Sunday, December 18, 2016

Anticipation 4th Sunday of Advent Matthew 1:18-25

DECEMBER 22. 201 6
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Matthew 1:18-25
A Pastor is in the sanctuary after Christmas services are all over.  He is just relaxing and tidying up a bit when he notices the baby Jesus is missing from the crèche.  He rushes outside just in time to see a boy with a bright red wagon walking down the sidewalk with Jesus in the bed.  The pastor approaches the boy and Comments: “Nice day for it.  Who is your passenger?””  Why it’s the baby Jesus” the boy replies rather matter of fact like.  The pastor   why would you take him?” the pastor asked and the boy explained…”I prayed to baby Jesus for a red wagon and I promised if he got me the red wagon for Christmas I would take him for a ride around the block!”

Advent teaches us to wait. Of course, during Advent, we wait for Christmas, and such waiting is a countercultural discipline in its own right. Especially now when everything seems to be so instantaneous. On a deeper level, Advent forms us to wait for the appearing of the Lord, and perhaps you have noticed that God doesn't always follow our calendar. That was Joseph's experience, and I suspect it’s yours as well. According to our church and family calendars, today we stand at the doorstep of Christmas. Only a few days remain, ready or not. In today’s Gospel, we also stand alongside Joseph, waiting to hear what God is about to do in and through Jesus the Messiah.

You may say, "I've heard it many times before," and perhaps you’re lulled by these familiar words: "This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place” (v.18). So then, cue the shepherds, the magi, and the angel: with the Christmas pageant. Careful readers will see that there is only one angel and no shepherds in Matthew's narrative, but we'll leave that for another day. I'm not so worried about shepherds, but had I written Mathews Gospel, I might've said, "Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this strange and surprising way. Mary is pregnant. She and Joseph are not yet married, and this righteous man has a major dilemma. Then God spoke to Joseph, 'Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit" (NRSV). It's strange stuff. Religious people have blamed all manner of things on the Spirit.

 Then the narrator informs us that this development was the fulfillment of prophecy, and so he quotes Isaiah 7:14, amending it ever so slightly "Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, /…Emmanuel" (v. 23) . Here we see the beginning of a pattern that Matthew follows throughout this Gospel. He describes events in the Life of Jesus, and then he connects them with texts from the Old Testament: “This fulfills what had been spoken through the prophet." What’s going on here? Its Mathew’s way of claiming that God’s work in and through Jesus stands in continuity with what God had done before. Our Biblical, covenantal faith is based on that continuity. We believe that the God who spoke through Moses on Mount Sinai spoke through Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, and the same God, speaks to us when we hear the scriptures today. We believe that the God who freed the slaves from bondage in Egypt still frees captives today. Al1 of our prayers rise from this dynamic.

So then, "Don't be afraid," right? But remember, this is God we’re talking about.

"Don't be afraid" doesn't mean that God's call won’t shake us to the very foundations, perhaps delighting us, perhaps rocking our world and changing everything. God spoke Joseph heard God, and he would never understand righteousness in the same way again; and just wait until Jesus begins speaking. Yes, God is doing what God has been doing. “Don’t be afraid, but watch out!”

I cannot go into this fourth Sunday of advent without thinking of those who are struggling and those that are suffering loss.  I think of my father who I lost just two years ago, or my mother who is still putting her best face forward though it is hard.  I think of our recent loss of Joe Armetta.  I am thinking of Gregor and His husband Robert who are struggling so bravely at this time. On the flip side of that I am also thinking of my friends Kelly and Dan who have just celebrated their daughter Emma’s first Birthday or Jennifer and Patrick owners of the Coffee shop here, and friend s of the congregation, who are expecting a son any day now.

So we have suffering- mixed with joy: birth, new, life and death. That’s Life! That’s the way of faith. That’s advent and Christmas. I wish I could say that believers somehow get to skip such difficulty, but we don’t and you know it' Along with Joseph, we are called to serve Christ, in the midst of complicated situations, and we don't know where it all leads.

