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On the Way to the Holy Night: For Yonder Breaks a New and Glorious Morn

(a sermon for December 22, 2019, the 4th Sunday of Advent; 3rd in a series, based on Isaiah 7:10-16 and Matthew 1:18-25)

If it could ever be said that there’s a “forgotten” cast member of the story of Christmas, I think that it would also have to be said that that role easily belongs to Joseph.

Not long ago I came across the work of a clergy colleague on-line who did a survey of all the words contained within the Advent and Christmas hymns included in his congregation’s hymnal.  And what he discovered is that in those songs there were, as one might expect, 309 references made to the Christ Child; also 48 mentions of angels, 31 references to Mary and 23 words about shepherds.  But quite interestingly, he found that in this particular hymnal was no reference at all made to Joseph; not a one!  Well, of course, that piqued my curiosity, so I did a very quick search of our “Chalice Hymnal” and found… only one mention of Joseph (it’s from “Angels We Have Heard on High,” by the way: “See within a manger laid, Christ whom choirs of angels praise; Mary, Joseph, lend your aid, while our hearts in love we raise.”); and even there, Joseph’s sort of an “add on” to the larger story!

Now, granted, if you dig a little deeper into the wealth of Christian hymnody there’s some wonderful music to be found in which Joseph figures prominently – “The Cherry Tree Carol” and “Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine” for instance – and there’s also some wonderful contemporary music out there (“Joseph’s Lullaby” comes to mind) that beautifully seeks to tell the story from Joseph’s perspective.  But by and large, the music of this season tends to cast Joseph in much the same way we see him in the crèche: as a quiet, ever stalwart presence kneeling at the manger even as he’s overshadowed by the likes of shepherds, wise men and farm animals; just another supporting player in the nativity drama dwelling in the shadows of holy light.

And yet… I would submit to you that despite this, shall we say, subdued presence in the Christmas story, it is Joseph, this adoptive father of Jesus, who not only brings Mary and by extension, us, to the manger, but who also by his very example leads us “yonder” to what is beautifully sung in “O Holy Night” as “a new and glorious morn.”  Joseph, you see, is perhaps the singular figure within the nativity story who quite literally takes us to Bethlehem… and beyond!

Now, to understand this, we need to remember that Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, from which our text this morning is drawn, in terms of both narrative and tone, is most definitely different from that of Luke.  Luke’s story is filled with singing angels, adoring shepherds and the baby Jesus born in a stable.  Matthew’s version of events, however, is much more cut and dried, remarkably brief and arguably a far more somber account of things: to wit, after an entire first chapter listing off a genealogy that connects Abraham to Jesus, Matthew begins by simply saying, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.”  No shepherds or angels on high, no “no room in the inn,” no manger, no swaddling clothes – in fact, the wise men don’t even show up until the second chapter – but what follows is, in fact, one of the most essential parts of the story and isn’t it interesting; it’s told from Joseph’s perspective.  And as such, if I might quote pastor and biblical scholar David Lose here, it’s not so much “a story of wonder [as it is] as story of heartache.”

Now, I know that to suggest such a thing runs headlong up against just about every image we’ve ever had about Christmas; make no mistake, there’s heartache in abundance here! Because as Lose also reminds us, Mary and Joseph were real people – very young people, in fact, not to mention impoverished and without any semblance of earthly privilege or power. “In our imagination,” Lose writes, “Jesus never cried, Mary looked more like a blushing young bride than someone who had just given birth, and Joseph is calm, protective and paternal.” And yes, that’s how we might prefer this story to go but in fact, as Matthew begins his version of the story, the whole event is bathed in… scandal.

To begin with, we’re immediately told by Matthew that “when [Jesus’] mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”  Understand that in first century Palestine, engagement was not viewed as it is today – as a romantic declaration of marital intent – but rather, engagement was considered to be “a legal contract, binding in every respect… [it] was essentially to be married with having consummated that marriage or even living together.”  So for Mary to be “with child” now would have been seen as sure and certain evidence that Mary had been unfaithful to Joseph; and, in full accordance with Jewish law, would have been punishable by Mary being dragged out to her father’s house to be publically disgraced and to face death by stoning.  And that, in and of itself, is about as disturbing a possibility as we can imagine; remember this is Mary, the mother of Jesus (!) we’re talking about here!  But even that very real and, yes, very legal possibility aside, imagine the kind of pain and anguish Joseph must certainly have felt at learning this news… once again, Mary and Joseph were real people with real feelings living in a real, not to mention harsh and judgmental world.  Mary already understood what was happening to her, that’s true; and yes, Mary must have worried about how this claim about the Holy Spirit was going to be received in and around the village of Nazareth.  But Joseph… we’ve got to imagine he’s devastated by this turn of events.

