Sermon Preached on December 22, 2019 – Advent IV
By The Rev. Dr. Nina R. Pooley
St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Yarmouth, ME
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
Advent Courage and Love
I had a good few days away, visiting my sister and her family, and my father in Hilton Head, SC. Though, as the young man sitting next to me on the flight said as we landed, “It’s good to be back in Maine.” We landed close to midnight, and it was very late by the time Ken and I pulled into our driveway. Ken and Mackenzie surprised me by getting a Christmas tree while I was away. The tree was lit up to greet me on my return – bright little lights illuminating the living room; small splashes of color spilling out to sparkle the driveway. Joyfully announcing HOME, their statement made more apparent and vibrant against the dark quiet cold of a December night.
I love that the darkest time of year happens for us in the midst of Advent. As we light our Advent candles, holding fast to God’s promises, and grounding ourselves in God’s: Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. In the midst of the chaos and darkness of the world, the frenetic pace of this retail season, and the weight of unrealistic expectations – Advent pushes back with preparation of a different kind. We prepare ourselves anew for the light of the world, the gift of God’s own son. Reminding ourselves of what really matters, and how to live into very different expectations than those of the culture. In Advent we anticipate again the fulfilling of God’s promises, even as we face the darkness of this world. The coming of Jesus is Good News precisely because the darkness of the world is real; seen from this place of darkness, the radiating light is overwhelmingly clear. Ask the Newtown (CT) football team who won the state championship, for the first time in decades, on December 14th, the anniversary of the massacre at Newtown Elementary. They scored the winning touchdown on the last play of the game, and the celebration was explosive – as their entire community, who has shouldered unimaginable darkness – rejoiced together. Before we jump ahead to the joy and light of Christmas, we embrace Advent, acknowledging that the world as we know it is broken and no one is immune; we face the darkness with courage, and in community with one another.
The Reverend Tish Harrison Warren articulates it this way:
Advent … reminds us that joy is trivialized if we do not first intentionally acknowledge the pain and wreckage of the world. … To practice Advent is to lean into an almost cosmic ache: our deep, wordless desire for things to be made right and the incompleteness we find in the meantime. We dwell in a world still racked with conflict, violence, suffering, darkness. Advent holds space for our grief, and it reminds us that all of us, in one way or another, are not only wounded by the evil in the world but are also wielders of it, contributing our own moments of unkindness or impatience or selfishness. … Our response to the wrongness of the world (and of ourselves) can often be an unhealthy escapism, and we can turn to the holidays as anesthesia from pain as much as anything else. We need collective space, as a society, to grieve—to look long and hard at what is cracked and fractured in our world and in our lives. Only then can celebration become deep, rich and resonant, not as a saccharine act of delusion but as a defiant act of hope.¹
Which brings us to our final Sunday in Advent and the texts before us. Matthew’s Gospel opens with introductory genealogy, with our text following on its heels, as the final generation in the list – and the fulfillment of God’s systematic plan.² Matthew’s point – God’s salvation is unfolding through the generations with poetic symmetry and precision.³ Matthew references the verses from Isaiah in our first lesson – in which the prophet assures King Ahaz that God will protect Judah from external enemies – and as a sign of that abiding protection, a young woman will give birth to a child named, “Immanuel,” or “God is with us.”⁴
Matthew goes on to tell us how this will happen, albeit through Joseph’s role, rather than Mary’s. I promise we’ll hear Luke’s Gospel on Christmas Eve, focused on Mary’s central role, her YES, and the miraculous moment of our salvation. But this last morning of Advent, we’re discussing Joseph’s issues, because the line of David is important to the promise, and Mary and her child will need Joseph’s name, his protection, and his livelihood. None of that’s a given – as we hear in our text – Mary’s pregnancy causes Joseph to make plans for a discreet divorce. In the scholarly community there are two going interpretations for this. The first and most common is – as Matthew’s points out – Joseph is a righteous man, he is aware of the law in Deuteronomy – that if a woman is discovered to be with child before marriage, “the men of her town shall stone her to death.”⁵ Joseph chooses to be compassionate and save her life. According to preacher Fred Craddock, Joseph becomes the first interpreter of Scripture in the New Testament – as he chooses to subordinate texts like that in Deuteronomy, in favor of texts like Micah 6:8: “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.”⁶ In other words, Joseph discerns and acts upon a justice deeper than mere legal justice (a theme Jesus will later expound at length in his preaching). Against the darkness of hateful violence dressed up as law, Joseph acts with merciful love – and the Gospel story begins.⁷
After Joseph decides to dismiss Mary quietly, an angel appears to him in a dream, assuring him that Mary has been faithful, that the pregnancy is from the Holy Spirit. The angel explains that as “a son of David,” Joseph has an essential role to play; he is to serve as the child’s human father, to name the child Jesus (meaning “God saves”), and to participate in the story of salvation, outlined in the genealogy and echoed in the ancient words of Isaiah.
