Advent 4, Year A
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “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.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.Matthew 1:18-25
“You can have me but cannot hold me; Gain me and quickly lose me. If treated with care I can be great, and if betrayed I will break.” This is a riddle that many of us have trouble solving. It’s not that we don’t know what the answer is, we’re “enlightened” modern people after all. Even if we don’t know the answer to something as petty as this riddle pretty much all of us carry the collected weight of human knowledge in our pocket, we could look it up. Indeed the answer is out there, most of us know it quite well, but the riddle itself seems to remain unsolved. If we had solved the riddle — I mean really solve it — live it, let it fill every part of our existence, there would be far less animosity, hostility, and suffering in the world.
We live in a world where skepticism is prized over confidence, cynicism over optimism. These values are reinforced everywhere, even something as seemingly trivial as entertainment in the last few decades has taken a turn for the darker. Take for example superhero films, this is a genre about people flying around with their underwear on the outside of their pants, bright colors, villains with puns in their names, and namely, fun. Yet they have grown darker and darker almost to a point of self-parody because that is Hollywood’s lazy way of making something “adult” or “complex”. This has become so ingrained in making these films that the actual cinematography is moving darker and darker, stripping away the color of the character’s costumes and even making sunny days look overcast. One of the biggest complaints libeled against the most recent Justice League movie was that it was literally so dark, people had trouble seeing what was happening on the screen. But this is the small price to pay for maturity, right? Fun, colors, simplicity, optimism, these are for children. The “real” world is brutal, unkind, deceitful and the only way to protect ourselves is to be skeptical and cynical of everything that comes our way.
But what is more childish? Being so afraid of being disappointed that we need to protect ourselves with skepticism, or being willing to take a risk because we believe that things can get better?
Trust is the answer we know, and the enigma that we still haven’t solved. In the age of Fake News, near daily scandal, international unease, and shrinking churches trust is hardly something that comes easily to us. Yet it is the very thing that will save us.
Trust is hard to build because we are taught to be skeptical. The modern world reinforces the belief that trusting is somehow anti-intellectual. Yet, this is untrue. Trust is not about intellectual assent, but commitment. Trust is a willingness to walk with, and to give one’s heart over to, ideas, goals, dreams, and people. Intellectual assent is always a part of the conversation, but the reality of trust comes from the heart.
As we approach the feast of the Incarnation, through familiar stories we are called to reflect on Christianity’s most difficult and profound claim: that the immortal, impassable, almighty God came and dwelt among us. Not as a stranger, not in disguise, but taking on the entirety of humanity in order to save us. It may seem odd, or even premature, that we have the story of Jesus’ birth before Christmas, but if you listen carefully you may have noticed that Jesus is not the main character of his birth narrative, Joseph is. This story is given in preparation for the Incarnation not to tell us the story we all have heard a thousand times, but to prepare us for the inexplicable, wonderous works of God through the perspective of an ordinary man.
For someone who has no spoken lines in the Bible, Joseph’s story speaks volumes. Like many of the heroic figures of the Bible, he is a perfectly ordinary man. Matthew records only two unique things about Joseph, that he is from the lineage of David, and that he is a righteous man. Matthew notes this for two reasons: he speaks to Joseph’s heritage in order to convey to us that Jesus is connected to the kingship of David. This is to fulfill the promise that God made to David that the messiah would come from his line (Second Samuel 7). Joseph’s righteousness is to remind us of the heroes of the Old Testament, Abraham, Moses, even Joseph, his namesake. One thing all they all have in common is before God calls them, they are described as righteous. Though Joseph has these characteristics, being of the house of David and being righteous, he is still an ordinary man. During his lifetime there would have been many who could have been described as of the house of David and righteous. So why would God choose him to be the adopted father of His son?
The truth is we don’t know. There seems to be nothing extraordinary in his character or background. Yet time and time again God has chosen to work through ordinary people. Much like Abraham, Moses, and his wife Mary, they are all ordinary people God called to extraordinary things. Joseph is chosen by God, entrusted with the care and rearing of the Messiah. Yet unlike Abraham, Moses, and his wife Mary, Joseph does not get a grand display explaining his part in God’s plan, no burning bush or heavenly figure, all he is given is a dream, a promise, and presumably the word of his betrothed. For him that is enough. Matthew closes Joseph’s story by recounting Joseph accepting God’s call by naming the child Jesus.
Joseph giving the name is more than him following God’s call blindly, or simply fulfilling his duty. The power of the name in that culture meant that Joseph accepted Jesus as his own son.
As heartwarming as it may be to reflect on Joseph and Mary’s trust in God, it does us little good if we assume that their trust was mere obedience or the result of miraculous circumstances. Their trust in God’s call is not intellectually assenting to what God is asking of them but giving their heart to the mission. Intellectual assent is necessary but not sufficient for trust because their trust in God’s plan did not end with the annunciation. As we find in the flight to Egypt story that follows, God called them to extraordinary tasks again and again. What we learn from Mary and Joseph’s story is not the miraculous things that happen to them, but how they respond to the call of God.
Though the cynical world covers its ears, God is still calling. We try to cover it up through rationalization, disappointment, and misgiving, but each and every day God calls us to the mission. Each one of us every day is called by God to proclaim the good news that Christ has come and we are saved! Death is no more, and we are free to live with Justice and Righteousness by loving God and loving our neighbor. The only thing holding us back from a just and righteous world is our lack of trust in God and in each other. Trust goes beyond simply saying “I believe in God” or “I believe in the goodness of humanity” Trust is the discipline and willingness to continue, even when doubting, by giving your heart to the goal.
How then do we respond to God’s call? Here in church we have a short word that explains our method: credo or “creed”. It comes from the combination of two Latin words, cordis or “heart”, and “-do” an archaic word for “do”, “put”, or “give”. Though in common usage credo is translated to “I believe”, it really means “I give my heart to”. Every time we gather for worship we listen to God’s call, hear some guy in funny clothes comment on it, then recite our creed. We recite the creed partially to safeguard you from any heresies or bad teaching accidentally said in the sermon, but primarily to give us an opportunity to respond to God’s call. No matter where we are, if we are struggling with our faith, if we have trouble wrapping our minds around the metaphysical claims of organized religion, if we have been disappointed by the world, this is our opportunity to trust in the mission, to let the hope for justice and righteousness on the earth carry us through. This is our opportunity to give our heart to God.
If you accept this call to fulfill the mission we have been entrusted with, I invite you all to stand and recite with me the statement of our faith, the Nicene Creed.
“I believe in One God…”