And we’re here.
Sure, technically it’s the Fourth Sunday of Advent—and we have an entire week before we get to Christmas—but that’s not stopping our gospel lesson for the day from skipping ahead. It’s all there in the last sentence, Mary bears a son, and Joseph names him Jesus. Fini. Done. No manger. No shepherds. No singing angels. Matthew goes the minimalist route when it comes to that first Silent Night. (He will have much more to say come Epiphany, but that’s still 18 days away.)
An Advent sermon based on Matthew 1:18-25.
Matthew’s focus is on Joseph’s part in this drama in contrast to Luke’s centering on Mary. Today we heard that Mary and Joseph were engaged, betrothed, legally bound to one another. All the arrangements had been made, and now they just needed to make it to the wedding day itself. Surely they were ecstatic, elated, and enthralled with everything. And then something happened, and Mary suddenly became more distant. All of the previous excitement had been exchanged for something that Joseph couldn’t quite put his finger on. Then Mary told him she needed to talk.
She tells him everything. That she had been visited by an angel who proclaimed to her that she would become pregnant through the Spirit and that she would bear God’s son. She describes it all and then tells Joseph that she said yes to all that God had asked of her. That was some weeks ago now, and she had indeed missed her period, and she wanted him to know. But Joseph wasn’t really following it. Sure he didn’t lose his cool or anything, but he knew enough about biology to know that women just don’t get pregnant. The story Mary concocted is a bit too far-fetched, and while he thought he knew her well, obviously he was wrong. But he’s an honorable man, so he doesn’t choose to disgrace Mary publicly. He simply decides to dismiss her quietly with his integrity intact, and his dreams of a wonderful life crushed.
That night he’s visited by an angel while he slept. He’s uncertain if he’s dreaming or not—if it is a dream, that must have been one heck of a pepperoni pizza—and the angel tells him that he shouldn’t be afraid to take Mary as his wife. That the child she has conceived is in fact from the Holy Spirit and not some other man. That the baby would be a boy, and that he would name him Jesus, for he would save his people from their sins. Joseph wakes the next morning, and he changes his direction completely. The decision he had made about putting Mary away—certainly what every other man in his day would have done—is set aside, and he chooses to be wedded to Mary even though she would likely be showing at the service. You can bet that there were family members who told Joseph in no uncertain terms that he was making a mistake. But they got married anyway, and, Matthew tells us, they had no marital relations until that little one was born. And, of course, Joseph named him Jesus, the one who saves.
Salvation. It’s front and center in our faith; Jesus brings us salvation from our sins, and that’s why he’s given that name, according to the angel. What does that look like though? What does that mean for us? Where do we go looking for salvation in our world?
Maybe that’s the best place to start. If salvation means “The process of being restored or made new; or the process of being rid of the old poor quality conditions and becoming improved,” what does it look like to find salvation? When does it happen? Pushing aside the church, society tells us it often happens in the middle of our lives with the proverbial mid-life crisis. We go off searching for a new life because the lives we’re living aren’t good enough.
This gets portrayed fantastically in the Disney Pixar film “The Incredibles.” The film opens with news stories super heroes being shunted to ordinary lives due to a lawsuit for negligence against Mr. Incredible. He now goes by Bob Parr, and his life—like his name—is indeed average. He works in a windowless cubicle for an insurance agency pushing papers and is emphatically told that his primary focus is to make shareholders money. He’s a family man—married to Helen, AKA Elastigirl—and they have three kids, two of whom have known superpowers. He drives a small hatchback, which he can barely fit into, and they live in a modest home. We’re given a glimpse at their normalcy and disfunction as they eat dinner together, their voices getting louder as all of them feel like their lives are not what they would want.
The usual tropes of a male mid-life crisis come to the screen. Bob getting together with another superhero friend as they reminisce about their glory days. There’s a young unattached woman who contacts him about a potential new job using his super powers which is enticing on multiple levels. Bob pulls out his old super suit only to find it no longer fits over his middle age spread, and so he begins working out. With the new side hustle, he’s able to trade in the old jalopy for a new convertible. The only thing we don’t see is Bob drowning his sorrows in a bottle—it is a kids’ movie, after all—but we know the story. Bob is looking for fulfillment in a new life.
He’s hoping to find salvation by himself. But the cost of his searching is disconnection from his family. He spends more and more time away from those he cares about most, and they begin to sense that something’s not right. He’s finding anything but salvation.
Theologian Daniel Harris tells the story of a man he heard on a radio talk show. The man had it all in the eyes of the world when it comes to a fulfilled life, but he also had a $600 a day drug addiction. He would often hide himself in a a hotel room when he was using. One day as he went through his usual process, Harris writes “he finally realized that whenever he turned to chemicals to achieve his sense of happiness, he went off to be alone. He isolated himself from others.” Harris continues, “This is a powerful image of what sin looks like in our lives. Sin is the choice to minister to ourselves, rather than allowing the savior to minister to us; and often we preclude that divine help by removing ourselves from community.” He suggests that we try to minister to ourselves in a number of ways: “through acquiring money, shopping, gambling, addiction to work, or simply going it alone.” And then he asks, “Have we managed to save ourselves in any of these ways?” He suggests it only leads to more emptiness and unhappiness when we do, which leads him to ask the big question: “Can we trust Jesus to truly fulfill that emptiness that we know is inside of us?”
When Joseph himself is faced with a similar dilemma, he chooses through the Spirit’s prompting to take Mary as his wife. He pushes back against the way of going it alone and against conventional wisdom, and he chooses relationships. He chooses community.
Which is what Bob Parr does too, eventually. Mr. Incredible realizes he needs help for his salvation. That in spite of all of his incredibleness, he cannot achieve what he’s looking for on his own. He needs his family to be alongside him.
Matthew reminds us of this when he tells us that Joseph names the baby boy Jesus, for he would save his people from their sins. But then Matthew goes on to add one more name that Jesus is known by, this time drawing from the prophet Isaiah. A virgin would conceive a child and he would be named “Emmanuel” which means “God with us.” God with us. God with us.
No matter how many times we think we can go it alone and find our own salvation in a myriad of different ways, we get reminded again and again that we cannot achieve it by ourselves. That we need help from the God who is with us. The God who brings salvation leading us back into community. We need the God who can fill the deep longings within us by being in relationship with us. We can find salvation in no other way.
So there it all is a week early. Don’t tell the Advent police. Jesus’ birth offers us salvation. He is born to bring us true and lasting peace. As we come in to Bethlehem, may we find that salvation we so desperately need.