A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent in Year A. Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25
So this is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: his mother, Mary, engaged but not married, was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.
It would appear, to inquiring minds, that there is a whole lot of background missing from this bold and forward statement: “was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.”
On the face of it, it’s a simple statement of the facts. Mary found herself pregnant; the author of the child was the Holy Spirit. But we have inquiring minds. We want to know more. We are inclined to press for details.
When my children were very small, and they began asking where children came from, the first task of their parent was to ascertain what sort of information they were looking for. Was it scientific information: biology, genetics, mechanics? Or was it social information? Had they encountered a pattern of family life that had set them to wondering about how one brought a new family into being? Was it, even, theological? They were told from a young age that they were children of God.
We had some very interesting conversations, which I will not repeat from the pulpit in order to save the blushes of everyone concerned, but children really do get to the heart of the matter when there’s something they really want to know. Most of our conversations, in the end, got to the point at which a weary mother, stretched to the limits of her knowledge of science, metaphysics, and tact would say, “And that’s when the miracle happens.”
The miracle. Because what else is the creation of a whole new human being, body and soul, out of the genetic material of its ancestors? Made in the image of God, indeed.
The Gospel according to Matthew traces Jesus’ bloodline in the flesh back to King David. This is necessary in order to legitimate the claim that he is the long-awaited Messiah. Matthew traces this genealogy through Joseph. So in one very real and earthly fashion, Matthew affirms Joseph’s paternity. On the other hand, Matthew assures his readers that Mary and Joseph had yet to become man and wife in the fullest sense; so that Joseph had reason to doubt his paternity of this new wrinkle on Mary’s brow, such that it needed to be explained to him by a dream, by an angel, that this was an act of God.
So there is an extent to which, I think, if you put the evangelist Matthew in front of an inquiry panel, and pressed him for the details behind that bald, bold statement: “She was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit;” there would come a point when he would be forced to say, under oath, “That’s where the miracle happens.” This was an act of God. Some things still can bear a little mystery.
His earliest followers did not seem to be particularly hung up on Jesus’ human or divine origins. They were more focused on his life, death, and resurrection. They were more interested in the way in which he brought God to life for them; brought God down to earth for them; raised their view to the heavens. They saw a vision of a new kingdom, one in which God’s plans for humanity have been brought to fruition; in which the labour has given birth to deep joy; profound justice; mutual mercy; glorious humility. They did not, I think, expect that the labour would be so long; that we today would still be witnesses to war, to the slaughter of innocents, and the perversions of power.
And so what are we to do? Paul writes to the Romans, “you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.” We are called to belong to Jesus Christ. We are not called to explain the inexplicable or to get hung up on the unravelling of that which rightly remains mysterious. Rather, we are called to marry the miracle, to labour with Mary, with God to deliver the kingdom promised from of old, in which the lion will lie down with the lamb, and the Spirit of God will be known across the earth. We are called to belong to Christ.
We who feel helpless at the enormity of the task of peace, the needs of the children; we are called to belong to Christ. We may start by going beyond the quiet dismissal of others and instead asking them to tell us their stories. Instead of labelling those of another religion, those of another belief, we might inquire about their experience of the Holy Spirit. Instead of turning aside from those we do not understand, we might ask them to teach us their language. We may begin by demanding, wherever the opportunity arises, that compassion overturn convention, that mercy is the hallmark stamp of those who belong to Christ.
Do not be afraid to speak peace in a world that shouts of its power. Do not be afraid to whisper mercy in a world that seeks revenge on itself. Do not be afraid of acts of love, nor acts of God – mysterious and miraculous in their results, unconditional and unconventional in their reach.
Joseph listened to the God of his dreams; he listened to the dream of God. “Do not be afraid,” said the angel. Do not be afraid to be part of the miracle, embrace the mystery, go further than you thought was possible into the heart of God. Do not be afraid to belong to Christ.
It could have been otherwise. Joseph could quietly have dismissed Mary. Who knows where she would have ended up, with her baby in tow. No one would have blamed him for doing the right thing. No one would have looked twice at her again. Instead, he embraced the mystery, he married the miracle.
Mary and Joseph found their lives taken over by the Christ child. Babies will do that to you – take over your life. From the moment that each of them said “yes” to the Incarnation of God, their lives were no longer their own alone; they belonged to Christ.