Monday, December 23, 2013

December 22 Sermon: Gifts Christmas Gives: Presence

Matthew 1:18-25
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah* took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
   and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ 
24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;* and he named him Jesus.


Allow me to present to you a list of all the things we know about Joseph, the father of Jesus.

1.      He was descended from King David, although the Gospel writers disagree about how you get from David to Joseph, so while we know he was a descendant of David, we do not know how.
2.      He was from Nazareth or Bethlehem. Luke says Joseph was from Nazareth. Matthew says Joseph was from Bethlehem. So while we know he was from one of these places, we do not know which.
3.      He took his family from Bethlehem to Egypt during King Herod’s attempt to slaughter the young man in Bethlehem who might challenge Herod’s throne as the new King of the Jews. How long he was there, where he lived, what he did, we do not know.
4.      At least three times, an angel appeared to him in a dream. The second two times were to send him to Egypt and to recall him to Israel, and the first was to tell him to continue with his plans to marry his fiancée, even though she was pregnant, even though he knew what they had done and, more importantly, what they had not done, even though nobody would believe the ridiculous story about the virgin and the holy spirit and the angel and the dream. What he thought when he heard this news, we do not know, but I think it is safe to say he was not exactly giddy at the prospect of being subject to this kind of ridicule.
5.      He was some sort of carpenter or mason.

