Fourth Sunday of Advent

Fourth Sunday of Advent – December 22, 2019 – Matthew 1:18-25 – Epiphany, Sherwood

Today of all days may be one to be brief. We’ll be back Tuesday evening. However, even though we’ll get a double dose this week, it’s important to spend some time with today’s gospel. 

This morning we hear Matthew’s version of Jesus’ birth story, a unique privilege of Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary. We always read from Luke on Christmas Eve and from John the following morning, but it’s only during Advent of Year A that Matthew’s account creeps in on the Sunday closest to Christmas.

“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.”

First, there is an explanation of marital status. Mary and Joseph are engaged but not yet living together as husband and wife. In order to better understand their situation we must escape our present-day understanding of marriage.

Being engaged meant something very different in first-century Palestine than it does in 21st century Tennessee. There was no proposal on bended knee, no diamond ring. There was, however, a formal process of betrothal.

For all intents and purposes, after their betrothal, Mary and Joseph were what we might consider today to be husband and wife. They were bound by a very serious contractual obligation that was difficult to get out of, but they didn’t live together yet, so it wasn’t Facebook-official.

Next, Matthew gives us the scoop on Joseph. He’s a righteous man through and through. Moral. Ethical. A devout Jewish man with great respect for God’s teachings. When he learns that his wife/fiancé/betrothed is pregnant, what is he to do?

He could initiate a very public separation, humiliating Mary in the process, but he refuses. Instead, he devises a plan to take care of the situation quietly. There is a certain amount of compassion in Joseph’s response. Being a righteous man, he will obey God’s law, but he will not risk harming Mary’s reputation in the process.

Then enters an angel of the Lord. “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.” By naming the boy Jesus, Joseph will adopt him as his own, thereby grafting him onto David’s royal line. 

Joseph’s naming of Jesus is an important detail. Not only does it link Jesus to David’s lineage, but it is further evidence of Joseph’s compassion, identifying him as a man willing to take a leap of faith, trusting in God’s new plan for salvation.

Joseph’s faith is an example for us. He trusts that the solution he envisions is not necessarily the one God has in mind. Joseph may be a righteous man, but only God can tell us what true righteous is. True righteousness isn’t just about following God’s teachings. It’s also about joining in God’s plan for salvation, a plan that is established and renewed in Jesus Christ, God made flesh. [1]

In Joseph’s example we see how God can transform our understanding of salvation. The promise of the incarnation changes our hearts and minds, freeing us to respond gratefully to the work that God is doing in the world. [2]

God’s plan for salvation may have been set in motion when God became flesh, but it didn’t end there. The saving work of Jesus continues today in the ministry of all the baptized.

When the bishop visits on the Feast of the Epiphany, he will baptize a few of our own into the household of God. Through baptism we each take our place in the Church, the body of Christ on earth. 

As members of this body, our ministry is to reconcile all people to God. When we go about the world, fueled by prayer, scripture, bread, and wine, we engage in incarnational ministry, embodying acts of loving kindness made possible by God’s redemption of our flesh through Jesus Christ. 

Another way to say the same thing is this: God is with us. That sounds a lot like the prophecy that Isaiah delivered; it sounds a lot like the good news that Joseph believed; and it sounds a lot like the hope we cling to today, the same hope that carries us into Tuesday night and sustains us forever. 

[1] Thomas G. Long, Mathew, Westminster Bible Companion (WJK: Louisville, 1997), 14.

[2] Ibid., 12.

“Prisoner of hope”

Saturday after Proper 23 – October 20, 2018 – Mark 12:8-12 – St. Mary’s Convent, Sewanee

When I first read the final lines of this passage I was relieved. “Do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.”

I guess I don’t have to prepare a sermon, I thought, the Holy Spirit will take care of it when the time comes. Alas, that’s not quite what Jesus is saying. Jesus is actually talking about coming times of persecution. The full quote goes like this:  When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.”

He’s telling them that God will be with them, even when the evil days come. The Holy Spirit will aid them even when they think they have no hope. That’s precisely why blaspheming against the Holy Spirit is such a grave sin. 

The Holy Spirit, Jesus tells his disciples, is what will give them the power to stay faithful. These words are just as applicable to us as they were to Jesus’ disciples. In fact, they may be even more applicable on this side of the resurrection.

The Holy Spirit gives the Church the guidance to say what it needs to say and the power to say it. This is especially important to us during personal or corporate times of trial. If we denounce the Holy Spirit, or blaspheme against it, then we curse the source of the Church’s lifeblood. If we run around profaning the Spirit, then that will be fatal for the Body of Christ. 

The Holy Spirit is our hope, and hope is not to be mocked. If you give in to blaspheming the very life-giving Spirit of the Church then what other life will there be? What other hope will you have? 

This Holy Spirit stuff is serious business. It’s not just this thing that grabs ahold of the preacher when he preaches. It’s not just this thing that swoops down on the priest when she is ordained.

It is God, the holy and life-giving one, who sustains the Church on earth. His disciples didn’t know it that day, but we know it today; we know how the story ends. There will be persecution. But there will also be victory. There will be death, but there will also be glorious resurrection. 

I have a friend who wears a t-shirt that says, “Prisoner of Hope.” Prisoner of Hope. That pretty much says it all. It tell us that he knows the whole story.  You may be held hostage by the things of this world, but not me. The only thing that controls me is hope. That’s profound and hard. 

If you really know your bible, then you might recognize that phrase from the ninth chapter of Zechariah. “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.” It speaks of God’s people who await a king who will speak peace to the nations. 

What if you heard that same word from God today? Could you claim that moniker for yourself? Are you a prisoner of hope?

Might as well be. What better option do you have?