December 22, 2019
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“…do not be afraid…”
We are so close. Christmas is right here.
It is more complex here this year, Advent into Christmas. Chet’s death has been hard. Our departure has and will complicate things for you all, especially Melissa and your other leaders. We’re in the process of saying good-bye to you all, that’s a full time, emotionally wrenching endeavor, and at the same time we are buying a house, handling two little girls with very mixed feelings about all of this, and moving cross country with more animals than is reasonable. Our President was just impeached. Cataclysmic wildfires are ravaging Australia at their summer solstice. Does anyone really need to have a list of difficult things spelled out? Do we need to be reminded of what to be afraid of?
Our gospel today is the nativity according to St. Matthew. It lacks shepherds who were sore afraid, swaddling clothes and heavenly hosts. Mary doesn’t even have a speaking role. The wise men are Matthean, but that is Epiphany, not Christmas. What we have are these eight little verses (well, and the 17 verses that are the first two-thirds of Matthew 1, the genealogy of Jesus. They are not in the lectionary, for which I am glad because genealogies are hard to pronounce and don’t preach very well). But these eight little verses are extremely important. They reveal to us part of the deep and mysterious story of the eternal and actual entrance of God into this world, and they give a us a glimpse of our part, of your part in the continuing Incarnation of Jesus Christ. That’s not bad for 8 verses.
The most important thing St. Matthew is trying to tell us in his nativity story is that Jesus, His incarnation, His very conception, is the work of God. That is why the angel speaks to Joseph in his dream, to assure him that this child in not the result of human activity. All the virgin stuff, it is not (at least primarily) about female sexuality. It is not about the impossibility that the Messiah would be conceived in such as biological way with all its messiness. Plenty has been projected on to this over the centuries, but this story’s religious purpose is to tell us, “now for something completely different” as the Monty Python guys would say. Jesus is something completely different. He is new, fresh, a work of divine power and might. Matthew wants us to understand that Jesus, from conception, is something different. Completely different. Divinely different.
The other thing Matthew’s nativity does is to locate Jesus in history, to place him in context to His people, Israel. The genealogy certainly does that. The Messiah would come from the House of David. And more specifically, the divinely mysterious conception is tied directly to the prophesy of Isaiah, Matthew quotes Isaiah 10:14 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.” This is whom they had been waiting for, a child of God and by God and for God. Jesus, the son of Mary, a child who is God.
That’s the story. That’s why we are here. This child, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of virgin Mary. That is the reason for the season.
And this story is true. It tells in a comprehensible way the truth of God’s incarnation, the entrance of a Wholly Other God into time and space, a Transcendent God made manifestly Immanent. And that, truths like that are not explainable, not directly. Philosophy, theology, doctrinal points, prose of any form really isn’t up to the task of bearing truth like this story bears. Truth like this, foundational truths of the world, can only be told in stories, in images, in songs and poetry. Some truth is too deep for rationality and reason to contain, too much for mere facts.
I majored in mid-19th to mid-20th century American history. My undergraduate thesis was on the years between when the crash happened in 1929 and when New Deal programs started up in Pittsburgh. I know the history, the facts of that era pretty well, but I know the truth of the Depression by looking at that Dorothea Lange picture hanging in the narthex. I know the actuality of the catastrophe in my reading of The Grapes of Wrath.
Grace and Truth comes through Jesus Christ. It comes through Christ right here, to us. By grace the truth trickles down, it finds a home, it becomes real, in us; in who we are; in how we love; in what we do. There is incredible power in truth; it can move mountains, overthrow tyrants, set nations free. But without us, the faithful, the bearers of God’s truth, the power of truth is only potential power, like in freshman physics, potential energy. In us, in our lives and witness, in the kindness and compassion, in the mercy, forgiveness and hard labor that we offer to the world, that is where that energy crosses from potential to kinetic, from possible to happening, and in Christ, even inevitable.