Thus ends the reading. This is all we know. That’s it. And, you know, you think about the nativity scene, maybe you have a manger scene set up in your living room, and I’d say it is likely that if there’s a piece missing, it is Joseph. We talk about Joseph as if he’s an important part of the nativity story, of the birth of Jesus, but we know very little. We don’t know about his childhood, nor how he died, nor how long he lived, nor what he looked like, nothing.
As the father of a young child, I don’t much like this, for I have done my share of 3 am feedings and diaper changes. I certainly don’t feel like a prop in the story of my child, the most frequently missing piece, like where you pull the shepherd over and set him by Mary and hope nobody will notice. As a father, I don’t much like this.
But as a Christian, well, as a Christian I understand loss at Christmas more than I understand most things. If Joseph is missing in the nativity, there are others missing around my tree this year as well, and it’s hard. This may be the most wonderful time of the year, but some days I just wish it would end already, I wish December 26th would roll around so I could put the nativity away, pack up the tree and take it up to the attic with the rest of the difficult feelings that come up this time of year.
It can be heartbreaking, this time of year, as we remember those who are missing, who have died, who have moved away or who are, for whatever reason, no longer here. I don’t mean to dwell on it, but I do think it is an important dynamic to acknowledge. In one of the cruelest pieces of the human experience, it turns out that it is precisely the time in which we are supposed to be doing the most rejoicing that we can feel the most despair.
Why, it is almost as if you were preparing for your own wedding and discovered, at the last minute, that your beloved had been with somebody else, almost as if she were pregnant and the baby was not yours. It sounds like something off of Maury Povich just as much as it sounds like something out of the Bible, but this is the story of your savior and mine, and it helps to know that Joseph wasn’t exactly rejoicing in this season.
Instead of coming with balloons and cigars, the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
Maybe this does not sound like such a big deal, quietly dismissing your fiancée when you discover that she is pregnant. And maybe it says something about Joseph’s character, but it is not as easy as it sounds. You couldn’t just break off an engagement by giving the ring back and deciding who got to keep the dog. You couldn’t just call Georgia’s divorce specialists and claim irreconcilable differences. The marriage process in Joseph and Mary’s day was such that being engaged was a public thing, a legal arrangement, and so making the decision to call off the wedding probably deserves more than just two verses in the Bible. This was agonizing stuff, and it involved courts and religious figures and family and all the rest. It was not so simple as dismissing her quietly. It was a big deal.
Imagine trying to navigate all of that, trying to figure out how to go forward with such grief, and not being able to just say “forget it” and moving on, but having to go through the complex legal process of ending the engagement. I am reminded of what sometimes happens when we lose a loved one, as we gather the family to share the news, as we call the lawyer and search for the will and go to the bank. The loss is enough, but then there is still work to do. And it is not long before you start to wonder just how much is piled up for you, just how long this sort of thing can go on before you lose it, before you break, before you split right in two.
It is a lot, this sort of loss, and so the biggest surprise to me in Joseph’s story is not that he was so gracious, nor that an angel came, nor that we seem to know so little about him. The biggest surprise to me in Joseph’s story was that he was able to fall asleep in the first place, which is, of course, a necessary step if one is to receive a vision from God in a dream. I can barely imagine the thoughts that were going through his head, the demons that plagued him at night, the “what-ifs” and the doubts. It is enough to keep you up all of Advent, and once he finally fell asleep, Joseph found himself in the presence of God.
Now, I don’t know if you’ve got to experience pain in order to find yourself in the presence of God, and I don’t mean to suggest that God causes bad things, but I have to imagine that the pain is not incidental, for it reminds us that we need God and we need each other. I’ve had the opportunity to be in ministry in rich places and in poor, and the thing that always surprises me is the level to which people give financial support to the church. You might think that it is much easier to raise money in an environment with a lot of money, but it is true that you don’t get rich by giving your money away. The percentage of giving in a poorer community is much higher than it is in a wealthier community. And it is likewise the case that frequently, those who do not think they need help from God rely more on themselves than they do on God, than they do on the church. That isn’t to say that those folks don’t experience deep pain; it is to say that when they do experience it, they seem to look for immediate ways out, for opportunities to make the pain go away so that they don’t have to feel it anymore, rather than stepping back and asking in a pained voice, what is it about me and my life that is keeping me away from God? For when we rely upon ourselves, when the first thought we go to when we experience pain is what can I do to make the pain go away, well, there’s just no room. There’s no room, no perceived need, no recognition that it is not so much about me as it about God, and so I’d better take this opportunity and seek God’s presence in my life.
And my goodness, Joseph was in pain. The life he’d planned with Mary was dead on arrival, the dreams he’d dreamed were null and void, and not only did he have to deal with that grief, but everybody was talking about him. Maybe he wasn’t man enough for Mary. Maybe it was his fault. Maybe, maybe, maybe, all the maybes shot through him like bullets in the night.
This is the person to whom God showed up. This is the time in which God’s presence was made known. Not in the mountaintop experience, not in the great joy of a new marriage, but in pain, in sorrow, in loss. This is the time in which an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid. Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. Do not be afraid to show your face in public. Do not be afraid to live out a life much different than you dreamed it would be. God is in it. And just to remind you when you have doubts, just to sustain you in those difficult days of being a teenage father, of delivering your own child in the cold in a barn, he shall be called Emmanuel, which means God is with us.”
This is how the birth of Jesus is told in the Gospel of Matthew: in a time of pain, in a time of doubt, in a dark time, in the middle of the night.
I think it is fortuitous that the story of Joseph in the Lectionary comes the day after the Winter Solstice. Did you know that last night was the longest night of the year? I bet even if you didn’t know it, you knew it. It has been dark in Georgia. The cold and the clouds have kept out the usual warmth we feel, and it seems like the weather isn’t the whole issue. We walk around tired, and sad, and frustrated, during the very time that we are supposed to be rejoicing.
I am a person who is very sensitive to light, to weather, so I always find myself down in the dumps in December, because not only am I mourning the loss of those who used to gather around the tree, but I find myself not getting enough light, not having enough energy, and it can make you just want to give up.
Only, this is the time in which God shows up. It the heartbreak. When you think all is lost, when the marriage is over, when the person has died, when everything you thought you knew about life turns out to ignite like so much gunpowder.
In the midst of that sorrow—and nobody’s immune from it—in the midst of that sorrow, God shows up. You live through the holidays with their saccharine-sweet music and decorations, just wanting it to be over, and you wake up on Christmas morning and even though you didn’t think it could happen again, Christ has been born. A savior has come to us, and he shall be called Emmanuel, which means God is with us. Not God is sometimes with us, nor it feels like God is with us, but God. Is. With. Us. Always.
Hold onto that when you find yourself experiencing a dark night of the soul. For while it is true that we have just experienced the longest night of the year, it is likewise true that every night, from here on out, gets shorter and shorter. It is likewise true that God is with us, even, you know, at Christmas. Even at Christmas.

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