Fourth Sunday of Advent
Lessons: Isaiah 7:10-16, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25
Theme: God’s faithful and generous people understand that God calls to us and seeks to draw us into being part of the work of ushering in the Reign of God right here and right now—even when that involves a change of plans or redirection.
Key Scripture: 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 with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ — Matthew 1:18-21
Ah, the best laid plans! We humans love to make them. Plans help us organize our lives, determine our path to the future, and provide an illusion of control over our destiny. What happens, then, when we experience a change of plans? How is our story revised, edited, rewritten?
What would have happened, for example, if Joseph had carried through with his plan to dismiss Mary from his life? His intent was perfectly in accordance with customs and expectations of the day. The storyline suggests that it is because he values her and is a good man, a righteous man, he will do the “right thing” in the least demeaning and damaging way possible. We could debate the situation on any number of fronts, but that wouldn’t really get us anywhere, and it’s not the real issue anyway.
The crux of the matter is that Joseph experiences a change of plans. An angel comes to him and sets the record straight, gives him his marching orders, and completely rearranges his life. Could he have said no? I suppose. But then who really says no when an angel of the Lord comes calling? The rest of the story is history—and a bit of mystery. Joseph of Bethlehem in Nazareth is caught up in the divine story, woven into God’s narrative of salvation and suddenly thrust upon the stage of eternity.
On this final Sunday of Advent, we are invited to contend with Joseph’s story. Instead of rushing the birth narrative along, why not pause and meditate on this ordinary man’s willingness to enter fully into God’s design, to abandon his plans and desert the rules and order of his people, and to open his heart to the wide grace and mercy of the Divine One. It’s not yet Christmas. Wait. Ponder. Listen to how God might be speaking through the person and story of Joseph.
Yes, Joseph’s is a story we dare not pass over lightly, because God is still in the business of redirecting lives and changing plans. Whether in small adjustments to our daily life choices or through large, directional shifts in vocation and location, God calls to us and seeks to draw us into being part of the work of ushering in the Reign of God right here and right now.
Listen…what is the Holy Spirit whispering in your ear? What is the longing of your heart? Where do your pain, confusion, and hope meet? What plan of yours is God trying to disrupt? Stop trying to put God away like an unfaithful or disgraceful spouse. Do not be afraid. You are called to bear Christ into the world today. You, me, all of us are asked to be light and to point to the One in whom there is no darkness. Yes, there’s a little bit of Joseph in all of us. We are ordinary saints and sinners, doing the best we can with what we have. And then God shows up.
How will you write the rest of your story?
Joseph’s story is also our story. Invite people to consider what God is calling them to do. Maybe it’s something simple such as stepping out their comfort zones and inviting others to be a part of your worshiping community. Perhaps it’s helping in your congregation’s food pantry or feeding ministry. It could be a call to serve as a leader in the congregation. It might even be a call to vocational service. Invite worshipers to talk with another person nearby about something they feel God might be calling them to do. What makes them fearful about the prospect? If people in your context don’t talk to one another during sermons, give each person an index card ahead of time and ask them to contemplate these two questions. On one side of the card they answer, “What might God be calling you to do?” On the other side, “What fears or concerns do you have?” Invite them to spend the time until Epiphany praying about what they have written.
Christmas Eve worship is a high point of many people’s worship year. Talk to the youth about this service and their feelings about it. What do they like? What is special about it? What do they find most meaningful? Then, consider showing them Knox Smith’s short video “I Worship.” (https://vimeo.com/11472742)
Although we don’t have to agree with all the theological points made, the reasons people worship and come to return thanks and praise to God are good to see and hear. Have youth identify their own reasons for worshiping, and encourage them to be sure to reflect on those reasons as they come to worship this Christmas Eve and every day.
“What’s in a Name?”
In today’s gospel lesson, Joseph is instructed to name Mary’s baby “Jesus.” This is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah about Emmanuel, or “God with us.” Talk to children about the importance of names and how Jesus’ names speak to what he is about and what he does. “Jesus” means “God saves,” and Emmanuel means “God with us.” Both names tell us what God’s son is all about. Jesus came to save us and to be with us. The church is a place where these names are reflected. Here God’s saving grace and mercy are made evident, and God is with us whenever we gather.
If you can, look up the meaning of the names of children who are usually present. Talk with them about the meaning of their names. Remind them that God knows them by name, and that they are precious in God’s sight. Our names are given with love and care. They reflect of our parents’ hopes and dreams for us. God’s naming of Jesus is also reflects God’s hopes and dreams and plans for our world—that all will be saved and that all will know the love of God as Christ dwells among us.
Weekly Stewardship Bulletin Insert
Listen! God is calling you. Can you hear the still, small voice of God calling over the clamor and din of the commercial holiday season? God is ready to use you to share the good news, to welcome the stranger, and to do all the good you can with what you have. Like Joseph, God may be redirecting your journey. Are you ready to take a detour? Spend the next few weeks praying about how God may be calling you to use your time, talent, and treasure in new or different ways. Pray that God will make the path clear and give you strength for the journey.
Stewardship at Home
How often do your plans change in a given week? Is it worse at this time of year? If so, make some space and time to embrace those changes and not view them as a source of stress and frustration. Whether you find yourself stuck in seasonal traffic or whether weather is readjusting your holiday travel plans, take a deep breath and ask God to help you live into the change with an open heart and mind. Share your stories of changed plans over dinner or on your social media channels. Where did you see God at work during the week? Was someone else possibly blessed by your inconvenience or change in direction?
If you have children at home, share Joseph’s story with them this week. If you have a crèche scene, give Joseph a place of honor this week and celebrate how his willingness to change direction had major implications for the future of humankind.
If possible, write a note, send an email, or make a phone call to your father, grandfather, or other positive male role model to thank that person for making a difference in your life.
(Photos: gacabo, True Restoration, and Ton MJ, Creative Commons license. Thanks!)
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