Learning to Plan for the Unplanned and Expect the Unexpected

See the source imageFOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Isaiah 7:10-16
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

Prayer of the Day Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. With your abundant grace and might, free us from the sin that hinders our faith, that eagerly we may receive your promises, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“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.” Matthew 1:20.

Matthew’s Christmas narrative begins with an unplanned pregnancy. There is no romanticizing this narrative. No angel appears to Mary with glad tidings about the child she is carrying. The angel speaks only to Joseph and only in dreams and only after the baby is well on the way. We can surmise, I think, that the engagement of Mary to Joseph was arranged as was usually the case in 1st Century Palestine. Marriage in that context was more a business arrangement between two families than the culmination of a courting ritual between two individuals. Thus, Mary’s pregnancy threw a wrench into the workings of a carefully negotiated social contract, thereby threatening not only her own reputation, but the peace and stability of the community. Given these realities, Joseph’s resolution of the problem appears both humane and pragmatic. Setting Mary free to marry the father of her child will keep peace between the families, preserve public respectability and spare Mary the stigma of adultery.

But things are not always what they seem. Turns out that Mary’s pregnancy, is “from the Holy Spirit.” That changes everything-though it might have been cold comfort to Joseph.  The Spirit has been known to work God’s redemptive purposes out of some very unsavory circumstances. If the lengthy genealogy set forth in the previous seventeen verses had been included in our gospel reading, we might have been better prepared for this.  The royal line from Abraham and Sarah to the promised messiah leads right through the middle of incestuous unions, prostitution, seduction and adultery. From all that we can discern in the text, the assurance of the Spirit’s involvement, whatever shape that might have taken, was all the information Joseph was given when commanded by the angel in his dream to do the counterintuitive, namely, take Mary as his wife. This is the Christmas story as we have it from Matthew.

The gospel narrative does not tell us anything about how Mary became pregnant or how the Holy Spirit was involved. The temptation to fill in the blanks with what we think we know from Luke’s gospel or to negate the scandal with doctrinal assertions is strong. Yet I believe we need to resist that temptation if we are going to hear this narrative faithfully. I believe Matthew wants us wonder how the Holy Spirit could possibly be working in the midst of this seemingly unholy circumstance. I believe Matthew wants us to wonder why, after going through the painstaking effort of recounting the holy family tree from the patriarchs and matriarchs down to Joseph, he begins his narrative with a pregnancy wholly unconnected to that lineage. I believe that Matthew’s gospel would have us stand squarely in the shoes of Joseph as he contemplates the command given to him in a dream that must grate on his every instinct.

This is a timely exercise as we seem to be confronted with a whole panoply of circumstances from which nothing good appears to be coming anytime soon. The grim news given to us regularly by the scientific community concerning the progress of climate change does not admit of any “silver lining.” Moreover, just when global leadership is required to meet this crisis, global institutions, international treaties and strategic democratic alliances are falling apart before a wave of populist nationalism giving expression to the darkest and most violent human instincts rooted in blood, soil and nation. You have to look long and hard at this dark picture to find even an inkling of light.

In the face of what well might be the dawn of global catastrophe, the story about a dream, a promise and a child is a slim reed upon which to hang our hope. Yet this fragile gospel tale that begins with so much scandal, doubt and ambiguity is, in fact, all that the church has ever had to offer. For those with ears to hear it, the Nativity story blows like a fresh wind over all the stale hopes that have disappointed us. As Americans, we have always believed in our constitution and our democratic institutions to ensure justice. We have always looked to our superior military might to defend our freedoms. We have always believed in the innate goodness of our nation. But today we find our government paralyzed, our military powerless to achieve the lofty objectives of peace and security we set for it and our politics beset by a rising tide of racial hate and nationalist sentiment calling into question our national character. Nevertheless, in the darkness of this dying empire expiring in the midst of a disintegrating world, “God is with us.” The Spirit is moving. The young woman has conceived. The child has been pushed out into the glaring light of day. God has become human, holds us with human arms, loves us with a human heart and makes room in our tortured existence for divine hope: hope for the healing of our past; hope for newness in our present circumstances; hope for creation’s future.

Disciples of Jesus are realists in the sense that they recognize and acknowledge the full scope and extent of evil. But they also recognize that evil is not the only thing out there. As the anonymous poet says, God slipped quietly into the world through the messy consequences of an unplanned pregnancy. That changes everything. Because “God is with us,” the Spirit of God is also always an active part of the mix in whatever is going on. For that reason, we often witness surprising, unexpected and redemptive moments in the middle of the most painful and hopeless circumstances. The wasteland created by the Chyrnobyl disaster is recovering faster than scientists anticipated and has become a thriving refuge for animals threatened with extinction. The demilitarized zone between North and South Korea has likewise become a revitalized stretch of jungle habitat that in recent decades has become all too rare in Asia. The election of Donald J. Trump has awakened us to the ugly reality of racism deep in our psyches and the systemic perpetuation of white privilege in our schools, our workplaces and our government. More importantly, the recognition of that reality has spurred many of us to break our silence and to speak and act boldly in the face of oppression.

I don’t mean to say here that God causes bad things to happen in order to bring about a greater good. Rather, it is the case that God takes whatever evil the world throws in God’s direction and works redemptively with it. So however apparently hopeless the circumstances, there is always a “God factor” at work that frequently surprises us with good news where we least expect to find it. Sunday’s gospel, along with all of the other Advent scriptures, challenge us to plan for the unplanned and expect the unexpected.

I Sing of a Maiden

I sing of a maiden
That is makeless:
King of all kings
To her son she ches.

He came also still
Where his mother was
As dew in April
That falleth on grass.

He came also still
To his mother’s bower
As dew in April
That falleth on the flower.

He came also still
Where his mother lay
As dew in April
That falleth on the spray.

Mother and maiden
Was never none but she-
Well may such a lady
God’s mother be.

Anonymous verse composed sometime in the 15th Century. Source: Chapters into Verse, Edit. Robert Atwan & Laurence Wiler (c. 2000 by Oxford University Press) pp. 251-252.

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