Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on Dec. 18, 2022

Posted by on Sun, Dec 18, 2022 in Advent, Sermons

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Dec. 18, 2022

Thumbing through an old church cookbook (thank you Jenny!) I looked to see if any were still here, but page after page every participant was listed as Mrs. John Yeeles, or Mrs. Bud Harmon, and so on. We know these church-going cookbook-writing women had their own identities, but in those days the proper way to refer to a married woman in writing was by her husband’s name. A hold-over from the Middle Ages called coverture, a law saying a married woman’s identity was legally “covered” (we might say controlled) by her husband’s. Yet, in reading the gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth one might wonder about the reverse; is Joseph seen as Mr. Virgin Mary? Mister Mother of God? There is little about him elsewhere, and we hear nothing of him after Jesus’ adolescence. Here in Matthew though, we get a better look at him. This is Joseph’s story of the birth of the Messiah. 

Matthew’s first lines detail Jesus’ lineage from Abraham to David and through 42 generations, and when he gets to “Jacob the father of Joseph” —he doesn’t write ‘Joseph the father of Jesus,’ instead it says “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.”

Joseph is betrothed to Mary, which means Mary’s parents have a marriage contract with Joseph or with his parents. They are not yet living together and the marriage feast has not yet taken place. Even so, to break a betrothal was like getting a divorce. Imagine Joseph’s disappointment when he learns Mary is pregnant; is he angry, sad, grieved, embarrassed? His plans for their life, a home together, children — all crumble. We aren’t told whether they knew each other well or even how he learns she is pregnant. However it is he found out, whatever he feels, his life is a mess. Yet being a “righteous man” he will quietly divorce her. And then his dream; an angel of the Lord tells him (as they often do) “Do not be afraid” “—do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife…”, explaining the child is from God, and who he will be, that his very name means “God is with us.”

Certainly Joseph could still have followed through on his quiet divorce and been spared the humiliation of word getting out, but “he is a righteous man” and when he wakes up, even with good reason to be angry, disappointed, grieving, confused—he trusts that the angel was from God and that he needn’t be afraid of keeping with Mary. Somehow the incomprehensible surprise of her pregnancy and the tumult of his own thoughts and feelings and plans — are not to be feared. His life might be ‘one hot mess’ but he is not forced into it. In Matthew, he is the one visited by the angels and he is making the choice. to be parent to this child from God who “will save his people from their sins.”

What about us? Does anyone else have difficult choices arise from unexpected, undeserving trials? (Mind you I say this with a brace on my leg and a cane nearby). Joseph’s story is so human, so understandable. I can picture him dealing with Covid or shutdowns and long waits for Mary’s doctor appointment. As if to say, ‘What’s next?!’ — three times he heeds the angel’s message and goes to great lengths to keep them safe. Here we remember that Jesus is ‘the Son of David’ by Joseph’s adoption of him into his lineage. In choosing this, Joseph becomes every bit as true a parent as Mary, and we never hear his faith waver again.

Most of us here can look back over the last couple of Christmases and name plenty of things which never went as planned, unwelcome surprises, cancelled hopes and expectations, nothing quite as usual and little according to long held traditions. Yet as if having heard the angel tell us ‘do not be afraid,’ we are here and will celebrate the birth of the Messiah in one short week. We too choose to adopt him into our lives by faith. The people of Ukraine will also know nothing is as they hoped or planned —in Kyiv all holiday lights are banned to conserve weakened power grid amid blackouts. Still one man interviewed said though the war is all around them, they will know Christmas inside themselves, that God is with them.

Here at St. Michael’s, we’ve had people lose jobs, move because of cost of living, take in relatives, and grieve over those they cannot travel to see or visit in the hospital. Many we could not bury with the funerals once envisioned and so needed. Yet in Christ’s coming we know God means to be with us. Last Sunday one of our visitors was hungry, without a home, and needed help getting to shelter—and she got it. Instead of stepping back, several of you stepped closer, tending her needs and asking how we could help. This afternoon we will have once again our annual Sing-Along-Play-Along Messiah to help prevent such desperation, keeping people in their homes through Issaquah Community Services. Whether one gives $5 or $5000 this is what keeps the heat on and a roof overhead when the impossible messiness of life overwhelms people in our communities. 

We have all been faced with losses that make no sense, plans going up in smoke, grief, desperation, immobilizing fear, over the past few years, maybe even today. We’ve lived constantly bracing for what’s next that we are surprised when the emotion sneaks up on us. A Christmas carol you love brings sudden tears reminding you of someone you miss; once beautiful it now feels heartbreakingly sad. So many times this past month I’ve found myself telling someone it’s okay to feel what we feel, and even go back and forth between sweet joy and overwhelming sadness. The reason may feel elusive. Notice the angels never say, Buck up! Be happy! Or It’s not so bad – That one has it worse! The angel’s message is from God just as Joseph heard it; “Do not be afraid.” So instead of judging our feelings as wrong or our options impossible, name them. Bring them out into the light and take a look. They will never be bigger than God’s love for us, even if at times God seems eclipsed by them.

Joseph married Mary when life was as messy as it could ever be, and they raised up the Son of God. He let himself be open to the possibility without having to deny the dire parts he was faced with. That carol may still make you cry, but listen again and know the joy is still in there, waiting for you. I picture Joseph walking with Mary all the way to Bethlehem, their mutual care growing, the anticipation of the baby sparking their hopes and parental courage. I can just see him pausing to enjoy a view, tasting water from unfamiliar springs, recalling how he was ready to choose missing it all. If he was not open to the possibilities of this messy gift God entrusted them with, we might be reading an entirely different story.

Pastor David Lose retells a story I love which invites us to consider the possibilities God had in sending the gift of the Christ Child.

He tells of a farmer who never went to church, although his wife did so faithfully. One cold and blustery Christmas Eve, after his wife had again pleaded with him to no avail to come with her to church, he was reading comfortably his chair by the fire when he heard a thudding against the windows of their house. He looked out and saw small birds, sparrows, trying to get out of the cold harsh wind, and attracted by the light and heat inside, they were crashing into the windows. He closed the curtains, but that didn’t work, so he decided to put on his coat, gloves and hat and go out and open his barn doors wide so the birds could find sanctuary there. But they wouldn’t come in. He put the lights on, but still they wouldn’t come. He spread a trail of cracker crumbs, but they wouldn’t follow. He tried to shoo them in, but that only frightened them more. “If only,” he thought, “If only I could become a sparrow for a little while, I could lead them into the barn to safety.” 

And in that moment, he realized what Christmas is all about: it is God’s relentless determination and willingness to do anything and everything to make sure we know God’s love, giving us the good news of Christ with us, to bring us safely into his holy barn
                                                                            — no matter how very cold or messy our lives may be.

© 2022 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.

Post will be removed at 8:00 AM on Wed., Dec. 18, 2024.