Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Fourth Sunday of Advent [Year A] - December 19, 2010 (Matthew 1:18-25)

‘Twas the sixth day before Christmas, and all through the city
Everybody was stirring to make sure things looked pretty.
Stockings were hung and Christmas trees trimmed.
Candlelight brightened while daylight’s glow dimmed.
Wreathes on the doors and inflatable Santas on the lawn
Proclaimed the news that the special day would soon dawn.
The frenzy to get out and string up some lights
Gave purpose and urgency to December nights
While some folks decked the halls in more subtle ways
Others gave new meaning to the term “Tacky Light displays.”
Blinking and flashing, from treetops festooned
And, of course, synchronized, and to a radio tuned.
With garland and tinsel, greenery real or plastic.
The point was to make ordinary things look fantastic.
Amid the bleak gray of winter atmosphere
Stood colonies of snowmen and moveable reindeer.
The shopping malls, too, were a sight to remember—
Nevermind that the decorations had been up since September—
Their glitzy and glamorous holiday fashion
Was a mood-setting trick so you’d spend with a passion.
For those who preferred displays of a more religious kind
Noticed that nativity scenes were not hard to find.
Drivers on Horsepen enjoyed the decoration
Set up by one particular Lutheran congregation.
Their display was more subdued. But not to be outdone,
They used life-size figures that could be moved one-by-one.
And almost as mysteriously as the Word became flesh
The shepherds and wise men crept their way to the crèche.
Yes, from Southside to Ashland, from Churchill to Glen Allen:
Christmas by the bushel. Yuletide cheer by the gallon.

The brightness and gaiety of the outside décor
Was matched by attention to detail indoor.
With ribbons and garland they carefully set their tables
With as much precision as they strew lights on their gables.
Brown paper packages tied up with strings?
Try bright-colored wrapping paper and glittery things!
Gingerbread houses and mistletoe sprigs,
Poinsettia plants and frasier fir twigs.
Decorations both outside and in went to show
The holidays were about making everything just-so.
Tradition and custom dictated the season
Every bauble had a story; every ritual a reason.
Whether the model was Clark Griswold or Currier and Ives
The conventions of Christmas consumed many folks’ lives.

But in that congregation with that moveable nativity
The worshippers shuffled in for their weekly activity.
With Kevin playing organ and Pastor Chris leading
They had just settled down for one last Advent reading.
The lessons they heard spoke of hope and salvation
From Isaiah’s pronouncements to Paul’s Rome salutation
But the Scripture that ignited the most imagination
Was the story of a man in a sticky situation.
Like their own custom-dictated Christmas condition
This fellow lived in times that were bound by tradition.
People knew that God’s statutes were part of God’s call,
And what was lawful and righteous should be followed by all.
Like boundaries and rules to a game that is played
God’s law for his people could never be swayed.
To say nothing at all of sin’s power to ensnare
The law was their assurance of God’s constant care.
Ever since those long days of wilderness wandering—
When they’d had plenty time to do some good pondering—
God’s people had known that his covenants contained
The discipline and wisdom for their life to be sustained.
From the mouths of the prophets and announced from each steeple
It was God’s way of dwelling in the lives of his people.

And this Joseph knew, as a humble young man.
He obeyed the commandments, trusted God had a plan.
Matthew calls him righteous—a high honor, indeed—
Which was a way of saying he let God take the lead.
We can trust, for example, he had his ducks in a row:
First betrothal, then marriage, then children in tow.
The contract had been signed, both families were ready
To support and provide them a life that was steady.
So imagine, then, friends, what he first must surmise
At the discovery of his fiancée’s pregnant surprise.
The law was clear in what justice dictated:
An adulteress would be stoned; the contract negated.
Life would go on. Joseph’s family would recover,
And no one would ever know Mary’s mysterious lover.
There was one more option: to call it off neatly.
A judge could be found to annul the marriage discretely.
A righteous man would bend backwards to prevent a big show,
And Mary’s transgression would be kept on the down-low.

