Creekside Church
Sermon of December 22, 2019

"Ready or Not"
Matthew 1:18-25

Pastor
Rosanna McFadden

 

Good morning! Over the last three Sundays of December, our worship theme has been “Ready,” as we consider what we need to do to prepare for the coming of Jesus. I don’t know how ready you are feeling for Christmas, but let me tell you about a conversation I had more than twenty years ago which has stuck with me. I was out for coffee with two women friends, Deb and Sandy; all of us had pre-school age children. It was early October, and I innocently said, “Hey, not to brag or anything, but I have already started my Christmas shopping.” To which Deb replied, “Mine is almost done.” And Sandy said, “Everything is already wrapped and in the basement.” And I didn’t say anything else after that.

This brings me to a truth which you already know: Christmas is coming whether we are ready or not. But it also raises a question which I hope comes out of today’s scripture and not just my embarrassment of Christmas past, and the question is this: can we ever be too ready? I have tried to frame this Advent season and our biblical texts as being ready by changing from one state to another: from being asleep to being awake; being lost to being on the right path; being not-pregnant to being pregnant. I’m pretty sure you can be too awake -- usually when you’re trying to fall asleep; I’m not sure we can be too found; and I can say with certainty that it’s possible to be too pregnant. But too prepared? Let’s look at Joseph, the father of Jesus -- sort of -- who was engaged to Mary.

All that we know about Joseph comes from the Bible, the gospels specifically, and almost entirely from Matthew and Luke. One of the sources I consulted said there is an “underwhelming” amount of material about Joseph. Because of this, you might assume that Joseph is an unimportant character in the biblical record. And you would be wrong in making this assumption. The gospel of Matthew doesn’t tell the story of Mary being visited by an angel, but it does mention that while Mary was engaged to be married to Joseph, she was found to be with child. We know that child was conceived by the Holy Spirit, but Joseph apparently did not -- or maybe Mary told him and he didn’t believe her; Matthew isn’t specific. What we are told is that Joseph is a righteous man and unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace. This is putting it delicately: Joseph cares enough about his reputation and family lineage not to marry a woman who is carrying another man’s child (and may have lied to him about it), but Joseph cares enough about Mary to not want to make this public: a public announcement would not only have shamed Mary and her family, she possibly could have been stoned to death for committing adultery.

Joseph is prepared to do the right thing -- the righteous thing -- and divorce her quietly. Fortunately for history and the world, Joseph is not so committed to his own plans that he is unable to change them. Can you imagine how the Christmas story -- God’s story -- would have been different if Joseph had relied on his own plan instead of being willing to listen to an angel who came to him in a dream? Because Jesus was God’s Son, conceived by the Holy Spirit, Joseph didn’t technically contribute any genetic material, but the baby and his mother still needed a father. They needed not only his care and protection, they needed his ancestry. In the Jewish world, heritage was traced through the paternal line, and Joseph could trace his back 42 generations: through King David all the way back to Abraham; three sets of fourteen fathers. Matthew chapter 1 names each one of those men, with a couple colorful women mentioned as well. This wasn’t just interesting genealogical trivia for Jews, it was the reason that Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem: it was the family seat of Joseph’s ancestor David, and the fulfillment of the prophecy that the Messiah would come from the house of David.

In Matthew chapter 2, Joseph will hear from an angel in another dream, and set the fulfillment of another prophecy in motion -- we’ll hear about that next week. Joseph doesn’t appear in the Bible after that -- at least not by name. Luke tells us about Jesus’ dedication at the Temple, and that Jesus’ parents went there each year, including the year that Jesus turned 12. After Jesus begins his ministry around the age of 30, both Matthew and Mark note skeptics from Nazareth who ask, “Wait -- isn’t he the carpenter’s son?“ Joseph was not a wealthy man -- we don’t even know if he was literate. He is not mentioned in any of the accounts of the crucifixion; tradition has assumed that Joseph died before Jesus did.

