Worship notes: advent four...

For the past four weeks I’ve asked you to quietly and personally play
the role of the contemplative for Advent:  my hope has been that you would take a long, loving look at what is real and then playfully but faithfully see what the Lord might be saying to you through your everyday, ordinary, walking around experiences.  Frederick Buechner calls this invitation into contemplation listening to your life:

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.

The apostle Paul says much the same thing in Romans 12 when he tells his disciples:

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

Each week during Advent our tradition has offered some Bible stories to serve as gentle guides for us as we listen to our lives. 

·   +  At the start of December we were confronted with the apocalyptic advice to stay awake – to practice contemplation – because no one knows except the Father when the Lord will break into our awareness so we listened to our habits and thoughts together.

·   +  On the second Sunday of Advent John the Baptist came to us in all his fury urging us to pay attention to the tension in our lives – to let go of some of our busy work so that this year our Christmas might be different – and we listened to our “to do lists.”

·   +  Last week Mary sang her song of embodied prayer and brought to light the deep promises of God’s healing grace that can be experienced in our flesh – and we listened to what our bodies might be telling us about God’s coming at Christmas.

And now there is the story of Joseph – his fears, his faith and how he discovers a greater fidelity born of compassion – and how that might guide us in our listening and contemplation. It would be so very, very easy to not listen to the fears of our lives as recorded in today’s gospel in our pursuit of the joys of Christmas.  Nobody does this well…

And yet I choose to believe there is value in honoring the last Sunday of Advent as we listen to our fears along with Joseph.  I know that I need to spend a little more time in the darkness to feel in my flesh something akin to Joseph’s quest for God in the midst of his anxiety.  You see, truth be told, this story could have turned ugly very quickly given the choices Joseph saw before him.  But like many of us in this season, he took the time to listen to his life and let God speak to him through his fears.

So let’s tease out a few of the contemplative insights in this story before unwrapping the gifts of Christmas, ok?  There are two fascinating clues about listening to the fears of your life that are buried within the details of this story but they take a bit of amplification.  If we simply read through the text as a prelude to the feast of Christmas, it would be easy to miss them – and that would be a loss.

So first consider what we’re being told in the word Emmanuel.  It literally means “God is with us” and is found in both the Old and New Testaments.  The prophet Isaiah tells his king that a child shall be born in the midst of a war to save the people from their sins and his name will be Immanuel; over 500 years later an unnamed angel appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him that the child to be born of Mary by the Holy Spirit will also heal the sins of the people and he, too shall be called Emmanuel.  Now whenever we get a double-dose of a name on a Sunday morning, it is a not too subtle invitation to pay extra attention – even if we’ve heard this story over and over again – because something important is going to take place with this sacred double whammy.

·   +  And my hunch is that it has something to do with what Jesus reveals to the world:  Jesus will be the clearest sign of God’s nature and love that human eyes can take in.  Not the only sign, right?  There are obviously other signs in the world that would include the beauty and awe of nature as well as the march of justice in history.  What’s more, other religions have insights about the Lord that are sacred and true and we, ourselves, have had personal experiences that have opened our hearts and minds to the truth of God.

·   +  But most of these other signs that reveal something of the Lord – especially in nature and history – can be ambiguous and subjecting and open to interpretation.  But there is no ambiguity in God’s word made flesh in Jesus. It is pure love and grace from start to finish because the whole point of Jesus is “to reveal and redeem – to show us as much of God’s character as we can take in – and save us from our sin.” (Arland Hultgren in the Working Preacher)

·   +  I love the way Jesus himself speaks to this in last week’s reading when he tells his cousin, John the Baptist, if you wonder about the essence of God and my role in revealing the way of the Lord, look at what is happening:  the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

In his anxiety over how to best respond to Mary’s unplanned pregnancy
– and all the social repercussions that could follow – Joseph’s fears awaken in him a need for guidance.  That’s what the unnamed angel represents – God’s guidance in the midst of Joseph’s confusion – and as Joseph listens the angel confirms that Emmanuel is coming.  God is with us is coming. The clearest embodiment of God’s grace is coming – without ambiguity or question – and when Joseph wakes up from his fear, he is able to trust the way of the Lord and embrace Mary fully as his beloved and pure wife.

