Rev. Seth Weeldreyer

Love: A Promise Amid Complexities of Life

The Rev. Dr. Seth E. Weeldreyer
Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25
Fourth Sunday of Advent

A central question throughout Matthew’s gospel is how can followers of Jesus fulfill Hebrew Law and yet live in response to ethical realities of their day. To be right with God, how do we nurture life as intended in scripture, yet interpreted relative to changing particularities of our time? Matthew frames the question with an ancestral lineage of faith, including many imperfect people, and unorthodox situations. Now in this last and ultimate connection with Jesus, another complication arises. Can we imagine how it happened? {Read Matthew 1:18-25}
It had been a day much like any other. Warm sun beamed over the hills of Palestine as spring bloomed abundantly, beautifully, full of life. Joseph enjoyed the short walk with his carpentry tools, winding through their village, amid friends and neighbors bustling about their daily business. His project over at Samuel and Rachel’s home was coming along nicely. And so, he felt pleased with his life in general in these young adult years. Meaningful work. Caring community. A small home of his own nearly complete. Yes, he felt gratitude, peace, hope for a life ahead, and blessed expectation of sharing it with a good wife. It had been a day much like any other, until Mary arrived around noon.

Her visit was an unexpected pleasure. Her voice brought a lift to his heart, though it was far more subdued, tentative than her usual. He set down his tools and hurried to her side. It’d been days since they spoke. He wondered now, why. She nearly whispered, “I don’t want to interrupt.” Interruption indeed, to far more than this day. Expectation of new life ahead? More like a tempestuous complication beyond his wildest imagination. No more simple, ordinary course of plans falling into place, decently and in order. Under those sunny, glorious skies, people he passed with a surface smile on his way home had no idea of the storm inside.

Hours later Joseph longed to welcome the escape of sleep. Their conversation and his questions hung in the air like the scent of the fire he just put out. After one more breath of fresh air, he swung the door closed and picked up the bar, wishing he could bar his tender heart, and keep it safe, keep out Mary’s shocking, hurtful, mystifying, disorienting words. Clearly for him it was not good news. Pregnant. Not exactly Joseph’s, but she needed him. The child needed him. Joseph, so strong and dependable like homes and furniture he built, so good, so true. How many times had he heard it, as his mother touched his face or his father embraced. Now, what to do? He couldn’t tell his father or mother. He couldn’t tell anyone for that matter. His calloused, supple hands gripped the bar firmly, slid it into place, and felt the pain in his palm. Usually so adept, so practiced, so unmistakable with his tools, that evening he was more than a bit distracted working by firelight on what was to be their table. Chisel slipped. The base of his hand scraped the rough-hewn wood—a splinter … not unlike a little dagger piercing his heart. Joseph stood there picking again at the puncture … was there anything else he could extract, before it would infect?

Finally, he settled into his straw pallet, exhausted. Yet, he tossed and turned for hours. Eyes staring into the darkness, he lay there debating what to do, like sheep bleating on hills in the distance. He loved Mary. Her lively infectious spirit filled his heart. Such a complement to his quiet nature, her lilting voice brought him joy. Her grand ideas and dreams gave his life meaning. Even now he longed for her presence to fill this home he’d built for them. Honestly, Joseph wondered how he could get so lucky. She said he brought out her smile, made her laugh. It was all so easy, so joyful, so peaceful. And now this? What was this, even exactly? It was all so mysterious. She couldn’t really explain it, she said. Yet that’s what everyone else would demand when they heard. How should he respond? He’d always tried to do the right thing, believing the promise he’d been told: reward comes with proper behavior, goodness flows from proper choices. That’s how God’s love works. It seemed the course to perfect bliss. Hmmm, not so much anymore.

