It is a concession perhaps to the constraints of the liturgy- if not to impatient ears- that this Gospel picks up after Matthew has made some major points. His gospel begins with the genealogy, placing this story firmly in the larger story that began with Abraham- and the unlikely birth of Isaac, and continued through fourteen generation leading to David, the great king- grandson of a Moabite woman as Matthew reminds us, and himself the father of Solomon by an adulterous and probably coercive relationship with Bathsheba. The list continues on for another fourteen generations to reach the exile- from which we have heard prophets these last few weeks- who call for mountains to be leveled, valleys raised and a way prepared. They found their way back, so the next fourteen generations lead to this moment.
Four weeks of advent- against three ages of fourteen generation each- four weeks of advent when our own world seems so forlorn- I don’t need to show you I’ve listened to the news by listing the tragedies, horrors, uncertainties and dangers we face. All those years, and all these days.
Generation, after generation. Through all those ages. Days of faithful seeking after God and God’s purposes- men who were good- and did good- and others wicked and dangerous- Matthew included women in this lineage to remind us that God draws into this story outsiders and the vulnerable as well as monarchs and the likely players. Year, after year, and generation after generation.
And the the list of fathers and sons- and fathers again in their generations ends with one called Jacob, the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary. Here, just before the angel speaks, the world’s pattern is broken open. Joseph is not listed as the one who begat, but as the companion of Mary.
An angel speaks- one who comes- as they always do- to say “do not fear”- and to help us see what we would not see. Joseph did not know what to make of this impending birth- that had not required his participation. A long and seemingly unbreakable chain breaks down and something unknown and unexpected erupts into Joseph’s life and into our world. He has the heartbreak of a confused love and of a faithful heart uncertain how to obey God within the realities he faces. What will he make of this situation- of Mary whom he loves so dearly, and of the burden of what the law requires?
The incarnation- the coming of the eternal Word as a weak and silent infant- is no more likely to Joseph’s imagination than it is to ours.
God is always acting in and through creation. Men and women are called to be active and engaged- to take our part in that work. We have had these advent days to do the work of repentance- and that includes amendment of life. We have been called to break down the mountains and raise up the valleys- so that a highway provides safe passage- and we have had work to prepare hearts and homes- for each other- and for the stranger we have not yet met. If not the exile that the prophets knew, we are facing troubled and uncertain times. It is hard to way what will be asked of us, what witness this moment will ask of us, but it is obvious we have work to do. It has been a hard Advent.
But this moment is different. All those generations and the patterns we receive and hand on- amid the blessed and good exchanges of one generation that nurtures and encourages another- there is another and darker pattern that is unmistakable. Original sin- if you’d work with the old language- or the way in which this world that we have twisted makes it inevitable that we will turn against God and against each other. The easy wrong and the hard right- as a familiar prayers puts it. Those stories are hidden in plain sight as Matthew tells his genealogy- and we know them in the violence, the poverty, the division we see around us. As it was in the beginning.. but not this time.
Here, God has acted to break open the closed circle of victim and violence, of wrong endured and wrong committed. Here- where even righteousness seems to leave victims, as Joseph ponders how to put away this woman he loves so much- here- the angel speaks – do not be afraid- the Holy Spirit is at work- and there is a name for what is being done- Immanuel. God with us. Jesus- he will save the people from their sins. There was the world as it was – and then the world as it will be when this child is born.
We have waited- and we have waited searching for the ways that waiting is active and at work to move the story forward and godward. We have waited and pondered how we are called to repent and what sins it is we are to forsake. We have waited and tried to understand for what God would have us hope for in a dark, cold winter.
Now, God is acting and the eternal Son is coming to birth- you will call his name Jesus- and so he will save us- as eternal God takes our human flesh,. Something is being accomplished- that we have not- and can not do- this great mystery we receive, believe- trust and accept.
Now God is acting, and though Mary accepts the burden of bringing the child to birth- Jospeh too is called into the work of God. He will protect and provide for the child- he gives up what his culture would taught him to value most- giving his name and inheritance to his own first born son- this is not his child in the way that all those other generations could claim their son.. Here God is working a new thing – is it too much to say the only truly new thing within creation – even as when “let there be light” was first spoken- even when it was first said- “let us make humanity in our own image”. Now, all those endless ages later, as things seem unchanging, this is the first step in that promise ‘Behold, I make all things new’. This child and what he brings us is new. This child and what he brings us is ours- and we know him as ours- but he is more than that. And we are, by grace and in his embrace- more than we were. The word was made flesh- and we beheld his glory- and when we have seen that- we are no longer the same.
There is a convention in depictions of the nativity- that along with the ox and donkey – that Isaiah tells us knew their master’s manger- that Joseph would be standing to the side- holding a lantern. I’ve joked more than once that what a dad hears most often – is “here, hold this”- a coat as a child rushes off to play- or as a parent with stronger stomach steps up to take care of a blood scraped knee -or to pull out a splinter- “here, hold this” – seems to push us out of the story- yet, Joseph stands there, holding a lantern. And of course, without that, we wouldn’t see the baby. God calls us all – each of us- into the story and work of things being made new. God has done what we can not- and the gap between this creation and its creator, is bridged as he comes to be with us- to take up our flesh -and never to put it aside; God has done what we could not do – and Jesus has lifted the world’s burden of sin.
We are called, like Joseph to the common round of life and work, of joys and sorrows- but to all of that- with this other call. Here- hold this. And this- is the light that we hold, in hand or heart, that shines through word or action- the light by which we let others see what God has done in this infant- the light by which we see the face of God and the boundless grace that flows from that infant’s smile.
- H. Auden’s poem- For the Time Being– reflects on the Annunciation to Joseph and suggests that in Joseph, some of us have to learn that we are necessary-at least not in quite the way we thought. When God acts, when grace emerges in a cold, dark season- God acts- and we are not, as we have been in all those generations, quite so central. God acts- and when grace appears- we both receive and care for it- we hold the lantern and let it be seen. Grace, God’s work among us, is utterly transcendent and beyond our calculations or competence but it always engages us- even at simplest and most ordinary of actions-bread and wine- an infant who silently waits to be heard.
Blessed Joseph- who stands with the lantern- whose heart heard and obeyed the call- blessed Joseph who held- not only the lantern but the child- blessed Joseph be our- as your were Jesus’ example-