Advent Through the Eyes of Gabriel, Part 4

Isaiah 7:10-17Matthew 1:18-25

Sometimes we need to get out of God’s way in order to get in God’s way.

It was about ten years ago, when I was living in Chicago, that I discovered something called Spiritual Direction. It’s a discipline that I highly recommend, whereby you are paired up with another person, a trained Spiritual Director. About once a month or so, you meet with them to reflect theologically, Biblically, spiritually on your life of faith. In some ways, for a pastor, the Spiritual Director becomes our pastor.

It was through Spiritual Direction that I came to know a number of wonderful Christian disciplines. Walking the labyrinth, something that we’ve done here before, was one such practice that I came to adore. Another, which might surprise those of you who know me well, was attending a silent retreat. For a week! And I loved it. Prayer and Bible Study are other disciplines, of course, that go hand in hand with a spiritual life in Christ.

At one point, early on in this process, I was eager to aim for a daily discipline. So my Director encouraged me to think about lectio divina, a way of combining prayer and readings from Scripture in a reflective, open way. I was thrilled. The next morning, I got up early, headed downstairs, sat on the couch, and began the practice. It was good. The day after that, I got up early again, headed downstairs, sat on the couch, and decided after a minute or so that I could do the same practice lying down. On the third day, I got up early, headed downstairs, lay on the couch, and decided I could do it with my eyes closed. What slowly developed, instead of a practice of lectio divina, was a practice of non-spiritual napping.

The next month I returned to my Spiritual Director for what felt like a moment of confession. I was simply too lazy, I told her, too tired to engage in this daily discipline. “Perhaps,” she said, “Or maybe it’s that right now God needs you to be asleep in order to really get to work.”

Sometimes we need to get out of God’s way in order to get in God’s way.

Throughout this Advent Season, we have looked to the stories of angels to provide a loose framework for our time together each Sunday morning. From the annunciations of miraculous births to Zechariah and Mary to the strange looking cherubim singing around the heavenly throne, we have encountered these odd creatures that are not quite human and not quite divine. They are messengers, couriers of God’s word. They come to prophets, patriarchs and matriarchs, priests and peasants. And their message usually begins with: “Do not be afraid.”

The angel Gabriel is named in two of these lessons; not in our passage this morning, though some traditions consider it to be the same angel carrying the message to Mary and to Joseph. In any case, as one of only four angels named in Scripture, Gabriel’s place among the other angels is clear; and in the lessons that lead up to the birth of Christ, Gabriel takes angelic center stage.

Our gospel passage this morning seems to begin at the beginning, with these words, “Now the birth of Jesus the Christ took place in this way.” But before we get to that, we have a whole seventeen verses that recount forty-two generations of Jesus’ genealogy. We wander our way through Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, until we find our way to Jesse and David and Solomon, all the way until we finally reach Joseph, “the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Christ.”

Joseph, as our lesson tells us, is engaged to Mary. And while it seems that Gabriel has already visited Mary to share this strange news with her of the child to be born, this news has not yet reached Joseph. The young woman to whom he is engaged is pregnant, and the child isn’t his. What should he do?

There would have been several options available to Joseph. He had every right, in the eyes of the religious law, to divorce her. Doing so publicly would be the assumed thing to do; and that would mean that Mary would be subject to punishment for her supposed crime. In this case, the law would call for a public stoning, even though such stonings were carried out rarely by that time. Or, alternately, he could go ahead and marry her, which would mean that he would be unrighteous according to the law, and that the community would look on him with lingering questions as the gossip spreads: “Is the child his? Did Joseph do this? Or is it someone else’s?” It begins to look like an episode of Dr. Phil after a while.

I imagine Joseph taking out a sheet of papyrus and making a list: pros on one side, cons on the other. And as he weighs his options, he comes up with this ingenious third way, one that manages to protect his righteousness before the law but also preserves Mary from the public humiliation and brutal punishment that she might face. His plan is to divorce her, in keeping with the custom, but to do so privately, which would require only two witnesses, so that the public relations damage is minimal. By the standards of that time, it’s a decent approach, fairly well thought out. And in the end, the image of Joseph that is sketched out to Matthew’s original audience is of a man who is both righteous and merciful.

But it seems, at least in this case, that the plans of one man do not match up with God’s plans. And so, this angel appears to Joseph when he sleeps to let him know of his place in the unfolding of God’s desires. The child is of the Holy Spirit. His name will be Jesus, which means Savior. And all of what is happening is in fulfillment of Isaiah’s ancient word about God’s enduring promise and presence, of Immanuel, “God with us,” in the darkest of days.

