Saturday, December 22, 2007

Room--a sermon for Advent 4A

The Rev. Teri Peterson
Ridgefield-Crystal Lake Presbyterian Church
Isaiah 7.10-16, Matthew 1.18-25
December 23, 2007—Advent 4A

Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test. Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.”

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Well, friends, I believe this is panic time. There are two shopping days left. Just two more days. And, because our culture celebrates Christmas ahead of time rather than seeing it as a 12-day season that begins Christmas Day, there are also just two more days for all the cooking, baking, decorating, wrapping, caroling, and parties. In about 48 hours, it’ll be all over and we’ll be sitting amid piles of torn wrapping paper, wondering where we’ll put all our new stuff, and getting ready to gorge ourselves on yet another feast.

Given the short time span, I’m surprised and hopeful at how many of you are here. It’s snowy and cold, this is one of the few remaining prime shopping hours, and there’s lots to be done. We are all full up—our schedules, our houses, our brains are full to the brim with things to do, people to see, family to entertain. It’s hard to get in a single thought about anything else, really. It’s almost enough to make you just want to curl up under the covers and stay there.

And then reality sets in. Curling up under the covers and staying there is an option that only works for a very few people, most of them college boys on winter break. The rest of us set about our busy lives, hoping to fit in a few moments of quiet, of rest, of prayer, of remembering “the reason for the season” wherever we can.

The trouble is, of course, that if we make a habit of simply fitting God into our already busy schedules, it’s only a small step to not fitting God in at all, or—possibly worse—using God for our own ends.

Sometimes that’s a really attractive option. Unfortunately it doesn’t often work. King Ahaz tried it—at the moment when two armies were threatening his city, his crown, and his coffers, he tried on biblical literalism, righteousness, and piety. Even when God said “ask me for a sign!” Ahaz insisted on holding literally to “do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Given that Ahaz built a new temple and altar modeled after the one in Damascus and that he forced people to worship a foreign God, I suspect this is false piety on the part of Ahaz. He’s playing a part—publicly, he is acting like a righteous king, though he will be remembered for not walking in the way of the Lord. His act leaves no room in his life for God to speak and act. While God gives a sign anyway, and ultimately the other armies are overtaken and the threat dissipates, still Ahaz has no time or space for a God who isn’t convenient. He would rather stay in his cozy palace, with his shiny gold and his new altar, with his façade of righteousness.

Joseph, on the other hand, is a different story. He’s not a king, but he is descended from kings. He knows the scriptures, he knows what he has to do when his fiancée turns up pregnant. The law says that she is to be stoned. Following Ahaz’s example of public piety, a righteous man would put her to death in the village square. But did you notice Matthew’s editorializing? He says Joseph was a righteous man, unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace. He is compassionate, and he follows the spirit rather than the letter of the law. He probably knows his family tree, so perhaps he’s used to making room for strange exceptions. After all, the genealogy that comes right before this story is very strange, as it lists 4 women in the midst of all the usual men, and not a single one of the women is a righteous Israelite. They are all outsiders, women who did unorthodox things. But they are women who knew God and made room for God’s word and work in their lives and who are remembered as part of an illustrious family tree—that of king David, and therefore of Joseph. Indeed, Joseph knows compassion, he knows how to move his self-interest aside a little bit to help others. So it comes as no surprise, then, that when he is told by an angel to keep Mary rather than dismissing her, and to keep the baby and to give him the name “the Lord saves,”—Joseph follows these instructions, quietly and without fanfare. He takes Mary into his house and he names her baby, thus legitimizing him in the eyes of the community. He endures the gossip, the loss of reputation, the change in his life story. And, according to Matthew, he does it without complaint.

It’s completely illogical, of course. This kind of moving over, stepping aside, making room—it makes very little sense. Everyone would have known that Joseph was not the father. It’s likely that his entire family suffered ridicule and shame. It’s possible that his business suffered. And it’s definite that his life took a drastically different direction than he’d planned. After all, who plans to adopt an illegitimate child—angels or no—who then gets a visit by some very rich foreigners? Who plans to become a refugee in a foreign country with a new wife and an adopted child? Who plans to resettle in a town inferior to the one he’d left, starting his career all over again? I doubt Joseph planned these things, but when he followed the angel’s instructions, when he moved over and made room for God, his life changed forever. It’s not an easy decision, to sacrifice in this way. Joseph’s life was likely comfortable and full. He was cozy in his house and career and family, until that fateful day when Mary turned up “with child from the Holy Spirit.”

Most of us have cozy lives. We snuggle up under the covers, our houses and calendars and minds full of many things. But soon—maybe even tomorrow night, maybe even today—God is coming to tap us on the shoulder and find out if we can move over to the cold side of the bed to make some space. Can we make permanent room? It will change our lives. They may be less cozy. They may be colder than our comfy beds. They may be less full of things and feasts and more full of ridicule and heartache. They may be more full of compassion and less full of false piety. They may also be less full of logic than we might like, and more full of mystery. There is a poem by Madeleine L’Engle that sums this up nicely, and though it is about Mary it seems to work for Joseph, and for us, too. She writes:
This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
There'd have been no room for the child. (1)

We’re full of many things, especially with only 48 hours until Christmas morning. There’s a lot to do and we have a lot of stuff. Will there be room for the child? This Christmas season, will we be like Ahaz, going through the motions, doing what we think is pleasing to God? Or will we be like Joseph, listening, obeying, showing compassion, making room for God’s presence with us even when it disturbs our cozy lives and defies the logic of the world?

Immanuel—God is with us. God comes not with fanfare but with newborn cries. Have we noticed God creeping in? Have we heard God’s messengers? Whether we notice or not, God comes. Let every heart and home be made ready, and may we all have plenty of good room, for the Word is coming among us again to bring light and life.

Thanks be to God.

(1) Madeleine L'Engle, "After Annunciation"

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful concept - that of ROOM. Wonderful. LOVE the image of the college boys sleeping under the covers- my Peter fits that to a T.

    Now I am off to the airport at 11:25 PM to meet my sister's much delayed plane which was to have arrived at 11:11 and is now due about 12:35. So I am making room for my sister, my dad, Adam, and Peter - and two cats and dog...partridge, pear tree,take a number...Mary and Joe and the babe go to the front of the line, here!

    Peace, Teri - and enjoy the new shower head - lovely description!