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Advent 4A-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

I hatched a plan to surprise my parents with a fresh cut Christmas tree. I think I imagined it to be a proud moment. I was all grown up. I was five years old. Had I been successful, I probably wouldn’t remember it so well.  Shame leaves an indelible imprint on the mind.

The details are sketchy. I have to fill the story in from family photos and things I’m told. My dad was getting a post-doctoral degree that year.  We were house-sitting for some professor and living in a grand old farmhouse in upstate New York. I remember rolling farmland, two barns, a nearby forest, and best of all, a playhouse the size of a small shed. I can just remember a plot of evergreens, three or four rows deep, planted in tight neat rows—the scene of the crime.

I picked a nice one. It was close to the house. I suppose it couldn’t have been much taller than I was.  I set to work.  I remember being surprised. It was hard work cutting down that tree. I stopped several times to rest. The next thing I remember is how my parent’s reacted. It was memorable but not for what I’d expected. They were not happy. They were horrified.  Rather than display it, they hid it. Rather than pride, I felt ashamed. My dad threw it out in the middle of the pond. It sat out there on the ice until Spring. I remember looking out at it from the living room window—right next to where we put up the other Christmas tree we had that year—the one we kept.

Like my five-year-old self, Joseph had other plans. Joseph expected to make his parents proud and prove he was all grown up. He was warmly regarded in the community. He was a righteous man. He learned a good trade. He was engaged to be married. Instead, he had a big mess on his hands.

Even today, it’s easy to imagine the stain of scandal buzzing around the small, mountain town of Nazareth. Joseph was in a bind. The woman to whom he was betrothed was pregnant. The townspeople were within their rights to throw rocks at her until she was dead. Mercifully Joseph quietly decided to divorce her.  Even so, the news would bring down heavy shame upon both their families.

Matthew doesn’t go into much detail about Joseph’s anguish.  However, in the Gospel of James, an extracanonical text from the 2nd century C.E, “we get a fuller, harsher picture of the carpenter’s pain.  When Joseph sees Mary’s swollen belly, he throws himself on the ground, strikes his own face, and cries bitterly.  He wonders long and hard how to respond, and asks Mary why she has betrayed both him and God so cruelly.”   (Debie Thomas)

In a jam like this we might raise our fist and shout, “Why me, Lord?”  What have I done to deserve this?  Joseph was right in the middle of a miracle yet it’s easy to understand why he would complain about it.  Harder to understand how Joseph was able to look past the pain of humiliation, shame, and broken dreams to take the angel Gabriel’s message to heart, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. The child she has conceived is from God. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus.” (Matthew 1:20 &21)

“Away in a Manger?” “Silent Night?” “Joy to the World?” The hymns we sing about the conception and birth of Jesus evoke such warm feelings and teary-eyed tenderness we forget what stress the Holy Family must have been under.

The psalms are full of the lament of the faithful searching for answers from God.  “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?” Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1).  “How long will your anger fume when your people pray?” (Psalm 80:4).  Its well known that Mother Teresa once had a profoundly vivid experience of the presence of Jesus as a young woman.  That vision was the beginning of her legendary ministry among the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, India.  Years later, near the end of her life, she was asked about it in an interview.  The reporter assumed she must have had many such experiences all through her amazing life.  Her answer was a surprise.  No, she said, it had happened only just that once –and never again.  Yet she had lived her entire life in faithfulness to that dream and that is why we honor her.

Joseph’s willingness to forsake conventional righteousness, ennobled him. That he changes direction overnight in a dark conversation makes him an Advent icon.  As Carl Jung might have said, Joseph was awakened by his dream. No careful tending of the embers of his prior ambitions could revive them.  As ephemeral as this new dream was, both Mary and Joseph proved willing to turn their lives inside out so that the urgent prayers of Israel could be answered by the birth of a baby whose name would be, “save”  (Suzanne, Suzanne Guthrie, At The Edge of the Enclosure, 2013).

Names were very important in that ancient world.  First, the angel says, “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people.” The Hebrew name Jesus is the verb save. Jesus will save from sin and guilt.  Advent is being ready for the saving one who will come when we cannot save ourselves. (Walter Brueggeman)

But notice, the angel actually gave Joseph two names for the baby.  His second name is Emmanuel or, God is with us. It is the faith of the church that in Jesus God is decisively present in the world.  Scripture tells us that wherever Jesus comes, he shows up where people are in need.  Jesus saved lepers, the deaf, the blind, the lame, the hungry, the unclean, even the dead. His very presence makes new life possible, and the church consists in all the people who have been awakened to the reality of God who comes to be with us in this season of need and of joy –all through this miraculous baby, and this preposterous dream. (Walter Brueggeman)

Joseph had a dream and suddenly he was willing to look like a fool to his family and friends. Can we do that?  Shame leaves an indelible imprint on the mind. Avoiding it can be a powerful motivator. It easily becomes a barrier to grace taking shape in us. Joseph was willing to act upon the script of miracle and blessing rather than the script of shame and scarcity, and social convention.  Like Joseph, we are called to stand apart in order to stand for the whole—to give ourselves to God’s dreams for fallen people and this broken world regardless of what others may say—for God to call you blessed.