The effect of this underwhelming amount of biblical material is to make what the gospels do tell us -- particularly the gospel of Matthew -- worthy of our close attention. Here are some things which I find particularly noteworthy: First, Joseph is a righteous and compassionate man. This is high praise; those are rare virtues for anyone, but especially in that combination, they are striking. Joseph’s character is integral to the birth of Jesus: we know he is a good man who knows and cares about the law, but he also cares about other people and how his actions, no matter how justified by the law, could ruin their lives and the lives of others -- in this case, the life of God’s only begotten Son. Second, Joseph is a man who is willing to take action, a man who can make a decision: pack up the donkey and walk to Bethlehem, find a place for his pregnant wife when all the inns are full, get up in the middle of the night and flee to another country to save their lives. But third, and most importantly, Joseph is a man who listens to angels. Joseph almost certainly had plans for his life, working wood and raising a family in a quiet Galilean village. These plans almost certainly did not involve sleeping rough, his wife giving birth to a child which wasn’t his in the home or the stable of a stranger, and getting up in the middle of the night and moving to another country. For six years.

But here’s the thing about angels, who are messengers of God. They are really not about maintaining the status quo. There is not a single time in either the Old or the New Testament where an angel shows up and says, “Keep up the good work; don’t do anything different; God want to be sure you’re comfortable.” Even our favorite host of angels, the ones who appear to the shepherds on Christmas Eve with tidings of good news, terrify the shepherds at first, and with good reason. Nothing messes up a good night’s sleep like a visit from an angel: a message from God will almost certainly change your plans, if you’re willing to pay attention.

I asked at the beginning of the sermon if it’s possible to be too prepared for Christmas. Let me assure you, I am confident that personally I am not too prepared. But the underlying issue is not what we have or haven’t gotten done in terms of presents and decorations and grocery shopping and whatever you do. Maybe your presents have been wrapped and in the basement since the end of September. The preparation we need to do for Christmas is to be ready to change our own plans when God has something different in mind. For some of us, and I’m preaching to the preacher here, this may be the most difficult work we can do. It doesn’t mean that we don’t prepare and we don’t have a plan, it means that preparation is not goal. We will never be able to make a list and check it twice and tick the box which says, Ready for Christmas. Stick with me here, because I’m going to make a complex rhetorical argument. Seriously.

The greatest gift of this season may be the gift of being Not Ready for Christmas. The gift of being Not Ready is an awareness that Christmas is not about us and all our well-laid plans. The gift of being Not Ready is an acknowledgment that God is at the center of this story, and the ways of God and the kingdom of God are beyond our understanding, and way beyond our control. Even if we are prepared by being righteous and compassionate, the best we can do is listen to angels and hang on, because it’s going to get crazy. God may come into pristine and perfectly-ordered lives -- I wouldn’t know. I can tell you, that’s not the story of Jesus’ birth which we have been given in the Bible: Mary wasn’t ready, Joseph wasn’t ready, the shepherds weren’t ready, the hygienic birthing center wasn’t ready and Emmanuel, God-With-Us showed up anyway, right on God’s schedule. God shows up whether we are ready or not. God isn’t waiting around until we get all that repentance stuff figured out. In fact, if we’re convinced we’re ready, then we might not be very happy God busting in and messing up our neatly ordered lives. Jesus is coming whether we’re ready or not, but if we think we’re ready, we might be too self-absorbed to realize it.

You’ve probably noticed that we celebrate Christmas every year. Of course, the birth of Jesus as a human child, conceived by the Holy Spirit was a one-time event. But we prepare for it every year to remind ourselves that we’re Not Ready. This is really important work, this being Not Ready. All these years and still Not Ready, because all of these centuries later, God is still Not Finished. The kingdom is Not Here, and that means that God is still With Us. The Word which became flesh and was born in a place with no address, to a virgin and her bewildered husband. They had each listened to angels, and their lives and our world would never be the same.

This Christmas I wish you the gift of being Not Ready. And if you hear angels in the distance, I wish you courage, because it’s going to get crazy. But most of all, I wish you the gift which no one can give you and no one can take away, the gift of Jesus, Messiah, God-With-Us. May we open our eyes and open our hearts so that he can come into our lives, ready or not. God bless you. Amen.

 

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