Fr. John Allison
December 18, 2022
Christ Church, Hudson
Today, on this fourth Sunday of Advent we finally begin to hear something of Jesus’ birth. “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place this way.” And then follows Matthew’s account of how Jesus was born, told from the perspective of Joseph as he discovers the unusual circumstance of Mary’s pregnancy. A virgin birth would have been just as unbelievable for Joseph as it is for us. We’re told Joseph is righteous and unwilling to expose Mary to disgrace and plans to dismiss her quietly. But then, we’re told, in a dream he is visited by an angel who tells him what’s going to happen and the miraculous circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy.
I’ve been thinking about Joseph a lot this week and what this event must have been like for him. As I said, even in his time, a visitation from the Holy Spirt would not have been the likely explanation for a pregnancy and Joseph’s initial inclination to end his engagement to Mary because he believed she had had sexual relations prior to the marriage would have been the expected response. But Joseph doesn’t do what is expected. Indeed, at the time, in first century Israel, if adultery was suspected sending Mary away would have been considered the righteous thing to do. With his dream, however, everything changes.
The question that has been with me as I reflect on this story is how did Joesph turn aside from righteousness as he knew it to accept what must have seemed like a completely irrational explanation for Mary’s pregnancy? If you’re like me you have dreams of all sorts of fantastic things that upon waking you recognize as impossible, as dreams, and we go about our waking life. What prepared Joseph to pay attention to that particular dream: do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit? How might we respond to such a dream? I can imagine myself waking and saying, “I had the craziest dream last night . . .” and then moving on with the reality of waking life, where virgins don’t become pregnant.
But that’s not how Joseph responded. We know the full story, which we’ll hear in great detail at Christmas, and we know from today’s reading that Joseph does accept Mary and names her son Jesus as the angel had instructed, which in the process of naming him would have meant that Joseph accepted Jesus as his own and incorporated Jesus into his lineage. That’s what Paul meant today in the reading from his letter to the Romans when he says, “the Gospel concerning God’s son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit . . .” Joseph acted on a righteousness that essentially defied the conventional practices of his time, and as I continue to ponder the reason why I keep coming back to one word: hope.
You see, in the dream the angel quotes a scripture passage that would likely have been very familiar to Joseph, and we heard it ourselves today in our reading from Isaiah: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Immanuel.” In the original context as presented in Isaiah, this child to be born is a sign of hope at a very desperate time. We only have a snippet of the story in our reading today, but, essentially, King Ahaz, to whom God is speaking through Isaiah, is in a difficult position. He’s on the verge of losing his kingdom to the Assyrians and being pressured by neighboring kingdoms to join in alliance with them, which King Ahaz is also reluctant to do because it would mean giving up some of his power.
Isaiah is with Ahaz to offer a prophecy and invites Ahaz to ask for a sign from God, but Ahaz refuses, saying he will not put God to the test. We know from what comes earlier in the story that this is not really the case. Ahaz doesn’t ask for a sign because he already knows what he wants to do. He fears that to ask for a sign from God would draw him into God’s plan, and he would have to forfeit his own plans. To accept God’s plan would mean he would have to give up what he wants. That’s what Isaiah means when he says, “O House of David (which is represented by Ahaz), is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?” And so God gives him a sign anyway: “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” There is much speculation among biblical scholars as to who this child may be, though in our tradition we look back and, in retrospect, understand this to be Jesus. The child was a sign of hope to a people who were facing devastation.
Joseph would have known this story. As a first century Jew in a Roman occupied territory he also would have known oppression and held on to hope, much as his ancestors had. Joseph trusted his dream but even more so, I think, he trusted the voice of the prophets. When the angel said, “Look the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,” he knew what that meant. These words were the tiny flame of hope that illuminated his situation. These were the words that awakened him from his sleep so that he could be caught up in God’s plan—unlike Ahaz who feared to risk giving up his own will to follow where God was leading.
Early in my training as a priest, I encountered a theologian who differentiated between “willfulness” and “willingness.” Willfulness, he said, is that very human tendency to cling to our own plans, our own desires, at all costs. It’s very ego driven and for many of us, it’s a great comfort because it allows us to feel as if we are in control. Willingness, in contrast, is an ability to set aside our wills, to go along with something that seems larger than us, larger than the simple needs of our egos. In Joseph’s case, willingness means an openness to being caught up in God’s plan. Willfulness means being stuck in our own limited perspectives and mired by our desires. Willingness represents being able to let go of our individual wants and needs to participate in something larger. In Joseph’s case, that was the birth of Jesus and his taking on the role of earthly father.
We too are faced with such choices. It may not come in visitations by angels or in virgin births, at least not literally, but, I think we have choices every day as to whether we willfully cling to what we think we want or need or to what is expected of us, or if we risk participating in something larger. Are we willing to be swept up in God’s great plan? For Jospeh that meant giving up his impulse to follow the societal conventions of his time and risk being thought a cuckold. For us, it may not seem our choices are so monumental as Joseph’s but they are, nevertheless, just as important. We are all already part of God’s plan; the question is how willingly do we participate?
I said in my sermon three weeks ago, on the first Sunday of Advent, that the focus of this season is to wake up. Today, that call is still with us. Like Joseph who awakens from his dream with a new perspective, a new willingness, we are called to be awake to God’s action in the world and how we are called to participate. We participate as a church, as the gathered Body of Christ, through the various ministries that we undertake. As individuals, each of us is also called to participate in unique ways particular to our lives: in how we treat one another, in how we welcome the stranger, in how we respond to the unexpected, in how we can be a sign of God’s love in a world desperate for love.
In these final days of the Advent season the call to wake up, to be alert to God’s call is all the more present. As we prepare for the birth of the Christ child may we open our eyes to what God has illuminated in our lives. May we see what God has illuminated in this great world of ours.
I’m going to close with poem we shared in yesterday’s vestry meeting. It’s from the Welsh priest and poet R.S. Thomas and it’s been with me this week as I’ve meditated on the week’s scripture. It is called “The Bright Field”:
I have seen the sun break through
To illuminate a small field for a while,
And gone my way and forgotten it
But that was the pearl of great price,
The one field that had treasure in it.
I realize now that I must give all that I have to possess it.
Life is not hurrying on to a receding future,
Nor hankering after an imagined past.
It is turning aside like Moses
To the miracle of a lit bush,
To a brightness that seemed as transitory as your youth once,
But is the eternity that awaits you.