The Night the Angel Came
Lectionary Texts: Matthew 1: 18-25
First United Methodist Church, Wharton
Sunday, December 18, 2016
- One Week Away
Well, one more week…one more week of shopping and wrapping and decorating and cooking and visiting and worrying that you will get everything done. We have everything planned. Our lists are slowly but surely being checked off. We’re trying to sort of get it all wrapped up (no pun intended) for the big day. But in the midst of all of our holiday frenzy, we are jolted back into place as we read the words, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” It stops us in our tracks. This is it. This is that for which we’ve waited, for which we’ve hoped. This is the story that we love.
- God With US
The text is familiar. It is the story of stories. This is it; this is how it happened; this is how God entered the world and changed us forever. The writer of Matthew must have had such a great sense of God in the writings of Isaiah that this was the way it needed to be described. We already know the answer; we know what will happen. The Christ child will again come and for a moment, if only for a moment, we will look into the eyes of hope and change. We will look into the eyes of God. And then something will distract us and the moment will be lost. We will return to our usual lives until next year. And yet, we are reminded of Emmanuel, God With Us. And, like Joseph, when we awake from sleep, we are to take the Christ child into our hearts.
We skip over the genealogy that comes before this. I supposed that’s done so that we can get to the story and not be bogged down in the details. I mean, really, most people don’t want to hear a long list of hard-to-pronounce names—42 generations, to be exact—six generations of seven. It doesn’t make good press or good script. And yet, the story itself is buried in the details, isn’t it? I suppose God could come into the world with no help from us, with no help from all of those faithful ones who came before us. But what would it mean? Why bother? After all, the name of the Christ child is “God With US”. Doesn’t that mean something? God did not just drop the baby out of the sky like some sort of Divine UPS package. The story is incomplete without those that came before. And it is incomplete without us. Because without us, without every one of us, without EACH of us, God never would have come at all. God came as Emmanuel, “God with us”, and calls us into the story. The Incarnation is the mingling of God with humanity. There’s no way out. The Divine has poured into our midst and we are changed forever. We just have to birth the Godchild in our lives. Knowing that we could never become Divine, the Divine became us. The world is turned upside down. And so God stayed around to show us how to live in it. So I suppose the writer of Matthew is right: All this DID take place to fulfill what has been spoken by the Lord through the prophets, whatever that may have looked like…and his dwelling will be glorious.
We also are guilty of sort of skipping over Joseph. I suppose it’s pretty easy. After all, he doesn’t even talk. We really know very little about him. We know he was from Nazareth, a sort of no-name town in Galilee. We can surmise that he was a carpenter because Jesus is described as the son of a carpenter several times in Scripture. And we know that he was engaged, or actually betrothed to Mary. This is not like our engagement. This was a marital contract. It just wasn’t consummated. They were not just dating. But you know what? Joseph had plans. He had some idea laid out of how his life would go. And then came the dream.
III. The Dream
The writer known as Matthew is the only one that gives Joseph his moment. But, interestingly enough, he doesn’t even get a chance to ask a question (like, “How can this be?”) or voice his opinion or perhaps shake his fist in utter disbelief. I don’t know if it’s the moment or the Scripture, but Joseph is somehow rendered speechless. He’s not even given a small speaking role. Instead, Joseph, who had apparently already decided what he was going to do (a plan that it should be noted in the face of the tradition was merciful and compassionate). He was going to quietly dismiss her. And, I suppose, Joseph would have faded into the pages of the story with no other mention. Perhaps Mary could have gotten help from her cousins. They probably would have put her up. And Jesus and John would have grown up like brothers. It could have all worked out, but that’s not what happened. Because in this moment, Joseph is handed a dream.
It was apparently a wild fit of a dream. I mean, the Lord came. That cannot have been a comfortable situation. And, true to form, God tells him not to be afraid. “Oh, no,” Joseph thought, “I have read this before. When the Lord tells you not to be afraid, things tend to happen–things like the floor of your world on which your standing giving way and you falling uncontrollably into something that you never imagined and for which you certainly could never have planned. Hold on!” And the Lord hands him a story that doesn’t even make sense. Joseph is being asked to step back into the story. And oh what a story it has become. Joseph is being asked to raise the child that IS the Messiah. Joseph is being asked to love him and guide him and discipline him (Good grief, how do you discipline a Messiah? I mean, does he get like some sort of Divine time out?) Joseph is even told what to name the child.
Well, I’m betting that Joseph’s first thought when he awoke was that he had eaten some bad shrimp or something (wait, that wouldn’t be…crustaceans and all…maybe he wondered if he had had a bad piece of lamb). He probably laid there for a few minutes processing it all. I mean, remember, the verses before the ones we read remind us that Joseph was descended from a long line of dreamers. In fact, old Grandpa Jacob (like 34 “greats” ago) had fought back, wrestling until the break of day! Remember that? And then Joseph got up and moved out of the way and followed. He had plans. He had a reputation to think of. He had a face that he had to present to the temple. He had a life. But Joseph moved aside and fell speechless. And then God gave him his voice.