But scholars including Aquinas, Jerome, and Origen, have argued for another reading instead, citing several textual reasons, among them – the angel’s words to Joseph. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife…” If Joseph thinks Mary has betrayed him, we would expect the angel to say, “do not be angry” or “do not be heartbroken” – rather than “do not be afraid to marry her.” Yet, in many Biblical stories, being afraid is the first human response to divine presence, so it would make sense if Joseph’s fear was a response to Mary’s divine-and-human pregnancy.⁸ Perhaps Joseph’s afraid of getting in the way of God’s work. Or perhaps he’s simply unnerved and bewildered that God – the author of creation, whom “no one may see and live”⁹ – has come so unimaginably, intimately near.10
Whichever interpretation we choose – either that Joseph felt that Mary had betrayed him, or that God had come wonderfully, fearfully close – the angel appears to Joseph in a dream. ‘Do not be afraid, son of David! You have a role to play: to welcome the child into your lineage; to help name him; to help raise him; and to support Mary along the way. Take courage, step up, and love!’
The angel calls Joseph to a love that doubles as a kind of courage. Courage to commit – though the neighbors may whisper and scowl. Courage to nurture – though the child you raise is from the Holy Spirit. Courage to love – though the child you love is none other than Love itself, none other than Jesus, Emmanuel: “The God Who Saves Is With Us.”¹¹
The angel calls us to a similar kind of love and courage, saying to us, “Do not be afraid,” as we face the darkness, the unknown, the inescapably hard realities of our lives. We don’t need the shiny, shallow escapism offered by the world, those who are trying to sell us something (anything that will turn a profit). Escapism isn’t necessary anymore, for “God with us,” Emmanuel, means that God is always with us, and will never leave us to face the darkness alone.
Note to self – Emmanuel, “God with us,” cannot be appropriated as “God for us” nor is it the arrogance of “God with ME.” Emmanuel, “God with us” proclaims God’s solidarity with us as a promise of the incarnation; and calls us to respond – by being present with one another, working to alleviate the pain of others. “God with us” reminds us that being in community is not only our necessity but also our responsibility.¹² “God with us” is both promise and possibility; both presence and potential. We are never alone – we are never apart from God – we are never apart from each other.¹³
My friends, the darkness of the world continues. But together we light candles, we sing, we share meals, we give gifts, and we celebrate. We take heart in Joseph’s willingness to have courage and love. We confront the darkness together – confident in the promises of God, knowing that the God who saves is with us. We can face whatever is before us – all that is yet to come, the unknown, and the daunting – for the God who saves is with us. In the company of God and one another we can find life and light.
When we light the candle of LOVE, in the face of darkness and despair, of uncertainty and fear, we witness to the power of LOVE: God’s love, the love made flesh, Emmanuel, the love that came to dwell with us. The love Isaiah spoke of, reassuring an anxious king of God’s sheltering presence. The love Mary knew, the love that casts out hate and fear.14 The love of Joseph, a courageous sheltering, supportive love.
Do not be afraid, says the angel. Do not be afraid, children of David, children of Abraham and Sarah, children of Mary and Joseph!15 Together, take courage, step up, and love!
1 Tish Harrison Warren, “Want the Get into the Christmas Spirit? Face the Darkness,” New York Times, Nov. 30, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/30/opinion/sunday/christmas- season-advent-celebration.html
2 Matt 1:1-17
3 drawn from: Courageous Love, SALT lectionary commentary Advent Week Four, December 16, 2019, saltproject.org
4 Isaiah 7:14
5 Deuteronomy 22:20-27
6 Fred Craddock, The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock, p. 66
7 adapted from: Courageous Love, SALT lectionary commentary Advent Week Four, December 16, 2019, saltproject.org
8 adapted heavily, but drawn from: Courageous Love, SALT lectionary commentary Advent Week Four, December 16, 2019, saltproject.org
9 Exodus 33:20
10 adapted from: Courageous Love, SALT lectionary commentary Advent Week Four, December 16, 2019, saltproject.org
11 adapted heavily, but drawn from: Courageous Love, SALT lectionary commentary Advent Week Four, December 16, 2019, saltproject.org
12 drawn from: Karoline Lewis, “Holding on to Advent,” Monday, December 16, 2019 9:33 AM, workingpreacher.org
13 Karoline Lewis, “Holding on to Advent,” Monday, December 16, 2019 9:33 AM, workingpreacher.org
14 adapted from: Courageous Love, SALT lectionary commentary Advent Week Four, December 16, 2019, saltproject.org
15 adapted from: Courageous Love, SALT lectionary commentary Advent Week Four, December 16, 2019, saltproject.org