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Fourth Sunday of Advent

December 23, 2007
The Rev. David R. Hackett

A few years ago some friends were returning from a trip to the Holy Land. One of them had purchased a striking, wood-carved nativity set in Bethlehem. All the figures were there – Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, the shepherds, and an assortment of manger animals. When the party arrived at the Tel Aviv airport for their return to the States, security was especially tight because of increased terrorist activity. The customs officials carefully checked all their luggage, but took particular interest in the nativity figures – examining them, handling them, letting dogs sniff them – even after they had successfully passed through the x-ray machine. Almost apologetically, at the end of the process, the officer doing the examination said, “We can’t take any chances; we can’t be too careful. We have to make certain that there is nothing explosive here.”

The great irony, of course was that the cautious customs official was handling the symbol of the most explosive force in the world.

On this Fourth Sunday of Advent our emphasis shifts from prophets to angels, from warnings to anticipation, from thunderous denunciations to dreams, to the explosive event itself: the Incarnation, the coming of the divine in human form. The fuse to that explosion was liturgically lit three weeks ago on the First Sunday of Advent. And now the detonation is about to occur.

Only the story doesn’t unfold through exquisitely carved figures that adorn a mantelpiece, but happens through flesh and blood people who find something happening in their lives that is unprecedented in human history. A pregnant teenager and a bewildered man engaged to be married are the participants in this divine drama we call Incarnation.

This morning’s Gospel focuses more on Joseph than on Mary. Matthew tells us right away: there’s trouble in Nazareth! Joseph’s world is shattered. He’s engaged to a teenage girl who is pregnant before marriage and he knows he is not the father. That was a crime in those days. The rules then were much like the rules of the Taliban in today’s Afghanistan. It was a crime punishable by death. Joseph’s response to the news is really rather noble. He was placed in the predicament of either marrying a woman who would be seen as unfaithful or ending the relationship and preserving the community standards. He decided to end the relationship quietly without prosecuting her.

That was his decision. But then he “sleeps on it.” In the first century people paid a lot more attention to dreams than we do now. But even now dreams count. Even now it is often helpful to let a difficult decision wait until tomorrow, to let the subconscious be at work on a problem while we sleep. So Joseph dreams. And the angel speaks. And Joseph wakes and acts. He acts on the message of the angel. He takes Mary for his wife and the child as his own.

The miracle of faith is what we celebrate this day. The miracle of God with us, Emmanuel, occurred because of the faith of both Joseph and Mary. We usually concentrate on Mary and the miracle of the Virgin Birth. But really we are confronted not just with the mystery of a virgin birth, but the mystery of Joseph and Mary’s faith.

It is perfectly possible for one to be a Christian without accepting the doctrine of the virgin birth. I don’t believe it is possible to be a Christian without accepting the miracle of faith. The virgin birth was not all that important to Mark, John, or the apostle Paul, who never mention the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. For those of us who insist on the fact of the virgin birth we have the incomparable stories in Luke and Matthew. I confess that as long as I can remember I have had problems with the doctrine of the virgin birth of Jesus. As some wag has said, “Life is hard enough without confusing theology and gynecology.” But as I grow older it becomes less and less an issue for me. Maybe that is because I’m not nearly as caught up with logic and rationality as I once was, and am more open to the mystery which ultimately lies at the heart of reality.

Let me propose to you that the Virgin Birth is a faith event more than a biological event. Mary and Joseph are models of faith. Without faith few miracles happen. Without human response God rarely acts. That is the radical dependence on humanity that God exhibits. God has faith in us! God takes a risk when he entrusts himself to the faithfulness of Joseph and Mary. It is the risk that God takes when he trusts us to be Christ-bearers: bearers of the Good News. Our trust in God is based on his trust. Our faith is based on God’s faithfulness. Mary and Joseph step out in faith, live in faith.

One of the saddest things I observe today is the inability of people to risk loving another. These days we hear a lot about “commitment.” “Will he …will she…make a commitment?” Too may persons want some sort of a guarantee with life, want some sort of guarantee with love. And there isn’t one! Loving means risking. To love means to risk being rejected. We open ourselves to another when we love and we become vulnerable and we risk being hurt. May and Joseph were willing to run the risk of loving God by birthing the child. They did not know the outcome, they only believed and trusted: they were faith-full.

Almighty God ran the same risk in loving the world so much that he sent his son. He comes to us as a lover who risks not being loved.

God has visited his people. God visited his servants Mary and Joseph. And because of the faithfulness they are called blessed. Our God would visit us in this holy season. And when we allow him into our lives we too will be blessed. Amen.