Matthew 1:18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, 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. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
This morning, on this last Sunday of Advent, we’re reflecting on peace. We’re waiting for the Prince of Peace who will beat swords into plowshares and wipe every tear from our eyes, who will make a world where we do not know war or poverty, where we are not cruel to each other or ourselves. But we’re waiting because our world is not that kind of world.
We are not at peace. Peace means harmony, everything in right relation for its own good, our relationship to God, to each other, to creation, and even to ourselves. But many of us struggle against ourselves, wracked with shame; many of us are wounded by loss and grief, we have been cruel at times and others have been cruel to us and it’s difficult to tell the difference between our scars and our flesh because our scars are what our flesh has become. And in the midst of it all we can’t help but wonder, “Where is God? Why is the world like this?”
We want something that feels like peace so badly that we are willing to accept stability as a kind of substitute, and all of the instruments and technologies that make us feel like the peace has been kept. But in our bones we know that the guns and the razor wire and the memories we have repressed so as not to be upset by them, all of these things, hold the violence, the dis-ease of our world in suspended animation. We say “peace, peace, where there is no peace” and in fact many of our efforts to keep the peace exacerbate our devastation.
I believe our story this morning is in some ways about Joseph trying to find a measure of peace that seems possible to him. When I first reread this story earlier this week, I was angry at Joseph. I thought, “Oh so Mary raises her fist against the empire and the cosmic forces of death, but all Joseph has to do to be righteous is not kick her out? Joseph’s lucky she didn’t kick him out.” And that might be one punchline of the story, a reversal of roles as Mary shows herself a strong leader, the mother of God, while Joseph takes on the function of the quiet helper, the Proverbs 31 husband, if you will.
But what’s often just as important as the punchline is the way that the Scriptures bring us there. These characters are not cartoons, flat and predictable ciphers for some point the writer wants to show us. They’re people, like you and me, people who have hopes and fears, trying to do their best in a world where our best intentions ricochet. But they’re also real people in that they change, they can be transformed, God does not leave them to their own devices.
Our story picks up when Joseph and Mary are engaged to be married. He gets to spend the rest of his life with his beloved, but they’ve also got to get the guest list narrowed down and the money set aside so that they can buy enough wine for the wedding. He’s making plans for the future and plans for now and he’s a carpenter so it’s not like he can take vacation days while all of this is happening. Then his fiancé comes to him and shares that she’s pregnant. And all of the sudden that future seems to vanish. He’s probably confused and hurt and maybe a little worried about this talk of conceiving in the Holy Spirit—and those emotions don’t justify the way he wants to behave, but if we’re to behave differently in such moments we, especially those of us in positions or bodies that represent power, have to learn how to pay attention to those kinds of reactions so that we’re not overcome by them.
Joseph starts making plans to break his engagement and dismiss Mary quietly. Now I know we hear this and we think, “What a monster! That’s horrible!” And you’re right. That is horrible. But in Joseph’s mind, this is the most merciful option. It would have been legal for him to put Mary to public shame, there are even certain passages in Leviticus that would justify her execution. And so, compared to that, Joseph is trying to do as little harm as he can—he’s trying to practice peace. The fact that we know that’s not good enough makes the set up for this scene almost tragic. How is it possible to do the right thing when our world is warped so that much of what is “normal” is incredibly damaging and so you don’t have to be acting with malice to be hurting others?
Do you ever feel this way? Like nothing you do or think is good enough? Like our world is just crisscrossed with tripwires and even if you tiptoe around you’re still probably going to set one off? You’re concerned about factory farming and agribusiness so you try to buy local and organic, eat less meat, but then you’re still just participating in an extractive economy that our individual choices won’t overcome. You want to rest, take some time to yourself, but every time that happens there’s some other crisis in a friend’s life and it just highlights for you how constant crisis is and that you really do have to choose between yourself and others. It often seems like there should be a better option but we just can’t think of what it is. We know this isn’t good enough, we know we’re not at peace, but it doesn’t seem like peace should be that far off.
It’s in this moment, that Joseph has a dream. An angel appears to him with a message: “Marry her, dummy. Don’t just do what you think is right, do what you think is impossible, imagine doing what is unthinkable.” When “normal” is patriarchy and “righteous” is putting a young pregnant woman on the street, God’s messenger tells Joseph not just to keep things quiet, not just to keep the peace, but to cause a scandal of grace.
That’s not a possibility that Joseph would’ve imagined for himself, righteous or not. But God does not leave him to his own devices. God sends a messenger. I know talking about angels sounds a little bit like magic to many of our ears, but the Scriptures want us to know that we are not alone in this world, that there are powers at work other than those of evil and death, and they are available to us even now, especially if we’re willing to act in ways that our neighbors might call crazy. Joseph in this story reminds me of Elisha’s servant in the book of Kings. The prophet has been telling the armies of Israel where their enemy will be attacking next and so the Israelites are stealing victories from a much larger force. And when the enemy king finds out that Elisha has been prophesying his battle plans, he sends the army to Elisha’s city and the enemy force is so large it surrounds the whole town. Elisha’s servant wakes up that morning and goes outside and sees they’re surrounded, but all Elisha says to him is, “Don’t be afraid, those who are with us are greater than those who are against us.” And the servant says, “What does that mean?” And Elisha prays, “Lord, open his eyes that he may see,” and the servant looks up and sees a whole heavenly host surrounding their enemies—when all hope seems lost, when defeat is sure, they’re not alone. The angels strike the enemy blind and the Israelite general wants to slaughter them, but Elisha says “No, take them home.” So the Israelite army leads their enemy home, and they tell their leader what has happened, and they did not attack Israel anymore.
There are forces at work in our world other than those of evil and death, there are possibilities available to us beyond what we could ever ask or imagine, and my friends, in whatever is keeping you from knowing peace this morning, you are not alone. God is with you. The messenger brings God’s word to Joseph, that his child will be Immanuel, God with us. In a moment when Joseph is ready to abandon Mary, God’s messenger says to him “Don’t you leave her on her own, and guess what?, God’s not going to leave you alone either.”
What we can’t see, God sometimes breaks in to show us. Because God is with us, breaking into this world, Mary can look at the Roman Empire and say “you will fall” and Joseph can look into his own heart and say “I can do better.” This is the pairing that nurtures God’s life in the world, rejecting the powers and rejecting the way that the powers work on our own hearts. God comes to us in the impossible choice, showing that that one thing that could never happen, that one thing we could never consider, might just be a mustard seed that could grow into God’s kingdom if we’ll just plant it in the ground. Yes there might be thorns and briars that choke it out, the heat is brutal and might dry it up, but if we plant our doubts into the soil of hope, love, and joy then they just might flower into a peace we could never have imagined for ourselves. In their own ways, Mary and Joseph both say yes to God’s messenger and so they nurture the presence of God from a tiny baby into a Prince of Peace.
Our world may not be at peace, far from it, but peace is not in some other time and place because God is not in some other time and place. God’s peace is available to us here and now, not as quiet submission to the world or compromise with it’s cruelty, but in our willingness to be here for one another, to say that where two or more are gathered Immanuel is in our midst and so we will nurture God’s presence with screams against the powers and in saying “I’ll stay with you” when you’re afraid no one will. When it seems like the powers of this world surround us, we can pray that God opens our eyes to the peace that is greater than every enemy. Amen.