December 19, 2010

… do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife

Passage: Isaiah 7:10-16, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25, Matthew 1:20-21

... 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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’

(Hoodie slide—This Shirt Is Your Christmas Gift)  Someone made this observation; it is when you start getting clothes for Christmas that you stop believing in Santa Claus.

While some gifts may give rise to doubts, generally speaking we are not afraid of what is under the tree with our name on it (unless, of course, the person giving it actually thinks you will wear it in public).  I invite you to reflect with me on the first Christmas gift; not only did it give rise to all manner of doubts—the recipients were downright afraid.

1.   In the Bible it is a consistent pattern; when God shows up in an individual’s life with a specific task or calling to fulfill, the messenger always seems to need to allay fears.  Do not be afraid; these words of assurance are on the tip of God’s tongue whenever God approaches people.

Whenever I conduct a wedding it is my experience the every couple standing in front of me envisions good things ahead.  “Better, richer, in health” are the words from their vows that resonate in the hearts; worse, poorer, in sickness don’t leap off the page in the same way.  It was hardly the start to married life Joseph anticipated or wanted; I am sure he couldn’t imagine anything much worse.  Preparations are largely complete; his bride is pregnant and he is not the father.  It is also my experience that most find divorce a distasteful and painful experience—and though Joseph has come to the conclusion that this is what he must do; he does not do so happily.

At this very moment God shows up; do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.  What is Joseph afraid of?  I am sure he is wondering if Mary is of trustworthy character.  He is afraid to receive a child not his own as his own.  He knows the wagging tongues of a small community that will make it difficult for him and Mary to enjoy any normal family existence.  People will consider that taking Mary as his wife will appear as tacit admission that the child is his; or that he is a pushover and easily manipulated by Mary; or that he is not so righteous a man since the law of God required him to dissolve the marriage because of infidelity.  I wonder if he is afraid that such attitudes towards him will negatively impact whether people will hire him as a carpenter; will he have to leave his established business and seek starting again elsewhere.

I am sure that we could easily add to the list of what might make him afraid to take Mary as his wife and this child as his own.  There is a sense in which we can say that the birth of any child into a family changes everything; but for Joseph to take this child into his life assumes all of those changes and adds a whole other level of complication, difficulty and confusion.  Joseph would happily choose the customary acceptance of the change a baby brings.

Our Christmas cards and nativity scenes typically display serene happy faces of this family; the turmoil and worry caused by fear are glossed over or well masked.  I wonder if this is precisely where many people want to keep Jesus; on the Christmas card or in the crèche; at a distance.  When God approaches us and says “do not be afraid to take this child into your life” are we willing to admit to fear?  Fear that our life will get rearranged; fear that we will have to give up the goals of our happily envisioned future; fear that too much is being demanded; fear that people will regard us strange for believing; fear that certain friendships might be disrupted?

The Genesis story says that once the humans ate from the tree of “the knowledge of good and evil” they hid themselves from God; this is the story of every human being and so when God approaches us we fear—fear that if we come out of our hiding God is going to harm us; we want to know what God has in mind before we show ourselves.  Surely the fact that God comes to us as helpless babe shows that God means us no harm in his approach.

2.  I read recently of a study on the subject of dreams.  This study revealed that the most frequent dream involved a student/pupil relationship and studying; additionally, over half of the participants in the research repeatedly dreamed of “searching for a certain place” and “falling”; “eating delicious foods” was the fifth most regularly dreamed theme.  Whenever I awake from a dream, either of pleasant of difficult theme, I first note that I was just dreaming; whatever was pleasant in my dream I wanted to continue or difficult and wanted to end wasn’t of the real world—generally there is a relief that this is so.

I wonder what Joseph though of this little tidbit from the angel’s message—“for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit”.  Do you get any sense that he had fewer doubts with regard to this detail than you and I do?  It is clear that Joseph knows where babies come from in the normal course of events—indicated by the fact that he planned to divorce Mary.  I am sure it would be as embarrassing for Joseph to tell us as it is for us to hear; you’re going ahead with the marriage because of what?  (The idea, by the way, that the New Testament writers colluded to concoct a pious lie to hide the embarrassment of Mary’s pregnancy is ridiculous; no, the writers meant what they said, however uncomfortable it makes us).

