A Sermon for the 2nd Sunday in Advent…

Written & Preached at Montecito Covenant Church by Diana R.G. Trautwein, 12/6/09

I have decided I am not a fan of surprises. Now don’t get me wrong – I like GOOD surprises. But I’m not sure I like those kinds of surprises well enough to make up for the other kind of surprises – those things that shock and startle and wound and worry. In fact, in recent weeks, I have found myself very, VERY wary of such surprises.

And I know that I am not alone in my wariness – a lot of people – a lot of you dear people, and a lot of other people in my life as well – are reeling from strange and scary surprises that have literally smacked them upside the head and left them seeing stars. Let me list just a few:

A hard-earned graduate degree has proven to be a handicap not a help in a long-term job search;


A beloved child is discovered to be wildly abusing controlled substances;


A devoted wife is startled by the sudden exit from her marriage of a husband of nearly 40 years;


An elderly woman’s sudden black-out causes a brain-bleed leading to permanent full-time care;


A struggling middle-aged man on the way to a better life is found dead in his sleep;


These are the kinds of earth-shaking, unexpected happenings that can quickly over-whelm a person. These are the kinds of events that hurt and startle rather than delight and refresh. Surprises like these can change the course of our lives, re-arrange the texture of our days, re-focus our emotional energies, and alter our personal and family story. So, I’ll say it again: I am not a fan of surprises.

And the text before us this morning tells us about a humdinger of one –a surprise that not only changed a personal and family story, but changed the very history of the world. Turn in your Bibles, if you wish, or you might choose to simply listen, to the first chapter of the gospel of Matthew, beginning at verse 18:

18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. 20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). 24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

This is the word of the Lord for us this day.

Given the time and culture in which we live, I think it is more than a little bit difficult for us to wrap our minds around how hard this particular surprise was for a good, first-century, Jewish man like Joseph. Unmarried women surprise their families with pregnancies every day in the current age, if the tabloids are to be believed, and marriage is quickly becoming an afterthought – last, rather than first, in the line of happenings that used to follow a more particular order. There was, at one time – long, long ago – in another galaxy – far, far away – an old schoolyard poem that went something like this:

“First comes love, then comes marriage,

then comes (you fill in the blank with a pair of names) with a baby carriage.”

Not any more. More often than not, the baby carriage precedes either marriage or love, and there is little, if any, public shame or censure. So you’re going to need to put on your cultural sensitivity hats for a while this morning to more fully grasp the poignancy and the point of this morning’s primary text.

In first century Jewish life, marriage was a big deal – a really big deal. Necessary for the protection of women, who had few, if any rights, and who were always under the wing of a man – either a father, a husband or a son. So finding a husband was something that was done by the entire family and was never left to the vagaries of chance or “love.” Marriages were arranged, and betrothals, engagements, were entered into with all the seriousness of any legally binding contract of the present day. As Don mentioned last week, girls were often between the ages of 12 and 15 when they were betrothed, and men were usually in their late teens or early twenties, sometimes even older. The period of engagement lasted about a year, and it was serious, it was permanent, it was almost the same thing as marriage – it’s just that the couple did not yet live in the same physical space together. The girl remained with her parents, the young man remained with his. At the point of the actual wedding celebration – the young woman would move into the house of her fiancé. But until then, the couple was considered to be married – bound by law and commitment, a union which could only be severed by official decree of divorce.

So when Matthew describes Mary as ‘pledged to be married to Joseph’ in one sentence and in the very next breath calls Joseph ‘her husband,’ he is not contradicting himself. Their commitment was complete, it was just not yet consummated. Which makes the fact that Mary is found to be pregnant more than a little bit troublesome. Because her ‘husband,’ Joseph – a simple man of trade, as the song put it –Joseph, a righteous man as Matthew describes him – Joseph knows that this baby growing inside Mary is not his. No way, no how. Joseph is a good, observant Jewish person. He knows the rules. He lives by the rules. He values, even cherishes the rules and views them as a source of life and power and order. He knows he has honored the rules about betrothed couples staying away from full physical intimacy before the official wedding night. And he knows that he has honored those rules. He does not know that about Mary. Joseph also knows that, if he chose to do so, he could have her publicly humiliated – even stoned – for adultery.

We learn something really important about Joseph right here: We learn that Joseph was a man of righteousness – yes – but he was not a stern moralizer nor a harsh judge. He knew that the ‘right’ thing, the legally obedient thing to do was to end his legal betrothal; but he also knew that he did not want to be vindictive, he did not want to be highhanded, he did not want to be proved righteous in a public forum of any kind. Our text implies that he gave a lot of thought to what to do next, that he very carefully considered his options – and then he did what any thoughtful, deliberate person would do – he decided to sleep on it.

And here’s where our story gets really interesting, isn’t it? And here is also where we connect this text for today to our year-long, self-designed lectionary preaching series on the Holy Spirit, most especially, this is where we connect to the short series-within-the series for Advent this year – looking at how God’s Spirit speaks to people through special messengers called angels. But of all the angel encounters we’re looking at this Advent, this one is unique. This one is different from the others – because in Joseph’s portion of the story of Christmas – he angel comes in a dream, not in person.

I really like that fact, I have to say! Because I’m with Don on this one – angels are not something I’m totally comfortable even thinking about, much less teaching or preaching about. So to look in depth at a story about a dream-angel was somehow easier for me. Because I believe that dreams are powerful psychological and spiritual events and that God can and does speak to us through them. Dreams are a gift of God that enable us to process things that are happening to us in our conscious lives while we’re unconscious, while we’re sleeping. So to spend time studying Joseph’s dream the past few weeks has been both a joy and a privilege.

