Homily preached by the Reverend Vicki M. Davis, Guest Celebrant & Preacher
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fourth Sunday of Advent – December 19, 2010
“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” So begins the passage from Matthew’s Gospel this morning. He proceeds to tell his version of the beginning of that story. I teach New Testament to 5th graders at an Episcopal School in New York City – and we have been reading, comparing and contrasting, the very different tellings of the story of the birth of Jesus the Messiah found in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels. They focus on different details, different perspectives, different points of view; they include different events. Matthew’s telling highlights Joseph, his role, his perspective – and the flight to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath – which isn’t usually the view featured in the popular tellings, in Christmas Pageants around the world. On this 4th Sunday of Advent, we hear how Joseph is brought into what is about to happen and how he responds.
In Matthew’s, Joseph realizes that Mary is with child before they had even lived together – which as we all know can only mean one thing. He plans to dismiss her quietly. He was a righteous man, we are told, and was unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace. But an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream with a clear message: “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.” Imagine the suspension of disbelief required to trust in the improbable message of such a dream. Put yourself in Joseph’s place. My students always raise the question: How could Joseph have believed such a dream? It’s a question that comes up a lot from my students with respect to bible stories. One of my 8th grade students out of the blue asked me last week how Abraham could have taken the steps he did towards killing his own son because God told him to do it? How could he believe God would tell him such a thing, much less act on it?
As I ponder how to address these very compelling questions from students, it occurs to me that perhaps because it was, in fact, an angel of the Lord appearing to Joseph in a dream, the dream is necessarily compelling and believable. Because it was, in fact, God who spoke to Abraham and told him to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac, the instruction was compelling. What got me thinking along these lines – I’m embarrassed to admit, but God works in mysterious ways – was flipping channels on TV several nights ago, I stumbled upon the movie Evan the Almighty being shown on one of the network channels, – a modern-day take on the Noah story – and was struck by the way in which God’s command to build an ark was, in effect, irresistible. As much as the protagonist, an elected representative to Congress, with a family, a life, a house, credibility, respectability, as much as he tried to resist what he had been told to do, tried to NOT follow God’s instruction, indeed tried to dismiss even the thought that God had spoken to him, in order to maintain his tenuous hold on the life he was living, he was nonetheless compelled to build an ark. He tried to hide the Noah-era robes he was dressed in, tucking them underneath his suit as he dressed for work – only to look down and see the suit neatly folded on his desk – and he was wearing the ancient robes. The same with trying to hide the beard. It was all very kitschy as movies can be – but it got me thinking of the underlying premise: The compelling nature of God’s voice, of God’s will, does empower actions, beliefs and response we may have thought ourselves incapable of. Which is not to say God manipulates us in the way of a puppet master; no, we have free will to choose our response. But keeping in mind that God’s will, God’s guidance for each of our lives is towards the good, bringing us to a better place, although in certain circumstances, it is difficult to see how that could come about. Marrying an already pregnant woman, knowing you had nothing to do with the pregnancy? Killing your beloved son you waited your whole life for?
The story of Jonah comes to mind – illustrating the flight response to God’s command, to run as fast and as far in the opposite direction as possible. But, as Jonah discovered, in the end, compelled by his circumstances, he did go where God instructed him to go, and was grateful and humbled. Perhaps our response, our ability to respond to God’s promptings in our own lives, is a measure of faith, of our trust in the God in whom we profess belief. Abraham, after all, is the model for faithfulness. He so trusted God that he didn’t need to understand what or how he was being asked to do what he was being asked to do; he didn’t worry about the cost to himself, where he would wind up, what people might think. Joseph, too, though we don’t hear much about him in the bible, was clearly a very faithful man, evidenced in the words of today’s Gospel, “When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.”
So today, this fourth Sunday of Advent, we are invited to contemplate Joseph’s role and example in the birth of the Christ child, suspending our notions of how things work, being open and willing to hear God’s voice in the events and dreams of our lives, to embrace the improbable, to take on the life of a faithful Christian, contemplating the possibilities when the compelling voice of God is taken in to a faithful and trusting heart, and to pray, in the words of today’s Collect, that “your son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself.” Amen.