A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent.
Readings: Isaiah 7: 10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25.
Happy Fourth Sunday of Advent. We have traveled far. This Advent we have listened to the cry of John the Baptist: prepare ye the way! as we journey toward Bethlehem. . . And now, here we are: Joseph. I could say he gets the spotlight except that the gospel writer gives him no lines whatsoever. Yet in today’s reading he is the primary agent—the one who is told to do something, and obeys. Unlike Mary in Luke’s gospel who is visited by Gabriel at the annunciation, Joseph simply dreams. Or, Zechariah, who is told that his wife Elizabeth will have a son and to name him “John”—and, what does Zechariah do? He talks back to God’s #1 messenger and asks, “How will I know that this is so?” After all, no one else in the family has that name. It doesn’t really mean anything.
In Christmas pageants Joseph is a good role for reluctant parents. All they need to do is stand there looking supportive, maybe a little bewildered. He both does and doesn’t seem to get much air time. No doubt there have been many sermons preached over the years in which Joseph is lauded for his righteousness and obedience to God. He is the quintessential “godly man” after all, whom all other mortal men ought to follow; a man of action who moves when God says to move. Even before his dream he was going to take pity on this girl, Mary, and not give her over to the authorities. When God’s messenger tells him in a dream who the child truly is, he (unlike Zechariah) accepts it wordlessly. The early church father John Chrysostom saw this as Joseph having an ‘obedient and submissive mind,’ a ‘soul truly awake.’
Contemporary readers, however, may hear something else—a different kind of masculinity demonstrated in this passage.
Queer scholar Thomas Bohache notes that, by not acting “according to the law” when he learns that his betrothed is pregnant, Joseph “subverts heteropatriarchal expectations.” Joseph does not turn Mary over to be punished but, instead, complies with the divine messenger’s instructions. For this the gospel writer calls him righteous—not for following the law, where Mary could have received a death sentence, but for going through with what would surely have been a questionable marriage situation. Joseph submits to divine desires for God to take up space on this earth, within and among beloved creation. He conspires, you could say, with God, so that God may take on flesh. And he does so based on messages received in dreams. . . .
An 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, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” For a Jewish laborer in Roman occupied Israel-Palestine the name Jesus was already pre-populated with an entire history of divine activity and intervention.
To hear the name Jesus (Yeshua, Joshua) is to recall the stories of Israel in the wilderness; of God supplying water and food, and offering guidance day and night. It is to recall the Israelites crossing the Jordan River after Moses’ death. To hear ‘God-with-us’ is to hearken back to when the people returned to the temple with Nehemiah in order to reconstruct it for worship, so that God would return to that place. To hear ‘God will save the people’ is to remember the promises spoken by the prophets, of divine glory dwelling with the people; true righteousness and strength upholding God’s people; promises of never again living under the boot of another nation. The dreams of the Jewish people are all-encompassing: life on God’s holy mountain illumined by eternal radiance, where human and more-than human life may flourish. Ezekiel saw a river teeming with life flowing from the temple, nourishing trees along the banks whose leaves provide healing for all nations. The dreams of God’s people allow human imagination to know no boundaries when it comes to restoration, renewal, and regeneration.
And now, here we are: Joseph, instructed by a divine messenger in a dream to name Mary’s son Jesus. Joseph pays attention to dreams. . . . Do you (listen to dreams)? Do I? If we were to pay attention to dreams, whose dreams would we recognize?
Once upon a time, there was a time when the people who lived here in this region could cross rivers on the backs of salmon. Sockeye, Chinook, Chum, Coho, were so plentiful that when they returned to spawn, the rivers became choked by their silver bodies, and grandparents could walk from one side of the Spokane or Columbia River to the other on the undulating mass of fish churning through the waters as they headed upstream. . . . Can you imagine?
Once upon a time, oysters, horse clams, scallops, and delicate razor clams were so plentiful along the shorelines that great mounds or middens of shells could form architectural structures, and whole communities could eat the briny flesh any time of year, and be fed. . . . Can you imagine?
Once upon a time, expansive savannahs bedazzled by blue camas flowers and anchored by rotund Garry oak trees formed a tapestry across the lowlands, meeting swaths of towering evergreen forests as they marched up hills and mountains. These savannahs were cultivated over time by generations upon generations of Coast Salish peoples who would conduct their seasonal burn fires under just the right conditions. The Garry oak savannahs shaped and supported ecosystems quite different from the densely crowded forests of douglas fir, spruce and red cedars. And all manner of life traversed these forests and open plains. Between the camas and the cedars, the stinging nettles and the tangles of berry patches, there was plenty of food and medicine to go around. . . . Can you imagine?
It looks a little different around here these days.
What we might call the apocalyptic imaginary enters this world like fungi: emerging from the decay of unfulfilled desires and hopes for a better life, a more just community, and to live in the embrace of safety and belonging. Decomposition reveals a form of life that is becoming, making way for something else that has not yet germinated.
And now, here we are: with Joseph and Mary as they prepare to welcome a child into the world.
The name Jesus, God delivers, meant something to Joseph and Mary because theirs was an existence lived on the underside of empire. Their sense of anticipation, of yearning and desire for something much different, is virtually incomprehensible to me. I won’t speak for you, but when I approach these texts, I can almost feel the tremor of centuries of waiting, wondering. The psalmist captured it well with their repetitions: Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved. Do you hear that? Salvation can be felt, experienced simply by God’s presence. Just. show. up. God, is that too much to ask of you?
And yet, if I may confess, I’m not always convinced that I need or want God to show up. To be honest, I’m relatively comfortable with my pet anxieties, my cultivated community, and a carefully curated material existence. On this side of the capitalist empire, what more could I ask for, or dream of? What room is there within me for the messiah?
We started this morning’s service as we’ve done for the past few weeks: lighting a candle “to watch for messiah,” and with an opening prayer (collect) for the day. Today’s collect reads: “Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself.” In other words, we prayed that we would make space for Jesus, daily, for the One who is to come—whom we trust to bring life and light and love to the earth and to our lives. And not just a little space, like a hole in the dirt, but a mansion; a large space that requires attention, ornamentation, cultivation, and care. How are we to carve out this large space that’s meant to hold something as intangible as anticipation, expectation, even hope?
Perhaps this is where we learn to dream, and to pay attention to the dreams of others—especially those that emerge out of and from the decay of unfulfilled desires, broken promises, and old hopes crushed under the weight of so-called prosperity.
As many of you have learned, this nation is built upon broken treaties, the continual diminishing and siphoning of land and lives from indigenous, black and brown communities. If there is a parallel between the time of Jesus and now, I can tell you with certainty, that my social position would not align with Joseph and Mary. And so, when I consider whose dreams am I to pay attention to, I find my own to be untrustworthy.
(You see,) My family has no memory of plentiful fish runs or Garry oak savannahs; of undredged estuaries or trees with the diameter of a boat; of mountain goats high in the Cascades with hair perfect for weaving into sumptuously warm coverings. My family knows none of this because, our world ending events our apocalypse happened in a distant place. Like other families, we didn’t talk about it. With other families we moved to another continent looking for a better world, a new life, a fresh start.
And now, a few generations later, here I am, wondering, how do I make space for messiah? How do we make space for messiah?
How do we make room for and enter into the divine dream that is God with us—God dwelling with us, God dwelling within us? We have this time in Advent to consider how, like Joseph we are invited to submit to God’s desires to take up space on this earth and receive the dynamic movement—the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit who visits our dreams, who connects us together, unites us in a desire for the one who is to come (again) and to build community to work towards becoming the beloved community, together.
Let us dream together. Amen.