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12.23.18 Angels We Have Heard on High – Joseph’s Angelic Dream

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FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, NASHVILLE DR. TODD B. JONES 4TH SUNDAY OF ADVENT DECEMBER 23, 2018 Angels We Have Heard on High: Joseph’s Angelic Dream MICAH 5:2-5a MATTHEW 1:18-25 People are different from each other, which makes life interesting, and forever mysterious. Some are very loquacious, some are rather quiet. Some need lots of words to say what they most want to say, and others are hesitant to speak at all. This was captured a number of years ago in something that an old friend of mine sent by way of an email. It was a take on a husband and wife. The first part of it was titled “Her Diary”: “Tonight I thought my husband was acting weird. We had made plans to meet and have a drink at the end of the day. I was shopping with my friends all day long, so I thought he was upset at the fact that I was a bit late, but he made no comment on it. Conversation simply wasn’t flowing, so I suggested that we go somewhere quiet where we could talk. He agreed, but he didn’t say much. I asked him what was wrong, he said, “Nothing.” I asked him if it was my fault that he was upset. He said he wasn’t upset, that it had nothing to do with me and not to worry about it. On the way home I told him that I loved him. He smiled slightly and kept driving. I don’t understand his behavior; I don’t know why he didn’t say, ‘I love you, too.’ When we got home I felt as if I had lost him completely, as if he wanted to have nothing to do with me anymore. He just sat there quietly and watched the television. He continued to seem distant and absent. Finally with silence all around us, I decided to go to bed. About fifteen minutes later he came to bed. To my surprise, he responded to my caress and we kissed, but I still felt that he was distracted, and his thoughts were somewhere else. He fell asleep. I cried. I don’t know what to do. I’m almost sure that his thoughts are with someone else. My life is a disaster!” That very same day, “His Diary” read like this: “Went hunting today, and missed a big old buck.” Maybe this is not a bad way to label the Christmas stories as they come to us in the Gospels! It might not be unfair to label Luke’s Christmas account “Her Story.” Luke uses lots of words in telling the story, and in many ways he tells the Christmas story from the vantage point of Mary. Remember how the angel Gabriel comes to her, and announces to her, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”, and describes this incredible fact to her that she is about to give birth to the Son of God? And Mary, after initially questioning, answers, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.” Then Mary sings that song, after her visit with her older cousin Elizabeth, who is six months into her pregnancy, where the two of them rejoice together, and Mary sings that song we call The Magnificat, that packs both theological and political dynamite. Then we come to that night of nights, you know the story, perhaps some of you know it by heart, where “shepherds are keeping watch over their flocks by night,” and “an 2 angel of the Lord appears to them, and the glory of the Lord shows about them, and they are filled with fear.” You know the story of Mary and Joseph traveling because of a tax enrollment trip, eighty miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem, forced upon them by Caesar Augustus. You know the story of the innkeeper, and how the shepherds that night followed the angels’ song, and ran as fast as they could to Bethlehem, and found there Mary and Joseph and the baby, lying in a manger, and knelt in order to worship there, the Babe of Bethlehem, the Savior of the world. That is “Her Story.” “His Story” might well be labeled, “Matthew’s Version of the Christmas Account,” which you just heard. It took Matthew all of seven verses to tell his version of the Christmas story, and it is very much the birth of Jesus from the perspective of Joseph. We are told that Joseph one night had been wrestling for a while with this news that he had received from Mary, to whom he was engaged, but not yet married. Mary tells him that, though she has never been with a man, she now is expecting a child, and she still wants him to be her husband and father of this child. Joseph is, very importantly identified by Luke, as a Son of David, because if Jesus is to be Messiah, He must be “of the house and lineage of David.” Joseph, needs to claim the child as his own for this to happen. Very tellingly, we are told by Matthew that Joseph was a “righteous man.” Other translations translate the word more literally, and say Joseph was a “just man.” We might say today, “Joseph was a good man.” Joseph ponders his dilemma long and hard, and decides quietly, as only a good and gentle man would, that if he cannot buy Mary’s story, he is not going to do anything to hurt or humiliate Mary, and “he resolves quietly to dismiss her.” I love this line because it is so much like it is with us! How many times have we decided something, “resolved” in our hearts that this is where we are going, only to discover that God has a completely different plan, a completely different agenda; surprising, unexpected, often gracious, but not at all what we signed up for? When Joseph goes to sleep, an unnamed angel of God visits him in his dream. The first word that the angel speaks is