We don’t read Matthew’s version of the Christmas story as often as we do the more familiar version from the gospel of Luke. Maybe that’s because Matthew’s story, told from the perspective of Joseph, is just too painful. Because even in the midst of the extraordinary, the angels, the dreams, the birth of the Messiah, these verses that we just heard from the gospel of Matthew tell a story of ordinary human pain and suffering. The young husband who finds out that his young wife is pregnant with a child that is not his. The young wife who bears the weight of shame and fear, who faces a broken marriage and uncertain future. Imagine the shattered dreams, the feelings of despair and powerlessness. Some of us don’t have to imagine them, we know them all too well. Joseph is in crisis. He feel’s betrayed, he’s angry, he’s afraid, He has to figure out what to do next, how to react to this awful situation. Joseph is a righteous man we’re told, a good man who has been kicked in the gut. Does he call Mary out publically, exonerating himself but in the process putting her at great risk? Or does he opt for a quiet divorce? Joseph decides that he will divorce Mary. And only an act of God prevents the divorce of Mary and Joseph.
Accusations of infidelity. Betrayal. Shame. Divorce. These are the parts of the Christmas story that we tend to forget. We like to focus on the joyful aspects of Christmas. Words like shame, suffering and divorce, they just don't seem to be the right way to talk about Emmanuel, God with us.
What do we mean when we say that “God is with us”? I think that most of us, myself included, we tend to think of “God with us” in a somewhat vague sense, as a comfortable presence in our lives, as a small voice that guides us, as a gentle companion that reassures us, as an insurance policy that we can call upon when needed.
There is a song that we have been singing each Sunday during Advent called God With Us. We’ll sing it again today. It goes like this:
Oh you’ve come to bring peace, to be love, to be nearer to us,
You’ve come to bring life, to be light, to shine brighter in us
Oh Emmanuel, God with us.
Peace. Love. Life. Light. God with us.
I love those words, and I don’t disagree with them, I embrace them. I celebrate them.
But that’s not how Joseph experienced God with us. And if anyone really knew what it’s like for God to be with us, I dare say it’s Joseph.
Joseph did not experience God with us as a gentle, comforting presence. Joseph experienced God with us as an overwhelming, disturbing, disruptive, mystifying, life-changing force that knocked him off his feet. A tornado that threatened to rip his life apart. A tsunami that had him gasping for breath. And that didn’t stop with Jesus’ birth. Read on in chapter two of the gospel of Matthew. Very soon we will find Joseph fleeing for his life in the middle of the night with Mary and the baby, to live as refugees in a foreign land.
So maybe we need to open up our understanding of what it means for God to really be with us.
Often we think that “God with us” means that God is entering into our story, into the story of our lives, as an important, even influential but perhaps a minor character. But maybe we need to flip that around. Perhaps “God with us” means not only that God enters into our story, but more importantly that we are invited to enter into God’s story. And that’s a challenge. Because God’s story is big. Really big. Overwhelmingly big. In God’s story, we don’t get to write the script. We don’t get to have the starring roles. What we do get is the opportunity to be part of something really big, something really worthwhile. Something with meaning and purpose. Something like the redemption and salvation of humanity and all of creation. That’s what God is doing. And to do it, God works through real people, with real challenges.
Joseph’s story was going along just fine up to the moment when God entered his life. He had his trade as a carpenter, he had found his wife, he was looking forward to a wedding celebration and consummating their marriage, he was going to have children. He was a good man, a righteous man, well-regarded in his community. Then God entered his life and all that came crashing down. “God with Joseph” was not a benign, comforting presence. “God with Joseph” was an overwhelming, disturbing, life-changing force that totally disrupted Joseph’s script and replaced it with another that was beyond his control. Joseph became part of a bigger story. And it was hard. It was painful, frightening, even agonizing at times. But Joseph was a righteous man, and he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him. He took Mary as his wife, and when she bore a son, Joseph named him Jesus. And soon after, when the angel returned and told Joseph to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt, he did so, with haste, and he saved our saviour’s life.
That’s what “God with Joseph” looked like. What does “God with you” look like?
Will God be limited to a few cameo appearances in your story, playing the role of comforter or guide as needed? Or will God really be with you, so that you, like Joseph, take on a role in God’s story, with all the disruption and challenge and lack of clarity and control that may involve?
This is the time of year when we are reminded that God is with us. Next week, on Christmas Eve and on Christmas Day we will talk about how wonderful that is, how God loved us so much that he became one of us, born as a human child. We will talk about God’s presence with us as comfort, as healing, as love, as peace, as hope.
But today, the story of Joseph gives us another take on that picture, and it reminds us of two things: First, that God with us can be hard sometimes. Disruptive. Life-changing. Mystifying. Maybe that’s where you or someone you know find themselves today. I hope it helps you to realize that Mary and Joseph experienced the same sort of thing. God with us can be hard sometimes.
The second reminder flips that around. When life is hard, God is with us. It was when Joseph was at his lowest point, at the very point where his dreams were shattered and he had resolved to divorce Mary, that the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, and said “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” Now, if I had been Joseph, I would have been tempted to say, “Couldn’t you have told me that a little sooner and spared me all this agony?” But I guess that way of thinking would have been about me writing the script, me engaging God as a character in my story. As Joseph found out, that doesn’t seem to be the way it works – we’re in God’s story now, and it’s a big story.
And so as our time of waiting in Advent draws to a close, and our celebration of the birth of Emmanuel approaches, may you, like Joseph, come to know your part in God’s story, and may God be with you.
Homily. Yr A Advent 4. Dec 18 2016. St. Albans
Readings: Isaiah 7.10-16; Ps 80; Romans 1.1-7; Matthew 1.18-25
Image by Jan Faborsky, Creative Commons