Sunday, December 19, 2010

Advent 4A Sermon

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Genesis, Chapter 1, starts with the words:
In the beginning,
when God created the heavens and the earth,
the earth was a confused emptiness,
darkness covered the face of the deep,
[but] God's Spirit moved over the face of the waters”

Then God began to create.
And God saw what God created.
And it was Good.

So begins the Old Testament.

About a thousand years after Genesis was written,
there lived the couple found in our reading this morning:

Mary and Joseph.

Young, poor, newly-engaged,
undocumented, soon-to-be political refugees,

Living on what they viewed as their ancestors' land,
but a land that was now occupied by the world's greatest Superpower.

Politically quite powerless people, peasants.

Insignificant to history and society as a whole.

These were ordinary folks.

Going about their daily lives.

one day:
was found to have:
”a bun in the oven” (thank you to Rachel for this translation)...
she was found to:
“be with child”
(and to be with child without any help from Joseph)...



In Mary and Joseph's time,
when folks got married,
they didn't get married like folks get married today in the West.

Folks didn't get married because of romantic love.

in Mary and Joseph's time,
was a contract.

A contract made between the husband-to-be and the father-in-law-to be.

(In this case, Between Joseph and Mary's Father)

A legal agreement.

An arrangement.

An arranged marriage.

(These are still common today all over the world).

Husbands and wives were commanded to love each other once they were married.

But they didn't necessarily get married because of love.

Love happened later.


And it wasn't necessarily emotional.

Or romantic.

Love was a way of treating one's spouse.

An action.

A way of caring for one's wife or husband.


(Or covenantally).

Joseph (presumes today's Gospel reading)
has already taken the first step toward marriage with Mary's Father.

The fact that we find the two engaged in this story
means that he (Joseph), and Mary's Dad had already cut a deal.

Mary was promised to Joseph

She was en-gaged.
A word that means under-promise.

According to religious (and legal) custom
as soon as Joseph “took Mary home” with him,
the two of them would be officially married.
Husband ans wife.
There was no set amount of time within which this had to happen.

To be found pregnant in Mary's day,
as a promised bride,
(by someone other than one's promised husband)
was punishable,
according to the popular religion and law,
by stoning the bride (and whoever got her pregnant)
to death.

That is:
to be found “with bun in oven” outside of arranged marriage
was to get a bunch of angry dudes
standing around Mary
throwing rocks at her until she got hit hard enough,
or until she bled to death.

when Mary was found “with bun in oven”

And when Joseph found out,
says our text,
despite his disappointment,
and despite the fact that Joseph could have “gotten even,”
by making a bloody show of Mary,

Joseph decided to dismiss her quietly.

A merciful move on Joseph's part, bu a move
that would leave Mary,
an unwed, vulnerable, pregnant, teen,
alone, in poverty, undocumented,
and disowned by her family, likely living in the streets,
begging with a newborn child.

A move that,
despite Joseph's “righteous” intentions,
would leave Mary in the chaos
and the void of untouchable society.

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth,
the earth was a confused emptiness,
darkness covered the face of the deep,

[but] God's Spirit moved over the waters”

When Joseph learned that Mary was with-bun-in-oven, he planned to dismiss her quietly,
but an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream.

And the angel said something like this:
Don't be afraid.
The Spirit who moved over the face of the deep.
Has moved in Mary.
The God who gave birth to creation
Will be born of your wife
They will call him Emmanuel, God with us
And you will call him Jesus, God saves.

They will call him Emmanuel, God with us
And you will call him Jesus, God saves.

So often
when I am out and about
folks'll say ridiculous stuff to me like:
“You don't wanna see me in church, Reverend!
If I walked in there lightning would come down and strike me in the top of the head!”

or they'll say:

“if I went into your church all the walls would cave in on me.”

Or some other ridiculous punishment they'll make up that they swear would happen to them
if they walked into the sanctuary
as the sinner or
the addict
or the disbeliever
or the just absolute mess they are.
[and all their friends around them seem to nod in agreement that: yeah! they're right! That that would happen! etc., etc.]

