Faith United Methodist Church
December 18, 2016
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Rev. Kristabeth Atwood
Scripture: Isaiah 7:10-16, Matthew 1:18-25
Prayer of Illumination:
The One who visited Joseph in a dream visits us still. The Spirit that was at work saving the Hebrew people long ago is at work in our lives today. The child born of Mary lives in our midst when we gather in his name. God is with us, Emmanuel. Amen.
Sermon: We Are Not Alone
I bet Joseph felt pretty alone when he heard the news that Mary was pregnant. He knew the baby wasn’t his, so that only left one other option. Mary had been unfaithful. Joseph was a righteous man, which meant that he followed all the rules of his faith, was, generally, a good guy. And he thought he was marrying a righteous woman, a woman who would manage his household and raise his children. All of a sudden that seemed not to be the case.
And who could Joseph talk to about this? Who would understand? The Scripture suggests that Joseph didn’t want to talk about it. Matthew tells us that Joseph had resolved to, “dismiss her quietly.” He just wanted all this ~ the humiliation, the betrayal, the disappointment ~ to go away. But before Joseph had a chance to get down to the magistrate’s house (because, in those days, engagement was a legal union, not just a social one) he had a dream. And in his dream he received a message telling him to go through with the marriage, that Mary hadn’t been unfaithful after all, but was pregnant by the Holy Spirit.
Now, I don’t know about you, but if I had a dream like that I would probably dismiss it as a result of the Italian sausage I had the night before and go on with my day. But not Joseph. No, Joseph paid attention. When the angel of his dream quoted Isaiah with the prophecy that a virgin would bear a son and name him Emmanuel, Joseph suddenly knew that he wasn’t alone. God, indeed, was with him. And Joseph would never be alone again. He took Mary as his wife and raised the baby as his own. By naming Jesus, Joseph acknowledged this baby of unusual origins as his own son.
One of the greatest joys ~ and biggest challenges ~ of my life is being a stepmother. Ben was two-years-old when Gary and I married. Today he is 17 and getting acceptance letters from colleges. As a 27-year-old bride I was in love ~ with Gary and with the toddler that would make my up my instant family. We did all the ‘right’ things before we got married. Gary and I talked a lot and I read books on being a step-mother. But nothing can prepare one for the realities of being a stepfamily ~ the anticipated visits and the too-soon goodbyes, the blending of grandparents and cousins, aunts and uncles, the disagreements on what’s in the best interest of who, and the linking of two families that might not have much in common but the love for one boy.
One thing I knew from the beginning was that I didn’t want to try to be Ben’s mother. Ben has a mother who loves him as only mothers can. But where does that leave me? And what can I offer Ben? Those are questions that I still ponder, but don’t think I’ll ever figure out. I imagine they are questions pondered by many stepparents. Maybe it is enough that I am the wife of Ben’s father, a member of Ben’s diverse family, someone who has known him essentially his whole life and loves him. When there is love, maybe things don’t need to be defined.
In the Gospel of Matthew Joseph is never spoken of as Jesus’ father. Joseph could have dismissed Mary quietly, as he planned, and gone on to marry someone more ~ umm ~ conventional. Yet, the man who swallowed his pride and married a woman carrying a child not-his-own doesn’t even get the recognition of “father” in relation to Jesus. Under these circumstances there were no weekend visits to Dad, no shared custody or split summer vacations. Joseph was it, Jesus’ earthy father-figure. But beyond saying ‘yes’ to Mary he gets little of the credit.
I wonder what kind of questions kept Joseph up at night when Jesus was a toddler pulling on his mother’s skirts? When Jesus played with the other kids in their Nazareth neighborhood? When Jesus was an adolescent in the wood-shop learning the carpentry trade? When Jesus rebelled against his mom and stepdad, as all teenagers do? Did Joseph remember that long ago dream? Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and his name shall be Emmanuel. Did Joseph feel God’s presence with him? Did Joseph know he was not alone?
As you can tell, as one stepparent to another, I have a lot of questions for Joseph. Joseph is kind of “my guy” in this story. The family that Jesus was born into gives me faith not just in my family, but in all our families. As Katie Hines-Shah reminds us in The Christian Century, “God has always worked through messy and broken families, restoring them and bringing hope.” And whose family isn’t messy or broken in one way or another?
Emmanuel, which is really a title more than a name, is one of those Hebrew words that can’t be adequately translated into English. We generally translate it as, “God with us.” It can also be translated, “God is in common with us,” or “God is one of us.” In Jesus we have God come to us in the flesh, in the blood, sweat and tears of this earthly life. Being God of the universe, God could have chosen to come to us in any way God wanted. And God chose to come to us as a vulnerable baby born to unwed parents and into a blended family. What does that tell us about God?
It tells me that God is really with us. God didn’t avoid the muddle and chaos of human life. God inserts himself right into it. To quote Hines-Shah again, “God who made the universe out of nothing decides to do something even harder: enter into a human family.” As we anticipate time with our families over the coming holidays, we know that being part of a family is no easy thing. And there was Jesus, born into a family under extra-ordinary circumstances with two parents ~ mom and stepdad ~ just figuring things out as they went along.
How has life turned out differently than you expected? Gary, Ben and I have been through many things that I could not have anticipated when I became a stepmother 15 years ago. And we had some dark nights where all I could do was be with Gary in some hard decisions he had to make, as the Dad, and I had to support, as the stepmom. And, looking back, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Just as Joseph found, sometimes when we think we are most alone we find that God is with us, Emmanuel.
The trick, I think, is discarding our ideas of how things are supposed to turn out because, honestly, they rarely turn out that way, right? As Sam Portaro, Episcopal priest, puts it, “When we let go of our own fantasies of a….future conforming to our own desires and designs, we open a space ready to receive God’s surprise, the life promised us.” I believe that Joseph’s life must have been richer for taking in Mary and her then-unborn child. And in his moments of doubt he could remember that dream ~ that gift from God ~ that encouraged him to turn from his traditional life and do something new.
Joseph and Mary. I don’t think they were really all that different from us. Sure, they lived in a different time. But I am certain that they had the same fears and doubts and questions that we all do. Yes, God acted in their lives amazingly. But isn’t that the point. As David Lose reminds us, “…God comes through ordinary, mixed up people in order to save ordinary, mixed up people…” That God acted so powerfully in the lives of Joseph and Mary means that God can act powerful in our lives, too. They raised Emmanuel ~ God with us ~ so today we can know that we are never alone. Thanks be to God-with-us. O Come, O Come our Emmanuel.