·   +  Are you with me on this point?  Was I clear in stating that the first insight into Joseph’s story has to do with Emmanuel – God coming to be with us – in a bold and unambiguous way?

·   +  I’m not saying all doubt and fear goes away in our real lives when we live by faith.  No, what I want to say is that when Joseph’s fear is most intense, God reveals to him a sign of profound comfort and joy.  I think the first insight is that Joseph’s fear gave him permission to trust the wild power of God’s unambiguous grace.

Sometimes, you see, people like you and me are just too damn smart for our own good.  We think we can figure out solutions to all of our problems.  After all, we have advanced degrees. We are smart and creative people.  But sometimes no matter how smart we are we can’t fix our problems or solve our fears.  We need a power and love GREATER than ourselves to do that and I sense that this is part of what Joseph’s story is telling us:  Emmanuel is coming to be with us if we’re willing to receive him.

Another insight in Joseph’s story of listening to his fear begins with the first words of Matthew’s gospel – in the genealogy – that part of the story most of us skip over.  But like the upside-down nature of the gospel itself, even in the words we think of as boring or irrelevant, there is often something sacred hidden within them.  The wise Jewish scholar who visited us a few years ago, Amy Jill Levine, suggests that the reason Matthew puts all those obscure names in the start of the gospel is because they gave Joseph a clue about how God’s coming can overcome our fears.

·   Specifically, Dr. Levine points out that in this genealogy there are the names of five women – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba (wife of Uriah) and Mary – and each of these women not only link Jesus back to his royal roots in King David but also point to a way of being “unconventionally righteous.” 

·   You might recall that Joseph is described as a righteous man – a faithful Jew who was committed to both justice and compassion – and that was one of the reasons why he was afraid and worried.  In his religious tradition, a woman ought not to be pregnant before she came into the home of her betrothed.  So because he was a righteous man and unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace, he planned to dismiss and divorce her quietly. 

Apparently St. Matthew has spent a little time listening to the life of Joseph so he asks us to also listen to the lives of these five women because they were both unconventionally righteous but completely faithful to the Lord at the same time. Preacher Nanette Sawyer puts it like this:

Each of these women acted boldly and against convention in order to bring about some kind of justice… Tamar, whose husband died, was denied the protection of marriage so she tricked her father-in-law into giving her children, one of whom was Perez, an ancestor of King David. Rahab, a prostitute, was the mother of Boaz, another ancestor of King David. Ruth lay “at the feet” of Boaz and became the mother of Obed, who was still another ancestor of King David. See a pattern here? Bathsheba was taken from her husband Uriah by King David and became the mother of King Solomon, the next king in David’s lineage… (All of which) brings us to Mary, pregnant when she shouldn’t be, appearing to be un-righteous by conventional standards (yet who is clearly) doing the right thing (by carrying Jesus to birth.)

·   And here’s the kicker:  Joseph is being asked to become just as
scandalously righteous as these wild women of the Bible.  Because of his fear the angel of the Lord is able to push him toward just their type of radical compassion when it comes to Mary.

·   So this seemingly irrelevant genealogy is actually telling us that sometimes when we’re afraid we’re able to see a vision of Lord’s love that is greater than convention. In his fear Joseph is being invited to become a living part of that radical and upside-down grace that stretches all the way back the Exodus and continues into the very birth of Jesus. 

The time has come to be faithful and bold like these women, dear man, is what I hear the angel in Matthew’s gospel telling us through Joseph’s story.  And by listening to his fears, Joseph was able to do a truly healing and beautiful thing.

Now most of the time, I don’t think of my fear as an invitation from the Lord to become a person of unconventional compassionate.  I hate feeling insecure and anxious.  There is just nothing good about those feelings… except, of course, they can lead us deeper into God’s grace. 

The story of Joseph wrestling with his fears, however, gives me an alternative to either shame or denial.  His testimony is that God – Emmanuel – who is with us will not leave us alone. The 16th century mystic, St. John of the Cross, said:  "Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be a better light and safer than a known way.” 

And so when Joseph awoke from his fear, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.  He took Mary to be his wife but had no marital relations with her until she had born a son whom they named Jesus.

2) Mary Sullivan Nativity @ fineartamerica.com
3) St. Joseph @ www.sjcpenfield.com


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