Sermons That Work

Here We Are…, Advent 4 (A) – 2007

December 23, 2007

Here we are, on the fourth Sunday of Advent. Christmas Eve is just around the corner. Ready or not, it’s just about time for the Christmas story, told by carol, by pageant, by Sunday school children in bathrobes and tinsel halos. And when we say “the Christmas story,” we usually mean Luke’s version of the Christmas story. You know, the one with the shepherds kneeling at the manger, sheep illuminated by all the heavenly host. The spotlight shines on Mary and the baby. Joseph is there too, of course. Although Joseph usually doesn’t get any speaking lines, unless he gets to ask for room at the inn, or to inquire “please, isn’t there somewhere my very pregnant wife can lay down?” But that’s a story for Christmas Eve. Here on the fourth Sunday of Advent, we also hear the Christmas story, but it’s the one told in Matthew’s gospel. Here, in Matthew, we hear the Christmas story from the point of view of the father. Well, er, not the “father” exactly. Joseph is decidedly not the father of Jesus. And when Joseph hears that the woman to whom he is engaged is pregnant, and he’s not the father, he assumes what any normal person would: Mary has been unfaithful. And Joseph, being a righteous man, plans to dissolve in form the engagement commitment that apparently has already been dissolved in fact. But Joseph soon learns that the disruption of his plans for a nice simple home life with his bride and his dreams of becoming a father are not actually the stuff of soap opera drama. His question of “Who’s the father?” is actually part of a much larger, divine drama in which he will play a pivotal role – but not the role of father, exactly. How fitting that Matthew’s version of the Christmas story is about the father who isn’t one. You see, Matthew’s got this thing about fathers. Matthew has very strong opinions about how people who follow the Son of God should regard earthly fathers and the Heavenly One. It’s in Matthew 29 that Jesus instructs his disciples, “Call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father – the one in heaven.” Starting with Jesus, whose Father really is the one in heaven, Matthew gives those who want to follow Jesus plenty to think about in terms of reorienting our earthly relationships, including those between children and earthly fathers. Jesus teaches his followers to orient their allegiance toward God, and all other loyalties need to fall into their rightful places in light of our relationship with God. That means privileges usually given to fathers in Jesus’ day, such as treating children as property in many ways, and authority granted to fathers, such as making decisions binding on all members of the household, were to be removed. This means a radical redefinition of family, which Jesus himself exemplifies. In Matthew 12, Jesus is told that his mother and brothers are looking for him, and he replies, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? … Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” You’ll notice that in Jesus’ family configuration, there are only brothers and sisters and mothers, and these are whoever does the will of the only Father, the one in heaven. Earthly fathers become brothers, giving up their earthly privileges over others, and, like those who had less power than they in Jesus’ day, they too find their meaning and purpose in the will of the one Father in heaven. As if to emphasize this reconfiguration of family, especially of fathers, Matthew’s gospel shows us a few earthly fathers. And it’s not a pretty sight. There are some real bad dads, starting with Herod the Great. This earthly dad had some of his own children murdered in order to protect his position as king. And when he hears that some visiting magi have identified a Galilean peasant’s son as a potential rival, he orders the slaughter of the children of an entire village. One of Herod’s surviving sons, called Herod Antipas, is another bad earthly father. When he sees his step-daughter dance, he makes an oath that she can have anything she wants, even half of his kingdom. Children need appropriate boundaries, as any child psychologist will tell you, and Herod just can’t say no. When his darling child asks for the head of John the Baptist on a platter, he can’t bring himself to disappoint her. In Matthew 7, Jesus asks, “Who among you,” asks Jesus, “if your child asks for bread, would give a stone?” Well, Herod, bad father that he is, will give his child, not food and protection, but serves up a gruesome and tragic dish instead. But even when Matthew isn’t showing us truly horrible earthly fathers, he still pushes us on what our relationship to one another should be, even to our earthly fathers. For example, early in Jesus’ ministry, Jesus calls James and John, the sons of Zebedee, to follow him. They do, and they leave their earthly father standing alone in his boat. We get a hint at what Jesus means about becoming a new family with one heavenly Father by watching these two throughout Matthew’s gospel. When they’re acting like followers of Jesus, that is, as true sons of Jesus’ Father, they’re called “brothers”: “James and his brother John,” or “the two brothers.” But, when they’re acting like they’ve never heard of Jesus, for example, when they’re trying to get the best seats in the kingdom, or falling asleep as Jesus prays in Gethsemane, they’re called “Sons of Zebedee.” Jesus knows it’s hard to break our familiar patterns, and that even now we may put the desires and demands of blood relatives ahead of our loyalty to our one heavenly Father and his son, our brother, and his family. When Matthew shows earthly parents who are doing right by their children, they are bringing them to Jesus, they are asking for their children to be healed, they are letting Jesus bless them. When parents care for their children by putting them in Jesus’ care, they are acting as sons and daughters of the Father in heaven. When any one of us cares for the least, the lost, the vulnerable, the weak, the little ones in our midst, we are acting as sons and daughters of our one Father, and brothers and sisters of Jesus. It’s at the beginning of this story that the spotlight shines on Joseph, who shows the baby Jesus the kind of care that is in line with what the child’s Father, and ours, desires. Joseph shows the kind of care that all of us are to show to those who are most vulnerable in society. Joseph follows the command of God. Joseph risks his own sense of what looks proper to the neighbors. Joseph aligns himself with someone others would call unrighteous. Joseph acts decisively when the child’s safety is at risk. Joseph is willing to act in such a way that Jesus will grow up knowing that his first allegiance is to God, and that means his family will be bigger, broader, and, yes, stranger than any family Joseph could provide. Joseph is no earthly father to be sure, but shows us precisely the sort of love our heavenly Father wants us all to show. May we, like Joseph our brother, know and show the love of our Father in heaven, this Christmas and always.

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Christopher Sikkema