But we’re also told that Joseph is a “righteous” man.  In the Greek, the word is dikaios, which means “upright,” “virtuous,” or “just in the eyes of God;” and as such, one who sought to live wholly in accordance with the law set forth in the Torah.  In other words, once Joseph had received this news, according to the letter of the law, there could well have been a rush to judgment for Mary.  But “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace,” Joseph chose the second option, “to dismiss her quietly,” quickly and quietly breaking the marriage contract; in essence granting her a divorce without any public fuss.  So right away we have this new perspective on Joseph, as a man who despite what must certainly have been a deep sense of betrayal and suffering, immediately looks to what’s best for Mary… and that’s just the beginning.

Because just when Joseph is about to bring some closure to this situation, “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘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.”  She’s going to have a baby boy, Joseph, and you’re to give him the name of Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins; and the reason this is all happening this way is because of Isaiah’s prophecy that “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.”  The upshot of all of this is that as soon as Joseph awakes from this strange yet familiar dream, he’s calmed down and we’re left to assume that he’s got some deeper sense of God’s intention with all of this.  And thanks be to God that he did: in the words of Leonard Sweet, at the moment the angel of the Lord appeared “the whole miracle of Christmas momentarily rested on Joseph’s shoulders, awaiting his freely chosen decision to either accept or reject the stunning news of an impending Messiah.”  The good news is that like Mary before him, Joseph said yes, and “did what the angel of the Lord commanded him.”

And a few months later, there’s that so-called registration in Bethlehem, which also not by coincidence was happening just about the same time as the baby was due; which meant that the city was crowded, the inns were full but maybe there’d be a stable out back… well, you know the story.  But first, to quote David Lose once more, “I think it’s safe to say that the months leading up to Christ’s birth was not one blissful baby-shower after another but were fraught with anxiety and concern and flights of emotion..” actually not unlike the kinds of struggle we all face, baby or no, along the journey of life.

Actually, given all of this backstory, I’d like to think that Joseph spent those months getting ready.  It’s been said, you know, that when a woman is expecting (or for that matter, as we’ve seen in our own extended family this year, in the process of preparing for an adoption) her maternal instincts kick in immediately; but for the father, it sometimes takes that singular moment of holding that child in his arms that he becomes a father!  But not so with Joseph: I have a sense that in those days leading up to manger of Bethlehem Joseph was likely spending every moment surveying the landscape, so to speak, getting ready for this momentous, life-changing, world-shifting act of God, all the while trying somehow to comprehend what being the earthly father of the Son of God would actually be for him!

There’s this wonderful moment in the film “The Nativity Story” in which Mary and Joseph are talking to each other about the same things that all new parents talk about: what it’ll be like to have this baby, and how they’ll manage to do everything that needs to be done with a baby; to take care of it, and feed it and clothe it and change it and bathe it.  And Joseph, at one point in this conversation, says, “I just wonder if I can teach him anything.”  That’s perfect, and might I add, a very legitimate fear; and yet, as this incredible story begins to unfold what we discover is that not only was Joseph prepared for the day of his birth he was ready for the next day as well.

In fact, I have to say that these days, when I think of Joseph, it’s not so much the “silent, holy night” in the manger that I envision… in truth, I’m thinking about the next morning as the sun is rising.  I mean, in those moments after the birth itself, after the infant Jesus was wrapped in those swaddling clothes and lying asleep in the manger; when the shepherds had come and gone and Mary was silently pondering in her heart all that happened that night; and when the animals had grown weary of all the excitement and had opted to get some sleep themselves.  I like to think that in those moments after the bright star of that holy night had begun to fade and a new day was beginning, there was Joseph, standing at the gateway of the stable and watching the sun rise over the streets of Bethlehem; just the same way it had done on countless days before, but now in a way unlike ever before in the history of God’s creation.

“A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”

There would be more to come:  the arrival, at some point soon, of magi from the East bringing expensive and very prophetic gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh; the news that Herod wanted to “pay homage” to the new born king even as his minions were seeking to slaughter any and all newborns that might fit the profile and provide a threat to his power; and then, yes, another angel’s message in a dream telling Joseph to get up and take the child and his mother to Egypt to keep them safe.

In other words, the story was just beginning; but in these wee hours of the morning, Joseph was ready for what was to come.

You see, that’s the thing about Christmas: so often, especially given that it comes at the end of a long Advent season of waiting and watch, we assume that the manger of Bethlehem represents the end of the story, when in fact it’s just the beginning of the story of Christ’s coming into the world… the story of light piercing through the darkness of life… of redeeming hope in a culture that seemingly thrives on the threat of hopelessness… of joy unending and triumphant… and of our lives, yours and mine, beloved, changing forever because of this one holy child who grew up to save us all from our sin.

