December 18, 2016 – The 4th Sunday of Advent, Year A
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
When I meet with couples for premarital counseling, one of the questions that I ask them is what they would do if they got pregnant right away. Even if their plan is to wait a few years or even not have children at all, still I ask them, “What would you do if you woke up tomorrow and found out a baby was on the way?” Although I’m moderately interested in how they would handle an unplanned pregnancy, I’m more interested in hearing them discuss how they would work together to restructure their lives around a challenging bundle of joy. As Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said in his Christmas message this year, babies take control of your life; it’s what babies do. I don’t expect the lovebirds on the couch in front of me to know exactly how they would handle it, but I want to watch them talk about tradeoffs and setbacks—how they would reconfigure their career plans, how they would adapt their social lives, whether they would keep living in that tiny apartment, trying to save money for a house, and what their marriage would be like with suddenly scrutinizing parents and in-laws. As the priest who is helping them prepare for a life together, I want them to begin to consider what happens when their carefully mapped out lives don’t go according to plan.
But one question that I don’t ask them is what would happen if the bride-to-be said to her fiancé, “I’m pregnant, but the baby isn’t yours.” Although not completely outside the realm of possibility, such a predicament is largely beyond our scope in premarital counseling. Despite seeking to turn over a number of difficult stones, we don’t plan for that particular possibility. No one does. That seems like the kind of drama that belongs on a soap opera instead of in the priest’s office. But that’s exactly what happened to Mary and Joseph. She was found to be with child, but that child did not belong to Joseph.
I think we that forget about Joseph’s struggle because we’re more familiar with Luke’s version of Jesus’ birth than with Matthew’s. Luke focuses on Mary’s story—how the Angel Gabriel caught her by surprise and told her that she would bear a son. Luke portrays her worries and uncertainty at this troubling news, and he recalls for us how she submitted to the Lord’s plan and declared, “Let it be to me according to your word.” But Luke never talks to us about Joseph’s struggle. For that, we must turn to Matthew and to today’s gospel lesson. Here we read about Joseph’s doubts and fears and how the angel came to him in a dream to convince him to say yes to God.
When I read this gospel passage, the word around which the whole thing turns is found in verse nineteen: “And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” Joseph resolved to divorce her quietly. He made up his mind. He decided. He planned. He intended. It was a good plan—a godly plan. Matthew tells us that Joseph was a “righteous man,” a just man. Although it was his right as a betrayed man, he did not want to cause his beloved any unnecessary shame. But, as much as he loved her, he knew that he could not stay with her. She carried in her womb the child of another. All of his plans for their life together—all of his hopes that she would be the mother of his child, that together they would start a family—came crashing down when he discovered that she was pregnant. In the language and patriarchal culture of that day, she belonged to someone else. Righteous and caring though he was, he could not imagine staying with her. The child she would bear would be a lifetime reminder of her betrayal and his shame. And so Joseph decided to dismiss her—to put her away—quietly.
But, just when Joseph had resolved to do this, God came in and showed him another way. 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 will name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” God himself set to work on his faithful servant Joseph in order to turn his life around. “Do not be afraid,” the angel said. “Put aside all of your worries and fears about what will happen. You cannot see what God can see. Taking Mary as your wife will not bring you shame but deep and lasting honor.”
“The child conceived in her is by the Holy Spirit,” the angel declared. “This is God’s child, a holy child. But you will name him Jesus. His name will come from you. You, Joseph, are the descendent of David through whom this child will claim the throne of his ancestor. He may be God’s Son, but he is also your child. You must take part in what God is doing through this great birth. Your role is essential, too. His name will be Jesus because he will save his people from their sins. The name Jesus or ‘Yeshua’ means ‘one who delivers’ or ‘one who rescues.’ This child will be God’s saving gift to God’s people, but you, Joseph, must accept him and his mother as your own. You must say yes in order for God’s great plan to be accomplished.”
Perhaps it is too bold a thing for me to say that God’s plan of salvation could not have been fulfilled without Joseph. Surely, when human beings fail, God still finds a way to save us. But this plan—Mary and Jesus, the Incarnation, the throne of his ancestor David, twelve disciples, King of Lings, Lord of Lords, live and die and rise again—it all hinged on Joseph’s willingness to forego his own plans and accept that God had a bigger plan for him and for the whole world.
Faith isn’t as simple as believing that God has a plan for us. It also means believing that our lives are a part of something bigger, and it means submitting ourselves, our lives, our hopes, and our dreams to God’s plan for the whole world. Faith means saying to God, “Okay, God, I believe that you know what’s best—for me and for those around me.” Can there ever be scarier words than those? It is no accident that when we make up our minds for ourselves that’s the moment when God shows up and says, “Actually, I have something else in mind.” Faith is being able to hear it. Faith is trusting that God’s plan is bigger than us—that it’s bigger than anything we can see and stranger than anything we could expect.
God’s plan includes taking an unmarried pregnant girl and an embarrassed but righteous fiancé and using them to bring salvation to the world. God’s plan involves taking that which is lowly and humble and raising it up to incomparable greatness. God’s plan is take that which is poor and forgotten and bring it to true joy and everlasting remembrance. God’s plan is to take death itself and transform it into new life. That is God’s plan for us—for each one of us and, through each one of us, for the whole world.
Can we see it? Can we see our part in it? Of course not—at least not all at once. But we do get marvelous glimpses of it when God shines his light upon us. Because of what God has shown us in the story of Jesus, God is asking us to say yes. God is inviting us to let go of our fears of the unknown and to trust that God’s plan is better than our own. God is asking us to trust him enough to set aside our own hopes and dreams and plans and accept his plan for our lives. God is asking us to believe that he has something truly spectacular in store for the whole world and that we are an integral part of that plan. Will we have faith like Joseph? Will we say yes to God? Don’t wait until you can see the whole picture. Instead, trust that you are a part of something great. Say yes to God, and watch his plan of salvation for the whole world unfold all around you.