Our Village, Our Time

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Advent 4
December 18, 2022
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: We are told that it takes a village to raise a child. We see in this Christmas story that it also takes a village to welcome the Christ child, and to welcome God. May we be that village.

True story: the God who created the heavens and the earth, and all that is in them, the God who set in place the whole natural order as we know it, the one God, the only God there is, was, or ever will be - this one true God has entered into this very creation, has intervened in the natural order.

According to this Gospel, the Gospel of Matthew, it happened like this ....

Now Matthew doesn't tell the exact same story other gospels do. There is no visitation from the angel Gabriel, no annunciation, no backstory of the childless priestly couple Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth - nothing like that. In Matthew's Gospel, we are simply told that Mary was found to be "with child from the Holy Spirit." We are just given that information in the passive voice: she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. In this Gospel, as we shall see later on, the angelic visitations are to Joseph.

This account tells of how God entered the world in and through the person - the fully human person - of Jesus, born of Mary and Joseph. But there are more involved here, in this entrance of God into the created order, than simply Jesus. It has been said that "it takes a village to raise a child," and this coming of God into the world in the person of the child Jesus involved a village, too. Our story begins with "the birth of Jesus the Messiah," but that is really only the beginning. There is, if you will, a whole "village" involved here, a number of "persons," both human and extra-human, through whom God came into the world. Let's look at them.

God's "village"

There is, of course, Jesus' mother Mary. As was said earlier, she is not as complexly drawn in Matthew as in other Gospels. She is almost a passive presence. She takes no action. Things are done to her. She is engaged to a man named Joseph. And ... she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit - and before they lived together, which is to say, before they had any marital relations. Other Gospels say straightforwardly that she was a virgin.

How could this be?

All we are told here is that Mary is, truly, the "chosen one," the one chosen by God to be the vessel, the vehicle, of God's entrance into the world. What we are given here is a message bold to the point of outrageous. Right here at the beginning of our story, we are asked to take a leap of faith in itself bold and outrageous.

What does the story tell us about God, about humankind and about the relationship between God and humankind? That God so cared for the world that God literally entered the world through the womb of a woman. This coming of God into the world, this God-bathed, God-breathed birth was not a matter of chance, or a mundane outworking within the natural order of things.

God intervened.

This benighted, God-forsaking world is that important to God that he might choose to enter it, in flesh, in order to save it from its sin. And that intervention, by God, did not happen by chance. It was planned for this time and in this place and through these people, Mary and Joseph of Bethlehem, but soon to be, as this particular version of the story unfolds, of Nazareth.

This birth was planned and engineered by divine action.

God chose, we are told, to override natural processes to make it happen in that time and in that place. Our experience is that God does not normally override the natural processes God put in place, but in this case, God did just that, because the times called for it. This happened through the action of the second "character" in this drama: The Holy Spirit - which is to say the presence of the transcendent God in our world and in our day-to-day affairs - as close to us, as it is said, as our next breath.

An angel and a righteous man

Indeed, it takes a village. We have already considered Mary, a righteous woman who consented without resistance or drama to be the vessel for God's entrance into the world. She is engaged, as we have been told, to Joseph. It has taken, so far, that much to actualize God's presence in the world: Mary, and the presence of the Holy Spirit.

More are involved. We are introduced to Joseph, and then we are shown, not told, that he is a righteous man in every sense of the world.

Where are we shown this righteousness ?

In regular worship attendance? Not to downplay such truly righteous conduct, but ... no. We might, based on his righteousness, assume that he does indeed worship regularly, but this is not given as evidence of his righteousness.

Where do we see it, then? In outward piety, regular prayer, scripture study, every other word of his being a word of praise? No ... we don't see this. He says nothing in this brief portrayal; the only words are from another "character" in this drama.

Where, then?

His righteousness is demonstrated in his conduct toward Mary, his betrothed, his beloved - a woman who has, to all outward appearances, betrayed and disgraced him.

Yes, betrayed and disgraced him - that is perhaps lost upon us now, so embedded is this story in our culture, secular as well as religious, but the situation Joseph finds himself in is humiliating, embarrassing, the target even in our jaded times of jokes, side-eyed smirks, even violence. "His" woman is pregnant by someone else. He has been betrayed. He has been disgraced. He has every right to put her out in the street and expose her to public shame.

But he doesn't. He resolves, out of a love and respect for his beloved that is manifest even in the face of the most bitter and contemptuous rejection, to keep the whole sad and disgraceful affair quiet.

And then, he is visited, in a dream, by yet another (temporary) denizen of this village through which salvation comes to us: an angel of the Lord. The angel speaks. The angel tells Joseph the incredible story that Mary's child is "from the Holy Spirit," and then he gives Joseph a detailed list of instructions.

And Joseph, the righteous man, shows his righteousness once again by recognizing this angel of the Lord as an angel of the Lord and not a hallucination, or a demon or a dream that is nothing more than a dream. He recognizes the angel as a messenger from the God with whom he is obviously close, even in the midst of betrayal and disgrace. He takes heed and obeys.

What we have heard

There is yet another "character" at play here, a visitor to this village through which this God-child came into the world. And that is, words , a word from the Lord, "what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet." Our attention is drawn to words spoken centuries earlier, in another time and context. These are words of hope and assurance, spoken through a prophet to one of Israel's ancient kings. This hope and assurance serves in former times and in all times, including ours. Isaiah spoke during times of political upheaval not unlike the time Joseph finds himself in, times of threat from foreign powers at work in collusion with traitorous domestic elements. This defined the time of Isaiah, the time of Joseph ... and our time. A virgin will bear a child, and that child will be called, will be, Emmanuel, God-with-us. In the most troubling of times, in the midst of national upheaval, personal betrayal and disgrace, even then, God is with us.

Joseph pays heed to all of this: to the righteous spirit with which he has been blessed to keep what appeared to be Mary's shame quiet, to the angel he recognizes as bearing a word from the Lord, and to the prophet bearing a word from the past. He gets up. He obeys. He steps right into the middle of a world about to be set on its head.

Our village, our time

"The child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit," the angel told Joseph,

And this is portrayed as a fulfillment of prophecy, a word from the past.

This child is to be named, "God is with us."

And it takes a village to make that happen.

We can be that "village," even now.

May we be like Mary, receiving at the most intimate level the Spirit, the entirety, of the living God without fuss or demands for explanation.

May we be like Joseph: may we love, honor, respect even those who disgrace us.

May we be open to the Spirit, as that holy couple was, recognize the Spirit, receive guidance, be ready to go places we may not choose to go, to take on a life we did not see coming.

May we prepare ourselves for all of this, by heeding the words of the prophets.

In so doing, may we be that village, receiving the Christ whose birth we will celebrate in a few days. May we be that village that welcomes the "... son ... named Jesus" - may our story begin and end, as this one does, with Jesus.

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