Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Dec. 19, 2010

Matthew 1:18-25

18  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.  19  Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.  20  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.  21  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."  22  All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:  23  "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."  24  When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife,  25  but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;  and he named him Jesus.

Beloved of God, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, amen.

Allow me to begin with a bit of a confession this morning: there are few characters in the Biblical narrative for whom I feel more sympathy than dear Old Joseph.  When his role in the birth of Christ is acknowledged, and this is far from always being the case, he is little more than the background upon which the rest of the narrative plays out.  Indeed, if it were not for the fact that we can hang a bathrobe on the quiet boy in class and throw him up in front of the church in the Christmas play to represent Joseph, the man would have no real purpose at all.  I mean, think about him for one moment.  Here he is, with all the anticipation of a man who is about to enter married life, and he discovers that his wife has already conceived. This scandal, in the times in which we are dealing, constitutes a transgression that one could pay for with her life (remember how Jesus spares the woman caught in adultery in John’s Gospel).  We have the benefit of knowing just exactly with whom Mary is pregnant, but Joseph does not.  And please, for one moment, try to put yourself in Joseph’s shoes, or sandals, as it were.  Would you honestly believe this story, that she had been overcome with the power of the Holy Spirit,  over your paranoid conviction that your fiancĂ© had instead indulged in a momentary weakness, in which she succumbed to the seductive advances of that good looking carpenter down the street?  Does this actually strike you as a plausible story, a worthy excuse? Oh, what hushed arguments must have ensued.   From that perspective, do Joseph’s actions not make a little more sense?  Rather than be embroiled in scandal, the subject of stabbing whispers behind his back, indeed a man scorned, does it not make more sense to go about one’s business quietly?  Oh, he loved her too much to ask that she be stoned, and it is this compassion that allows Matthew to name him as righteous, but that does not mean he did not hurt.  For his pride had been wounded in that way that only a man’s pride can be, and he knew that staying with her would mean a life-long embarrassment, a life long resentment that would simmer just beneath the surface of a domestic cease fire.   
We can, if we let ourselves, be drawn deeply into Joseph’s humanity, and what we find there is a God who, to be frank, will not play our games of ego and resentment.  For God, in sending an Angel to Joseph in his fitful sleep provides Joseph with a terrible comfort.  A comfort that shatters Joseph’s sense of what is possible in the world, and let us be frank, this is always, always a terrifying experience. Oh Joseph, you know that story Mary has told you, the one you greeted with such prideful scorn, the story that violently overran your sense of well being, and in a moment collapsed your dreams of watching your children run through the same Nazareth streets that had been your boyhood home, well that news, dear Joseph, turns out to be rather true.  Mary is with child, and yes, it is God’s child.  Please bear in mind we are here dealing with actual people, and how Joseph must have watched his sense of what is possible drop into free fall.  This is the sort of news that literally turns the page on what one believes to be possible, the sort of news that is like adding seven senses.  A reality so bizarre, so surreal, that it requires an angel’s visit in the night’s small hours as evidence, if evidence is even an appropriate word to apply to such an encounter.  While we can note the way in which Joseph obeys the commandment of the angel, remaining with Mary and naming his son Jesus, or he saves in Hebrew, at this point is there really much of a choice for Joseph?  I mean, really, it appears as though God is going to have his way regardless of Joseph’s pride or doubt.  Yes, Joseph is to be involved in this whole business of God’s son’s birth, but whether or not it will happen, well that reality was decided without his consultation.   
And that this is so, that God does not always wait for humanity’s ascent to God’s decision; this is actually the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. For, if we are honest with ourselves, God acting decisively on our behalf, even if it appears as though God is acting against our wishes, well, this is what we can begin to call the Gospel.  For in so doing, God does for us what we can do for ourselves; that is, God heals us, God forgives us, God makes us whole with a power and a gentleness that is not the work of human hands.  This is act of reclaiming, of redeeming, well we are about to witness its most clear expression as Emily Lillian is given new life through Holy Baptism.  And really, we are no different than that darling babe in terms of our dependence on God’s mercy; as Martin Luther’s final recorded words remind us, we are all beggars of God’s mercy. And, oh, dear people, please do not be offended at such words.  For this is not intended as a blow to your self-esteem or anything of the sort, it is instead the deepest comfort of the Gospel.  For God’s care is that of a vigilant parent who takes no end of delight in attending to the needs of God’s children. Also, just as Joseph was given the responsibility to name and raise God’s son as his own flesh and blood, you too have a very real role to play in this drama.  For just as God in Christ became vulnerable to the care of two very real human beings, so too, your lives are one of the ways that God becomes real in the world.  In all that you do and say, in the love that you extent towards all whom you meet, you, along with dear Joseph, give this God a name in the world.  No, you did not choose this Christ child, he chose you and made you his own at those birthing waters of baptism, but in choosing you, he also gave you a purpose, and asked you to make his name real, so that others may abide in his mercy.  In the name of Jesus, amen. 