At Christmas time you can get the saying on bumper stickers, cards, posters, pins, etc: “Jesus is the reason for the season.”  This December and organization called Atheists of America took out a billboard with an interesting twist on that saying. (SLIDE)  The Billboard read over a picture of the wise men: “You KNOW it’s a myth. This Season, Celebrate REASON!”

I will not belabour the point here because in other sermons we have explored the limits of human reason; indeed we are to love God with our minds, but for the Christian reason always is in the service of faith.  Some things are only apprehended by faith.  The gospel forges its own logic over us.  It is easy to say we believe God when everything is going well and makes sense to us; but, like Joseph, what do we do when it is not so readily understood; when it makes no sense to us?  Is the problem the gospel or our sense of things?  Believing God when we do not understand makes us afraid—afraid because we are stepping into a place beyond our ability to comprehend.

When the gospel says that by faith Christ indwells the believer what does that mean?  What does that look like?  Is it reasonable?  Nonetheless it is the believer’s experience.  When you stand before the cross and see Jesus’ torment is it obvious to you that your sin put him there?  Yet this is the proclamation of the cross of Christ; “he who knew no sin became sin for us.”  The logic of the cross—foolishness to the world, not immediately obvious to reason—is, nonetheless, the logic that shapes our faith.

Christian writer Peter Larson noted correctly: Despite our efforts to keep him out, God intrudes.  The life of Jesus is bracketed by two impossibilities: a virgin’s womb and an empty tomb.  Jesus entered our world through a door marked “No Entrance” and he left through a door marked “No exit.”  It is important to point out that the virgin birth does not explain how the Son of God became human; it isn’t a scientific statement with respect to gynaecology or embryology.  The mystery of Mary’s pregnancy can only be understood as part of the whole mystery of Christ, the union of God and man.

The virgin’s womb cannot be understood in abstraction from the triumphant consummation of Christ’s life, the resurrection.   Can we believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ yet deny the empty tomb?  Can we have faith in the Incarnation—that God became human in Jesus of Nazareth—yet deny the virgin birth?  I find that the denial of one often precipitates the denial of the other.

Consider this: the virgin birth shows us that this is God’s self-willed approach to us; it is a sign that the Son of God became human.  It denies that this process can be reversed; we humans can’t become God.  The Incarnation is a matter of unconditional grace; God will take whatever steps necessary to save us humans; even humble himself to the helpless status of a child in the womb of questionable origin.

3. Joseph had a very spiritual, ethereal dream; a dream of an angel and filled with talk of a great mystery.  In some ways our worship has parallels; we draw aside from the important things of life to participate in a plane of existence that is not seen with the human eye.  We speak of angel announcement and the presence of the Holy Spirit and of Jesus himself, the Babe of Joseph’s dream.

In this place Joseph received a very specific task God wanted him to fulfil; to take Mary as his wife and be a dad for this boy.  We too are being called by God to respond to him personally with the specifics of our life.  We are being called to believe and then to be a witness to Christ in the specifics of our life; to fulfil this calling with the things only we can do.  It means to be part of the church—that is the intent of Matthew publishing his gospel—for our witness to Christ is lived out in the realities of time and place; lived out in this community and Central United Church (or other congregation).

We too may be called to do something particular; even something we do not fully understand—like those promptings to speak to or offer help for some person that crosses our mind and heart.  These spiritual experiences of drawing aside are wonderful moments, even peaceful. As tempting as it might be to stay there we are called to return to our responsibilities in the world—this is what Emmanuel means—God-with-us in the world.

Please underline in your hearts what Joseph does; he did as he was commanded—he took Mary as his wife and when the boy was born named him Jesus.  Joseph—whatever his doubts and fears about it all—lives his life believing the child is who the angel said he was.  Will we?  Will we live our lives believing that Jesus comes among us to save us from our sins?

... 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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’

The name Jesus means “God saves”—will you name him Jesus?