And here’s what I really love about this dream: in it, God encourages Joseph to re-define what it means to be a righteous person. God invites Joseph to walk right through his fears, to look this strange and scary surprise squarely in the eyes and embrace it. The angel takes what Joseph thought to be bad news and tells him that not only is it NOT bad news, it is the best news he or anyone has ever heard.

For you see, the kingdom of God is breaking into history. The kingdom of God is pushing through that unseen barrier between time and eternity. The kingdom of God is, by God’s choice and God’s design, folding itself into the form of a tiny human life, silently growing within the willing, obedient body of a young, Jewish virgin named Mary. Mary, who is betrothed to a righteous and good man named Joseph, who just happens to be in the line of David, the greatest king in Israel’s history, the line through which the Messiah – the Anointed, the Chosen One will come to save Israel.

And Matthew has taken the first 17 verses of this opening chapter to lay that connection out really clearly. He lists a genealogy which traces Jesus’ human lineage back to Abraham. And along the way, he takes a few – 5 to be exact – surprising detours – by listing women in that family treeall of whom are of questionable moral character, at least according to the thinking of their neighbors. The fifth of those five is, as we have already noted, Mary, whose morals were questioned even by her betrothed husband.

And then, at verse 18, Matthew’s focus shifts to become much more specific about Joseph, the man who will raise Jesus as his own. We’ve only got 8 short verses here – not a whole lot of detail – but what we do have is pretty amazing. We’ve already discovered that Joseph was both righteous and merciful. We’ve seen that he was deeply thoughtful, reflective and deliberate in his decision making. Now we know that God had a very specific word for him – a word of comfort, hope and challenge.

The angel addresses Joseph with respect, using the title “son of David.” He goes right to the heart of the problem with the words, “Do not be afraid…” Because – let’s be honest here – isn’t fear so often the big ugly thing at the bottom of so much of what motivates us most of the time? Fear of what others will think of us. Fear of what God will think of us. Fear of what will happen if we go this way or that way. Fear of what will happen if we don’t go any way. Fear that we won’t measure up. Fear that if we give up our right to worry, we’ll ‘lose’ control over all those things we really don’t control anyhow! Fear that the surprise – whatever it may be in our own lives – will be too hard, too horrible, too painful, too overwhelming, too, too, too… too much or us to bear.

And the angel of the Lord speaks directly into that fear: “Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife.” There it is. Complete the deal, Joseph. Make it official. Let go of your fears, of your need to be the man in charge, your need to obey the rules you know… because…some of the rules you know are about to be tossed around like fruit salad. Some of the rules you live by are no longer pertinent. Some of the rules that form your own definition of yourself are slipping out of your hand, changing shape, taking on new colors and textures and interpretations and meanings. Why?

Because what is conceived in Mary is from the Holy Spirit, that’s why. Because life as you know it is changing in ways both subtle and dramatic, that’s why. Because a Holy God has stooped to hide within a human womb, that’s why. Because a mighty plan of salvation, and companionship and transformation is being set in motion…..and you, son of David, you are to be an integral part of that plan. You are to give this plan, this babe who will become a man – you are to give him his name –Yeshua – God saves! For “God saves” – Yeshua – JESUS – will save his people from their sins. Surprise!

And then the entire dream-angel message is set firmly within the context of fulfilled prophecy with those closing words taken from Isaiah 7 …. “they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God with us.’” God saves. God with us. About as full and complete a picture of Jesus the Messiah as you can find in two names. The name he was called –Jesus. The name that describes who he is and what he came to do – Immanuel. The amazing, saving, incarnate God – fully human, fully divine.

And here’s the last little piece that we must not miss, we simply must not miss. The dream-angel is gone. And Joseph is no longer sleeping, but wide awake. And what we read, in simple and elegant words, is that Joseph did as he was told. He, like Mary in last week’s lesson, did exactly what the angel asked him to do. He immediately brought Mary home as his wife. He cared for her throughout the remainder of her pregnancy. And when she gave birth to that long-promised son, Joseph named him Jesus. And with that simple, obedient act, he gave Jesus not only is given name – but a family name –allowing the miraculously conceived son of Mary to have a full, legal, legitimate place in his first century Jewish home.

In a very real sense, that’s what you and I are asked to do as well, isn’t it? To name Jesus – to allow him full, legitimate access to all of who we are – to listen to the angel of the Lord as he spoke words of promise and hope to Joseph, and to listen as the Holy Spirit speaks those same words to us: Do not be afraid. Call his name Jesus. He shall save his people from their sins. He will be called Immanuel, which means, God with us. Surprise!

Let us pray:

Good and surprising God, who can take even the most difficult of surprises

and somehow work redemption through them,

hear our hearts this morning.

Prepare these hearts to receive you anew,

to name Jesus as savior and lord,

to savor the sweetness of the with-us-God,

who joins us in this vale of tears and says,

“Do not be afraid!”

As we gather round your table of life today,

hear our prayers of confession and contrition.

Remind us again of your gracious choice

to forgive us,

to walk with us,

to encourage us to live our lives in tune with the Holy Spirit,

the Spirit who gives us life with a capital “L,”

and who daily reminds us of your love and grace.

In Jesus’ name we pray.


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  1. Thanks for posting this Diana and allowing us to join in from a distance.i