Sunday, December 18, 2016 – The Fourth Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 7:10-16 Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18 Romans 1:1-7 Matthew 1:18-25
A Couple of Questions and a Smaller yes
This Sunday is Advent Four, and we are celebrating the Gun Violence Sabbath. Is this really the week for that? Yes, for it’s the Sunday following the anniversary of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Violence against innocents is difficult enough for us to process, but when it involves children, it rightly drops us to our knees. That was the moment when many of us said – no more silence. We must act and speak and pray and grieve collectively. We can no longer behave as if these events are each isolated events, and pretend we truly believe this will be the last time we will be rocked to our core by gun violence against innocents in this country – and we must do something to address it. As people of God, we know that the violence must stop. It’s not enough to simply wish it would. We have to begin to speak, and pray that it will… and then act as we see fit, to be part of the solution, instruments of God’s justice and peace; however small or inconsequential those actions may feel at the time.
A couple of questions… isn’t this supposed to be the Christmas eve story? Well yes and no. As Anglicans we get the Luke version of the story on Christmas, so we get Matthew here. And that’s a good thing because, if we are honest, we have other more technical questions about this story. Which we never ask, at least most of us don’t, not out loud, in church at this time of the year. Matthew, former tax collector, is good about lining up the generations so we can see the multiples of seven in the line of David, signaling that this birth is that of the Messiah, through whom the realm of God has begun. In the ancient world remarkable birth stories were relatively common indicators that an important person was under a divine hand. Matthew is clear to state that Mary was a virgin (Parthenos) when Jesus was born. People would have understood this to mean that God was involved in Jesus’ life from the very beginning. His life is part of God’s plan of salvation. So a remarkable conception – to indicate a remarkable event, which in the context of its time, would make perfect sense and have been understood as a flare – look over here!! God is at work here in this life!!! And given the lineage and the neatness of the math involved, … God is not only at work here, but through this life God is about to bring forth the age to come. God works with the materials at hand, and I’ve got to believe our context is a significant part of that. Particularly given that getting us to grasp and believe the message is the whole point. So a virgin birth was contextually in order, which leads us to Joseph and this morning’s text.
Again, a couple of questions. First and rightly so, are we going to talk about the birth of Jesus by discussing Joseph’s issues, and not Mary’s? He’s only indirectly involved, right? Except that’s not really fair. The line of David is important to the promise, and Mary and the child will need his name, his protection, and his livelihood. Of course Mary’s is the central most important YES of this miraculous moment of our salvation. She is pivotal, on her hangs all the love of the world… She will get her time in our pulpit, in many, promise. (Virtually all of the cathedrals in Europe are dedicated to her, after all.)
But, surprising as it is, Joseph factors in, albeit as a supporting player. Not many men are willing to be supporting cast, to let another rise in greatness that surpasses their own. It takes a strong man to play this role, to be one who cares and protects from the wings. Yet if this is what it takes, then Joseph will do it; this is the job he is given to do. All that is his to do – but what must be done in order for God’s plan of salvation to happen. Joseph has a role to play. He believes the message is of God, however hard it is to take at the moment, however tough the road ahead might be, and he chooses to play his part in God’s plan of salvation.
A couple of questions – what does that look like now? To play the indirect role, to be a supporting player in the plan of salvation? To add a smaller yes to God’s YES of salvation? I will play a part in this today… I will assist in this.
What does Joseph look like today? He might look like this – though perhaps not quite so famous! My daughter Mackenzie showed me this story this week: a meeting between a 6 year old Murtaza Ahmadi, and his hero, footballer Leo Messi. (Soccer to us American types) Last year Murtaza made a replica of a Messi jersey out of a plastic bag, wearing it as he played football in rural Afghanistan, where he lives. A photo of him went viral. Unicef and Messi tracked the family down and sent the boy a real jersey (and some for his brothers and sisters), and the football organization in Afghanistan tried to arrange a meeting, but the family had drawn too much attention and they began to receive threats from the Taliban. So the father sold all their belongings and they fled. Earlier this week, with the help of the UN refugee agency, Murtaza met up with his hero Messi at a friendly match in Doha, Qatar. It was something to see, this world famous star walking out onto the pitch hand in hand with this tiny little boy who had once played in a plastic bag made into a jersey, just to be like his hero. Everyone was grinning, all the players on both teams, the referees…. people couldn’t stop smiling, and the boy wouldn’t leave. He was part of the handshakes, he set the ball out, he posed with the team for the team photo, he walked out with the captains to meet the refs; the game was starting and he had to be carried off by a laughing referee. They didn’t go into what happens next, but I doubt the story is over. Hearts were opened, changed by this child, and all of this happened because a hero was willing to be involved, to play a role for someone for whom he is not responsible, not really.
I know that there are questions about the story that ran in the New York Times, originally in Knoxville News Sentinel, about the man who is a ‘professional Santa,’ who was called by an ICU nurse to come sit with a terminally ill child. But I tend to believe that it’s likely that the interaction happened, (after all, that was in October) and it was when the reporter caught wind of it, and made “a story” of it, that things got a little confusing. The gentleman in question is maintaining the confidentiality of the family, and that is part of what is allowing his story to come under such scrutiny. The story works for us as an illustration, and you know something similar has happened. This man who looks a lot like Santa, dresses up to give a dying child his wish. Goes to the ICU to visit with the child and while he is sitting there, even perhaps when the child has just finished giving him a hug, the child dies. The man is devastated, he didn’t sign up for this when he chose to bring joy and presents and sit for photos. He doesn’t know this child; he didn’t want to pay this cost. He is shaken up, it takes him weeks to recover.
But, you do what you can do, even if it’s not really your direct responsibility. Because that’s how it works, really works, if we are to make this kingdom come. And consider that these are unique in a way, unique asks – of these individuals, things only they could do, only they could give to those who asked. Not huge, but costly in their own ways. Not something that could be shunted off onto another. They had to do it, or it wouldn’t happen.
That’s the Joseph role – the specific to you alone supporting role. And I suspect our task most of the time in this kingdom-come work. We are rarely in the grand YES situations of Mary (thanks be to God). But the Joseph ‘smaller specific to us, lower case yes’ situations of the supporting role – that’s a lot more likely and happens more often. To people like you and me. There will come a moment when some will ask that will be specific to me or to you, that only we can do right then and there – that needs our supporting role in order to happen. And in that moment we have a choice to make – do we believe the message is of God and play our supporting role?
Do we add our smaller yes to God’s resounding YES for us all? And join in the plan of salvation? I know, so many questions. So, what do you say?
“When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him;”