Our Scripture today is from Matthew 1:18-25. It is the story of Mary and Joseph’s engagement, Mary’s Pregnancy, and Jesus’ Birth. This is a story we are familiar with. You have no doubt heard it many times before. You’ve likely read it yourself. And Many of us have even acted out some of these roles in a pageants as children, or watched as our own kids portrayed this story. Because it so familiar, it would be easy to bring a lot of preconceived assumptions to our reading of it.
But today’s story is different… Its the story of Jesus’ Birth as told by Matthew, not Luke which we are more accustomed to reading. Matthew tells it very differently… there is no innkeeper or stable… There is no manger So today, I invite you to listen to this story with new ears, and try to listen for something in it you haven’t heard before…
Listen for God’s word to us…..
When I think of this story, I can’t help but think of adorable children dressed up…
I imagine Mary as a six or seven year old
in her white robe and blue head covering and a pillow stuffed inside her belly…
And I imagine Joseph, similarly aged, and dressed with some sort of walking staff and maybe a fake beard of some kind, coming alongside of Mary to support her. There is always a donkey, or a camel of some kind to help them along their way to Bethlehem for King Herod’s Census. And angels and stars to watch over them as they journey… Guiding their steps… offering them encouraging words… proclaiming to them what God is up to in the midst of their lives…
So… instinctually, I remember everything about this story as adorable and cute… As if my memory of it is glowing in some bright and happy aura… As if this story can only be portrayed by kids in elementary school…
But the reality of life is always much more complicated than the stories we tell would suggest.
Life is, in actuality, rarely this cute… or perfect.
Like Karen said in her sermon last week… life is complex and messy…
“And God’s work in this world is always in the middle of the messy reality of our life,
within all our complicated stories. Even Jesus may be fully divine… fully the Son of God - but he’s absolutely fully human, too. Born into a messy, complicated family, with messy, complicated lives”.
And, for Jesus, the messy complicated realities of his human world begin right at the get go from the very moment he was conceived. The story of Jesus’ birth starts with an all out scandal.
The first line of our story today, tells us that Mary and Joseph are engaged. We have every reason to believe this was a completely average engagement jewish engagement… Everything is going to plan at least by the standards of the day, it probably looks like every other engagement at that time… Mary would have been married around the age of 12, at the onset of puberty. The marriage would have been arranged by her parents, normally to an older man, and there would have been a dowry paid by the groom to guarantee the marriage. Their engagement would last a year or so before they would be married and they moved in together [“Who was the Real Virgin Mary?,” Dr. Helen Bond, The Guardian, 12/18/2002, theguardian.com/world/2002/dec/19/gender.uk1.]
Everything would have been set in place for this couple to be married successfully and go on to live a happy life. By today’s standards it would be like the ring had been picked out… the question had been popped.. the date had been picked, the invitations had been sent, I imagine even the table chart was organized and set in place… The life of this new couple was laid out before them, with everything falling into place.
Until three words are uttered… “I am pregnant”
which follows with other words… “You are not the father”
Imagine the fall out and scandal that would happen if this were a story taking place today… Imagine the shame that would come with this announcement. Imagine the embarrassment. Imagine the grief, heartache, and sadness. Imagine the repercussions into the couple’s family, their friends, and their community. Imagine the gossip.
Now imagine all of this taking place in 1st century Judea… A context way more different than our own. Where the rules around extramarital affairs were strict and could have even resulted in the death penalty for Mary. Imagine this and you get a sense of the despair and hopelessness that both Mary and Joseph would have no doubt felt.
All of the plans for their life are now up in the air, their future suddenly in doubt, not to mention the future of this new life Mary is carrying. And Everything suddenly feels dark… Everything suddenly feels unknown. Everything suddenly feels lost.
But God has a way of bringing light and love into even our darkest times.
And right after Joseph has decided to call it off and walk away from Mary…
he receives a message from God…
in the midst of a dream, God speaks to him through an angel…
In a dream… God reframes the way Joseph was looking at his situation…
He had been seeing his world through the eyes of despair, but, in a dream,
God helps him see his world with the new eyes of hope..
He had been looking at his situation in darkness,
but in a dream, God helps him to see all of the light that the Holy Spirit was bringing.
It reminds me of a story I heard told at an Interfaith Gathering by Valerie Kaur, an indian-american woman, a sikh faith leader, and civil rights activist… She shares a story about her grandfather… that shaped her life:
“On Christmas Eve 103 years ago,” She says, “my grandfather waited in a dark and dank jail cell.
He sailed by steamship across the Pacific Ocean from India to America leaving behind colonial rule, but when he landed on American shores immigration officials saw his dark skin, his tall turban worn as a part of his Sikh faith, and saw him not as a brother but as foreign, as suspect.
They threw him behind bars where he languished [in darkness] for months until a single man came, a white lawyer who filed a writ of habeas corpus that released him on Christmas Eve 1913.”
“Yes,” She says, “at times the future feels dark. But when I close my eyes… I see the darkness of my grandfather’s cell. And I can feel the spirit within him. The Spirit which came from his faith, the spirit of ever rising hope and optimism.
So the mother in me asks “what if?”
What if the darkness that we experience in our world is not the darkness of the tomb,
but the darkness of the womb? What if our world is not dying but instead it is waiting to be born? [paraphrased and adjusted for the purpose of this sermon from the original quote http://valariekaur.com/2017/01/watch-night-speech-breathe-push/]
We often say that advent is a time of waiting, of sitting in darkness, and watching for signs of Christ’s ever growing light. But I think even more so, Advent is a time for dreaming, for hoping, for re-imagining our world through God’s eyes. It is a time to face the darkness and choose not to respond with fear, but instead ask the hopeful question: “What if?”
What if God is birthing something new here?
What if the circumstances of our life aren’t just some random occurrence… What if this is the Holy Spirit at work even now… even in this darkness?
Advent is a time to dream with God anew…
what might it look like if God’s light were to shine even here?
So on this Advent Sunday, I ask you
in the midst of whatever darkness you might see in the world
or, whatever darkness you may be facing in your own life…
What are you dreaming about?
What are the hopes that God is planting in your heart?
How do you imagine Christ coming into this world even now?
May your dreams be just one small part of the even greater reality that Spirit is birthing,
May your hopes be just one small part of the even greater kingdom God is bringing to the world through Christ.
And may God use all of us
in helping those dreams become realized.