- The Announcement
The Annunciation literally means “the announcement”. The word by itself probably holds no real feeling of sacredness or mystery. But it is the beginning of the central tenet of our entire Christian faith—The Annunciation, Incarnation, Transfiguration, Resurrection. The Greek word that is often used for Mary is Theotokos. It, literally, means, “God-bearer”. Mary is more than the woman who carried and birthed the human Jesus into the world. Mary, Theotokos, in some mysterious way, brought all that is God, all that is Divine, into this little struggling world. The Annunciation of Mary fills our cathedrals and our museums with art. It is one of the painted scenes in all of art.
But what about Joseph? This is his announcement, the Annunciation to Joseph. The name “Joseph” means “God will add” or “God will increase”. God called Mary as the God-bearer; but God called Joseph to also respond, to add to the meaning of the story. After all, it is the Joseph side of the story that once again upsets the social and religious expectation apple cart, so to speak. It is Joseph that must break the ranks of righteousness and instead become human. This beautiful nativity story is both wondrous and scandalous at the same time. We tend to relegate it to a star-lit evening. Mary had made a choice that would change her life forever. And so, somehow Joseph had to trust this strange news that he, too, was being drawn into the story. Somehow Joseph had to get on board with God turning his whole life upside down.
- Allowing God to Turn our Lives Upside Down
What message does that hold for us? Are we willing to let God turn our lives upside down? Are we willing to, like Joseph, let go of our conventions, our expectations, our assumptions that our Christmas or even our life might just not turn out exactly the way that we envision. Are we willing to change our lives? In other words, are we willing to be awakened to the unexpected?
This Scripture makes us realize that God’s coming into the world did not just involve God, an angel, and Mary. Joseph was there too, as were all of those who came before and all of those (including us) who came after. God’s coming is not just the birth of a baby in a pretty nativity story; God’s coming is the way that God lays claim on us. God’s coming is the way that God turns all of our lives upside down. It is the way that we are awakened from our lackadaisical sleepy little lives.
- The Awakening
And so it begins. As the Scripture says, “now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” It begins the mystery of Christ Jesus. The fog lifts and there before us is the bridge between the human and the Divine. God comes and we are called to bear God in our lives and add to the story. We are called to awaken.
And then God waits patiently for Joseph to respond. The world hangs suspended if only for a time, its very salvation teetering on the brink of its demise. After all, Mary’s already on board. But she needs help. She needs you. God needs you. So, how can this be? I do believe in the omnipotence of God. But I also believe that God, in God’s infinite wisdom, chose to give up part of that power. It’s called free will. God gave a piece of the Godself to each of us that we might choose to respond in faith. How can this be? Certainly not without God and not even without us. Our faith journey is a partnership with God, a dance between the human and the Divine. And so God waits…How can this be?…Only if you respond. So, both Mary and Joseph said “yes” and the Divine began to spill into the womb of the world. Salvation has begun. The world is with child.
VII. The Night the Angel Came
So, are you ready? Are you ready for what comes next? I’m not talking about whether or not you’ve cooked everything, or finished your shopping, or wrapped the gifts, or finished trimming the tree. Are you ready for what comes next? Are you ready to birth the Christ into your life? Are you ready to add to the story? Are you ready for the unexpected, for your plans to be shattered and your world turned upside down? Are you ready for the night when the angel comes?
Christmas Eve is less than a week away, when this wildly spinning world will stop, if only for a moment, and once again welcome hope and peace into the world. But that moment is not the holiest one. The holiest moment of all is the one that comes next, the one that after the initial hesitation, after the initial, “How can this be?” when we put down our own carefully planned-out lives and preconceived notions of who God is and how God comes, when we open our closed minds and our cynical hearts, and when we, ourselves, finally say yes, finally open our lives to receive the Christ into our little world. Our holiest moment is when we, too, add to the numbers of those who have been God-bearers, those who have said “yes” to bringing God into the world.
It’s almost time! There are bells ringing in the distance and hope and peace and eternity are waiting in the wings. How can this be? Because the God of all that is Divine also claims the ordinary parts of our lives. God wants to live with each one of us, as one of us. And each of us is called to be the God-bearer and the God-increaser, to bring the hope and peace and eternity that is waiting into our world. Each of us is called to add to the numbers of generations before us. The miracle of Christmas does not stop with the birth of a baby. It instead happens every day that we say “yes” to eternity, “yes” to God’s Kingdom, and “yes” to bringing the Divine into the world. It’s almost time! The world is with child.
So what will you do? Most of us don’t go running through the darkness to Bethlehem. We hold back or we wait or we cower in the darkness hoping that someone else will do it. But heading into the darkness, into the unknown, is the only way to see the Light of the World. And if you pay attention, you will have a night when an angel comes and asks you to turn your world upside down. And THAT will be the beginning of everything that God has in store for you.
So, are you ready?
In the Name of the One who created us, seeks us, and continues to come into our lives over and over again. Amen.