a word that we have heard before. Gabriel spoke this word first to Zechariah the priest: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah.” Gabriel speaks this word again to Mary: “Do not be afraid.” We will hear it again tomorrow night because it is the first word that the angels announce to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid.” So Joseph hears this word, and he tries to absorb this word. Joseph in many ways is like so many of us in looking back over our lives. We had plans, expectations for how our life was going to look, for the way that it was going to be shaped. Then God surprised us, not with the life we expected, or the life that we wanted, but instead, with the life that we have, often more gracious, but always not a life of our controlling or our doing, but God’s life, given to us as gift. Almost twelve years ago now, I was in the Chapel on a Saturday close to Christmas, with a couple named Bandy and Donna, who were very active in First Friends here at First Presbyterian Church. Thirty-three years earlier, a little girl had been born to them. They named her Laura. They discovered quickly that not only was she a Downs Syndrome child, but Laura was a Downs Syndrome child with other significant issues that would never enable her to be able to talk. Doctors said to Donna and Bandy, “Perhaps you’ll want to place Laura in a home.” And Bandy said, “We will – we’re going to raise her in our home.” Donna and Bandy poured their entire lives into Laura. 3 Bandy shared how one of his greatest fears that he carried with him, like a constant burden, was “What will we do when we are gone to make sure that Laura is cared for?” And like so many of our fears that we carry through life, God took care of this fear for Bandy and Donna, as Laura, sweet little Laura, died in her early thirties. We gathered in the Chapel on that Saturday, and it was just one of those moments, where I cannot explain it to you, but God showed up. The Holy Spirit came and worshiped with us as we gathered! I will never forget singing at the end of the service, near Christmas, the words to Away in a Manger. I had sung the third verse many times before, but I never sang it like I sang it with this gathered funeral: “Be near me, Lord Jesus; I ask Thee to stay close by me forever and love me, I pray. Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care, and fit us for heaven to live with Thee there.” It was not the life that Bandy and Donna had dreamt of; it was not the life that they had planned for; but it was the life that God gave them. I know today they would not trade that life for any other life that they could possibly have been given. For all the pain and all the joy and all the love and glory of it, it was God’s plan, God’s life, God’s gift of Laura to the two of them. This was not what Joseph expected, it was not what he signed up for; but when the angel of the Lord said, “Fear not, Joseph, for the child that Mary is carrying is from the Holy Spirit,” Joseph decided from that point forward not to live by his fears, but instead to invest his whole life in faith. If I could offer you any gift this Christmas, that would be it, that you would have the courage to live life, not by your fears, but by faith, faith that God in Jesus Christ has chosen once and for, all to be God-with-us, and promised never, ever again to be God-apart-from-us. So that is the angel’s word to Joseph. Only the angel added two more words. Actually they were two names that the angel offered to Joseph. The first is this: “You shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” I think at Christmas always, not just about people who believe in Jesus, but I find myself thinking even more about people who do not believe in Jesus, people who find it hard to believe this story. There are those who want to dismiss it as an anachronistic, an ancient and quaint story, but completely irrelevant to this life. To those people I always want to say, “How do you account for the staying power, for the vitality of this story, that simply will not go away?” “Jesus” means “God saves.” Christmas is magic, because beneath everything else in this culture that Christmas has become, many of us believe that there is, at the heart of it, a truth about God, and a hopeful truth about this world, that one day there will be “peace on earth and good will toward all.” Then there was a second name that the angel gave. Matthew acknowledges that he does not make this name up, but borrows it from the prophet Isaiah: “His name shall be called ‘Emmanuel,’’’ which means “God-with-us.” F. Dale Bruner is a New Testament scholar who has written a two-part volume on Matthew that nobody else has ever matched. Bruner says, “The literal term ‘Emmanuel’ is best translated the ‘with-us-God.’” The reason that name is so significant is that for most of Israel’s history, God is the Holy One, the transcendent One, the One who is more often than not, “the above-us-God” or “the beyond-us-God.” The good news of Christmas is that in Bethlehem, when that baby was born, the “above-us” and “beyond-us” God chose to become the “with-us- 4 God.” God chose to be born among us as a vulnerable, helpless baby, depending on us, the human family, to care for the child, to protect this child, and to worship him as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. It is the greatest story the world has to tell. Merry Christmas to you and to yours. AMEN.
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