Advent 4A: A Dream & A Plan

Readings:

  • Isaiah 7:10-16
  • Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
  • Romans 1:1-7
  • Matthew 1:18-25

You can find all of the readings, in both the CEB and NRSV translations, here.

Sermon

Sometimes the best laid plans still go astray.

It seems to me that the Advent season has a good habit of reminding us all of this trueism.

Despite our efforts to plan for all possibilities, it seems that oftentimes there is that one thing we forgot about, or didn’t think would happen, or simply just didn’t plan for that happens.  And, sometimes it sends all of the remaining plans into chaos.

There is a lot in the lead up to Christmas that carries an air of all things ‘just right,’ all of it ‘merry and bright,’ all of the time.  There is a veneer of cheer that is spread over our world as we work as hard as north pole elves to set everything in place for a celebration of best plans.

And sometimes that air begins to feel like a crushing weight.

Perhaps especially in light of some of the news we have heard this advent season.

A bomb goes off in a church of Coptic Christians in Cairo and kills.

A ceasefire ends in Syria, and families now fleeing for their lives in Aleppo have to leave their dying friends in family in the rubble of the streets as bombs land all around them.

The plight of the homeless in Western Canada becomes more pressing as temperatures remain desperately cold.

The world turns, one day moving into another, families continue to lose loved ones, people continue to miss those who are not here this Christmas season, people continue to be lonely, depressed, not so merry or bright.

Today’s psalm is meant for all those people.  The gospel story of Joseph is meant for all those people.

I know we only read a portion of the psalm today, and I think it’s good to read the whole of Psalm 80:

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
    before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might,
and come to save us!

Restore us, O God;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.

O Lord God of hosts,
how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears,
and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us the scorn of our neighbors;
our enemies laugh among themselves.

Restore us, O God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.

You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
it took deep root and filled the land.
10 The mountains were covered with its shade,
the mighty cedars with its branches;
11 it sent out its branches to the sea,
and its shoots to the River.
12 Why then have you broken down its walls,
so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?
13 The boar from the forest ravages it,
and all that move in the field feed on it.

14 Turn again, O God of hosts;
look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine,
15     the stock that your right hand planted.
16 They have burned it with fire, they have cut it down;
may they perish at the rebuke of your countenance.
17 But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand,
the one whom you made strong for yourself.
18 Then we will never turn back from you;
give us life, and we will call on your name.

19 Restore us, O Lord God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.

I like this psalm.

It is known as a community lament.  It is words that come out of this sense of bewilderment at the realities of life all around.  Bewilderment at the contradictions of what God started and what is now being done.  There are deep levels of despair in this psalm, just like in our own every day.  But there is also a deep sense of hope – which I hope is something that we can all look to this advent.

There is this desperate plea going up from this psalm – directed to God’s ear in three parts, and it is so meaningful.  There is a sense of deep thanksgiving for what God has done through the past.  There is a sense of the need to name the grief, the loss, sorrow, and abandonment.  And, held right alongside that sadness, there is a sense that through it all the lament psalm confesses a hope that God’s mercy will shine again and again[1] through this repeated refrain:

Restore us.  And let you face shine that we may be saved.  Let you light shine.

Our lives are a story through all time of a deep and abiding relationship with God that is both wonderful and messy.  It is at the same time incredibly simple and so utterly complicated.  I truly believe that this is what it means to be alive.  To always be aware of and holding the both/and.

That refrain points to the hope of the world, which is what we are anticipating this Advent: God’s face shines and we are saved.  That promise is how I hold the ones in the world who this Christmas are abundantly pouring cup after cup of merriment and cheer alongside the ones of the world who this Christmas are quenching their thirst with tears.

Life is messy and complicated.  Yet God is with us.

What happens when God is an intrusion into our nicely laid plans and decisions?  How do we know when it is God speaking to us, and not just a heavy stomach laden with too much food at bedtime?

No one knew that better, I think, than the young carpenter facing a difficult dilemma.

The gospel of Matthew, unlike other gospel texts, focuses on this young carpenter named Joseph rather than Mary.  And I happen to like this story a lot.  The Gospel of Matthew begins with a lineage of all of Joseph’s ancestors, tracing a line through generations beyond David all the way to Abraham –the one to whom God made this incredible promise.  The thing that God started.

