Sunday, December 18, 2022
Fourth Sunday in Advent
Walking by the Lord’s Light: Love

Rev. Brent Gundlah

Let’s just say that Christmas of 1993 didn’t start out exactly I’d hoped or planned.

Val and I had been wanting to get a dog for a long time, so we decided to adopt one that holiday season. We both worked really long hours and didn’t have the bandwidth to housebreak a puppy, so we thought it best to adopt a mature dog — one who was content to sleep away the day while we were gone.

Let’s just say the dog that Val picked out was little more mature than I’d expected. She was a ten year-old Cairn Terrier named Jessie, whose long-time owner had recently died. Jessie was an unconventional choice for a new pet but she needed a home to live out her golden years and we were more than happy to give her one.

As Val headed out by herself on Christmas Eve to fetch Jessie, I got home early from work to find an unpleasant surprise waiting for me. Right there in the middle of our kitchen floor was a large puddle. I looked up to see a steady drip of water coming from the center of the metal light fixture on the ceiling. Now I’m no electrician, but even I knew this was bad.

Thankfully, my father is an electrician, so I called him to ask what I should do. His advice, which was solid as always, was to take the light fixture down in order to let the water drain out — making sure, of course, that I had turned off the circuit breaker so as not to electrocute myself.

Unfortunately, though, my landlord had locked the basement door that led to the electrical panel and he wasn’t around to let me in. So I called my Dad again so he could help me devise a Plan B. He told me that it should be safe to take down the fixture so long as I made sure that the switch wasn’t on (should — that was reassuring). So I said a little prayer, made sure the switch was off, got up on a chair and started removing the light. What could go wrong? [Note to self: Never, ever, ever, ask that question!]

Well, at this point Val arrived home with Jessie. She had no idea what was going on there in the kitchen (these were the days before cell phones, so I had no way to tell her about the situation). As Val walked around the corner, all she could see was me, in a dark room, standing on a chair, messing around with something on the ceiling. Her perfectly rational reaction given these circumstances was to reach for the switch and offer me some light. My reaction was to scream at the top of my lungs to try and stop her. Jessie’s reaction was to bark and pee all over the floor.

Thankfully, the light switch stayed in the “off” position and the leak from upstairs was eventually fixed, but all was not well. Val was mad at me for yelling at her, Jessie was terrified by all the commotion, and I was pretty rattled after my near-death experience. In the end, everything ended up being just fine, but it didn’t exactly start out as a storybook Christmas in our house.

At any other time of the year, all of this would have been tough enough to deal with but, because it was Christmastime, it seemed even more so. Christmas, after all, is supposed to be perfect. At least that’s what our culture tells us anyway. Just turn on the TV anytime after Halloween and you’ll be inundated with commercials filled with smiling people receiving awesome gifts, images of families that all get along, never-ending songs and displays of holiday cheer. Many of us try really hard to live up to this ideal and fall short. And many of us lament the circumstances in our lives that keep us from having the kind of Christmas we think other people are having, and that we should be having too.

But today’s story from Matthew’s Gospel reminds us that the very first Christmas got off to a rocky start too. God’s always had a knack for upsetting expectations of the way things are supposed to be at the holidays.

Imagine what must have been going through poor Joseph’s mind. He’s engaged to this nice young woman named Mary; he has all of these hopes and dreams about what their life together is going to be like — where they’re going to live, how many children they’re going to have, and what those kids will grow up to be someday.

Joseph then discovers that his soon-to-be wife is pregnant, and he knows that the baby isn’t his. We find out that Mary is “with child from the Holy Spirit,” but the people in the story don’t know this yet; Joseph doesn’t know this yet. It’s not too difficult to figure out what he must have been thinking at this point.

Now, it’s important for us to understand that being engaged back then wasn’t like being engaged now; you didn’t exactly run off to Jared and buy your fiancee a diamond ring in those days. There also wasn’t much of a legal difference between being engaged and being married — basically, the way it worked was this: you were engaged for a year or so before you lived together and, when you finally lived together, you were married — that was the only real distinction between the two.

Because engagement conferred an important status upon a relationship, violating the terms of an engagement had real consequences. Since this transgression affected not only the couple but also the community, these consequences were pretty severe — Deuteronomy 22 dictates that the penalty for a woman in Mary’s apparent situation is death by stoning. She must have been terrified.

And all of this put Joseph in a serious bind too. Matthew says that Joseph was a “righteous man” who was unwilling to subject Mary to “public disgrace” and so “planned to dismiss her quietly.” What isn’t obvious to our modern ears is that these two things are completely at odds with one another. You see, a “righteous man” was one who followed Jewish law to the letter. But protecting Mary from public disgrace and dismissing her quietly was not what the law prescribed. Like I said, Joseph was in a serious bind.

But Joseph isn’t simply a righteous man; he’s a good one. I’m sure, he’s read his Bible and knows what it tells him he’s required to do. But he decides to do something else. You see, for Joseph it wasn’t about the letter of the law, it was about the spirit of the law. And so he decides to protect Mary, he decides not to shame Mary — not because doing so aligns with all of the Bible’s rules and regulations, but because doing so aligns with what God is all about.

And then God, knowing the kind of person he’s dealing with here, ups the ante a bit. God sends an angel to talk to Joseph in his dreams; “Listen, Joseph. I want you to marry Mary. I want you to name her son Jesus. I want you to adopt him and take care of him. I have big plans for this kid. You’re the right guy for this job, Joseph; I know you are.” And then Joseph does what God asks of him.

But I wonder if Joseph ever had doubts; I wonder if Joseph was ever angry at God for messing up the all plans he’d made, for dashing all his hopes and dreams; I wonder whether Joseph ever saw the perfectly normal lives that his friends and neighbors seemed to be having and wished that he could have that kind of a life too; I wonder if there was ever a time when Joseph actually thought about telling God, “Thanks, but no thanks. I’m done with all of this ‘child of the Holy Spirit’ stuff; it’s just way too much for me.”

I mean Joseph was, by all indications, an extraordinary person but he was still a person; he was vulnerable to the same fears and doubts and frustrations and insecurities that we all are.

So what was it that gave Joseph the strength and resolve to rise above the world’s expectations and his own limitations to do what God wanted and needed him to do — to willingly and humbly subordinate himself to his wife’s God-given calling? Well, here’s what Matthew has to say about that:

“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 are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, ‘God is with us.’”

Emmanuel. God is with us.

What more could Joseph have possibly needed to know. What more could we possibly need to know?

I mean it’s hard to imagine a better first premise, a better beginning to the story, than that.