Here’s the sermon I preached at Saint Paul and the Redeemer‘s 8:00 service last week; the Fourth Sunday of Advent. The lectionary for that day is here. (Spoiler: It’s Joseph’s dream about Mary. If you care enough to read a seminarian’s sermon, you probably know the story.)
The text can also be found under “Seminary Interns” and 12/22 on the Recent Sermons page.
It’s officially last minute time: December 22nd, three days until Christmas. Are you ready? Because, I’m not.
I don’t have all my gifts, and I’m hosting a parent for the first time in my life, and I haven’t even started cleaning yet. The crowds downtown are so daunting, and I always seem to get home without acquiring the one thing I set out to get. I’ve got about fifteen emails in my inbox containing the phrase “for everyone on your list,” and everywhere I look, overworked sales clerks are trying to reestablish order on clearance racks.
These last few days before Christmas are marked by a sort of Holiday Cheer buzz that has worked itself up over the entire month of December into an almost shrill frequency, like a teakettle full of glitter.
We’ve been bombarded all month with the commercial and emotional juggernaut that is Christmas: consumption and cheer, generosity and flash sales. This whole month has been about getting ready, and I haven’t been doing it.
In fact, that very question—Are you ready?—often fills me with an enormous sense of foreboding. Partially it’s just because my task list is never complete, and I don’t have gifts for everybody yet. Partially it’s because I’m hosting, and I don’t know what to cook for Christmas dinner—or how likely it is that I’ll burn the house down in the process. Partially, it’s all those things, but these little anxieties are surface scratches on bigger concerns, concerns that I think I share with a great many other people.
This season really isn’t easy. Even though the stores are proclaiming cheer and joy, and all the sit-coms wrap up in thirty minutes with a happy message about Christmas generosity—even though we’re surrounded all the time by love and joy and togetherness—in reality, Christmas can become a very stressful time for a very large number of people.
I think of families coming together, rekindling old fights and trying to hold on through new ones. I think of those of us who are alone in this season, and those for whom this year is the first year without someone. I think of all those who are anxiously counting pennies, trying to scrape together enough to have some semblance of the opulence that marks this season. I think of everyone moving so fast that they just miss it all.
These are the darkest days of the year, literally—and for many, that literal darkness can be an emotional darkness that makes getting through the Christmas season very much a challenge. For many, surrounded by the cheer of Christmas music and happy families, snowy romantic comedies and trees stacked high with presents, this season marks a time of being on the inside, looking out at a foreign place.
And that, I think, is why the fourth Sunday of Advent is such an important one. Christmas might be right around the corner, and the teakettle might be ready to explode, but we’re not ready yet. We need to hear one more, very important thing, before we are ready.
And it’s connected to the darkness, the loneliness, anxiety and pain.
Both our Matthew and Isaiah texts tell us today about Immanuel, God is With Us. God speaks to two men who are experiencing a great deal of trouble. These are texts about a promise of God’s continuing presence: even in times of great distress, when we might feel alone or broken, when everything is piling up, and the world in here seems very different from the world out there.
Joseph, when Matthew introduces us to him, is about to get married. Marriage festivals, then and now, are grand affairs that also can reach tea-kettle-like levels of excitement. He is not yet living with her, but they have been betrothed to one another, in ancient times an occasion for another grand feast and much revelry. Joseph is a celebrated man right now.
And, I imagine that Joseph feels a great deal of affection for Mary, and that he thought very highly of her. I imagine that he was looking forward to building a life and a family with this intelligent and courageous young woman.
But, in the midst of all this, Joseph discovers that she is already pregnant. Suddenly the feelings of happiness and excitement are turned to dread, confusion—frustration, anger. He cares deeply for Mary—and he does not want to cause her shame, nor does he want to stain her reputation—but how could she have done this to him? Doesn’t she care for him as he cares for her? Is she in love with someone else? Did she even agree to marry him, or did her parents lie to him? Worst of all—has someone else been hurting her?
Deeply wounded, Joseph is surrounded by the cheer and surreal excitement of a joyful time, but instead he is filled with anxiety, brokenness, and sadness. He decides that he cannot continue with the marriage, and that he will quietly dismiss her, perhaps while she is still away at her cousin’s home. Perhaps if she just stays there, no one will know what happened, and both of them can move on with their lives.
Just as he has finally made this resolution, and finally come to a conclusion about what to do, that resolve is interrupted by God’s presence in a dream. What the angel says to Joseph in his dream is even more absurd and astounding than every other conclusion Joseph had drawn. But, what is so remarkable about Joseph is that he hears that voice, and when he wakes up, he is able to see the work that God is doing around him. He is able to see the presence of God, doing new things, making new promises, engaging in new ways and preparing the way for something absolutely astounding. What Joseph is given in this dream is the promise of Immanuel, God is With Us, even in fear and distress.
That is also the message for us, today. This is the Advent season’s parting gift to us: that God’s presence is not just contained in the joyful hubbub of the Christmas season. God isn’t just in the caroling children and the rosy-cheeked couples walking on Michigan Avenue—God is there, but God is not only there. God is also here in our anxiety, even in the mess that is this Season of Joy.
That last piece we need to get ready is not to finish off all our task lists, to be sufficiently riled up on Christmas Cheer, or to have enough courage to get through a family gathering—the last piece we need to get ready is to hear the voice that speaks to Joseph:
Do not be afraid: all of this mess is pregnant of the Holy Spirit, all of this confusion and stress and fear is carrying in it the gift of God, the blessing of Immanuel, God With Us.