Maybe some questions of why and how, we’ll never answer. What’s the right thing God wants now? According the Law he could publicly shame Mary, cast her aside, even put her death. Yet, he felt more confused and sad than angry. She didn’t seek it or ask for it, she pleaded for him to understand. Spirited, she always has been. Was this the Holy One’s sense of humor? Joseph didn’t want to hurt her. He wasn’t vengeful. But he was fearful, not sure he had the courage to face the shame and condemnation … of him by association. Somewhere in the deepest part of night, he decided to dismiss her quietly. Yes. That would be easiest for him, best for her. He’d speak with her parents quickly, matter-of-factly, he wouldn’t say a word to anyone else. They’d probably accept it, even appreciate it. If others speculated so be it. Maybe Mary could slip away and start a life in another town, with another story, beyond the radius of gossip at home. I guess that’s best, he thought, letting a tear slide slowly down his cheek, as he finally drifted off, heart fleeing into fitful sleep.
One day of our lives can often seem like any other. Predictable. Comfortable. According to plans. Friends, doesn’t at least part of us all long for routine, control of life, knowing what to count on … decently and in order. Meaningful work. Caring community. A home to call our own. Simple beauties amid basic needs, hope for life ahead. It could be enough.

And then comes an interruption beyond our expectation. Health. Relationships. Success. Brokenness. Unimagined possibility. Unimaginable loss. Life gets more complicated – for us personally, for our community and country and world. Assumptions get challenged. Hopes get changed. Sometimes it’s a consequence of choice. Often the moral calculation of cause and effect just doesn’t add up. Often the very people or pleasures we cherish become tempestuous, at least profoundly mysterious.

How do we determine what’s right or wrong? Beyond explaining every detail, how do we know what to do, for good not bad? Beneath the surface of this season, are there any splinters in our hearts that still smart a little, or a lot? And where is God amidst it all? How does Holy Love work among us, through us?

As we want to do the right thing, often we look to scripture or rules of faith to guide our decisions and actions. Sometimes it seems clear and simple. “Do unto others … Love God and neighbor.” And more often it’s not. Realities get complicated. Real people like Joseph and Mary. Real situations of living faith. Maybe we fear insults, rejection or condemnation by association. Maybe we fear moral failure and eternal consequences. Maybe we fear losing relationships, ones we really cherish despite apparent imperfections. How do we seek and find a way in love, fulfilling Holy Intent, even when it seems contrary to legalistic points?

That’s what Ahaz struggles to discern. His cousins to the north conspire with neighboring countries to invade Jerusalem and replace him with a puppet vassal, amenable to their whims. Scared, Ahaz can’t accept a generous offer to seek divine signs of hope and life, to nurture confidence and trust. Anything in all the heights and depths of human experience … yet he refuses. On the surface, he seems pious, even echoing a passage of the Law—don’t test God. But paralyzing fear weakens his heart of faith. His rejection engenders holy exasperation. He could’ve written the tune: “Let all mortal flesh keep silence and with fear and trembling stand.”

Ahaz bars the door of his heart. He doesn’t get it’s ultimately not a matter of his faithfulness, rather God’s steadfast love that endures forever. When he faces ambiguities and complexities, and refuses to trust, the good news is that Isaiah proclaims a Divine Promise anyway. Through all trials and triumphs, God is with us. Emmanuel. And the sign of that presence, that power, lies and cries and coos and beams from the vulnerability of a baby; and at our best, from me and you. Through our deepest fears or most earnest desires for the world to be better, our lives to be richer, our faith to be stronger, Isaiah calls us to trust the promise of curds and honey—signs of abundance life—pregnant among us, yet unborn.

And that’s why Matthew tells the gospel story to his community of faithful people, and to us. Long ago they didn’t have smart phones and skyscrapers. They didn’t know about quarks and dark matter in space, nor fiber-optics and microscopics. Still something about complexities of human experience, questions of the heart, longings for life, hopes and fears of all the years remain much the same in God’s love. And so Matthew offers us in Joseph “a model for the Christian life,” as Tom Long says. Like Joseph, friends, our living faith goes far beyond rules in a book, to wrestling with complexities; listening for God’s voice in prayer, discerning together how God works among us in mercy and saving power.[i] Just maybe, we too, like Joseph or Martin Luther King, Jr. might even have a dream one day, which propels us past abstracts of purity and goodness into acting with God’s love in our world.