It’s a bit unusual that the angel appears to Joseph in a dream. The other annunciations in the gospel narrative, particularly in those of Luke, take place as visions, of appearances of angels out of nowhere. But at the same time, dreams are a common method of divine revelation throughout Scripture. From the dreams of Jacob in the Old Testament to the dreamlike visions of John on the Isle of Patmos; and dreams are a consistent theme in Matthew’s telling of the early story of Christ. The Magi are warned in a dream not to return to Herod. Angels tell Joseph when it is time to leave Egypt and to return to protect the life of the infant Jesus. God often speaks through dreams to those who listen.

But where does that leave us? Should we be keeping a dream journal, looking for moments where God might be speaking to us in ways that would do us well to hear? Perhaps. It’s not a bad spiritual discipline, this process of self-examination and open listening.

But maybe we do need to get out of God’s way in order to get in God’s way.

There are times, and I’m sure each one of us could come up with examples from our own lives, where our own plans can get in the way of God’s desires for us. It could be something we say or do, a relationship we avoid or even one that we don’t that perhaps we should, a thought that remains just that, a thought, and yet manages to fill us with dread and shame. There are many ways that we struggle to live the way that God would have us live, and there are many times that we miss the point of it all. I wonder, as we go about our daily lives, if God does this a lot [smack hand to forehead].

And yet, there’s more going on in this dream of Joseph that simply a redirection toward the way of God. What the angel shares with Joseph is that his plan, although a righteous and honorable and merciful one, is still not God’s plan. What the angel lays out for Joseph is a path that means public humiliation and embarrassment. People will talk. People will gossip. People will wonder whose child this Jesus really is, and Dr. Phil will do his best to get them all on the show.

What God desires for Joseph is something deeply unsettling. And in a way, it mirrors the path that is laid out for this child whom Joseph will raise as his own. He will be rejected, misunderstood, feared, betrayed, murdered. The path that God chooses for us may not look very much like the one which we desire.

But then again, maybe that’s the point. Maybe it’s our own limited, barely conscious imaginations which keep us from seeing the larger picture, of dreaming God’s dreams which tower over our own personal hopes. The story of Christ doesn’t end with death; it ends with resurrection. It doesn’t end with rejection, but embrace. It doesn’t end with betrayal, but with celebration. The crucifixion of this one leads to the salvation of the whole. Perhaps there is something at work in all of this that is much larger than what we might assume for ourselves.

And in a sense, that seems to be what is at work in the story of Joseph. What is happening, in an odd way, has everything to do with Joseph and nothing at all to do with him. The genealogy that opens Matthew’s gospel begins with Abraham and ends with Joseph. Not Mary, but Joseph. And it is Joseph to whom an angel appears four times in dreams in the first two chapters of Matthew, giving him instructions to marry his fiancée, raise the child that is not his, flee Herod’s wrath for the safety of Egypt, return to the land, get up and move to Galilee. Joseph, who was on the verge of a quiet, perhaps noble divorce, becomes the father and protector of Jesus, the Savior of the world. It has everything to do with him.

And yet, at the same time, it has nothing to do with him. After the second chapter, Joseph completely disappears. His name is not even uttered in Mark’s gospel at all. Because as much as the story might be about Joseph, the story is ultimately about God at work in the world. The genealogy reminds us of the stories of the patriarchs, of God’s enduring presence and care and mercy. The angel that appears in the dream is God’s messenger bringing this word of reassurance and nudge of discomfort. The mention of prophecy is another reminder of the breadth of God’s story that began at creation. And the two names of the child, Jesus and Immanuel, are full of eternal and divine meaning. Jesus will be the Savior, come for the sake not just of his parents, or his family, or even of his tribe, but for the sake of the whole world. Immanuel will be God with us, the enduring presence of the one who heals, molds, moves, calls, and forgives us. This is the story, God’s story, in which this noble, righteous, faithful man Joseph plays his role.

My friends, let us have the audacity to dream the dreams of God. Let us know what it is that we are called to do. Let us remember that it has everything to do with us and yet nothing to do with us, that we have a role to play in God’s story. And on this final day of the Advent Season, let us get out of God’s way so that we might get in God’s way. Let us prepare the way for this Jesus, our Savior, our Immanuel, God with us.


sermonsMarthame Sanders