The beginning's end
Sermon Advent 4A, by The Rev. Tracy Dugger
This Advent we began at the end. Advent 1 we talked about how the end of all things is death without Jesus. It is only with Jesus the Prince of Peace that true lasting peace is possible. On Advent 2 we talked about John the Baptist, and how the one who comes in Judgement is good news. For it is only in the midst of judgement brought by the one who has already borne the consequences of sin for all that we can look upon the coming judge, Jesus with love. Our third Sunday in Advent we talked about the works of Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit, give us the evidence that Heaven has come down to Earth in Jesus, and this is cause for great joy.
In our final Sunday of Advent we find ourselves back at the beginning, and hearing the message that hell cannot prevail over hope. It is interesting that in a season focused on Jesus’s return as the Coming King of Kings that we find ourselves ending by circling back to the beginning. This morning’s gospel comes almost at the very beginning of Matthew’s account of the good news of Jesus Christ. The only part we didn’t read is the genealogy of Jesus, because most modern readers find so and so begat so and so a little boring. But by reading only a snippet geared towards the modern reader, and in our language we miss something important.
Matthew introduces both the Genealogy of Jesus and the Birth Narrative of Jesus with a specific word. IN both places Matthew uses the Greek word Genesis…So while Matthew is introducing us to Jesus he is deliberately creating a parallel from this beginning, to the very beginning. Matthew understands the tale he tells is one that is a rebeginning harkening back to setting to rights the beginning of creation itself.
Last week we focused on Mary’s viewpoint of who her son was to be. Today we focus on Joseph’s. We hear of an extraordinary kindness, and righteousness in Joseph. We know he thought Mary had cheated on him. He knows he is not the Father of her child.
If he were to publicly denounce her she would have been put to death by stoning. Instead of choosing wrath and justice, Joseph chose mercy, and planned to quietly dismiss Mary. When an Epiphany comes in a dream to set Joseph straight, Joseph chooses to be obediently faithful to the will of God. He risks scorn and shame and is incredibly faithful to carry out the message he heard.
Joseph heard and believed that Jesus his son was of divine origin.
Joseph heard and believed that Jesus would be both the Son of God and a son of David through him. Joseph would serve as Jesus’s earthly Father and by means of his lineage would be a son of David. The promised line of the Messiah.
Joseph hears and obeys the command to name the baby, Jesus, Yeshua, which recalls the Hebrew word “to save”. Not only did Mary know that her baby would deliver her…Joseph knew too, because he heard that Jesus would save HIS people from their sins.
Matthew does not at this point specify who “his people” are or what “their sins” are. But by virtue of following the genealogy, the reader is set up to assume “his people” is Israel. This is certainly true, but as the gospel unfolds with its attention on the sick, the poor, the tax collectors, the oppressed and finally the Gentiles, we will find that the people Jesus claims, are indeed ALL people.
It’s tempting to read the salvation from sins as pertaining to us as individuals. But Matthew is pointing to something larger. By beginning with the genealogy of Jesus as a genesis we hear that the sin is corporate. It is the whole body of sin encompassed by all people who’ve since the fall turned from God in shame and fear. It is the body of sin encompassed by kingdoms and civilizations that fell short of right relationship with God. Matthew by beginning at the beginning of all things is pointing out that the salvation Jesus is to bring is social, its political, and cosmic in nature.
Joseph hears and believes that the birth of his adoptive Son is the fulfillment of the prophets foretold promise of salvation, and is the particular fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, ”which means, “God is with us.”
Matthew creates a beginning and the end to Jesus’s story that bookends on the promise that Jesus is God with Us. He begins telling of Jesus as Emmanuel, God with Us, and he ends his account with the last words of Jesus prior to his ascension into heaven… And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Joseph hears all of this as good news, and so should we. From the beginning to the End, God has always been with us. And in Jesus God the invisible, unknowable, God only wise, came to Earth to heal the separation and shame that began in the Garden.
Once again we can walk intimately with God throughout the days of our lives. But just like Joseph we can hear the good news, we can hear the revelation of what God is doing….but we have a choice…do we believe? And are we willing to change our plans, to reorient our lives on a future that makes no sense from common sense. Who raises a child that isn’t theirs with love and care? Joseph did…and generations have since through adoption and fostering.
Who would leave their home and flee political oppression just for the sake of a child that isn’t theirs? Joseph did…and generations of children are still fleeing for safety today. Will we aid them?
Joseph would teach his trade to Jesus knowing he wasn’t destined to carry on the family business. Are we willing to teach our skills, and help the generation behind us? Even when we know they won’t keep doing it the same way?
Joseph’s dream presents us all the opportunity to follow in his footsteps, to be willing to change our plans, to change our minds, and be willing to adapt to the plans of our God.
Susan B. Anthony, who was famous for her work for women’s right to vote once said, “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.”
Joseph reminds us that to truly listen, believe and obey God we must be willing to forsake our own plans and desires, and listen to the one who made the plan from In the beginning, to in the end…
The challenge of Advent is this: to wait, to hear, to listen, and to believe that the one who connects the origin to the end is a good and loving God, and he is with us, and he is One who Saves. And then once we believe we are invited to choose to obey. The theme of Advent 4 is Hell or Hope, and the choice is ours. Do we embrace the one who comes to save? Or do we put him to the side to keep living the life we always imagined?