glory of god

glory of god

Sunday, December 18, 2016

A New Hope: An Advent Sermon on Joseph, Mary, and Star Wars

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

We are told that Advent is a season for preparing and waiting. I’m okay the preparing part, but I’ve never been too good at waiting. A year ago, in these weeks before Christmas my big anticipation and excitement was for the new Star Wars movie—The Force Awakens, which I saw on opening night. This year, there’s another new Star Wars movie—Rogue One, which takes place prior to the 1977 movie we all know as the original Star Wars, later renamed A New Hope. Now, I really thought that I would be able to wait and would see it in Minnesota with my brothers. But it turns out, I couldn’t. This time I didn’t go on Thursday—opening night—but instead yesterday afternoon on its second day. That’s sort of like waiting, right? It was totally worth it. It’s a stellar movie. Get it, Star Wars, stellar?

And as much as I couldn’t wait, it seems the compliers of our lectionary couldn’t wait either. Because, although we are only in the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we have just heard the Christmas story as Matthew’s gospel tells it. Which, as you may have noticed, is much shorter than Luke’s telling, the more familiar version we will hear on Christmas Eve and again on Christmas morning. There’s still the conception by the Holy Spirit, but there are no shepherds, no manger, and no heavenly host singing glory to God in the highest. None of that good Christmassy stuff. There are wise men in Matthew’s story, his primary contribution to Christmas tradition, but they come later at Epiphany.

The other big difference is that Matthew’s report of events is told from the perspective of Joseph. Mary is there, of course, but she doesn’t have any speaking roles (in Luke, by contrast, it’s all about Mary—the angel appears to her, she sings the magnificent, she treasures and ponders everything in her heart). But not here. Rather, Joseph is the star. That’s because Matthew is written to appeal to the first century’s Jewish Christian community. Like the new Star Wars movie, Matthew’s gospel is stellar. He draws upon the stars of Jewish religious history to tell his story. For example, Joseph is a reminder of Joseph in the Book of Genesis, the one with the coat of many colors, whom God also spoke to in dreams—the son of Jacob, grandson of Isaac, and great-grandson of Abraham.

In that history and society, men were the active players—at least from the perspective of the gospel author. Women were treated as property, passed in marriage from their fathers to their husbands. Later on, Jesus, as an adult, will challenge his society’s concepts of marriage, and especially divorce, which he takes a particularly harsh view of because of its detrimental impact on women—interesting in light of his own birth story, which easily could have included a divorce, if not for some divine intervention.

Here’s what we need to understand about marriage in first century Jewish communities. It was a two-step process. The first was the betrothal, far more than an engagement in our understanding. Usually, betrothals were arranged by a couple’s parents, the fathers mainly, often when the pair were quite young, as early as 12 or 13 years old, and perhaps when they didn’t even know each other, or just barely. The fathers set in motion a binding and legal contractual arrangement between their children—actually, it was a binding contract between the father of the bride and the husband to be. The couple didn’t live together right away, but in legal terms they were married, referred to as husband and wife, with absolute fidelity required. Then, maybe a year or two later, when the husband was able to support a family, but still very young by our standards—14 or 15—they would hold a banquet for family and friends, after which they lived together in the way that married couples do. But the legal aspect of the marriage was enacted in the betrothal and could only be dissolved in a divorce.

That was the situation between Joseph and Mary. They were legally married, but hadn’t yet lived together. In fact, they probably didn’t know each other very well, since men and women maintained fairly separate lives outside of their immediate families, and all of their interactions before moving in together would have required a chaperone. It is in that context that we learn that Mary is pregnant. For some reason, in my mind I always thought it was the angel who told Joseph that Mary was pregnant, but if you pay close attention to the gospel passage as written, it wasn’t the angel who announced the news to Joseph. Joseph already knows Mary is pregnant when the angel appears in the dream. Maybe Mary told him, or her father told him, or maybe it’s starting to become obvious to everyone and people are talking about it, whispering, snickering, pointing fingers. It’s actually quite soap-operaish, when you think about it. And very close to real life.

And that, I think, is the point. The story of Mary and Joseph and Jesus is real life. It’s not a Star Wars movie. It’s not a fairy tale. Mary is not a beautiful fairytale princess, or even Princess Leia, Joseph is neither Han Solo nor prince charming. This is not the story of legend. It is the story of real lives—lives a lot like ours, in which things don’t always go according to our plans and hopes can easily be extinguished. For Mary and Joseph, as for so many, the news of an unexpected pregnancy was not an opportunity for rejoicing, but instead probably felt like a nightmare.

