Preacher: Nathan Hosler
Scripture: Matthew 1:18-25
Date: December 18, 2022
It was Saturday morning and still dark. I awoke and looked at my clock. 5:19. Perfect—not too early, not too late. Still a few minutes until my alarm would go off. Headed off to my first race since April 2019. Which was feeling enormously long ago, and I didn’t feel prepared for what was to come—undertrained and managing an inflamed right Achilles since January. I was excited and anxious wasn’t quite where I was—but perhaps not non-anxious. No one would mind—or even care—if I stopped early.
If training for a 100meter dash, the runner will run that distance as well as longer distances. There are unknowns but the distance is well-known.
For a race this long—50 kilometers—the person in training rarely runs the actual distance in training—I hadn’t run half this long in probably a year or more.
This is going into relatively unknown territory—physically and mentally. How will my body respond? How do you pace for something far beyond what you’ve done—or done recently. Even when you’ve done it before a lot can happen over that many hours. Not only is there the unknown but the progress plays out in hours not seconds or minutes.
In such situations, there is a need to attend to your inner state—a need to attend to how you are. You also need to push past and through discomfort. There is something like trust—not for divine intervention but at least a patience and non-panic. While ideally you don’t get seriously hurt, the point is not comfort but to reach the goal. There will be times of joy—serenity—inner peace. There are many external factors, weather, trail conditions, that root, this rock. There are also conditions in the runner’s body, such as injury and tiredness, that can’t be adjusted much in the race.
Our Gospel passage today is 8 verses long. Beginning in chapter 1 verse 18 through verse 25, it covers the entirety of the angelic announcement through birth—something like 8 months in 8 verses. Surprise life and world-shaking announcement through months of physical strain through final push—not to mention social stresses, societal stigma, and risk plus uncertainty. The first 17 verses are Jesus’ genealogy. Immediately after the birth the Maggie arrive—though months and years between verse 25 and 26 there is nary a notation.
I noticed that Matthew’s account of these months is particularly sparce. We can observe that unlike other accounts, we do not see any angelic visitation to Mary, her response (epic in Luke), her visiting her relatives, the trip or reason for going to Bethlehem (imperial occupation), or the inability to find lodging in a town away from home and the using of an animal lodge for shelter.
One could, and should, raise questions and challenge the cultural, religious, and personal biases and injustices that this demonstrates and perpetuates.
My typical response to such observations in a text is to think and speak structural. Whose voices are not heard, actively excluded, passively underrepresented? What are the policy and systems—the principalities and powers—that undermine and uncut the well-being of all. What elements not only don’t support well-being and wholeness—which necessarily includes justice—but actively work against it?
From these few sentences you will detect my unease of not (quite) doing this today. This unease comes from the concern, that for Christians who live in relative ease and safety it is easy to focus on myself, my happiness or contentment—my inner peace, and our comfort. However, despite my hesitance, I’m going to focus on the joy, serenity, and inner peace beyond—or before—systems and structures that seduce and crush.
Eberhard Arnold, resister of Nazi’s and creator of Christian intentional communities, wrote,
“But it is the same with those friends of peace who make the opposite mistake and speak about world peace without peace with God and without the social justice of complete community. They want ‘pacifism’ without fighting the spirits of unpeace, without battling the covetous nature of mammon, without opposing the accepted lies of social insincerity, and without waging spiritual warfare against unfaithfulness and impurity.” (Innerland, 194-5)
I’m going to re-read the passage with the caveats caveated and then make some observations.
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be pregnant from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to divorce her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do 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 as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet. 23 “Look, the virgin shall become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had given birth to a son, and he named him Jesus.
Observation #1: The text notes, “Being a righteous man” Joseph was going to forgo revenge and public shaming. Though culturally and religiously Joseph could have thrown Mary (soon-to-be-Mother-of-God) under the bus—or the technologically appropriate equivalent (multi-person chariot?)—he doesn’t. Also, Mary, being a righteous woman (though not directly reflected in this text) could have rejected the angelic announcement as too risky, too unorthodox, too scandalous. Both of them as a matter of faith, fortitude, embrace and dive headlong into the unknown. We can imagine this was an act of courage, a gutsy plunge and a trust that God—the Creator of the world out of the improbable void would come through. I hesitate to claim too much of what they were feeling but I recall the Nehemiah 8:10:
Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord, and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” NRSVue.
I imagine that the joy of the Lord was their strength.
The Spirit who hoovered over the chaos creating beauty and the one in the cloud of fire leading the enslaved Israelites to freedom was capable of such an audacious plan.
Observation/reasonable inference #2: Joseph’s decision and action is attributed to being righteous—another word for this is just. This action, which seems to be pretty much immediate, is portrayed as a matter of righteousness. Again, while it isn’t assert/documented/or otherwise observed in this test, Mary can be attributed as much (if measurable) and with a high degree of certainty, more—of this same trait. Joseph was informed of a plan already well underway. Mary, according to other Gospels, had agency and robustly affirmed the liberating action of God which would come through her. For both, this is a matter of formation, which is long. Not out of the blue flash of spiritual genius but responding from a place of spiritual and moral shaping. The Church of the Brethren has often called this discipleship. Formation in the way of God led to a righteous response.
Observation #3: The coming baby. Wiggly squirmy poopy—shall be called Emmanuel, God with us. Earth rending—nay healing. Earth turning upside-down-power-inverted-lowly-lifted-up-rich-cast-down-deemed-as-foolishness God showed up. While the proclamation of the angelic host, “Peace on Earth” most certainly invites us into the fray—into the struggle for justice infused with peace, it doesn’t leave us alone to get it done through strategic plans and busting ourselves to do it. This doesn’t mean we won’t be strategic or prophetic or courageous or outlandishly hopeful or work hard. —but it does mean that we aren’t on our own. God is with us. The God who made the platypus out of creative joy made us.
Like a runner metering out their energy, counting trees, focusing through discomfort but also embracing joy—observing the beautiful decay of an abandoned 1950’s Cadillac (even with the little tail fins) somehow in the middle of the forest, or a stump improbably rotten down to thin strips of wood and rings of knots (I needed to stop for a picture).
The joy and agony and healing of the long struggle for peace—both “out there” and in our hearts is a journey into and with the very heart of God. A God, who impractically, will show up in a squirmy baby, through the body of mama Maria.