 I will grant you some suffering is expected.  We know there will be loss.  We understand that no one lives forever.  But then we have unexpected fires, drought, famine and war.  Children continue to go hungry and people have lost jobs and houses. Some people have healthcare and some don’t.  People are suffering and grieved just as some of us here are suffering and grieve today, even in this shadow of Christmas.

Yet God appears, and God will appear even today.  Ray Tilton, a friend of mine shared this story on face book and I have to share it now.

  I was on my way to the city on Saturday morning. It was cold and rainy at the transit mall waiting on my bus. There was a homeless guy, sitting on the cold, wet metal bench playing his guitar. First he played some Fleetwood Mac which hearkens back to a simpler time in my life.
The music, as he strummed rang out clean and clear as if somehow the rain made the tones sweeter. Suddenly the rain became a torrential downpour and it got colder. He began playing Fly like an Eagle and I found myself remembering a more tumultuous time in my life.
Just as suddenly as it started the rain subsided and left it a bit warmer and he started playing Hotel California. This dirty homeless man with a care worn face and raggedy clothes will never know he played the music of my life’s memories.
My bus pulled up, I quickly and embarrassingly pushed my last $20 in his hand and boarded, not looking back and thankful that the rain hid the tears.

I would say God appeared.  God appeared in that moment through the action and face of the homeless man.  God appears every day if we just take the time to look. Yet knowing this does not make trouble or grief go away.   Listen to the Poet Debbie Thomas


Because A was for Adam, B for Bethlehem, and C for Cross, and my first classroom was a pew.  Because I played hide-and-seek in the font when the preacher wasn't looking, answered every altar call with a sprint down the aisle, and snuck the leftover Communion juice from the glasses the church ladies washed on Mondays.  I was hoping -- I understand this now -- to steal a drop more of You.

Because decades later, I'm still felled by stain glass; by musty old Bibles in empty, patient sanctuaries; by altar cloths, choir robes, and candlewax.  Because my breathing slows in Your house, my muscles unclench, and I remember how to sing loud and clear.  Because You are my rootedness, my air, my water.  The dark and frozen ground in which I wait to crack open, die, and sprout. You are the closest I ever come to flourishing. 

Because I love stories, and I cherish the ones I first learned in Your book.  Because I am Eve and the apple makes sense to me. I'm Rachel and I won't surrender my sacred objects.  I'm Leah and I long to be loved.  I'm Hagar, and I will name You in the desert.  I'm Miriam and I am ever watchful.  I'm the bleeding woman and I need the hem of Your robe.  I'm Mary Magdalene, and I must bear witness by Your tomb.  I'm Junia, and my story aches to be told.

Because childhood ends, but childhood hungers do not.  Because my first house, first Father, first Mother, first love, first hate, first heartbreak, first safety, first terror, was You.

Because the Psalmist got it right: I was cast on you from birth. 

Because Peter got it even better: Lord, if I left, to whom would I go?

Because I like questions, and it turns out that You ask good ones.  Because I answer when You ask, and my answers never shock You:

 "Why are you so afraid?"  (Are You kidding me?)
"Do you still not understand?"  (Nope, not even a little bit.)
"What do you want me to do for you?" (Um, how much time do we have?)
"Do you want to get well?" (Occasionally.)
"Do you love me?"  (I think so.  Or, I want to.  Or, not yet.  Or… silence.)
"How long shall I put up with you?"  (A little longer, please.)

Because sorrow came too many times this year, and there had better be an Afterward to explain it.  I stood at gravesides and raged, my body betrayed me to panic, and my children knew fear and pain.  Bodies failed, minds cracked, and we didn't live happily ever after like the fairy tales promised.  Because all in all there are far too many unfinished stories, and I'd like to believe You're neater than that.  Because I yearn for So Much More than I have.  Because my yearning comes from somewhere, and that somewhere must be You.  Because "on earth as it is in heaven" is all I've got, and if it's not enough, then I am lost.  Because "Death, where is thy sting?" is a mockery, but "Jesus wept" is not.