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Solitary Man

 Matthew 11: 2 -11 

2  When John heard in prison what the Messiah  was doing, he sent word by his  disciples  3  and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?"  4  Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see:  5  the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers  are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.  6  And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."  7  As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind?  8  What then did you go out to see? Someone  dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces.  9  What then did you go out to see? A prophet?  Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.  10  This is the one about whom it is written, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.'  11  Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
Beloved of God, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, amen.
This is, I am willing to bet, a slightly less familiar version of John the Baptist for the majority of us, myself certainly included.  Yes, we are accustomed to thinking of John as that eccentric out there in the wilderness vividly proclaiming the need for repentance, a man whose diet makes Whole Foods look like Taco Bell by comparison.  Yes, the John with whom we are more familiar is the fiery, prophetic John, a figure of towering religious authority who possessed enough strength to shout down the religious bureaucrats of his day for the shallow performance of their religious task.  We are, I think, more aware of the John who is in control, a man so completely enthralled by God’s Kingdom that he seems even beyond life’s cruel uncertainties, the sort of man to whom we implicitly give our trust, so convinced is he of his message’s importance, its fundamental truth.  This is after all, a prophet with whom we are dealing.  One who has been drawn so near to God that his words thunder with the authority of divine things.
But we have before not this man of uncompromised confidence, but a man now mired deeply in his own insecurity.  A man who was once the great center of crowds greedily pushing forward to hear his message, that man is now crowded not by other bodies, but by isolation, choking on the thickness of his own loneliness.   Oh, but even that physical and psychological aloneness is not the whole story.  Instead, John’s unwavering certitude as to what the Messiah was going to do seems to be crumbling.  He had prepared the way for this Christ, calling others to repentance as his divinely appointed mission indicated that he must.  He had been called as a prophet and given a prophet’s sermon: repent for the judgment of God has drawn near. But as far as the Messiah for whom he had cleared a path was concerned, well, John was starting to have his questions, starting to wonder whether this Jesus was in the fact the long promised Messiah. 
While this might not be the most familiar version of John the Baptist, I think it is certainly a more relatable image of him.  Personally, I cannot exactly see a lot of my life story in a man living off the land and proclaiming God’s ever-nearing judgment.  Though the requirements for seminary were many, this was not one of them.   However, a person who has lost enough to begin questioning whether or not God is real and acting in the world, that, I dare say, is a nearly universal human experience.  Who is God to us when the sluggishness of the economy makes unemployment a very real threat?  When the decidedly rosy picture we have of ourselves as virtuous and caring people is ensnared by the little compromises and temptations that make up modern life? Or when our children get sick and there is nothing we can do to help them?  Or perhaps most of all, when our bodies start to succumb to age, and begin to break down as we, day by day, minute by minute, slump towards the grave?  Yes, it is easy to praise God when we believe that we are in control, loudly and defiantly alive, and that God is acting in accordance with our wishes and expectations.   But where is God when we are thrown in our prisons of doubt and decay, and everything that has made us who we are is being stripped from us?  When those things for which we worked so hard to achieve and to gain, be they status or money or degrees or retirement savings, who is God when those things are robbed from us with alarming ease?  In these moments, be they realized or anticipated with corrosive fear, we can hear John’s question as real.  This question is not a theoretical exercise in a Comparative Religions course, nor is it a verbal wink from a man who already knows the answer and asking it simply for the benefits of others.  No, with the  urgency of one who needs some good news and needs it desperately, John’s question exposes the fear of a person who has lost control and might just be beginning to lose faith: “Are you, Jesus, the one to come, or should we be expecting someone else?”
The question, though, cannot really hold the answer, which may be why Jesus, in the words of the poet Emily Dickenson, tells the truth, but tells it slant. Yes, Jesus is the one for whom John is waiting, the hopes and fears of all the years are indeed met in his person, but that does not make him any easier to recognize, even for the prophet John.   For, it is not that John is wrong about the need for repentance; it is just that he does not yet have the full story.  The fulfillment of this story must end with mercy and not judgment, the gathering together rather than the scattering apart.  Not the condemnation of sinners, but the forgiveness of them.  And John, just like any other human being, cannot see this without the Holy Spirit to create the faith that receives Jesus as the Christ.    As Jesus will go on to imply, it is only through birth into the kingdom of heaven, that is the birth of baptism, that humanity can receive Jesus as the Christ, and this includes John. Yes, the Messiah surprises even the one whom God has appointed as his fore-runner, and how astounding is that? Even the one who Jesus calls the most righteous of those born of women, even he needs help, needs reassurance.  And it is not some because Jesus is somehow ineffectual as the Messiah, but because his power is put towards a very different use. Oh, it is not because he is weak that we cannot see him, but because his strength is used not to destroy, but to quite literally recreate, redeem the human story that has fallen into bondage.  For his is a mercy rigorous enough to cure the blind, to put lepers back on their feet, to restore the hearing of the deaf and return to the poor the dignity that years of hard living has ground out of them.  Yes, Jesus’ mercy is potent enough to reach into the grave and call forth the dead.  For this is one whose power lies even beyond our control, beyond our expectations.
            Just as the Christ and his reign of mercy and healing surprised even this greatest of prophets, so, too, I think we can expect to be shocked by what Christ is doing in our midst and even apart from us, hence his words that the blessed are those who do not find him a stumbling block.  Yes, blessed, happy are we in this fact: that God in Christ defies all our expectations, transgresses all our boundaries and comes to us as one powerful enough to condemn, yet merciful enough to save. That the kingdom comes not through human striving and effort, no matter how well intentioned, but through the gracious gift of God who is always present, always active in healing the sick and offering comfort to the sad.   Blessed are we when the Holy Spirit gives us the faith to see that the shattering of our expectations of what God is allowed to do and not do (oh, we are a presumptuous people indeed)  that when these false and vain restrictions are torn apart, the space is created in which we can see that God is always, already at work, in our lives and in the life of the world, and that we are given the strength to go out and join the work that God has already begun:  to care for the vulnerable, to attend to the needs of pained and suffering.   Yes, blessed are we to see that the Christ who alone has the authority to fling wide the gate of our suffocating prisons, that that Christ has sat down next to us on our mourning benches, and he will remain with us always until that great day when the prison itself shall be destroyed and we will walk hand in hand with the one whose scars testify to the fact that he knows us. He knows us in our pain and anxiety, our fear and our weakness.  Blessed are we, for there is no one else we should be expecting.  In Jesus’ name, amen.