Fourth Sunday after Advent, (Year A), December 22, 2013
Isaiah 7:10-16, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
“Restore us, O God,” the psalmist prays. How many times have you prayed something like that? Restore us, because we’re tired. Restore us, because things just aren’t like they used to be. Restore us, because we’re broken down. Restore us, because we’re hurting. Restore us, because we’re hurting others. Restore us, because we’ve lost our way. Restore us, because we’re all alone. Restore us.
Maybe it’s the rush to get everything done: trees, decorations, presents, cookies, parties. Maybe you feel like you’ve been running for a month straight, and you long for a good night’s sleep and a day free to do nothing but relax. Maybe you’ve been fighting an illness—from the cold that’s been going around to the flu to something more serious. Your body just isn’t doing what you want it to. Or maybe it’s your heart that is failing you; maybe you feel more like the Grinch than anyone should. Maybe your joy in the holiday, in the coming of Christ, has gotten lost amid the cares and woes of life, and it feels like you’re on the outside, looking in. Restore us, O God! Help us to be the people you created us to be. Help us live up to the gifts you have given us.
For some of you, the holidays are a dark time. For those of you who grieve lost loved ones, the holidays can be a grim reminder that things will never be the same, that you can’t share the holidays with those who were so dear to you. Everyone talks of who they are going to visit, and who is coming to visit them. Old traditions that you cherished can never be the same. While everyone else seems so happy, the grief and loss can make you feel so isolated and alone. And even if you know that you will see them again some day in God’s kingdom, that doesn’t help the ache and loneliness you feel now. Restore us, O God! Fill the hole in our hearts! Help us to experience the joy of your kingdom!
Maybe you don’t feel like you need to be restored this season. Maybe the joy of the holidays has kept your spirits high and your body and soul rejuvenated. But even if that’s the case, I bet you that there have been times when you have desperately needed renewal and restoration. I bet there have been times when it felt like you could not go another step without help. Or maybe there have been times in your lives when you felt like everything was crumbling down, when old certainties turned to doubt, when things in your life changed and you didn’t know what to think, let alone do. And you longed for the old certainties, or new certainties to replace them, for faith in the midst of a world full of doubt. And when you felt like that, did you join in the Psalmist’s prayer? Restore us, O God! Turn around our lives and hearts, give us faith and strength in our time of need!
I wonder if Joseph thought of this psalm when the angel came to him. Because that angel turned Joseph’s world upside down, and left him without the comforting certainties and pattern that he must have expected his life to follow. The ancient world was very predictable: a man would follow in his father’s trade, and marry and have children who would carry on his trade in turn. That pattern was supposed to ensure prosperity for the community. Everyone had their place. If anyone stepped outside that pattern (for example, if a woman got pregnant outside of marriage) that person had to be punished so that the community would survive. And sure, it didn’t always work out—the Roman overlords had imposed heavy taxes that drove even hard-working citizens into debt and slavery, and Israel’s king was a Roman puppet who spent more time currying favor with his masters and building lavish palaces than governing his people.
There were a lot of problems in Joseph’s day. But still people clung to the idea that if everyone just behaved themselves, if everyone acted properly, things would be okay. They prayed for God to restore them, and they hoped that that God’s restoration would patch up the problems in their society and their world while still keeping their day-to-day lives looking much the same. A place for everybody and everybody in their place. Joseph, a carpenter, engaged to be married, must have felt like he was about to take his place in that great pattern.
And then he learned that Mary, the woman he was supposed to marry, was pregnant, and it wasn’t his child. Well, that was the end of that. He would have been within his rights to order her stoned; instead, he wanted to send her quietly away as if that would let him pretend that nothing had happened. That relationship was over, broken, gone. Smashed beyond any hope of fixing. Bad luck this time, try again. Sweep the problems under the rug, and hope you don’t get ridiculed too badly for your girl stepping out behind your back.
And then the angel came. “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.” This child, this shame, this problem, is the Messiah, the chosen one sent by God to restore Israel, to save it, to bring God’s light to the world. Israel had been praying for the Messiah to come and restore them for a long time, but that restoration was coming in the form they least expected. In scandal, in disruption, in poverty and weakness: that was how the Messiah was going to come. I wonder if Joseph prayed: Restore us, O God, let your face shine so that we can see your light. You’ve given us a new life; give us the strength to do what must be done. Let your hand be upon us. Restore us in the way you want us to be, not the way we think we should be.
Jesus’ birth was a scandal. We know people gossiped loud and long that Joseph wasn’t really Jesus’ father, because in a couple of places in the Gospels people made a point of calling Jesus the “Son of Mary” instead of the “Son of Joseph.” Jesus’ birth was weakness; even in Joseph’s family’s hometown, nobody wanted to take them in and so Jesus was born in a stable. Yes, kings came to his birth—but so did shepherds, who were on the bottom of society. By any objective measure, this was a failure of a family. But wrapped in that weakness was a strength great enough to turn the world upside down, to save people from their sins: not just the people who have it all going well, but the people who have failed. The people who have lost their way, the people who don’t measure up, the people whose lives are a mess. The people who despair. The people who seem to have everything going well but are empty inside. God’s light is bright enough even to save those people. God’s love is great enough to include all people, to reach out to them, to restore them to what and who God created them to be.
God created the world, and God created the world to be good. If you read the first creation story in Genesis 1, that repeats over and over: “it was good.” But sin and brokenness have marred God’s good creation. We are like works of art that have been vandalized. Sometimes the vandalism of sin is plain to see, but sometimes it is hidden away in our hearts and minds. We need to be restored. Restored to life. Restored to health and wholeness. Restored to a community that supports and empowers instead of tearing down and excluding. Restored to relationships that are good and life-giving, with God and with one another. We need to be restored so that the light of God shines brightly in us and around us, the light no darkness can overcome.
O God, you are the shepherd of Israel, you lead Joseph like a flock. Stir up your might and come to save us! Restore us, O God, let your light shine! Make us whole, and transform us into your people, people who live as you would have us to live! Let your hand be upon us, and give us strength for the trials ahead. Give us life, and we will call your name! We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior, God made flesh, who was born in scandal and weakness and died in shame on the cross, but who rose in glory and comes to bring in God’s kingdom.