Because joy comes too, and it doesn't look anything like I think it should. Because You hound me, and I can't get rid of You.  Because our pursuit of each other is exquisite in both directions -- pleasure and pain.  Because rarely -- too rarely, but I'll take what I can get -- the veil parts, the ground gives way, the skies open, and my hunger for You intensifies to the breaking point of Communion.  The hunger itself becomes You.  Incarnate.  Shining.  Present.  I know You then in the liturgy, in the Word, in the broken bread and spilled wine.  I press my palms against ancient redwood trees, and You are there.  You awe me in the mountains and at the shifting edges of the ocean.  I hear You in the stillness of the forest, in the cacophony of birdsong.  I feel You in the solid embrace of the people I love -- their hands Your hands, their eyes Your eyes, their voices soft echoes of Yours.

And in those moments the possibility of You grows and grows until I am unhoused and undone, almost too alive for this world.  Because You are my Everlasting Almost -- almost here, almost certain, almost always, almost irrefutable.  You are the tenuous edge I will live and die on.  Because the Almost of You -- heartbreaking as it is -- is sweeter than any guarantee I can find in this world.

Because You're not who I thought You were, so I must wait for revelation.  Because the mystery of Your strangeness is a lure that calls my name.  Because I thought I needed to contain You, but a tiny deity won't bend my knee.

Because the path is winding, and You are a God worthy of perilous journeys.  Because I need to wrestle, and You meet me at the river.  Because this is no ordinary hunger, and Your manna alone will suffice.  Because You know the loneliness of the desert, and I do, too.  Because I will drown unless You part this water.  Because the world is dark, but it shimmers at its edges. 

Because I'm wild inside, and You are not a tame lion.  Because You suffered, and only a suffering God can help.  Because You spoke of joy and I need to learn how to laugh. 

Because I am wired to seek You, and I will not let You go.  Because my ache for You is the heart of my aliveness.

Because I am still Your stubborn child, and I insist on resurrection.[1]

We are all Children of God in anticipation of the Christ child to come.  We are the child; the child who made a deal with Jesus and in his joy takes him for a ride in a red wagon, We are the Child, the inner child who heard his life in song by a homeless man on a train platform, We are the Child, the woman child who  prays and stays.

The beautiful Christmas Lullaby asks:
 “What Child is this
Who laid to rest
On Mary's lap is sleeping?
Whom Angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?”

And I am not sure we know the answer to this yet, for we each arrive to the child from different experiences, different ways and different cultures but we are called to wait and seek and stand here in anticipation “look a virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son/ and they will call him Emanuel.

The Emmanuel of Advent-Christmas, the God who is with us, witnesses our social life from within the community, so that God is not far away but is actually among us as we become part of each other’s lives (and sometimes step on them), as we work together (and sometimes against each other), as we try to support each other (and yet abandon millions of people to the miseries of destitution).
There is no childish game of hide and seek with this God, who is present to witness our good deeds and our misdeeds.   “Let the Lord enter (Ps 24:7c).” We rejoice at the prospect of having God among us, and yet we should also reflect on the awesome responsibility of living in the presence of God.  “We who have been called to belong to Jesus Christ” (Rom 1:6) are called to imitate Mary, who, when faced with the reality of Emmanuel, “placed her life at the service of God”[2]

Believe it along with Joseph, even if it all doesn’t make sense right now.  Believe that God is with us, even today: with us in the breaking of the bread, with us in the sharing of fellowship, with us in words of encouragement, with us in the cancer ward and the maternity ward, with us in our hour of birth and the hour of death. Therefore, we wait, and wait and God is with us.[3] Amen

[1] Debie Thomas, Why I Stay: A Prayer, December 11, 2016, accessed December 13, 2016,
[2] Gerald Darring, God with us, accessed December 13, 2016,
[3] Rev, The Abingdon Preaching Annual (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2013). 

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