Text: Matthew 1: 18-25
Advent is drawing to a close. For four weeks we are invited to enter into a season where we slow down, pause and reflect in preparation for the coming of Christmas. I don’t know about you, but I can hardly believe Christmas Eve is this coming Friday. The world has already been in full holiday mode for some time now, with our guest houses having their dazzling displays, the shops advertising sales for gift-giving, and parties are happening all over the place it seems.
There is a lot of pressure put on us to have the perfect Christmas. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard someone ask the question “are you ready for Christmas?” and it is met with a half-hearted yes or an icy stare. The holiday season can actually be rather tough for some. I have heard that many pastors and priests set aside extra time during Advent for pastoral counseling. We invest quite a deal of time and emotions this time of year with those decorations, gifts and parties. The pressure to have a perfect holiday season fit enough for a Norman Rockwell painting can lead to some fighting off loneliness, depression, anxiety. Perhaps you are one of the many who has lost a job or their unemployment has run out. Perhaps life circumstances have left you estranged, separated from your family and friends. We may lie awake at 3 in the morning ridden with fear and anxiety while it seems everyone else you know is off having a blast while you’re just trying to get through another day. In the pressure cooker of emotions that is the attempt to have a proper holiday season, it is easy to forget the first Christmas really wasn’t proper at all. In fact, it was born in a scandal.
The fourth Sunday of Advent is the when we speak of the Annunciation. God sends a messenger to announce, “Stand back! Don’t be afraid! God is going to do something here!” Last year in Luke we read of how an angel appeared to Mary and told her all these strange and wonderful things about a child she was about to conceive. She says, “how can this be?” and after more words from the angel, Mary says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.” Because of Mary’s “yes” to God, that act of faith and trust in response to God’s movement towards her, she gave birth to Jesus and we remember her as the Theotokos, the God-bearer.
The focus on our Gospel reading this year is on Joseph. He finds out that his young bride is pregnant and since they didn’t consummate the marriage it was clear that he wasn’t the father. We know from Scripture and from tradition that Joseph was not only a man of upstanding morals, but a man of integrity, so he had a choice to make. He could lie and say that yes he was the father, but he would have to live with himself for the rest of his life, and deal with the rumours that would come with it. He could also expose Mary and protect his own reputation but Mary would be disgraced and outcast from society. Because of the attitude towards women in those days, even if they were to say she were assaulted by a Roman soldier, the fact that she actually had the nerve to get pregnant would have her own fault. Joseph was not only righteous and full of integrity, but he was also kind, so he chose to divorce her, send her away quietly, perhaps to another town to have the child, so they could live out the remainder of their days with a minimal impact on their lives.
Now shortly after Joseph makes up his mind as to what to do about this very difficult situation, one night while he is sleeping he has a dream in which an angel appears and says, “Don’t be afraid, Joseph! This child that Mary is going to have will be like no one that has ever been born. His name will be Jesus, and will save people from their sins.” Through the angel, God is telling Joseph, “Trust me. I know you have a lot of questions, and I’m not giving you much to go on right now, but I assure you, everything is going to turn out just fine.” Naturally, Joseph is caught off guard. Not only was he to raise the child Mary was to have as his own, but that the child is actually not illegitimate at all, but the greatest gift the world has ever or will ever know, and not a source of humiliation or disgrace. The Gospel tells us that Joseph was called to trust God, and he did.
In this story, we learn that the faithful thing to do might be very much at odds with what we might think the right and proper thing to do would be. Mary said “yes” to God and gave birth to the Saviour of the world. Joseph said yes, took Mary as his wife, raised Jesus and cared for him and his mother until his death. Just like Mary and Joseph, we are called by today’s Gospel to trust even when we don’t get all the answers or reasons why.
It all seems pretty simple doesn’t it? God speaks, people respond. But really, it’s not simple at all, is it? The situations here and in our other readings today point to complicated dilemmas and pitfalls for which there are no quick fixes that are provided by Sunday School theology or self-help televangelists. The lives of the characters in the stories of the Bible are messy and difficult just like our own. Our readings today talk about a faith relying on a God who extends salvation when and where it is least expected. It is a salvation that does not come in arrogance, of acting like you have all the answers. It doesn’t come as a conqueror on a great white horse to rescue us from our troubles. It doesn’t come in a speech or a sermon filled with fire and brimstone telling you that you’ve got to get it right. Salvation comes in the form of a scandal and a response of humble trust, a trust that moves us to pull ourselves up and act even when we want to give up.
These stories may seem fanciful, but they are the farthest thing from a fairy tale. They are messages about God’s ability to act, to inspire, to encourage folks to risk everything they think might be right and proper for something bigger than themselves. This is the message of the Annunciation. This is the message of the Virgin Birth – God has moved and continues to move. God is entering into human history in a way that only God can do. The story of our faith has always been not about a human race that goes off looking for God, but a God that comes to us, finds us and calls us his children. He moves towards us, and our own movement, our own “yes,” is a response to that. And it is in our actions that Jesus begins to pull us along.
So when you are lying awake at 3 in the morning wondering why your life or your holiday season isn’t turning out the way you had planned, when you are wondering how on earth you are going to figure out how to simply make it through another day, remember the stories of Isaiah, Paul, and of Mary and Joseph. Their stories all end differently, but in each of them, God moved towards them and asked them to trust. We are not alone in the dead of night in the winter. The one who is with us is none other than Jesus, the Son of God, who calls to us and asks us to trust him, for even though we don’t know the answers or the reasons why, in our “yes” to God’s movement towards us, in our trust in God’s faithfulness, everything really will turn out all right after all.
Let these stories inspire you to action, and who knows? That job you’ve been looking for might come along as you diligently search. That friend or family member might return your phone call. And a random act of kindness on your part also may lead to a friendship or something more. Life is long road, and times it is a hard road, and there will be times we want to give up. But if we trust God, and live and act like we trust God, we will absolutely get to where God is calling us to be.
“And the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream and said, ‘Do not be afraid!”
“Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son. And they shall call his name ‘Immanuel,’ God with us.”