Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
In Advent, we are hoping that God will break into our lives. We are hoping like the people of Israel before us, and people of every time in between that somehow, God will come into our lives and make everything different. We long for everything that God promises—comfort, safety, peace, harmony, light in darkness, freedom from anxiety. We want health and prosperity. We hope, we hope, we hope. Even though we know that Jesus was the One promised to us by the God of our fathers, we hope that a divine presence will be made known to us today here. In this final week of Advent, our hopes take on an urgency. More than ever, we want to know God here, we want a miracle.
It is with this urgent hope, that I listen to our Scripture today. What do our readings tell us about this hope? What do our readings offer by way of assurance. How will we know when our prayers are answered?
In our Gospel reading today we hear the gospeler Matthew referring to the prophesy of Isaiah. In this rich story, we hear about the birth of Jesus from Joseph’s perspective. Joseph is a worker. He is betrothed to Mary, he has already entered into the marriage contract with her. But he has not yet taken her into his house. He learns that Mary is pregnant and he wants to do what is right, because he is a righteous man. The only answer under the law is that he must divorce her. But he decides to divorce her quietly, so that there isn’t a big public shaming of her. We can imagine that Joseph finds himself in an impossible position. He is contracted to marry, but his fiancé is pregnant and the law and the social rules make it impossible for him to be the person he knows he is supposed to be. He needs a miracle to work out this situation.
While he’s waiting, hoping for a miracle, he has a dream and in that dream he hears the angel offer a totally unexpected answer. The answer is that Mary is bearing the son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit. The angel says, this is to fulfill the prophesy of Isaiah. It strikes me that this is a lesson for today. When we are waiting for a miracle and wondering if one will come, we might remember, like Joseph is made to remember that promises were made to God’s people in the past. Looking back is a feature of hope. When Joseph remembers the promise of the prophet, he is remembering everything that God did from the beginning of time. He is bound to remember the God brought God’s people out of slavery. He is bound to remember that God saved Noah from the flood. He is called to remember that God has stood by God’s people through so many calamities. If a miracle is going to happen, we have to remember that God promised miracles before, and fulfilled his promises.
The second important feature of the birth story from Joseph’s perspective is that the miracle is going to come in the form of a human child. God is working in Mary, but God is also working in Joseph—offering an answer to the impossible problem by giving him a child. Life, human life, is the critical component of God’s plan for Mary and Joseph. They are not saved by being carried away by angels. This is such an unlikely answer. The pregnancy is a problem under the human law that Mary shouldn’t be pregnant when she is betrothed but not yet married. But the birth of this child is the answer to this problem. The miracle is that this birth is not only not against the law, but that this birth is the fulfillment of God’s promises. Joseph must have been so confused and surprised. The very life that created his crisis is the answer not just for him, but for all people.
And then I hear a third important feature of the birth story. And that is that Joseph is called to look into the future. “You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins”. Joseph is asked by the angel not just to accept this child as his own, but to look forward to a time when Jesus will be the Savior for all. Joseph must have woken up full of questions about that future—what will it mean that Jesus will save his people from their sins?
When Joseph wakes up, he has a miraculous answer to his problems, but he’s also called to hope into the future that all generations will be saved.
The angel tells Joseph, look to God’s work in the past, know God is working in this human child who will be your son and the Son of God, look forward to hold the hope that the Messiah, Immanuel will be a Savior for all people in the future.
So let’s take this dark (and today bitterly cold) time ourselves and apply the lesson that we have heard from Joseph’s dream. What is the impossible problem that we are confronting. It is a relationship that seems like it must be ended? Is it a captivity caused by health issues, aging, addiction or mental illness? Is it an oppression caused by our governmental systems, or our economic systems. How are we, righteous people, like Joseph, caught in a situation that requires a miracle?
Wherever that miracle is required, how can we look at the prophesies of the past and learn from them? We know that Jesus is a healer—making the blind to see, the lame to walk. We know that God has overturned unjust systems, bringing resurrected life in times when people are being killed by unjust authorities. We can think about Jesus’ care for the poor, lifting up the lowly. So many stories of miracles. We can remember these miracles from Scripture and the promises that Jesus will come again. We can also remember times in our lives when miracles happened. We can remember healing in situations that seemed impossible.
The second feature of Joseph’s dream is that we can expect that the miracle will happen through human life. It is not outside of human experience, but the form of human life that miracles happen. Who is the person in your life who might be the unexpected answer. Who is the face of Christ in our community? Where is the Body of Christ working for you? Is it here—in this congregation that a miracle might happen? Maybe in call from a friend, maybe in the service that you offer, maybe through the sacrament of Eucharist. Maybe the miracle is coming in the form of a medical breakthrough, or a job offer, or an advertisement for an apartment for rent. We have to look for the miracle here right in the middle of our most difficult problems, God is working and offering new life.
And finally, we have to hear the angel’s promise to Joseph about the future. When we get the unexpected assurance that God is working in our lives, we have to look forward and ask, just like Joseph asked—how will Jesus be the one who saves all people from their sins? When the miracles come into our lives, we need to imagine that the miracles are available to all. Like Joseph we are called not just to accept God’s will for us, but to bring that life, that hope, that new reality into the world for all people.
I hear today Joseph’s prayers whispering (sometimes shouting) among us. What is the answer to our impossible problems? We know that God will come by remember God's great deeds in the past, and listening to the voices of the prophets. We know that God is coming to us in the midst of our human lives, acting through the Body of Christ, here on earth. And we know that God's saving grace is coming to all people, for generations to come, in the most remote places. Christ will be in our midst again, our prayers and hopes will be met in him at Christmas.