, we can receive a shocker. And just when we think all is lost, God sends an angel or sometimes a host of angels, reminding us to be not afraid, God is with us, mourning with us, worrying for us and healing us in ways we can neither recognize nor understand.
By coming to us in the person of Jesus, God gave us the gift of hope, the very first candle we lit on our Advent wreath three weeks ago and the gift which remains for faithful people just when the peace in our lives is broken, when joy goes absent, when love is hard to find. Hope is our forever gift from God through the miracle of Christmas and the miracle of the Resurrection which, when all was lost, surprised the world forevermore.
I close this morning with these words of hope from the poem by Ann Weems called The Christmas Spirit…
The Christmas spirit
is that hope
which tenaciously clings
to the hearts of the faithful
in the face
of any Herod the world can produce
and all the inn doors slammed in our faces
and all the dark nights of our souls
that with God
all things still are possible,
that even now
a Child is born!
From Kneeling in Bethlehem. © 1987 Ann Weems. Used by permission of Westminster John Knox Press.
Thanks be to God and Amen.