Stop to imagine how absolutely frightened Mary must have been, trying to find a way to tell Joseph this unexpected news. Fearing for her own life, as well as for her baby. And for his part, Joseph is probably going through an emotional wringer himself. Who is the father? Are people assuming that he’s the father? What kind of girl is this Mary anyway? What kind of future will he have if people assume that he’s the kind of guy that fools around? For comparison, imagine that this were happening in an Amish community, or maybe a Hasidic Jewish or strict Muslim society. How would people react? What’s the “right” thing to do when it appears to Joseph and their families, friends, and neighbors that this girl was unfaithful, had broken her promises, and made a fool of him? 

If Joseph had wanted to, he could have made a big deal out of the whole thing. He could have exposed Mary, set her up for public ridicule, and possibly even stoning. That would have been his right. She was technically his “property.” Though, the gospel emphasizes that he was righteous and had decided against that approach. He wasn’t heartless, even if maybe he was heartbroken and probably more than a little angry, too. His plan, instead, probably when he had mustered enough courage to confront the situation—remember, he’s likely no more than 14,15, or 16 himself—was to dismiss her quietly, issuing a writ of divorce.

Maybe he planned to encourage her to move someplace else where people wouldn’t know her. She could claim her husband had died or something. Joseph may have thought that he would have to do the same thing himself—move someplace else, come up with some sort of plausible story about a wife who died in childbirth or something, since back home people would always wonder if he really was the father, even if he said he wasn’t. It was an impossible situation.

And so, Matthew tells us, it is into this mess that the angel appears in a dream and tells Joseph not to worry. He should accept Mary as his wife, and accept her child, God’s child, as his own. Now, you have dreams. I have dreams. Rarely do I follow mine. Usually I wake up confused, wondering why on earth my sleepy imagination would come up with the crazy, neurotic “adventures” it does. But Joseph actually listened to his. Who knows, maybe he thought that even if the angel were just his imagination, it still offered the best solution to what seemed like an impossible situation. Or, maybe he awoke with a great sense of clarity and purpose, confident God had visited him with a new revelation. Whatever it was, Joseph put away his pride, summoned whatever courage he could against the gossip, innuendo and pointing fingers, and raised Jesus as his own. Mary and Joseph wouldn’t have been the first couple trying to salvage a normal life out of a difficult situation.

Now, I can’t say for sure why Matthew told his story exactly the way he did. But what I do know is how helpful it is to us in our lives today—if we really listen to it. If we recognize that even in difficult and unexpected circumstances God can break in with a message of hope, and love, and encouragement. Because like Mary and Joseph, our lives aren’t always perfect either. They don’t always work out the way we hope or expect, and yet God appears—sometimes in dreams, sometimes through family and friends, and sometimes in moments of profound clarity—and offers us new and grace filled possibilities and opportunities, if like Mary and Joseph we set aside our fears and trust in God’s grace, trust in God’s possibilities and opportunities.

Like Mary and Joseph, sometimes the lives we have planned and hoped for, for ourselves or perhaps for our children, don’t turn out in the way we envisioned. Sometimes our relationships don’t work out, and they are marked by disappointment. Sometimes kids grow up to be gay or lesbian or transgender, and parents and grandparents struggle to come to terms with a different reality than they had imagined when the children were babies. Sometimes people we love, or we ourselves, struggle with mental illness or addiction or physical impairment. Sometimes we and the people we love struggle with cancer and serious illnesses. The details of our lives are unique to each of us, but the love and grace of God are the same. It is the same love and grace that gave Mary and Joseph the courage to set aside their fears and doubts, and with faith open their hearts to the future that God had planned for them.  

Even better than a Star Wars story, God took a perplexing, upside down situation, and transformed it into something new. Not only for Mary and Joseph, but for us all, by coming to dwell with us. In our confusion. In our fear. In our crazy and sometimes messed up situations. In real life. God came to live with us, among us, and in us, as Emmanuel. And then through that life, God showed us a new way. God showed us a compassionate, loving, hopeful, and transformational way to live—first through the example of Mary and Joseph, and then even more powerfully by living it himself in Jesus, born to that confused, perplexed and stunned couple—breaking down barriers, challenging assumptions, healing divisions. Bringing abundant life. Bringing good news of great joy for all the people. Bringing us and the world a New Hope.

To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.   

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD