Last Sunday’s sermon from Matthew 1:18-25
A scandal in the making, a risky decision, a life-changing vision, expectations wildly overturned, and a holy experience of God’s transforming love come to earth in a tiny bundle of joy await us today on this fourth Sunday of Advent. As we begin, I want you to think about the last time something or someone exceeded your expectations.
Normal people, probably like each of you, generally have high standards and expectations that are fairly difficult to exceed. My expectations are much less so. My greatest expectations generally revolve around food and the one criterion for meeting or exceeding my expectations is, it must be delicious. Whether it’s a freshly fried corndog or a classic hotdog from QT, a fine steak or a juicy chicken breast, deliciousness is key.
Now, can you think about the last time your expectations were grossly under-met? I would assume that it’s probably pretty easy to come up with an example of a time when we were bitterly disappointed by something that went completely differently than what we had expected.
I am one of those people who others might describe as a “Christmas idiot.” As soon as Thanksgiving dinner is over, and the last dish has been washed and put away, the annual viewing of a Muppet Christmas Carol begins. And in the days that follow, evening drives through the city fill me with joy as the beautiful Christmas lights adorn the night with hope and peace.
A flurry of Christmas baking ensues, and it doesn’t even matter that my clothes are covered in flour, because my heart is covered in Christmas cheer. And then, there is Christmas Eve: my favorite night of the church year. It’s a time of happiness merriment, and celebration; a most wonderful night each year. Until the one time when it wasn’t.
It was Christmas Eve, 2013. I was in my chaplain residency at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. My parents had moved to Tennessee that year, and my youngest sister, Ana, had moved to Nashville for college. My middle sister, Jojo, and her husband were having Christmas with his family in Arkansas.
So, I found myself alone that night, until I got a spontaneous phone call from my little sister Ana letting me know that she would be in town that evening and we should do something.
I had a gift card to on the border, so we decided to have Christmas Eve dinner there. We were very excited to see each other, and wonderfully delighted to eat Mexican food, but as the day went on and the night set in, everything got very very cold very very quickly, and we were very very angry about that.
We ate together and enjoyed a lovely meal, relishing our time together which had recently become much more rare. But, when it was over, and we went outside, our plans for Christmas light viewing and going to get hot chocolate were replaced with bitterness at how utterly blisteringly cold it was.
We decided to go our separate ways. She to her friend’s house because they had invited her over for Christmas Eve, and me to my apartment. When I got home, I bundled up with blankets and settled in to watch a Christmas movie on the couch. Alone. A few minutes later, I received a text message from my sister.
“We’re losers, aren’t we?”
“Pretty much,” I responded.
“Boo to that,” she said.
“Indeed,” I answered.
I wished her a merry Christmas, a peaceful Christmas Eve night, and then settled into my reality. A night, for the first time in years, away from my family, the Muppets, and everything I’ve always held dear about Christmas Eve.
In the bitter cold of loneliness; in the darkness of despair, all the disappointments of that year invited themselves into my space; a most unwelcome intrusion.
In the sorrow of wildly overturned expectations for how my Christmas eve would shape up, Christmas eve 2013 became a giant fail in which I came face-to-face with the reality of how I had failed during that year, and how that year had failed me; a wintry, desert wilderness to remind me of the painful absence of a distant God.
Desert wilderness is the place where our darkest questions meet our deepest fears. “Has God forgotten about me?” “Why is this so hard?” “Where is the joy? The peace? The hope?” The world around us is so full of pain and trouble. News headlines burden us every day with unbearable atrocities.
Doctor’s visits become more scary and more often than not, peppered with troubling news, the need for more tests, the need for a drastic change in diet or lifestyle.
Aging bodies bring with them a host of changes in well-laid plans: plans to remain in the home housing memories of “the good old days” are radically shifted when a fall or an illness warrant a move to a smaller, safer place.
In these moments of desert wilderness, in wintry nights howling with the bone chilling coolness of God – so- far- away, we need a fresh breeze of sunny warmth; balm and bandage for weary souls asking “God, where did you go, and when are you coming back?”
In desert wilderness, when we are at our most vulnerable, God does God’s most transformative work – and we are invited to come and be a part of it. To enter, anew, into our own lives and the lives of the world around us and have a fresh look at the many unexpected ways God is revealed to us.
Imagine. God’s love come to earth on a silent night; the ultimate and beautiful answer to the desert questions reverberating around the globe: “where is our God?”
Joseph awakes at dawn’s first light, unable to sleep anymore. After a long, fitful and restless night, he decides to wake up and have breakfast. Olive tapenade spread over crusty bread, sliced hard boiled eggs, and sliced tomatoes with sea salt and fresh cracked pepper serves as his morning meal while he processes everything from last night in his mind.
What a crazy dream! All in one day, after finding out his fiancee is pregnant, and deciding to do the right thing and send her on her way quietly, Joseph’s night is interrupted by a dream: a vision from God and Joseph is told not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife.