Joseph is a special man.  He is a new generation of dreamer.  Much like his ancestor, one of the sons of Jacob, whose name he bears, he receives messages from God in dream.  In the span of two chapters in Matthew, Joseph hears from God in dream 4 times.

Joseph is a special man.  Not only because of his lineage.  Matthew calls him ‘a righteous man.’  We understand that to mean that he is a man of high calibre: good, upstanding, virtuous and moral – one of those decent guys you just really like.  He was a kind of man who knew and upheld the law of his faith, but was also wise in understanding the dynamics of living in relationship with God and all the people around him.

So, this special man comes face to face with a dilemma that holds the both/and of faith and a relationship.  His betrothed, his wife, is pregnant by a means that did not involve his husbandly participation.  And the law of his faith says that he would be justified and be righteous in having young Mary stoned to death.  But Joseph branches off a little bit and goes a different way.

Joseph decides to let Mary go, privately.  Without shame, without punishment, without death.

And there are some who would have thought this particularly radical.  But Joseph settles his mind on this decision and attempts to get some rest before he acts.

Here’s the thing about our faith: Faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit.  It is a gift from God which means that God is woven into our very being.  God is organically and essentially with us, actively at work in the world in which we live and breathe.

God continually enters into the human story of relationship: religious tradition, law, marriage, family, divorce – all messy and complicated.  And, there is God, into the everyday fray, creative and transforming power. Shining bright.

God joins Joseph on this slightly different branch and like a good gardener promotes a little extra growth.  Here’s a radical idea: Take Mary, your wife, anyway.

But God is also more than a good gardener. Because when God shines, branches and vines grow.  So, here’s another radical idea: Name that child and make him your son.

This is what God promises: she will have a child; you will name him; and he will save the world.  The three messy and wonderful, complicated and so simple things that will come to be.

The light of the world stepped down into the world, and the vine branches began to grow.  God shines and God empowers and directs the chemistry in us that produces growth and lifeblood in us, the branches.  From the vine that is Christ we receive God’s light and food.

God is with us.

In merriment and joy, in sorrow and abandonment, in fear and shame.

Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

God is with us.

Always.

Let us pray:
God of love, who brought hope into this world, be the hope that dwells between us.
God of love, who brought peace into this world, be the peace that dwells between us.
God of love, who brought joy into this world, be the joy that dwells between us.
God of love, the rock we stand upon, be the centre, the focus of our lives.
Always. Amen.


Sermon Inspirations

  1. James Boyce. “Commentary on Matthew 1:18-25, December 23, 2007.” Preach This Week, Working Preacher.
  2. Daniel B. Clendenin. “Drinking Tears by the Bowlful: Waiting.  For Sunday November 27, 2005.” Journey With Jesus: A Webzine.
  3. Mark Davis. “Call Him Jesus. No, Emmanuel.  Oh, Okay, Jesus.”  Left Behind and Loving It.
  4. James Howell. “Commentary on Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, November 30, 2014.”  Preach This Week, Working Preacher.
  5. Nancy Koester. “Commentary on Psalm 80:7-15, October 05, 2014.” Preach This Week, Working Preacher.
  6. Henry Langknecht. “Commentary on Psalm 80:1-7,17-19, December 22, 2013.”  Preach This Week, Working Preacher.
  7. Karoline Lewis. “The Good News of God With Us, December 11, 2016.”  Dear Working Preacher, Preach This Week, Working Preacher.
  8. David Lose. “Matthew’s Version of the Incarnation, December 17, 2013.”  Dear Working Preacher, Preach This Week, Working Preacher.
  9. Linda Pepe. “You Didn’t Hear That From ME!”  Theological Stew: …where the Spirit simmers.
  10. Ben Witherington. “Commentary on Matthew 1:18-25, December 19, 2010.”  Preach This Week, Working Preacher.

The image this week is entitled “St Joseph A Carpenter,” a painting from 1642 by the artist Georges de La Tour.  This image is public domain, and has been modified for the purposes of this blog.  You can find more information about the painting here, and about the artist here.


[1] Nancy Koester.  “Commentary on Psalm 80:7-15, October 05, 2014.” Preach This Week, Working Preacher.

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