So Merry Christmas, friends… and I hope and pray that it’s everything it should be for you and yours.  But remember this… after it’s all done, our time at the manger, that’s when the work of Christmas and faith really begins:  to, like Joseph before us, walk into the new and glorious morn of Jesus’ birth, and by his counsel start to change this world for the better, making our fervent hope of peace on earth and goodwill a reality for our lives and living here and now.

And in doing so, making sure that…

…our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on December 22, 2019 in Advent, Christmas, Jesus, Old Testament, Sermon, Sermon Series

 

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On the Way to the Holy Night: A Thrill of Hope

(a sermon for December 1, 2019, the 1st Sunday of Advent; first in a series, based on Isaiah 9:2-9 and Romans 13:11-14)

At a time of the year that is so traditionally bathed in all manner of light I’ve always found it interesting, and quite telling, that the season of Advent (and the celebration of Christmas that it anticipates) begins in darkness.

Not that that our modern world leaves a whole lot of room for darkness: being a lover of all things Christmas related, I’ve also taken notice that whereas most people used to wait until at least the day after Thanksgiving to light up their outdoor Christmas displays these days it’s not unusual to see Santa and his reindeer all lit up and “ready to glow” mid-way through November! In fact, when I was in Maine a few weeks back just after Halloween, I was driving down this back country road at just around dusk, came around this corner and by golly (!) there was this house with its yard filled to overflowing with inflatables and twinkling lights!  Too early?  Yes, probably… and too much?  Well, all I’ll say is “to each their own.”  Mostly, though, I feel about this the way I do about playing Christmas music “early;” like it’s such a short season to enjoy Christmas lights, so why not?  And besides, in these times in which we live who wouldn’t agree with the sentiment expressed in that song of the season, “we need a little Christmas, right this very minute… we may be rushing things but deck the halls again now!”  So I say, have at it… and Merry Christmas!

I will have to say, however, that over the years I’ve come to appreciate the notion that where Christmas lights are concerned, less is sometimes more and in the process makes, if you will, an “enlightening” statement of faith.  Years ago, back in my student pastor days, I spent more than a few December nights driving back from seminary classes, quite often along those back roads, and it’s funny what things you always remember: there was this farmhouse up toward Grindstone, Maine, set back from the road at the end of a long stretch of woods; where the people who lived there had taken an “understated approach” to their holiday decorating.  By that I mean they’d simply strung some colored lights around a waist-high evergreen tree and let it glow in the midst of the winter darkness.  Nothing unusual, I know; except that this little Christmas tree stood a long way apart from the house and barn, out in the pasture; at least a couple hundred yards away, if not more.  And that, of course, ignited my curiosity:  why had they done that?  Why wasn’t this Christmas tree standing closer to the farmhouse or out by the barn? Had they actually gone to all the trouble of stringing an extension cord that far out?  Was this a Christmas tree intended for this farmer’s herd of dairy cows or had it been set there for the pleasure of passing white tailed deer? I tell you, the possibilities of it staggered the imagination (!), and I was sorely tempted to pull in to this farmhouse, knock on their front door and ask the people who lived there to tell me all about it!

But as I thought further about it, it began to make perfect sense that they’d put their Christmas tree way out there in the middle of a darkened pasture; because this would most certainly be a spot where the brilliance of those lights could shine most prominently, piercing through the winter darkness and unalloyed by any and all distractions of the world surrounding it. Or, maybe the family in that house just wanted to be able to look out their living room window and simply bask in the beauty and wonder of a Christmas tree!  All I know is that this little tree immediately became an advent parable for me, the affirmation of a divine promise fulfilled and a reminder that no matter how dark it may have seemed to be, “the people who walked in darkness [had] seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light [had] shined.”

A thrill of hope, and a cause of rejoicing in a dark and weary world.

It’s important, I think, to take note of the fact that the season of Advent which begins this morning is not to be thought of as merely as a “Countdown to Christmas.”  This isn’t to say that these four weeks aren’t about waiting and watching for something to happen – after all, our very word “advent” comes from the Latin adventus which means “coming” – but there’s more to these four weeks of the Christian year than simply getting ready for December 25 to come.  Moreover, even though Advent is certainly about a symbolic waiting for the coming of the Christ child in the manger of Bethlehem, making room in our hearts for this wondrous gift of God given 2,000 years ago, it’s about even more than that.  The season of advent is also about a gift that is yet to come: our waiting for Christ’s return in glory and that moment when God’s amazing vision for his creation comes to full fruition; for that time when all that we have yearned for in faith and hope finally becomes a reality in the world and in our lives.  As we regularly proclaim in our times of communion, this is about the “mystery and wonder of our Christian faith” manifest in the sure and certain promise that “Christ will come again.”

