Written and preached by Denise Griebler
So Mary and Joseph are engaged.
To get to an engagement – there’s been, well, engagement. Mary and Joseph have been engaging with one another. They’ve been engaging each other’s families. There have been a long series of yeses.
But it’s not a straight line. It rarely is.
Matthew is so sparse in his description of events that it’s difficult for brain and heart not to search out Luke’s account and collapse the two. It’s not good exegetical form to do this. But I’m afraid my heart cannot resist the temptation. In the passage that comes just before this one we get a long list of fathers and sons (with a few interesting mothers thrown in the mix – Tamar the prostitute, Rahab the spy, Ruth the immigrant – outsiders, upstarts, all outrageous and unexpected) – and then at this long list of sons begat by fathers, comes the promise of a child, who will be God with us, God’s own and Mary’s.
Talk about a bump in the road. . .
This is where I cannot help but think of Luke’s account. Which is the account of Mary’s yes to this fork in the road.
Mary receives the angel’s word, ponders it, and then gives herself to God’s project for the world in her. She does it without consulting anyone, including her husband-to-be. I don’t think Joseph was counting on that. I don’t think Joseph was counting on Mary’s freedom. We can presume he’d done everything right – he’d gotten permission from Mary’s family (which means he struck a satisfactory bargain with Mary’s dad), and Mary had given her consent. She was young. He probably figured he could mold and shape her into the wife he’d been waiting for. Which just tells me the that Joseph didn’t know much about self-possessed teenaged women!
Joseph wasn’t counting on Mary giving herself – her yes – to anything beyond their engagement and marriage. But Mary is anything but meek and mild. She says yes to a project that will require everything of her – and Joseph as well – without even talking it over with him. She is free to say yes on her own terms. And she does.
Which has consequences – we read about the first ones she glimpses last week –and again in song this morning:
My soul magnifies the Lord, who has done magnificent things for me.
God’s mercy is for those who fear God.
God has scattered the proud, raises the lowly, topples thrones and rulers.
God feeds the hungry and sends away those who have already eaten more than their share.
Mary knows where God’s projects lead. There are consequences. Some will hit close to home . . .
If Luke’s birth narrative is Mary’s story, Matthew’s gospel gives us Joseph’s story: how Joseph finally came to say yes.
Joseph learns what his sweet fiancé has consented to. And while Luke tells us that Mary pondered a bit, but quickly came round to let it be . . . everything in Joseph was saying no, no, no . . . this can’t be. So he resolved to get out of the engagement. He’s a good man. He’ll do it quietly – a hush deal with Mary’s father – yes, the men will work it out. Perhaps Mary could go and live with her cousin Elizabeth- they would raise their out-of-the-ordinary babies together.
But Joseph, bless him, is also a man who is given to dreams. And he pays attention them. When the angel appears to Joseph in his dream he starts out the way all angels begin: “Don’t be afraid.”
Which frames and nails our human predicament: fear.
Fear is what so often makes me begin with no. Fear is the chasm I’ve got to cross to get to yes. Maybe it’s not so for everyone. But some of us seem to have to begin with no before we can get to yes. Which drives me crazy. You’ve heard it a hundred times. You’re in a meeting and there are great ideas coming forth, but just as an action plan is starting to shape up, someone has to talk about why it won’t work, why it won’t be effective, why no body will come or listen, how it will be misinterpreted. And then I think about how sometimes I’m that person.
You know how good improve theater works? Or collaborating to create a dance or music? It’s all about people saying yes to one another. Engaging their yeses. “Yes! and then we could . . . How about . . . Yes!”
No’s stop the flow. No’s create doubts. They paralyze.
Which is not to imply that saying yes is always the right thing! But we do have to find our way to yes and stand there.
Joseph is finding his way to yes.
“Don’t be afraid.”
This is what it takes to break open Joseph’s heart – and rather than being sensible and patching it up quick – Joseph answers Mary’s yes with his own. He’s in.
He’s in all the way with Mary.
He’s in all the way with the baby.
He’s in all the way with God’s project.
Let the chips fall where they may.
God’s project is with human beings. And we human beings are on notice as Advent leans into Christmas. Well? Are we in? Will we say yes? Will we keep engaging others and inviting them in? What in you is saying no, no, no? How will you move from no to yes?
I have loved hearing about the ways that this congregation has been learning about and answering the call to restorative justice work in your community. You are forming restorative circles and creating space to listen and speak, to mend and heal, rather than accuse and punish. That Joseph’s yes had to pass through his no, no, no is instructive here. Don’t count anyone out of the process just because they are stuck in NO right now. Keep bringing the angel’s message: Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid to find a way to act like neighbors to all the neighbors – those with homes and those without, those who are moving up and in, and those who are made poor and kept poor and who are getting pushed out. Keep saying it: Don’t be afraid. It’s complicated. Be clear. Still, don’t be afraid.
Restorative justice keeps opening the way in. It holds a place at the table for those who haven’t shown up yet. Or those who are stuck in no right now. Because the strangest things can break open another’s heart – a piece of music, a dance, a dream, a story, a poem, a baby, a church.
It’s not a straight line. We will have to pass through and let go of our no’s and what we think cannot be. We will have to resist the fear-driven temptation to just patch things up quick.
But during Advent we prepare ourselves for God making a way out of no-way. Watch for the signs. What the hell, be bold to ask for a sign. Because in this fear-filled world we need signs of hope, peace, joy and love to guide and carry us. Don’t be like Ahaz, the foolish, fearful and evil king who refused to ask God for a sign, even when God told him to ask away. Ahaz didn’t need no stinkin’ sign! He was like a smart person!
We should seek and ask. Pay attention. God is sending a sign: a young woman will bear a child whose name shall be Immanuel, which means God-with-us. Really, don’t be so afraid.
I wonder if there’s anybody out there who isn’t afraid these days? Trump won the on fear. And if we weren’t gripped by fear before his election, we are now. A few days after the election, there were young people who looked us as elders and asked us how we’d gotten through really terrible times like this in the past. We answered in unison: “It’s never been this bad in our life-time.” It takes my breath away. But fear will not save us. And it’s best we start breathing – even con-spiring (breathing together) again.
God’s project is with human beings. Well? Are we in? Will we engage and even marry ourselves to God’s project and God’s Way? Will we keep engaging others and inviting them in, even making and keeping covenants with one another to discern together God’s way of justice, mercy and love? Because here is our hope, our peace our joy.
Love makes a way out of no-way. It’s the only way. It’s our only hope, our only peace, our deepest joy. So light the fourth candle. Let it be a sign.
Listen and watch for angels. You will recognize them because they say the same thing every time: Don’t be afraid.
In these blessed last days of Advent with four candles kindled around the wreath, may you feel held in the circle of God’s love. Rest there and find your way to yes.