Advent 4 2016, Staunton, Il Matt. 1:18-25
We are making our pilgrimage through Advent. In seven days we arrive at our destination where in faith we will approach the manger in which lay the holy Child. To this babe, who is the Son of God, and son of Mary, belongs the earth and all who live there in and upon it. Years ago, O.P. Kretzmann wrote, “Christmas must include Him whom the manger held and the universe cannot contain…the wonder of the tiny lips that had called to Adam…The mystery of the small hands which once had set the stars in the firmament.”
However, like the pilgrims in Psalm 24, we do well to ask ourselves some questions before we, with the shepherds, go to see this thing which the Lord has done. For one thing, who of us qualifies to stand in such a holy place before the Holy One? Who of us can claim to have hands clean of any sin? Who of us have not wished ill on someone, have not coveted, have not lusted, have trusted in the Lord as we ought? Who of us have made a promise that is yet unkept, perhaps even forgotten and rationalized away? Who of us have such pure hearts that we can say, “Me, I’m innocent. I demand to see God in the manger. You can’t deprive me of my rights.”
No not any of us! And yet here we are. Near the end of our time of waiting. Advent waiting is like my younger brother who ordered a new John Deer tractor a few weeks ago, with a heated cab and a frontend loader to move snow. You see he lives in Northern Wisconsin where the temperature won’t break zero today and there is a “for Pete’s sake” amount of snow. One day this past week he drove by the dealership and noticed the tractor had been taken inside, perhaps to have the loader gear attached. But it still may be a week before they deliver it. My 72- year- old brother acknowledged, “I’m like a kid waiting for Christmas.”
It’s okay to be like a kid waiting for Christmas or even to be a kid waiting for Christmas, because our hopes and dreams of salvation are wrapped in that holy holiday. Our prayer and that of Isaiah the prophet and the Psalmist are all answered in Him. Isaiah prayed, “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down. I wait for the Lord; my soul waits and in his word, I hope.” The psalmist chimes in, “With you there is forgiveness, hope, never ending love and plentiful redemption.” And we prayed only minutes ago, “Stir up Your power, O Lord, and come and help us by Your might that the sins which weigh us down may be quickly lifted by your grace and mercy.”
And this is how God answered those prayers . “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.” But we quickly discover that the way God chose to come, comes with problems. God works through real people who face real challenges. Matthew writes, “When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph.” Joseph was preparing for the merry day he and his friends would go to Mary’s home and take her to his home. Joseph waited for the day when his marriage to Mary would be accompanied by feasting, dancing and great celebration. But now a wrench gets thrown into the plans, Joseph discovers that Mary is with child and he has not been with her.
Matthew has already told us that the child growing in Mary’s womb was from the Holy Spirit. But Joseph doesn’t know that and he is thrown into a quandary. How should he handle this troubling news? According to Deuteronomy, scripture allowed him to take Mary before the village elders and the father of the child stoned, if they could identify him. Or he could make a public spectacle of writing a certificate of divorce signed by two witnesses. But Joseph was a just man, he was a good man and did not want Mary and her family to suffer from shame. Therefore, he decided to go through with the divorce quietly. He would suffer the whispers of the village gossips.
The 17th century Dutch painter Rembrandt sets his interpretation of this situation in the stable in Bethlehem. No animals. No shepherds. Mary sits closest to the viewer nearly hidden under layers of cloaks. In front of her lays the baby, also nearly hidden in its swaddling clothes. She leans to the left. To her right and behind her sits Joseph leaning to the left against a wall. He sleeps with his chin in his hand. They both look disconsolate. Between them there is a separation, a gulf, they are disconnected from one another.
You see, God comes to be with us as we are. Not as we should be. Not as we are trying to be. Not as we promised ourselves we would or will be some day – but as we are. We come here this morning dressed in our Sunday go-to-meeting clothes, and for some of us our calm exterior covers over our own disconnection from someone, covers over our fears of what to do about a current situation, covers over the anxiousness of what the future will bring. We come struggling to trust God that He does work all things for good for those who love him and are called to faith in Christ. That no power on earth or heaven can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. I don’t know the details of anyone’s life here. But I know we are humans, I know we are children of Adam and Eve, I know in one way or another we have been in Joseph and Mary’s sandals, disconsolate, disconnected, struggling.
When I was describing Rembrandt’s painting before, I neglected to share an important detail. Remember, a gulf runs between the left leaning Mary and Joseph as he leans against a wall on his right. Hovering just behind Joseph is an angel of the Lord, decked out in wings and dazzling apparel. The angel is lightly touching Joseph’s shoulder as it whispers in his ear. This is what the angel told Joseph, “Do not fear to take Mary, your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” Then the angel adds, “She will bear a son and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sin.” His name is Jesus, God’s Savior. He carried that name with him, as a reminder of his mission, for 33 years, all the way to the cross and his resurrection in saving us from our sins.
But the angel had more to say. “Joseph, that your beloved Mary is with child is a fulfillment of the Scriptures, ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and they shall call his name, Immanuel.’” He is God is with us, throughout our life, where ever our pilgrimage on earth takes us, into whatever circumstances we may find ourselves.
When Joseph woke up he went ahead and completed his marriage to Mary. And when the child was born, “He called his name Jesus.” So, this Christmas, be merry, Joseph married Mary. Be like a kid waiting for Christmas, because you are a child of the heavenly Father and Jesus, your brother, lived up to his name. You are welcome to stand before the manger, and welcome him into your life, as you have been welcomed into His life.