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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Whose Person Am I?

Matthew 1:18-25
            “Being God’s person does not simplify our lives. It complicates them in a holy way.”
            I came across those words this week as I was preparing to write this sermon, and I had to read them again. “Being God’s person does not simplify our lives. It complicates them in a holy way.” Does it ever!
            I think there is something profound in this statement, it connects faith with action in a deeply personal way. Being God’s person does not simplify our lives, as much as we would like to say and believe that it does. Instead, it ‘complicates’ them - in a holy way.
            Being God’s person calls us away from comfort and complacency. Being God’s person requires us to go to places of discomfort and challenges us in ways we never thought possible. But in the midst of those places, God also blesses us and gives us the gifts we need to thrive as God’s agents of mercy and love.
            “Being God’s person does not simplify our lives. It complicates them in a holy way.”
            Joseph may not have had the words to express this reality, but I bet he felt this disruption and complication to his very core. After all, Joseph must have thought he had it made. What a satisfying, if not downright happy time in his life.
            He was secure. He was engaged to be married. Better yet, he was engaged to a young woman, a virgin, someone whom he had every reason to believe would serve him well as he strove to have a family - perhaps a few sons to keep his business going, as well as someone to care for and to be cared by for the rest of his life, God willing.
            This engagement, or ‘betrothal’, was a binding contract, a legal piece of business in those days. It was not likely to be the romantic relationship sealed with a proposal on bended knee and a beautiful diamond ring – or even a simple cigar band – as we might expect to take place today.
            Rather, the agreement between Mary and Joseph was, in keeping with their times, a solemn pledge, part of a process leading to marriage. Because they were betrothed, Mary and Joseph would be looked upon as if they were married, even though they would not live together until after the second stage of their marriage, consummation, took place, which might happen as much as a year later.
            This commitment was commonly considered impenetrable; A betrothal was serious business. You didn’t just break this contract – a divorce was required, and you had better have a good reason to seek this option.
            But Joseph wasn’t thinking about divorce on that day when he found out that Mary was pregnant. Before her confession, perhaps he was dreaming about how he might be expanding the carpenter business someday, with all those sons he hoped to have. If they worked hard enough, and if they were blessed by God, they might be able to not only expand their little carpenter shop but maybe even open a franchise; they could name it ‘Joseph and Sons.’ It was good to dream.
            It also felt good to know that you were committed to another – and Mary was a fine catch-young, innocent, a promising helpmate. But then God intervened, even though Joseph didn’t fully understand it at the time. And his life, his world, were never to be the same again.
            “Being God’s person does not simplify our lives. It complicates them in a holy way.”
            After Mary shared her news with him, what turmoil, what utter chaos Joseph must have felt his life had devolved into. The scandal of having his young fiancé show up pregnant was beyond embarrassing, it was mortifying, and it held dire implications for Joseph’s next steps.
            What pain and embarrassment he must have felt as he listened to Mary’s story about a heavenly visitation and an immaculate conception. I cannot even begin to imagine what that conversation or Joseph’s initial reaction must have been like; Mary insisting that she had been visited by an angel and was with child by the Holy Spirit of God, and Joseph in shock at what he was hearing.
            So – Joseph considers his options and, being a decent kind of guy decides that he will ‘quietly dismiss’ Mary, avoiding scandal as best he can, while also avoiding subjecting her to legal prosecution and potential execution by stoning. Because that was a very real possibility if the truth got out.
            Then, God interrupts even those plans. God had determined to use Joseph to serve as an ally in God’s own work, because that is what God frequently does – recruits allies to serve God’s purposes in the world, all for the grand purpose of the salvation of humankind. Joseph learns firsthand how true it is that “being God’s person does not simplify our lives. It complicates them in a holy way.”
            Suddenly, an angel of the Lord visits Joseph, too. This time the angel, the very messenger of God comes in a dream and reveals to Joseph the truth of Mary’s pregnancy – indeed, the child she will bear will be a son, conceived from the Holy Spirit. Joseph is recruited to be this child’s father, to name him Jesus, which means “God saves,” for he will save his people from their sins.
