The Four Most Important Words

Isaiah 7:10-16 (read by Advent Wreath lighters)
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

Reverend Dr. Stephen R. Caine

 

1: 18 “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, 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. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” (Matthew 1:18-25, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: Shepherd of Israel, may Jesus, Emmanuel and son of Mary, be more than just a dream in our hearts. With the apostles, prophets, and saints,

save us, restore us, and lead us in the way of grace and peace, that we may bear your promise into the world. Amen.

 

I noticed that this year is the 60th anniversary for the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  You might remember Frank Capra’s classic movie starring Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey.   George Bailey had big dreams for his life.  He dreamed of traveling, seeing the world and leaving his small town of Bedford Falls behind.  Yet, at every turn something holds him back and keeps him there.   Each event that holds him back, George Bailey answers by doing the responsible thing.  He is kind, and good and makes the self-less decision to stay and help the people of Bedford Falls.  George’s father unexpecting dies and instead of going off to college he stays home to continue in his father’s footsteps.  Later, he lets his brother use his college money and he stays home to run family bank.  Instead of going on a honeymoon, he uses his savings to help those in need during the Great Depression.  He makes the responsible decision at every turn.  Oh, there is lots of anxiety and angst in his life, but in the end George Bailey does the right and honorable thing.   The movie shows these events as flashbacks of his life and the current moment of the film we find George is distraught.  He is standing on the edge on a bridge preparing to jump to his death when he is shown what his life and his decisions have done for the people of Bedford Falls.  Jimmy Stewart plays him masterfully and in the end, we find ourselves rooting for this good guy.  It hit me that Jimmy Stewart would play a great Joseph.

 

Now I don’t want to take the analogy too far, but it did remind me of Joseph.  Joseph, much like George Bailey, must have had great plans for his life.  He was a carpenter, running the family business.  The Bible tells us he was righteous.  He was engaged to Mary.  Life was good for Joseph.  Until.  Until that fateful day when Mary told him, “I am pregnant.”  You know the story…

 

Now Joseph knew all about the birds and the bees and he knew that there was no way that he was the father.  It could have been the milk man or the paper delivery guy or the young dude down the street who had been eyeing Mary, but it wasn’t Joseph.   That much he knew for sure.   Oh, Mary told him about the Angel, the Holy Spirit and God and how the baby had come to be, but who would believe that.  So, here is Joseph, a good guy with a mess on his hands.  In the first century, engagement was not the romantic connection that it is today, instead it was a legal contract, binding in every respect.  He has all kinds of options.   He could have shamed her by going through town spreading the story that Mary was pregnant with someone else’s child.  It was his right as a male to have her stoned to death.  He could have done any number of things…

 

I don’t think we can gloss over the hardship and distress that Joseph must have felt.  There is great heartache for both Joseph and Mary and we so easily forget that Joseph and Mary were real people.  He was wronged.  His fiancée cheated on him. Not only that now she was pregnant.  He had to be full of many different emotions… angry and sad and who knows what else.  Finally, he decided to do the compassionate thing, the kind thing and quietly end the engagement.  He wouldn’t make a big fuss and expose the cheating ways of Mary, he would just quietly end it and let Mary go on and live her life.

 

In our imaginations, we have created a fairy-tale version of this story of the holy family.  In it we imagine that Jesus never cried, Mary looked more like a blushing young bride than someone who had just given birth, and that Joseph is always calm, protective, and self-sacrificing.  Anything but human.  So, I propose that we be more honest and give the holy family their humanity.  Here is Joseph, learning that Mary is pregnant, he can only conclude that she has been unfaithful to him and so likely experiences the pain, anguish, and sense of betrayal that any of us would have felt at such a devastating revelation.   It seems to me that humanness of the Joseph and his reaction are a reminder to us and for us that God worked through real people with actual challenges.   God didn’t choose an enchanted princess to bear the savior, but rather an unwed peasant girl.  He didn’t choose a political or business success story to name and care for Jesus, but rather a man with his own doubts and questions who wanted to do the right thing but needed heavenly guidance to accomplish it.[1]

 

But then the real anxiety began, the dreams started.  Can’t you just imagine him feverish tossing back and forth as he dreamed?  A dream filled with an angel talking to him, telling him something wonderful.  It was astounding.  God would enter the world.  God would be born to his wife, as crazy as that was to understand.  Joseph had some serious trusting in God to do!  But Joseph had to trust someone else, too.  Joseph had to trust Mary.  I think it’s safe to say that the months leading up to Christ’s birth was not one blissful baby-shower after another but were fraught with anxiety and concern and flights of emotion we have all experienced at various times.

 

We have – every one of us – experienced similar moments in life that have rocked our worlds, who knows how many of us in this room this morning are struggling to hold it all together.   Families weighed down with conflict, couples who are angry and feel alienated, kids wondering about their futures, elderly folks concerned about the state of the world and their lives.  All of us come with something on our hearts and in our minds.

 

Here is Joseph, a good guy, trying to do the right thing I know Mary was his fiancé, and surely, he must have loved her.  But, still, this took a lot of trust!  And this is why Joseph’s dream is so important.  Joseph dreamed of the salvation of the world.

 

And for Joseph, the way of salvation meant trusting someone else.

Was he imagining voices or were they real?  Was it all a dream? Or a nightmare?  Do not be afraid, Joseph, to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”

 

That is the lesson for us, too.  Like Joseph, sometimes, we are supposed to trust God and then get out of the way.  Trust that God is working through our spouse, and then get out of the way.  Trust that God is working in our children, and then get out of the way.  Trust God and get out of the way.

 

A minister friend of mine says that the Bible, can be boiled down to four words that God offers repeatedly, to various sorts of folks, Do not be afraid.   As we were so powerfully reminded last Sunday in the Children’s musical, “Don’t worry, because God will work it out.”[2]  So, Fear Not!

 

Let us pray:

 

[1] The Reverend Dr. David Lose, http://www.davidlose.net/2016/12/advent-4-a-god-really-with-us

[2] Louise Schoeny, A Service of Lessons, Carols, and Anthems Led by IHC Children written by Tom Long 12-11-2016

 

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