We have come to the fourth Sunday of Advent—and the last of our sermons weaving the weekly candle themes with our Scriptures. As the series progressed I realized I was trying to make these ethereal ideas (hope, peace, joy, love) more concrete, and when I did, I found words I didn’t expect rising to the top. And so, we had WORK alongside of hope, And STRANGENESS alongside of peace, and FIERCE alongside of joy. But I racked my brain when it came to love.
The more I thought about Joseph’s side of the story (which we read this morning from the gospel of Matthew), the more I tried to read his actions within the framework of “love,” the more I felt that there isn’t one word to describe what is happening—there are words upon words upon words—just like “love” is for most of us.
Love became the embodiment of what I was trying to say all month—that the gifts God gives to us in Advent and on Christmas Eve, aren’t meant to be framed and put on our Facebook page, aren’t meant to be enjoyed for a season and then stored away for next year, aren’t meant to be just ideas, pretty words we spout on occasion. Hope, Peace, Joy, Love are intended to be put on and become our favorite comfortable clothing, or jewelry, or shoes. Yes, they will lose that shiny newness, but like the Velveteen Rabbit, with use they will become ours, they will become REAL.
Love in the midst of Life is the way I’ve chosen put this concept. The story we read today could be a story about anyone one of us. It is a story about the greyness, the imperfections of life, even when God is involved. Let’s take a closer look at Joseph. We don’t know much about him from Scripture. His big claim to fame is that he was from the genealogical line of David, thus allowing Jesus to fulfill all those prophecies about the new king coming from the line of God’s favorite king.
But from this particular vignette, I think we could say that Joseph was an ordinary guy. He was a laborer, he worked with his hands, as a carpenter. He lived in a village, minding his own business, had made enough of himself that he was betrothed to a girl called Mary. Betrothal, in those days, was the legal and contractual part of marriage which could be made years in advance of the actual vows and party and living together. So Mary and Joseph were betrothed, but not married (and it seems not enjoying “benefits” of betrothal either).
And Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant. Now you can’t insert the annunciation story from the gospel of Luke into our Matthean world. There has been no advance notice of what is going on—as far as Matthew is concerned. There is no angel visitation, no saying yes, no singing the Magnificat, no journey to Elizabeth. Joseph wakes up and either notices himself, or someone tells him, “your intended is showing.” And Joseph know it isn’t because of him. And worse, she is “found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”
Now this could just be an editorial addition after the fact, but it could also mean Mary couldn’t (and I’m sure some said Wouldn’t) finger anyone as the father—as in “who made this mess? No one is willing to own up? It must have been the Holy Spirit.” What must Joseph have felt? Betrayed? (Why was Mary hanging around with another guy?) Angry? (And why won’t she tell me who it is so I can be vindicated?) Ashamed? (What are the guys going to think when it becomes known I picked a woman that isn’t faithful to me?) Sad? (This was the woman I wanted to make a house with, have children with—and now that’s all gone.)
Those are all perfectly understandable reactions. And in his day and time Joseph had the power to not only ruin Mary’s life, but get her killed (since stoning was the punishment for adultery). Our writer says he was a righteous man, and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace—which I think we can say might be written as “he really loved her”—and so he plans to let her go off somewhere and have the baby, not make a fuss about it, and go on with his life without her.
This could be a fairly believable soap opera plot of 2019. The cliff-hanger would state something like: “Will Mary keep the baby? Will Joseph exact revenge? Will their love ever be allowed to flourish? It will all be revealed ‘In God’s Time.’” There are even the seeds of a romantic ending because Joseph is a good guy—he just can’t figure out how to negotiate his social world and the situation with Mary. So, he makes the only “righteous” choice he thinks he has: nullify the betrothal, but do it quietly so Mary doesn’t pay the ultimate price. A sad story of “Broken Love in the Midst of Life.”
Here is the surprising thing: Love, in God’s world isn’t beholden to societal norms. Love, in God’s world, creates new options. Love, in God’s world, is willing to put aside almost anything. And, in Matthew, Love shows up as an angel in a dream: to explain that this really is a baby from God (from the Holy Spirit), and to insist Joseph needs to fulfill his commitment to be with Mary, and to take on the role of earthly father, signified by a father’s act, the naming of the child.
Freed to act in love, Joseph goes through with the wedding, waits to consummate the marriage until Mary bares a son, and then Joseph accepts the little one into “his” family, naming him Jesus.
That is Love in the midst of Life. That is being patient and kind (as Paul later talks about love in 1 Corinthians). That is making lemonade with the bunch of lemons you didn’t expect. That is so much more real than sappy (or cruel) versions of love we often see on our screens.
And it leads us right into the final candle in our Advent wreath. It leads us right into Christmas Eve and the Christmas message. For God didn’t wait for us to be perfect before coming to be with us. Love is born in the midst of it all—all the messiness of life, all the abandoned plans, all the mistakes and betrayals and disappointments. God’s love can work with even the tiniest spark of love in our lives. God’s love (through the Holy Spirit) can redeem, and transform. It can open our eyes to new possibilities, and help us open our arms to those who desperately need a family. Love is work, it takes us to strange places, it requires fierceness, and it is only real “in the midst” of our imperfect, wonderful, journey from beginning to end.
Let me finish with a musing from Seasons of the Spirit that will not let me go. This is a season of light, where we lift up the light of the world, Jesus, coming into the darkness of a sinful world. This musing is from a woman named Alydia. In love, hear her experience.
“I have great difficulty with the beloved metaphor of light coming into the darkness… perhaps because [it] reminds me of the many ways society has tried to teach us that lighter everything (including skin tone) is better.
I am reminded of people who told me to stay out of the sun for fear that I would get “darker,” bleaching creams advertised at the beauty supply store and church folk “complimenting” me with comments like “You are pretty for your kind of people.”
Thankfully, I was not taught this lesson at home… I doubt we will ever fully let go of the analogy of light being hopeful. But as a Black woman (and as a church geek), I hope that we can also embrace some other images and symbols for hope and embrace the beauty of the dark.
I don’t want to be washed whiter than snow, or become
The light that banishes all darkness,
The fair, bright and pure one.
I want to be bathed in the Earth’s soil, becoming
The darkness that births new life,
The deep, mysterious and mystic one.
Waiting with you, Alydia”
This Advent, may hope, peace, joy, and love become more deeply woven into our thoughts and prayers and words and actions and lives.
And may the work we have to do, the strangeness we may feel, the fierce power we need to employ, and the love that binds it all together, open us anew to the Holy Spirit who hovers over us, in darkness and light: truly “God with us.”