If the people were to find out, there would be all sorts of upset, and Mary would be subjected to horrible humiliation. Joseph, a man the gospel writer describes as “a righteous man,” would find himself involved in a juicy scandal.
In the dream during the night before, God came to Joseph in a vision and asked Joseph to consider a new way of experiencing his life: through trusting in God, even amidst circumstances that would threaten to undo his life as he knew it. In this dream, God invites God’s self into Joseph’s space; something we are free to imagine as a somewhat unwelcome intrusion.
As Joseph responds to God’s call to trust relationships rather than rules, he begins to grow into a man who responds to dreams rather than to demands. In these acts of obedience to God
even when life might look different than expected, Joseph teaches us a valuable lesson about what it means to obey God and to live in the richness of not knowing exactly where one path will lead, all the while trusting and resting in the fact that God transforms ordinary humans into divine vessels – to be a part of God’s salvation history.
No doubt anxious and confused, and thinking to himself “ this is not at all what I had in mind when I had envisioned becoming engaged to Mary,” at Joseph’s most vulnerable moment of anxiety and a sense of loss, God finds a way into Joseph’s heart.
God’s presence in Joseph’s life is not about mere comfort. It is an intrusion in what Joseph thought was a neatly settled world – inviting the sleeping dreamer to discover purpose, promise and passion in living life for someone and something beyond himself.
As Joseph finishes his breakfast, in the midst of all the swirling thoughts in his mind about how this is nothing like he would have expected, as he prepares to go and talk with his betrothed, he is filled with a deep peace and an abiding calm.
This calm comes from a place of knowing deep down that God cares, and that God is at work in creative and innovative ways to bring about transformation and restoration; something new in the midst of all the old. And in this place of calm obedience, Joseph becomes for us a model of mercy and the way of transforming love.
In many Christmas pageants, the role of Joseph is reduced to that of faithful sidekick, comedic relief, or token male; and Mary becomes the real star of the story. Not so with Matthew’s gospel, thankfully. The beautiful narrative of Joseph’s obedience continues throughout the story of Jesus’ life.
Joseph faithfully takes Mary as his wife, endures a pregnancy and delivery that is not of his own flesh and blood, and adopts Mary’s son as his own. The unassuming righteous man who values mercy and love over obedience to the letter of the law becomes the hero of our text, and a model for us to follow.
In his faithfulness to God and his commitment to follow, Joseph teaches us how to welcome incarnation – a flesh- and- blood God radically intruding into the wintry wilderness of our human condition.
As a result of his trusting obedience, the story of God’s goodness and grace is written on another human heart; and God’s transforming love comes to earth in a tiny bundle of joy, whom Joseph faithfully names Jesus.
A simple act of obedience, involving huge amounts of trust yields, for Joseph, blessing after blessing. Maybe Joseph’s most treasured of these being holding the savior of the world in a gentle embrace with his loving hands. In an instant, this unconventional marriage, this unexpected birth, and this little baby become treasured parts of Joseph’s story, as a result of God’s intrusion and Joseph’s faithfulness. Doubts and fears are erased at the very mention of the child’s name:
Immanuel. God is with us.
The answer to every question uttered in the dark of the night; the balm that soothes wounds and scars of the past is found in this tiny savior. The presence of God comes tangibly to earth to comfort a broken and hurting people by bringing about delivering hope, inclusive peace, sustaining joy and transforming love.
The great Christmas Eve fail of 2013 was not all bad. Later that night, it started to snow. I don’t know if it was a dream, or just a deep sense of a need to get up, but either way,
I was prompted to rise from my bed and go to my window, where I saw a most glorious and beautiful dusting of powdery snow fall like breadcrumbs onto the hungry and waiting earth below.
As the manna of overturned expectations made right covered the questioning earth with the answer to its question “where are you, God?”
I made chocolate chip pancakes in the shape of snowflakes and sat by the window to watch God answer “here I am. I am with you,” as each crystalline flake fell onto the ground.
I whispered my thanks to God for the beauty of the earth, for dreams that invite a new way of seeing… of trusting… of coping; and for the artistry of God’s commitment to use everyday things like a crushed Christmas spirit, a young girl and a good man to bring about God’s transforming love to the world.
In Advent, we wait, excitedly, for the presence of God to come to earth as Jesus Christ, the Lord. In the meantime, while we wait, we are given the capacity to dream. As Joseph’s dream guided how he moved forward in his relationships, God gives us our own dreams to guide our lives individually and our ministries as a congregation.
The mission of this church is a unique one: to be the presence of God to the isolated elderly. In the chill of the season, and the hustling and bustling of the holiday, sometimes we forget to slow down and remember the wonderfully beautiful and simple truth of our mission.
We are to become Immanuel to the community around us. To remind those around us that the new is her, amidst the old, and to teach them to live in the reality of the present. To help them know that God is with us as much in the present reality as God was in the past and will continue to be in the future.
Our mission to become Immanuel to the people around us; bringing the light of God’s transforming love into the darkest places in our communities where questions abound and doubts reverberate around the world, is an honor and a privilege.
We give thanks to God today for including us in God’s redeeming work of transforming love.