You see, more than explaining how it all happened—angel voices and a virgin mother—Matthew tries inspiring what it means for us. What we give our hearts to trust. How we give our lives to serve. Friends, however well we plan and imagine, we will always face “interruptions” in our expectations and living patterns. Divine opportunities to reap new insights and sow new questions, and to decide where, how, for whom will we stand? Until God’s reign of peace is complete … in Syria and beyond, there will be wars and refugees. In schools and businesses of our city and beyond, we will need foundations for life together. In our church dining room and beyond, people will hunger for food, for relationship, for purpose. In our homes and beyond, there will be job transitions and health concerns and broken relations and loss. And there will be God! There will be a Sacred Promise of love. There will be a Spirit of compassion and courage. There will be humble mercy and abiding hope and the peace of Jesus. There will be saving grace alive among us, transforming hearts and empowering lives.
Joseph had barred the door … but left the shuttered window ajar. Sometime after he drifted into dreams, a fresh breeze gusted through that portal into his home, and into the temple of his heart. And his nightmares of fear and twisted hallucinations, transformed into beautiful visions of Mary with a radiant smile, her comforting confidence, lilting laughter, her lively spirit while on her lap she held a baby. Yet as happens in dreams, it was more than Mary. As if he’d imagined the voice of angels, a holy message of love that embraced his anxiety, and released him to hope. And so in his dream he took that baby into his arms, and he named him Jesus. More than holy humor, about Mary’s lively Spirit, maybe it’s sacred insight about all of our potential beyond our best ability to discern.

That’s when Joseph began to awake, and in that half-conscious mystical state on the edge of dreams and reality, he remembered the old stories of faith, about his descendent David, the promise of Isaiah about a young woman pregnant, a sign of hope for all people. Eyes fully open now, in that darkness, he saw everything clearly in the light of God’s salvation history. Often the truest and best way of living faith proves not to be the easiest. And just maybe if he chose grace and mercy, and stood by Mary, who knew where it might lead in this little child’s life? Little did he know, of course, about the journey ahead–Mary’s journey to another little town of Bethlehem, driven by another narrative of political control; and for Jesus, all the wandering ways of building community.

Joseph rolled over, slipped his legs out of the covers and off the pallet, wrapped that blanket of dreams around his shoulders not unlike his parents’ embrace, echoing again—so dependable, so good, so true. As he rose on his feet, he resolved to stand with Mary, come what may; to claim the child as his own, to name him, and face any suspicious whispers, inquiring stares, shame, muttered condemnation to come. It was not as though all uncertainty dissipated, all mental and emotional questions magically evaporated. If we’re most honest, they never do. These feelings and thoughts, would he try to hide them from Mary? Would she know anyway?

Whatever sway may come in his steps ahead, he stood steady in that moment on the promise, the power of Divine Love that would never leave, or be overcome. He realized that love in the form of sentimental perfection is good. Family traditions. Stunning scenes of spring green or winter white, comforting gleams of sun or glow of a warm fire. Tender moments with a beloved. Such experiences shared nourish us, inspire us, strengthen our hearts and relationships for more complex occasions to come. And in the truth of that darkness, Joseph saw as clear as day, the beauty in this birth narrative beyond anything he could have conceived. So it is with Holy Love in our living faith, nurturing life amid unexpected twists, imperfect times—all the times and places we feel as vulnerable as a baby.

Joseph pulled back the shutters, breathing deeply of the gentle breeze. He stood there for something like an eternity gazing over the village square, back toward that place where he’d heard the news from Mary just hours—and yet, so long—ago. In the eyes of his heart, he saw friends and neighbors bustling through ordinary life in community where patient forgiveness reigns through all our foibles and failings; determination through our disappointments; sacred intimacy despite all our secrets. Would it be true for him, for them, right there? Who knows? Maybe it didn’t matter. Because if that promise grows deep inside us like the child in Mary’s womb, then that life is always real, every day much like any other, everywhere. Joseph’s hand gripped the bar, pulled it up, and swung open the door. He stepped into the fresh breeze swirling all around, took a deep breath, and raised his eyes to the marvel of a sky filled with twinkling stars. And the first hint of dawn silhouetted the hills on the horizon, as it would in that season, 34 years later—resurrection light of new life, a day beginning again, much like any other.

The angel said: Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid. Mary will bear a son, and you are to name him, to claim him, and to proclaim through him all that his name means. God saves … as the Holy One did with Mary, and continues to do through Jesus to this day. Love has come. A promise fulfilled—perfect love to cast out all fear. And so amid complexities of our lives, dear friends, God imparts to human hearts, the blessings of heaven, as Christ enters in to you and me, our Lord, Emmanuel.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Thomas G. Long, Matthew in the Westminster Bible Companion series (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 14.