A Sermon from the Church of
Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 18, 2022 (Advent 4, Year A)
Wait, watch. These are the themes of Advent. The church is always encouraging us to hold off on celebrating Christmas too early. On the Sundays of Advent we sing Advent hymns, not Christmas carols. We light the Advent wreath and the building light points to that grand event that is to come: the birth of our Lord. Our desire for instant gratification is put on hold, even as the world around us watches Hallmark Christmas movies. The waiting and watching is part of our spiritual discipline as we steep ourselves in hope and expectation.
And yet, this Sunday’s gospel passage subverts all of our patient waiting. Here’s the big spoiler alert: Jesus is born! Oddly enough, we get Matthew’s birth narrative on the Fourth Sunday of Advent this year. So, in light of this, I think we’ll just cancel all the Christmas services and we’ll see you in the New Year.
But before we do that, I guess we should take a closer look at this passage and see how it fits into the season of Advent. The first thing to notice is that Joseph plays a prominent role; this whole scene takes place from his perspective. In a dream, he learns that he should go ahead and marry the woman to whom he was engaged, and that this child Mary is carrying, was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and that he is to name him Jesus. Now, that’s a lot to absorb. But when Joseph wakes up from this life-changing dream, he does what the angel says: he marries Mary, waits for her to give birth, and names the child Jesus.
Now, Joseph is kind of the Rodney Dangerfield of the whole nativity scene. When you set up your crèche you probably start with the manger and baby Jesus. Next comes Mary, perhaps a few angels, and then there’s always that moment of confusion when you can’t tell Jospeh apart from one of the shepherds. But eventually you figure it out and stick him in there to gaze upon the holy child, but not too close.
Joseph is like a holy bystander. Supportive of Mary, excited and nervous at the prospect of raising this child. But he’s not exactly able to stare down at Jesus and say, “I think he’s got my eyes.” So we’re not quite sure what to do with Joseph. It’s nice to have him around, we think, but he’s not really necessary to the story. But there’s more to St. Joseph than this, and he does play a crucial role in Jesus’ life. Not only does he raise Jesus as his own, he protects him from certain death when the holy family flees to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath — the result of another dream. And so Joseph stands out as a model of someone who hears God’s voice and faithfully responds to it, even when what is being asked is unusual or disquieting.
In this season of waiting and watching, we could all stand to tune out the noise and listen a little more intently to God’s voice. Believe me, it’s hard to do that a week before Christmas. There is just so much noise and so many expectations. But you’re here. Which is a good place to be as we all seek some spiritual shelter from the swirling storm that is the Christmas-industrial complex. And so Joseph points us to a way of listening and responding to God’s call even when life feels too full. And we need that during this season.
The other thing about this passage and the real reason it fits into the season of Advent is that it points to questions about Jesus’ identity. We learn that he is indeed divine, being conceived by the Holy Spirit. That his birth is the fulfillment of Scripture — we get that quote from the prophet Isaiah — “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.” And we see the significance of his name. The name Jesus means “to save,” and Jesus has come into the world to save us from sin and death. But also Jesus is Emmanuel, meaning God-with-us. Through the birth of Jesus, God enters the world in human form to live and dwell among us which, another spoiler alert, is the true miracle of Christmas.
So, in the same way that John the Baptist prepares the way of the Lord, this passage prepares us to meet the Christ child. It sets the stage for the entrance of the messiah into the world by emphasizing Jesus’ identity as God’s son. We’re not waiting for some wise teacher to show up on Christmas. We are awaiting the arrival of God’s only begotten Son. The one whose birth literally changes the world. The one who sets us free from the bondage of sin and death. The one who ushers in the very kingdom of heaven right here on earth. And in so doing transforms the world and fills our lives with hope and meaning. Not to get too far ahead of ourselves — we still have a week before all of that.
But hearing this birth narrative a week before Christmas is also a good reminder that even as we await the birth of Jesus, Jesus is already here. So while the Advent police may not like you listening to Christmas carols before the 25th, it’s okay to do so. And even though I may roll my eyes at the Hallmark Christmas movies, I’m not going to turn them off in a huff while Bryna’s watching them at the rectory. Which she does. A lot. Jesus is with us right now, in this moment, in this place. Just as he always is. Even as we prepare for his arrival in a manger not long from now, and even as we await his coming again in great glory.
When our boys were growing up, they used to love setting up the crèche in our living room. They always did it with great care and reverence. Even if they often added their own figurines to the scene. There was usually a Darth Vader next to the shepherds or a Power Ranger among the sheep. But a debate would always rage about whether to put the baby Jesus into the manger before the 25th or wait until Christmas. I was always in the let’s wait camp and everyone else in the house opposed my position. So I always lost. But theologically speaking, they were probably right. Jesus is with us, even as we wait for him. Both of these things can be and are true. Just as Jesus is with us now, even as we await his coming again at the end of the age.
And in the meantime, we can look to Joseph’s example as one who listens attentively to the moving of the Spirit in his life. We can reflect upon Jesus’ identity as God’s son. And we can open our hearts to the one who is both to come and already at hand.