“Trusting the Absurd” Matthew 1:18-25
Rev. Sean Weston
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL
December 23, 2018
It seemed everything was lost. It was time to give up and throw in the towel.
For Joseph, it was the end of a marriage that had never really started. Marriage was a lot different in his time. It was a legal transfer negotiated between fathers, not a union based in love and care. So it’s hard to know how either Joseph or Mary felt about it. But I imagine that Joseph was excited to take this important step in his life. And then, with Mary pregnant before their marriage, it seemed she had not been faithful to him. This would have been devastating news. He was bound by law not to marry her. It was time to give up on his plans and his hopes.
For the people who first put this story down on paper, it was the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans. Their plans, their hopes were all gone. Thousands of their neighbors and friends had been executed by Rome. God’s home on earth had been destroyed. And not for the first time in their history, either. Matthew’s gospel was written around 65 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, among a community of Jewish people who had followed Jesus and believed he was the messiah, come to save them. But now that everything was lost, they wondered if it was time to give up their hopes.
If it seems like this is a story I tell a lot, that’s because it’s a story that gets told a lot. God’s people, ready to give up hope. One of God’s people, in this case Joseph, ready to give up hope. It’s a human story. It’s a story that all of us will live a times in ways large and small.
I also tell this story a lot because I don’t think it gets told enough this time of year. The pressure is enormous to be happy in this season. To celebrate. To have the perfect Christmas with a perfect family, to feel excited and hopeful about a new year, and on and on and on. The advent themes of darkness and waiting, emptiness and hopes unfulfilled – well, can’t we just listen to happy Christmas music and celebrate the baby Jesus?
The problem of course is that life is hard and this is actually a really hard time for a lot of people, and for some it is terribly sad and lonely. We’re just on the other side of the longest night of the year. Some of us may frantically be trying to get gifts still; others might be grieving the lack of money to do so. Some, like Joseph, are watching relationships fall apart, relationships they had hoped would last them a lifetime.
Like the people of Israel mourning the loss of their temple and city, the stresses and anxieties of what is happening in our larger religious world and our society also affect us all, in different ways. For many of us this church has been God’s house for us, the place where we learn and seek to live our faith. And this year has been one both of gain and loss, and we continue to face an uncertain future. Spoken aloud or not, that uncertainty always comes with its friends: grief and fear.
And in the wider world, the news is so increasingly horrifying that I wish it were fake. If things are so difficult for me, I wonder what it is like this year to be a refugee at the southern border, or the mother of Laquan MacDonald having yet another Christmas to mourn her son’s killing by Chicago police – no jury verdict can bring him back, or Cyntoia Brown who faces a life in prison after killing a man attempting to assault her when she was 16 years old.
No longer how many Christmas songs are played, no matter how many lights we put up, no matter how many happy thoughts we think the reality is that for many there is a sadness in this season that doesn’t seem to go away. And if you don’t feel that way, you’re sure to know and love somebody who does. Sometimes, like Joseph, like the Judean Jesus-followers who wrote Matthew, it seems like hope and goodness are long gone.
This story about Joseph was written by a people struggling with hopelessness. And they reminded themselves that Joseph’s sadness was not the end of his story. Instead, when he was deciding how best to handle the mess he was in, an angel came to him in a dream. The angel basically said to him, “I know that this is not at all what you expected or hoped for. But this child is from the Holy Spirit. He will change everything. You must stay with Mary and raise him as your own child. It’s all going to be okay.”
We don’t know what Joseph thought about this. All we know is that it was enough for him to stay with Mary and raise Jesus with her. And even though people have been arguing for ever and ever – and especially for the last century or so – about what it means that Mary conceived by the Holy Spirit, the point is not about biology but rather Christology. That means it is saying something about who this Jesus is. This Jesus is both human and divine. In this Jesus, God was coming to the world in the flesh and blood. God was making good on God’s promise. And whatever Joseph’s questions about this, it was enough for him. He trusted the angel’s absurd announcement. Not only did he trust it, but he turned his life upside down for it. He chose to accept that people might turn and whisper when he walked by. He would soon move with his family to Egypt to protect the child, then he would move once more from Bethlehem to Nazareth. Without any evidence, he trusted what the angel told him in a dream. He staked everything on it.
“And they will call him, Emmanuel. (Emmanuel means “God with us.”)”
God with us.
Those of us who have been in church life a long time, who have heard this story year after year, can forget just how ridiculous, how silly and absurd it sounds. God is coming to earth in a baby born to poor people in a poor place? God is coming to earth in a baby? God with us? Emmanuel?
Yet this is the story we have been telling from generation to generation. A story written down by people who had lost everything, people who dared to face the hopeless night and say: God entered human life in a moment of deep hopelessness. God is in our lives yet today, even surrounded by despair. And God will continue to enter into the world day after day until earth is just like heaven. God is here. God is with us. It was an absurd story for them to write down. And even today it can seem absurd to believe.
On this fourth Sunday of Advent, as we look towards Christmas, we are invited to trust in the absurd. To believe that no matter what rages around us and inside us, God’s presence is assured, and that makes all the difference. That when you are still in the tunnel but see no light, when you are bowed down underneath a heavy load, when all the earth is groaning that God is with us. Yes, God may be in the bright lights and cherry music, the megachurches and halls of power. But when God chose to enter the world in human flesh, God showed up in a hopeless situation in a backwater town. And it is that story that has been bringing hope to hopeless situations ever since. It is that story that has helped people hold on to their faith against all odds. Otherwise, we wouldn’t still be telling it.
And as we prepare to celebrate the Christ child once more, as we arrive at the beginning of a new year with hopes on one hand and fears on the other, we can choose once more what kind of stories we will tell. And it is because of that ancient story that we can tell our own stories today. Stories of love and loss, of despair and joy, of emptiness and hope. The story of a baby who turned the world upside down: proving that our conventional wisdom isn’t really that wise, showing that there is light even in the darkest night, proclaiming from the rooftops and mountains that God is with us, absurd as it may seem to say, and that makes all the difference.
May we tell that story, again and again and again. Amen.