How do we take the story of God’s arrival as a baby, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary and put that to use making real the Commonwealth of God? How does this story, or any of the other stories that form the narrative trajectory of our faith inform and strengthen us to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God? How? You! By and in and through you, through each of us. Because we are part of the story!
Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Human activity did not cause the Incarnation, but without us, without human participation, where could the story go? Mary, the Theotokos, the God-bearer… she was human. She existed because of St. Ann bore her and St. Joachim fathered her. The genealogy of Jesus demonstrates that a lot of people over 42 generations were involved in getting to that moment. The way Matthew tells the incarnation story… it is not us, humans who Incarnated God, but as God is fully divine and fully human, without us, God would not have come. (If you thnk about it, though, if it weren’t for us and our sinful natures maybe God would not have needed to come, but that is a different sermon). What this story is telling us, through the ministry of Mary and her betrothed, Joseph, is that we are part of the story. People are a critical part of the story of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. We always have been, we always will be.
Joseph’s role here is complex, and it really speaks to how it is that the Holy Spirit, that God in Christ works in this world, works in us, with us, even. The subtly of Matthew’s Nativity story is amazing. What did Joseph risk in this story? Did he risk death if he kept his betrothed? Loss of limb or livelihood? No. Mary did. She was extremely vulnerable. If he had thrown her out she faced a life of ostracizing shame, deep enough shame to cast her into poverty. Widows, let alone mothers out of wedlock, often had to turn to prostitution to survive.
Most of us don’t face life and death situations like that on a regular basis, not like the one Mary faced, a very young woman, unwed, pregnant. (Tragically that is still a dangerous situation for women around the world). But often, daily, choices between right and wrong present themselves, each with little consequences. Being respectful in all of your interactions, even when that child is behaving atrociously, even if they support that party or that politician. Driving nicely. Being not only respectful, but peer-level respectful of the checker at the grocery store, the phone company customer service rep, the street corner preacher preaching a gospel that you don’t recognize. Small potatoes, mostly. Joseph’s standing by Mary was slightly larger potatoes for him, but not hugely so.
But that is how life works. Small potatoes upon small potatoes. How many BIG moments have you had in your life? A handful? How many times have you been called to a moral decision where you had to put everything at risk? Has something like that ever come up for you? But those little moments, those are daily.
The most important lesson I learned in the study of history is to not expect spectacle. Not to expect a million man march, but maybe 20 100 person marches. And maybe next time there’ll be 40 of them. Then 100. You might not blow your wife away with the long dreamt of vacation or the most perfect of perfect Christmas presents or heart-stoppingly poignant 20th anniversary dinner at the French Laundry. But when she comes home to your laundry folded, the children in bed, the “I already took care of x.” on any given Tuesday… that works.
You likely won’t be called to martyr yourself on a barricade anytime soon, God willing, but you might give two bucks to Bill down on Hilyard and 30th, or at least look him in the eye and offer a Christmastide blessing. You don’t need to empty your retirement account to float the church this next year, but would $100 more per month make a difference to your life? Because it 20 people did that you’d be pretty good this next year.
It is those little things, those baby steps towards the commonwealth of God that make that commonwealth real. Oh there is the occasional superhero-like manifestation of human courage, beatification-worthy selflessness that is needed, but usually it is those discrete and continuous acts of goodness and mercy that God calls out of us, like God called out of Joseph. In the next chapter we see Joseph’s saintly heroism, spiriting the Holy family into Egypt to escape the desolation of Herod’s jealous barbarity. But he leads with kindness, with a small risk of standing, with the small risk of static in the marketplace because his peers might think something negative about him and his wife.
Now those little things are not insignificant, but they are not life and death, either. That’s the point. The first thing the angel says in that dream is “…do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife…” He wasn’t, and here we are. And because of that, because of the micro-courage of Joseph as we learn of in Matthew, of the countless baby steps that our ancestors, that we have taken towards the Commonwealth of God, here we are. And Christmas is almost here, again. Do not be afraid. AMEN