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Advent 4 December 18, 2016 - The Rev. Canon Janet Campbell
ADVENT 4  Year A
Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7; 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25
Christ Episcopal Church
Tacoma, Washington
Sunday, December 18, 2016
The Rev. Canon Janet Campbell
Joseph the righteous one –
without Matthew’s Gospel
we would hardly know him,
and he is worth knowing,
this ordinary and remarkable ancestor of ours.   
Joseph –
one day the expectant bridegroom,
looking forward
to his wedding
to life with his wife-to-be . . .
and the next day
by the discovery
that his betrothed is pregnant!

Matthew’s readers know,
(because Matthew tells them right away)
that the culprit is the Holy Spirit . . .
but Joseph doesn’t know that,
since he doesn’t have Matthew to tell him . . .
He only knows the child is not his.
The logical conclusion:
Mary has been unfaithful,
          betrayed him . . .
or . . .
someone has forced himself
upon her.
Either way,
their relationship is in jeopardy,
his plans are suddenly all awry,
and his honor at stake in a society
          where honor was the highest value . . .
But perhaps also,
his heart is breaking,
despite the very practical nature
          of marriage arrangement in that culture,

it could be that
during, or even before, their engagement
Joseph had come
to admire and love
this intelligent, capable, courageous girl . . .
          (for this is what we’ve learned of Mary
                   in the gospels.)
          who now seems a stranger to him.
What to do?
Or, maybe better,
what not to do?
He could seek a legal remedy,
ask for a public trial
and a finding of adultery.
The engagement would be nullified;
he would have no further obligation to Mary
          and his dowry would be returned.

But for Mary
it would be a disgrace
that would taint her
          for the rest of her life,
divorcing her not just from Joseph
          but from the community
                   of their village.
This he could do;
This he would not do.
But the child is not his . . .
He would end the engagement,
but privately
so as not to cause her harm.
That very night,
speaking into his troubled sleep
          and his disappointment,
the word of God comes to Joseph
          in a dream . . .
by the visitation of an angel.

“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.”
In biblical stories
a dream is never “only a dream”
as we might say
in dismissing our own dreams . . .
          (which, perhaps, we should not do . . . )
. . . a dream in the Bible
is potentially
a message from God
          to be heard and heeded
                   by the dreamer.
Mary will bear a son,
and Joseph is to fulfill the role
          of father in the child’s earthly family.
As is proper to that role
he is to name the child,
and together with Mary,
raise him to adulthood.
For God has an extraordinary purpose for this boy . . .
“he will save his people from their sins.”
And thus God’s extraordinary purpose for Joseph.

This is Joseph’s annunciation story.
who when it seemed right
          to end his engagement to Mary,
chose the kinder way . . .
as open to God’s surprising and disturbing word
as the woman he would wed after all . . .
a man
with the generosity of heart
to take her child as his own . . .
a man
who, on the wings of a dream,
would give over his own plans for his life
          to take part in God’s dream for the world . . .
a man willing to remake
          his relationship with Mary,
be bound together with her
in their shared vocation
of welcoming God into the world.

In this wonderfully compact story
Matthew not only introduces us
to Joseph
and reveals God active
          in his life and future,
he also establishes
who this child is
whose coming has been intuited
          by the prophets
          and announced by angels . . .
preparing his readers
for the good news he will present
as incarnate in the life and ministry
of Jesus,
in his words and actions.
Matthew is careful to establish
that the child emerges
from a human history,
          the history of his people –
born of a woman,
with a traceable geneology
          (which Matthew has recounted
          at some length just before today’s passage)
all the way back to Abraham.

And Matthew is equally careful to establish
that Jesus’ origin is also traceable to God:
he is the Son of God,
the Messiah,
          God’s anointed one.
He fulfills what God
had spoken through the prophet Isaiah:
he is Emmanuel,
“God with us.”
He is the One
both human
and divine.
In the troubled times
of Matthew’s writing,
he proclaims to his community
that Jesus,
crucified and risen,
is “God with them” in every moment . . .
Just as his gospel begins
with the assertion
that Jesus is “God is with us,”
so it concludes
with the final words of the Risen Christ
to his disciples,
“And remember, I am with you always,
to the end of the age.”                                                 [Matthew 28.20b]

In the birth of Jesus,
God has inaugurated
a new creation, a new age . . .
For the word translated as “birth”
is “genesis.”
“Now the genesis
of Jesus the Messiah
took place in this way,”
says Matthew,
announcing the new genesis,
          fulfilling the old.
In Jesus,
the seed of God’s kingdom
of justice and peace
is planted and begins its
inexorable growth.
In Jesus,
God entered the world
in a time that may have seemed
as fraught with danger to God’s dream for God’s people
          as our own fraught time.

Matthew’s story
of the genesis of Jesus
shows us a God
who is ever working God’s purpose out
in and through God’s ordinary people,
as God worked in Mary,
          unexpecting expectant mother of God;
and in Joseph,
          carpenter building a predictable life
                   suddenly shaken to its foundation;
and in Matthew,
          who could not have begun to imagine
                   his gospel would be proclaimed
                             in such a place as this
                             some 2,000 years later . . .
as God is still working in us,
          who hear it proclaimed today.

The one who came at Bethlehem,
the one who dwelt in the midst
          of Matthew’s community,
is the one who comes to us in Tacoma
          or Steilacoom, or Lakewood, or Puyallup . . .
speaking to us in many ways,
in the words of scripture
and in the Sacraments,
in the community of the faithful
and in our dreams,
in the words and actions
of the kind, the merciful, the just, the bringers of peace . . .
speaking to us
sometimes comforting,
sometimes surprising,
sometimes disrupting,
always growing the kingdom.
This is the one who is coming in the Advent darkness
          like the promised dawn of a new day,
the one whose coming we will celebrate at Christmas . . .
the one who is already here.