Such conversations,
to me,
are indications of where we,
the church,
have failed.

It seems (to me) that we
[Christians in general]
have often times failed to make it clear that the church exists as a place for broken people.

For recovering people.

For desperate people.

For disbelieving people.

For sinners.

For folks who don't have their sh*t together.

For folks like Mary and Joseph.

For folks like us.

So often times churches and Christians and preachers preach
a false message:
A message that suggests that being a Christian means having your life “right” or together or all worked out.

Or that being a church member means never having problems,
never being upset,
never being unpleasant or unhappy or unsatisfied.
Or hungover.
(Being to blessed to be stressed)...

Such messages are not only dangerous
and exclusive
and potentially life-sucking,
but they are also untrue to the Gospel,
And (I think)
to the stories of creation,
and to the stories of Christmas.

Today's Gospel is a reminder to me that:

God calls us in our mess.
God calls us in our brokenness.
God calls us at our rock-bottom,
in our unbelief,
in our sinning,
in our anxiety,

God calls us together amidst our Chaos,
moves over the face of the deep,
and there,
among us,

God is born.


And you will call him Jesus: God Saves.
And he'll be called Emmanuel: God is with us.


This year, may we continue to increasingly foster an environment, here at First Trinity,
that lets people know that they will not be struck by lightening if they enter this place,
(or by our judgments about them, for that matter)
[not even that guy]
and may we provide a sanctuary here that allows people,
whoever they are,
to gather together,
to experience the birth of God within their own lives at Christmas, but also over and over again.

as Christmas Eve approaches.
may God be born anew in us,

May God's saving presence guide us and transform our lives,
calling forth beauty from Chaos,
and giving us the courage to take the Chaos of our world and our lives, to create something very good.

May we work together as god's family at First Trinity to do this.

May the peace that passes all understanding guard our hearts and minds through Christ Jesus, our expected Lord.



  1. In a materialistically humanistic culture like ours, the concept of divine Grace that saves unconditionally is extra difficult for us mortals to understand. So, indeed, we the church fails at our core mission (i.e., promulgating the Gospel) when the claim of spiritual perfectionism -- the very opposite of the Good News -- is the dominant voice in many people's mind today...

    Such "perfectionistic" notion is untrue, because the center of the Gospel is that Christ came not for the "righteous", but for the sinners -- which is all of us, for "ALL sinned & fell short of the glory of God". The church must be a safe haven for us "broken people" to experience the continuous birth of God within us, because the God of the church is a saving God, who wants to save us by being with us -- and the church exists in the world to serve that very purpose.

    Such "perfectionistic" notion is also debilitating & dangerous, because it easily ferments exclusivists (who are blind to their own shortcomings), modern-day Pharisees (who are aware of their inability to fulfill their own perfectionistic demand except under a façade), moral/spiritual deserters (who are crushed by the impossible demand), and determined cynics (whose odd state of self-pride alongside self-loathing pushes them to become tireless finger-pointers against all, and sometimes even calculated stumbling blocks for others!).

    It is true that, in the New Testament, we are told "to be perfect, for your Father in heaven is perfect". However, I think this call for us "to be perfect" is meant to be a drive, a direction, an orientation -- it refers to that entire growth process of us being saved & sanctified, the spiritual process of us being constantly created by God; it is not a state accomplished during our earthly sojourn.

    To be(come) perfect, I think the most important thing for us creatures to do is not to try to perfect ourselves, which very quickly turns into pulling ourselves up by our shoestrings, but to pray & be attentive to the leading of the Holy Spirit, to have deep faith & strong willingness to "made" perfect by the grace of God -- the God who, as apostle Paul reminds us of small faith, creates everything from nothing & raised Jesus Christ from the dead!

    "May God's saving presence guide us & transform our lives,
    Calling forth beauty from chaos,
    giving us the courage
    to take the chaos of our world & our lives
    to create something very good."

    "And He'll be called Emmanuel: God with us."
    "And you will call Him Jesus: God Saves."


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