            Being God’s person means for Joseph that he will take Mary as his wife and will live with her and raise a family with her, beginning with this child, the holy child soon to be born. He will name the child – an important task and one reserved for a father.
            He will claim this child by naming him, and he will name him Jesus. Thus, he will confer upon this child not only a name but a lineage as well – the child will descend from the house of David, through Joseph.
            Joseph will protect Mary now and he will protect this child in the future, even to the point of giving up the life he is building as he flees from the wrath of Herod and takes the holy family into exile in Egypt.
            We won’t hear much about Joseph after that, but we should never forget the way he, like Mary herself, responded ‘yes’ to the summons of God to serve as an ally in God’s saving work, thus altering not only his own life, but the history of the world as well.
            Being God’s person does not simplify our lives. It complicates them in holy ways. Joseph’s life took on a new dimension and direction as its course was interrupted through the scandalous circumstances of a virgin birth and holy mission for God.
            What does being God’s person mean for you and for me? What does it mean for us today? Where might we see points of contact between this story and ours today?
Certainly, none of us that I know of has had recent angelic visitations, but certainly, through Christ, God has called all of us to “be God’s people.” As we observe Joseph’s dilemma, [Melinda Wagner writes,] a light is shed on the rocks and hard places that squeeze us today. God’s people must regularly decide whom to believe, what to risk, and how to choose among disagreeable options. Those may be things that feel all too familiar to many of us today.
            When God spoke to Joseph through an angel in that dream, he discovered something about God’s mission to redeem the world and he learned he had a role to play in God’s plan.
            Our scripture reminds us that all this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means “God With Us.” To make for better English, translators often insert the word “is” into this phrase. But I think there is something significant about the literal translation, “God With Us”.
            Because the thing is, God does not only accompany us, walking by our side as God makes us his people and then calls us as allies in God’s saving work. Rather, God dwells in us, abides with us, and joins us in a unique way through the incarnation of Christ.
            In the person of Jesus, God is with us to save, to comfort, to forgive, to empower, to challenge, to make us a part of God’s reign of justice, love, peace and mercy. But God doesn’t just accompany us we seek and strive to bring about the change in our world that will make it more reflective of the kingdom of heaven, God joins with us blessing us with hope and calling us to make choices that advance God’s just and loving reign in the world.
            “Being God’s person does not simplify our lives. It complicates them in a holy way.”
            Being God’s people calls us out of our own comfort so that the comfort of the oppressed and those who suffer injustice might increase. It means looking around our community, places of work and school and our everyday lives and seeing the low places of the world, where our neighbors are disadvantaged, their rights and needs neglected, and where injustice takes place.
We remember Mary and realize that being God’s people may mean advocating for the rights of women and childlren, especially those in abusive relationships, those abandoned, alone, isolated, and struggling.
            Being God’s people may require us to face the ways we turn away from those who seem scandalous in our community – those who struggle with addiction, homelessness, unemployment, those recently released from prison, the differently abled. Our lives become complicated when we acknowledge that God calls us to embrace and love those whom the world rejects and judges. We remember that God’s forgiveness thrives where people are the most vulnerable and hurting, but then we remember there is no place more scandalous that the cross itself.
            While it is true that “being God’s person does not simplify our lives; It complicates them in a holy way,” it is also true that God with us, Emmanuel, is always present, always abiding, freeing us from whatever binds us.  God with us strengthens us, blesses us as we respond, as God’s people, to the messiness of life into which God is calling us.
            The good news of this gospel for us today is that indeed, despite the ways that being God’s people complicates our lives, there is deep gladness, knowing that God continues to act in scandalous ways to become one with humanity.
            As we prepare our hearts and our homes for the coming of Christ during this final week of Advent, let’s remember we are indeed God’s people. Think of Mary and Joseph, and know that God has beautifully complicated our lives, bringing love, mercy, and justice through the miraculous albeit messy story of scandal and forgiveness, renewal and hope, mercy and love, in the one named Jesus, God saves.
Indeed our Emmanuel, God, is with us. Amen.




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