So Joseph went to bed with the firm resolution
That a private dismissal was the most respectable solution.
But that night he had dreams as he tossed in his bed
Not of visions of sugar-plums—but of an angel instead.
A messenger from God gave him news of a birth
That would bring hope and salvation to all of the earth.
This child was the one on whom history had waited
To initiate the promise they’d anticipated
From that day when Satan had first conquered and won
Influence and power over everyone.
His name would be Jesus, which had rich connotations
For in his native Hebrew that meant “Savior of Nations.”
From sin’s dark corruption he’d set them all free.
And, redeemed by his love, God’s people they’d be.
So all this good news came to Joseph by dream
From an angel who’d been sent by the one God supreme.
But the biggest shock to Joseph’s ears—we can assume—
Was that this child was the babe in his fiancée’s womb!
She’d not been with a man, as it had been perceived,
But the Holy Spirit was the one who new life had conceived!
Mary, it turned out, had not been an unfaithful mate;
Rather God had chosen her, and this was her fate.
And thus the angel’s message as Joseph tossed in his bedding:
“Righteous one, do not fear. Go ahead with the wedding.”

"The Dream of St. Joseph," Rembrandt (1650-55)

So Joseph woke up with a whole different view.
What before was no option was now the right thing to do:
To marry a woman who would soon bear a child
And shelter her, guard her and keep her undefiled.
And the son to be born would be in Joseph’s protection.
He’d care for him too, and give him direction.
Though that child, as God’s Son, would be Savior of Nations
And belong, like no other, to the whole of creation,
Joseph would be the one who’d teach the child how to grow,
How to talk, how to work, and other things he should know.
The result of that dream was a whole future changed
Joseph’s own hopes now altered, his life rearranged.
As Joseph had learned when he had his decision resolved,
One can have things just-so…and then God gets involved.

And that was the message to those Lutherans that morning:
God can surprise with his grace and change your plans without warning.
For, you see, Joseph’s challenge was to adjust to God’s word
Receive it, believe it, and trust what he heard:
That God had now chosen with his people to dwell
Not as law, nor as temple, but as Emmanuel.
And by that we mean human—not a statue of stone—
But flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone.
As true God and true man Christ invades this dark sphere
And announces God’s kingdom to folks far and near.
In Jesus God ventures forth into dangerous new lands:
To risk to being born and putting his life in our hands.
With a true Son on earth, God meets us face to face:
A divine participation with the whole human race.
God is with us, not remote or removed,
But in life and in death, as the cross has now proved.
God is with us. From this the believer derives
That in Jesus Christ God takes up space in our lives.
You see, Joseph was not making room for a concept,
For a doctrine about God, or some religious precept.
Joseph’s life was rearranged on account of a person,
And no amount of reasoning or wishing or cursin’
Could alter the fact that God’s grace would come down
And grow up and live as a man in his town.

That, my dear friends, is the real Christmas scandal,
On which, try as we may, we never get a handle.
For the thrust of so many of our holiday preparations
Is just about conjuring vague contemplations
Of beauty and love and the virtues of giving
Or the charity of others that make life worth living,
When really, like Joseph, we should concentrate on receiving
And guarding the Savior of Mary’s conceiving.
And instead of making sure everything is just-so,
We should hasten to his table, his mercy to know.
God’s presence among us is not some ethereal notion,
Or well-intended habits of religious devotion,
But in a particular person in a particular place
With particular parents and a particular face.

So both inside by the hearth or out where others can see it,
And if Tacky Light displays are your thing, then so be it…
Guard your traditions and customs, and the holiday things that you do
But most of all, guard this babe and see what he grows up to do.
And when Christmas often seems like a foregone conclusion
The news “God is with us” becomes a welcome intrusion.
When, what in our wandering lives should appear,
But a God who in mercy and compassion draws near!
His name is Lord Jesus, as Joseph was told,
And in his living and dying God’s love we behold.
Where two or three are gathered, we are promised he’s there.
And we’re equipped as his Body his message to share.
We live peace on earth, show good will to all men.
Thanks be to God! Merry Christmas! Amen!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.