December 18, 2016
Today’s Gospel is no ordinary birth announcement. It’s a boy, yes, but even more it is a theologically packed proclamation of who Jesus is and for what God has sent him.
Matthew proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah, God’s anointed agent who once for all in the fullness of time will set right the world’s wrongs. Jesus is Son of David, a pedigree essential for the Messiah as one strand of Jewish expectation. Jesus’ conception is a gift of the Holy Spirit, albeit an inconvenient one, in that Mary and Joseph are not yet married. Finally, his name, Jesus, is divinely ordained through the announcement of an angel as he is Emmanuel, God with us, sent to rescue all people from their own brokenness, and that of the world.
Let’s look for a moment at that name, Jesus. The Hebrew and Aramaic forms of “Jesus” and “he will save” are similar. The point being made in that biblical pun is this: “You shall call his name Savior because he will save.” Yet the word “Jesus,” in Hebrew, “Joshua,” even more literally means, “Yahweh, help!”
Isn’t that often our most basic prayer – a plea for God to help? We hear that plea in “O Come O Come Emmanuel”; all of our Collects; the Eucharistic Prayer; the Prayers of the People. Jesus, in his very person, is a living and breathing prayer as he intercedes for you and me.
As we all struggle to make sense of life during our time on the planet, we often feel out of control, teetering at the edge of being overwhelmed when we observe that at times it seems the world is intent on destroying itself. Hopefully you know joy in life as well, but our bottom line prayer is, “Yahweh, God, help.” We want to make sense of things and know that God is in it with us. Even looking into the heavens as civilizations have done for millenia, we want a sign that tells us God is visibly present and working in and through our lives and the circumstances surrounding us.
God’s response to our plea of “God, help!” is Jesus. The One born of Joseph and Mary is God’s definitive answer, an outward and visible sign of all who God is. I saw this beautifully played out in a first communion class I was leading some years ago. A little girl’s parents told me that the night before the class, their daughter was walking around the house with her hands out, as if ready to receive communion. That little girl’s hope, her longing, her desire, was that she was getting Jesus!
The next day it was fulfilled when the very sacrament of Jesus, Messiah, the One who saves, was placed in her hand. Even as Jesus is God’s answer to our call for help, Jesus is also God’s plea to us in return. Here’s what I mean.
As a Christian community, one of the things we promise when a person is baptized or confirmed is that he or she will be raised and formed in a community of hope. We say we will do everything we know to do to assure that promise comes to fruition. Just as Joseph was filled with the Holy Spirit, so are we in forming one another as people of faith, a people who trust in Jesus in the power of the same Spirit. And here’s the kicker. Just as Joseph was able to make the shift from the merely sensible, reasonable and pragmatic, our times are requiring flexible and adaptive approaches to faithfulness and life, an “Irrational Season,” if you will. As stated beautifully by Madeleine L’Engle in her poem of that name:
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.
I would add that it was the same for Joseph. To be clear, I am in favor of good reason, but only as long as it does not keep us stuck in the status quo, cut off from God’s sometimes disturbing invitation, and not able to live radically into the Gospel adventure.
Your ongoing work and mission is to respond to God’s plea in the little girl and in our hurting and broken world. Joseph could have turned back, remaining secure in the law as understood in Scripture, with Mary likely being stoned to death in shame. Instead, Joseph said yes and followed God’s call to the edge, risking his own reputation and family for the hope of the world.
So it is that we seek to be “a mansion prepared for himself,” whether it be Jesus in a manger, a little girl seeking communion, a young man being confirmed today, or the child within each of us, longing for God, asking for help. Trust the promise that God, Emmanuel, is with us. It will burst forth when we recognize ourselves called and used by God as part of the answer, just as Joseph was, when we are willing to follow strange and unexpected movements of God in Christ wherever they may take us.
Joseph was an answer to God’s prayer. You can be also.