Ultimately, you see, it’s this “coming” for which you and I are waiting and watching and preparing.  Author and New Testament scholar J.R. Daniel Kirk actually refers to this as seeing “the coming of Christ in double-exposure: looking forward to the second coming Christ in the future even as we look forward to celebrating the first going of Christ that lies in the past.”  But just as our “Way to the Holy Night” of Christmas Eve and Day begins not with shepherds, wise men or a heavenly chorus but rather with Isaiah’s promise of great light in a darkened world, so you and I who are dwelling in the midst of our own darkness also await, as the song says, “the breaking of a new and glorious morn.”

But make no mistake… that day is coming soon, and very soon.  In the words of our text for this morning, “the night is far gone, the day is near.”

In truth of fact, this relatively brief passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans amounts to what the Rev. Susan Eastman of Duke Divinity School refers to as an affirmation that “as Christians we are all ‘morning people.’”  Yes, it’s dark now, but “the time is just before dawn, the sky is brightening, the alarm is ringing, day is at hand.  It is time to rouse our minds from slumber, to be alert to what God is doing in the world, and to live in accordance with God’s coming salvation.”  “You know what time it is,” writes Paul, “how it is the moment for you to wake from sleep.  For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.”  In other words, we know what God has already done in Jesus Christ; we know how the people who walked in darkness saw a great light, and we know that it will be so for us as well and that this light is very, very near to us indeed!  We are not people of the night; we are the people on whom light has shined, the ones for whom a child was born, the one who is named “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  We are the ones who have been given salvation and the true light of life through the Lord Jesus Christ, and we are ones who, soon and very soon, will know the full and brilliant light of his glory; so, says Paul, as we await that moment in its fullness “let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”

“A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices… for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”

Now, what’s interesting here about Paul’s advent promise of light is that it immediately connects it to, shall we say, a more ethical and moral stance in life.  “Let us live honorably as in the day,” says Paul, or as The Message bluntly translates it, “we can’t afford to waste a minute, must not squander precious daylight hours in frivolity and indulgence, in sleeping around and dissipation, in bickering and grabbing everything in sight.” (One thing can be said for certain, friends: no matter what the translation of scripture happens to be, friends, nobody can ever accuse Paul of sugar-coating its truth!)  The point here is that if we are truly people of the light, then we need to live unto the fullness of God’s promises in the here and now so that our hearts might be truly ready for the day of wonder that is coming soon.  And the time for this is now; for you see, the darkness is passing into daylight and a new age is dawning.  So it behooves us, as believers and as true “advent people,” quoting The Message once again, that we need to “get out of bed and get dressed! Don’t loiter and linger, waiting until the very last minute.  Dress yourselves in Christ, and be up and about!”

Seems to me that’s not only a pretty good way to start out on our way to the Holy Night of Bethlehem, but also a clear directive as to living out our Christian faith in this twilight time between the darkness of these days and the “not yet but soon to come” great light of a new day.

There’s so much I love about this sacred season and most especially in the traditions of worship that we share together in this place, beginning with lighting the advent candles of hope, peace, joy, love.  I love how from week to week as we light those candles “advent-ually” (!) we have this full circle of light that, with the addition of the light of the Christ Candle on Christmas Eve, becomes the light that gets passed from person to person in thanks and praise for God’s light coming into this world in the guise of a child.  It’s one of the most beautiful and powerful times we share as a worshipping congregation, and I have to say that not only is it one of my favorite parts of Christmas, pastorally speaking it’s probably my favorite moment of the entire year, singing “Silent Night” and watching this sanctuary go from relative darkness to one filled with the glow of candlelight.  I love it because it’s the culmination of this advent journey we’ve taken to the manger of Bethlehem and the gift that’s been given us there; but I also love it because in the larger sense, it represents the great and holy light that has shone into the deep darkness of life and living, as well as a potent reminder that though even now that darkness can seem overwhelming to us to the point of seeming rather hopeless at times, nonetheless “the night is far gone, the day is near,” and in the advent of Christ there is a thrill of hope as the weary world rejoices… and in the process the pathway toward a new and better and blessed life opens up before us.

This light of HOPE and the thrill it brings is ours, yours and mine, beloved; and so, as our advent journey “on the way to the Holy Night” begins… so “let us [truly] lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”

And as we do, may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN.

© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
 

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