a sermon for the 4th Sunday in Advent
All of us have dreams for the future, including Mary and Joseph. But God had another dream for them.
Sometimes, our hopes and dreams get thrown completely out the window.
When I was growing up, I dreamed that I would become a doctor. That’s what my parents wanted. That’s what I thought I wanted. Work hard, go to college, get good grades, go to med school. I knew that medicine is an honorable profession, and that doctors make good money. At some point, I knew I’d settle down, get married, have kids, a nice home, fancy cars. I’d be all set.
But God had a different dream for me.
All of us have dreams for our lives. We dream of meeting the perfect someone that we’ll share our life with. We dream about having a good job and being able to provide for our families. Some of us dream about having kids. Some of us dream about doing interesting work. Some of us dream about traveling to strange and far away places. But all of us dream about what our lives will be like in the future.
Joseph and Mary had those dreams, too. Joseph, who was probably much older, in his twenties or maybe even thirty, was established in his profession; he had the means to support a family. Mary was probably a teenager, but she knew how to make a home. The two of them were already committed to each other in a marriage contract; bound by custom, honor and faith exclusively to one another. Their dream was for Joseph to earn a living and Mary to make a home, and the two of them would raise a family – a nice, normal, faithful, Jewish family. That was their dream.
But God had a different dream.
One day, Mary found herself to be pregnant by the will of God. Now, I don’t want to get into a debate about whether or not Mary was a virgin. There are lots of people in this room who are sure she was, and lots of people who are sure she couldn’t have been. Frankly, I think that that is all beside the point. The point is that Mary was pregnant by the will of God, and that Joseph didn’t have anything to do with it. God had acted to fulfill God’s promise to be with his people forever, a promise he had made to Abraham, Moses and David. God had acted, and suddenly, the dreams of Joseph and Mary were thrown out the window. That’s the way it always is: God acts, and we respond.
Mary’s response was pretty straightforward. What else could she do? As a young girl in trouble in an ancient society, all she could do was have the baby and throw herself on the mercy and kindness of her future husband.
But Joseph had other options. He could have turned her out of his house, leaving her to fend for herself. Or he could have reported her to the authorities, and let them take care of the situation. In either case, he would have been just fine. His honor and reputation would have been restored, and his dreams for his life would have been largely undisturbed. He could have found another wife, and settled down to raise a family – a nice, normal, faithful, Jewish family. After all, that was his dream.
One night, God gave Joseph another dream. This one was different – in this dream, Joseph’s life wouldn’t be quite so easy. He would stay with Mary and protect the child she carried and raised him as his own. He would probably have to endure the ridicule of his friends and neighbors for standing by Mary, who had pretty obviously betrayed him. Then, he would have to hide his wife and his child from the authorities and travel long distances over hard roads to far away lands. And he would do this simply because he was faithful to God.
Like Mary and Joseph, all of us have dreams about what our lives will be like someday – dreams for ourselves and our families; dreams about how our lives might turn out. Dreams are the root of our imagination. They for the foundation upon which we plan for the future. If we’re very lucky, and if we work very hard, some of our dreams might become a reality.
But not always. Sometimes our dreams are interrupted by events completely out of our control. Something happens and we’re out of a job, or a loved one gets very sick, or the person we thought we’d spend our lives with wants to go some other way. These are times when, like Joseph, we don’t really know which way to turn. And these are times when, if we are willing, we can become a part of God’s dream for us.
Let go of your dream, Joseph. Your dream of having a nice, normal, Jewish family. Your dream of living in one place, and having a nice house, and raising 10 kids who will take care of you in your old age. Let go of your dream and take up God’s.
In God’s dream, the child Mary was carrying had been conceived by the Holy Spirit. In God’s dream, Joseph and Mary and the baby were all part of God’s grand plan for the world. In God’s dream, the child that had been conceived by the will of God would be called “Emmanuel.”
Emmanuel. It is a Hebrew word that means, “God is with us,” but that doesn’t fully capture the meaning. It is more like God is one of us. No longer was God satisfied with being just some distant being of incredible power that was separated from the lives of the people he created. Oh, no. God promised to be more than that. God promised to be a God who lived among his people. And so God came to be one of us; to live among us. Emmanuel means we are all part of God’s dream.
God promised Joseph that he would be with them as they raised the child. God promised to walk with Mary and Joseph, and he continues to walk with us, right here and right now, and through every celebration and disappointment in our lives. Getting married? God is there. Having a baby? God is there, too. Lose a job? God’s right there. Sick and in the hospital? God lies in bed with us.
And how do we know this? How do we know that God’s creative and promise-keeping work is still a part of our lives? That’s where our faith comes in. Our faith holds that the baby Jesus, born of Mary and adopted by Joseph, is still acting in the world today. Our faith holds that God is still with us – God is one of us – whenever we wait and watch for words of hope, or mercy, or grace even today. We are surrounded and filled by God, because we are surrounded and filled by the Christ who lives within us. We are all part of God’s dream.
And maybe that is the real meaning of Emmanuel: through faith, God lives within us. All of us are a little bit like Mary, the God Bearer; we all carry God within us. And all of us are a little like Joseph, listening for God’s promise, and responding in faith to God’s action in the world today.
Come, Emmanuel. Come as you came that day 2000 years ago, to live and act in the world you created. Come to us today, and live inside us. Come, as you fulfill your promise to make us all a part of your dream to save the world.
Thanks be to God.