The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Saturday, May 31, 2008

December 23, 2007
Advent 4A
Matthew 1:18-25

In the name of the one God. Amen.

“Now the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, took place in this way…” These words seem like rather humble beginnings when considered against the profundity of the story that they prepare to unfold. They seem a little too “matter of fact”. If you stop, and listen closely, you can almost hear Matthew saying these words with the slightest hint of a yawn in his voice – like one almost bored.

In some ways that seems a bit strange, but I don’t know. Maybe I can see where he’s coming from. There comes a point in each of the advents of our lives, when the preparation and the planning begin to tire us. We spend days or weeks or even longer anticipating some future event, and then, in the long stretch just before we arrive, our only thought often is to just let it come. Let the preparations end and let the hoped-for event finally arrive.

Have you ever been in a moment like that in your own life? Perhaps you were preparing for a big trip. For months you have waded through the tedium of preparations. You’ve purchased your plane tickets. You’ve updated your passport. You’ve secured the necessary visas. You’ve made arrangements for lodging, taken time off from work. Toward the end you even reach the point where you’ve packed your bags, called a car to take you to the airport, put the dog in a kennel… You’ve attended to practically every detail when you find that only one detail remains: to wait until it’s time.

I’ve been hearing about Christmas in this parish since sometime around my first day on the job back in July. I don’t know it to be a true, but I suspect that the preparations had begun even before that. Meetings have been held, color schemes have been discussed and decided, and teams have been formed to coordinate the various aspects of decorating. More recently, silver has been polished, fresh flowers and greenery have been ordered and delivered, and this afternoon the church will erupt in a flurry of activity as it all falls in to place. But for now we have one last thing to do: wait until it’s time.

I think that must be how the writer of this gospel felt as those words were penned: “Now the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, took place in this way…” If you were to look back at the seventeen verses that precede what we read this morning, you might see what I mean. In those opening verses of Matthew’s gospel, we are told the genealogy of Jesus from Abraham down to Joseph – centuries compacted into bullet points. In terms of the qualities of engaging literature, it’s very nearly the most boring seventeen verses in the Bible. Sure, a few interesting names pop up – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; David and Solomon; even Joseph and Mary – but we hear almost nothing of what made them so great. The names are simply read off like a to-do list almost done.

But even in the midst of this boring recital that opens Matthew’s gospel, something important is conveyed. We hear about the centuries of preparation that lead us to the moment at hand. Those familiar names remind us of the stories of the ancestors of our faith. They remind us of the countless ways that God has been active in our story. We hear the name Abraham, but in hearing it we are reminded of Sarah, and we remember the story of God giving them the gift of a child even when they feared that it was no longer possible. We hear the name Jacob, but in hearing it we recall the trials of his son Joseph, which eventually led him and his family to Egypt, where Moses would be born and where he would be lifted up as a leader among the Hebrew people. We hear the name David, but in it we recall the story of his sin with Bathsheba and his betrayal of his friend Uriah. Even through all these tales of despair, abandonment, and betrayal, we hear the constant refrain – God is in the midst of even this.

Now, at what is almost the end of the centuries that formed that first Advent, Matthew says, “Now the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, took place in this way…” We can almost begin to hear the cattle lowing, when there’s one last pause – a breath before the story as we expect it can really begin. One last opportunity to see that God is active among us before we meet that God in the face of Jesus.

Joseph has just learned that the woman who is to be his wife is to have a child. Moreover he knows that the child is not his. Imagine the pain he must have felt. Like his ancestors before him he must have been consumed with the despair of Abraham, the abandonment of Joseph, and the betrayal of Uriah. His heart must have been aching. He clearly loved Mary. In his anger he could have cast her aside in a public way. It would have led her to a life of disgrace. It would have been his right to do just that – to try to make her pain and embarrassment match his own. But his love for her must have been more profound than whatever anger or betrayal he may have been feeling. He must have known that whatever pain he thrust on her wouldn’t relieve his pain. Instead it would make him feel worse. No, the easiest thing for him to do would be to allow her to step aside when no one was looking. Perhaps then they could both move beyond their mistakes and their embarrassment and begin to find some semblance of a way forward. Yes. That’s what he would do. He would just try to get through it as quickly as possible.

But like we’ve heard in the stories of his ancestors, Joseph’s pain was not the end of his story. He would see – just as Abraham, and Jacob, and David would come to see – that God was working in his life. Even in the midst of what seemed like the deepest pain that he could possibly experience, he would find God. He would find hope. He would find a way forward that he had never before imagined as possible.

“Now the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, took place in this way… An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit…”

God has been working in the midst of us. Even in times of pain and despair, even when we could see no way forward, God was there – making a path.

God is coming.

Even now, in the long nights of advent – whatever that advent may be for you – when perhaps there is no end in sight, when a bright new morning seems never to dawn, and we can see no clear way ahead, God is here, working among us, and making a path. God is coming.

It’s not Christmas yet. But there is just enough time left for one more breath. One more chance to look around and find the ways that God is already here. There’s a new day coming, but it’s not here yet. And there’s one last thing to do before it comes… wait.

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