OT: Isaiah 7:10-16
Psalm: Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
NT: Romans 1:1-7
Gospel: Matthew 1:18-25
Many of you are, no doubt, familiar with the ancient liturgical tradition practiced by the Cameron Crazies. One of my favorite call-and-response chants at a Duke Basketball game is the “Oh, Baby” cheer. It goes a little something like this: after Duke makes a big play, the entire student section raises their arms over their heads, shout as loudly as they can the signified “O”, then drop their arms in unison while a single student hoists a plastic baby doll above the sea of fans. “Baby,” scream the Crazies. This, of course, repeats over and over again in rapid succession. “Oh, Baby.” “Oh, Baby.” “Oh, Baby.”
Clever adoration, to be sure.
Well, I have to admit, the “Oh, Baby” chant was not far from mind when my wife Crystal announced this week that she is pregnant with our first child. I didn’t raise my arms above my head or jump up and down like a crazy person, …but I’m quite sure my mother did when she heard the news. Children introduce so much hope and pure innocence into our lives, it is impossible not to be deeply moved in excited anticipation at their arrival.
Now, I’ve been slated to preach this Sunday for several months, and I don’t know if it was coincidence or providence, but obviously I was more than a little eager to hear today’s gospel reading about our church’s patron Saint: Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus.
Mary, we read, is pregnant with child, but since she and Joseph have not yet come together in marriage, her pregnancy is surly scandalous. What, I wonder, did Joseph think when Mary broke the news to him? “Oh… Baby?” Really? How exactly did this come about?
Now, we’re not told a whole lot about Joseph. We know that he is a descendant of King David, and, therefore, also a descendent of the Patriarch Abraham, so his children would have quite the pedigree amongst God’s chosen people, Israel. But what is Joseph to do in this situation? He is not the biological father of Mary’s child. How is he to explain her pregnancy? How can he accept a child that is surely not his own?
So, Joseph resolves to dismiss Mary quietly, lest the two of them fall under public disgrace. Alas, it seems unwanted teenage pregnancies brought as much social stigma back then as they do today. It is interesting, then, that this is the way the Son of God enters into our world. Joseph is a saint because of what happens next. An angel of the Lord appears to him in a dream, “Joseph, son of David,” says the angel, “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.”
What an awesome charge of hospitality! No, Joseph did not ask for this child. Yes, he will have to give witness to this dream of his when others ask questions. What’s more, Joseph, Mary, and their baby are about to face the full attention — namely, the rejection — of the political authorities. The moment King Herod learns a small baby may threaten his sovereign claim to kingship, he wastes little time in deploying the violent power at his disposal, killing countless numbers of children in Bethlehem in an effort to keep the Lamb of God out of our world. In fact, next Saturday, we will celebrate the feast of the Holy Innocents whose martyrdom by the world’s destructive powers was finally joined by Christ’s own crucifixion on a Roman cross thirty some years later.
“Oh, precious Baby,” what a dark world it is that awaits you. You will not be easily welcomed; you will surly suffer cruel rejection; and you will certainly pay the price for faithful witness to your heavenly Father.
Yet, in spite of all this, here is St. Joseph who faithfully bears with Mary, shows radical hospitality to the most vulnerable of persons — an infant child, and says, “Yes,” to becoming the adoptive father of God.
Perhaps, we do not fully appreciate the advent of this Child, or any new child, for that matter. Even today, the miracle of a newborn gives us pause; children, as we know, are completely dependent on their caretakers, at least, initially, and because of that, they do not fit readily into the modern economic structuring of our lives — a structuring of exchange that permeates most all of our relationships.
In pre-modern times, communities counted on both young and old alike to care for one another and the land where they lived throughout their lifespans, but that is no longer necessarily the case. Parents don’t have to educate their children anymore; the state can do that. Likewise, children don’t have to care for their parents as they age; nursing homes can do that. And, hardly any of us concretely depend on a common piece of land as the social or political glue that binds us together in common work. We can fly, drive, or move to wherever we’d like. We can pick-up fast food, consume items of mass production, and collect amusing experiences with little regard for where we are or to whom we belong. As a result, children can be quite a burden in the hustle and bustle of modern life. After all, upward mobility is hard to envision with a brood of children in tow. So inhospitable are the systems of greed and violence today that we actually deem it ethically legitimate to ask whether a child should even be brought into our world in the first place. Compassion, ironically, becomes the justification for keeping children safe from the harshness of modern existence. And so, with such an unwelcoming picture of life today, we might wonder how it is we ever get excited about having children at all.
But we do! We most certainly do.
One glance at internet social media, and you’ll see hundreds of pictures of pregnant bellies, smiling children, and beaming parents. Yet, from where does this modern enthusiasm for our children come? I can’t help but wonder if it, too, is somewhat problematic. More and more, we feel estranged from our neighbors, our co-workers, our fellow citizens, and our extended families, but we can still count on our nuclear families to provide us relationships we didn’t choose for ourselves and for which we must attend. But since our family bonds are no longer built on the difficult commitment to bearing one another’s burdens through the long-haul, we are often tempted to ground these relationships in romanticized sentimentalities. The “modern family” becomes the last safe haven for the fulfillment of our private emotional desires. We now rely on vague “feelings of love” for sticking with our mate, instead of Christian marital commitment where it is we learn what it means to love faithfully through the thick and thin of life’s trials. And in respect to children, as long as they don’t upset the zero-sum economics of our lives, they become something of an extension of our individual life plans for emotional well-being.
Imagine being a “wanted” child today. I grew up in the Midwest where parental hopes of athletic or professional success became suffocating yokes of vicarious dreams placed on children from an early age. Being an All-State basketball player or receiving academic honors was more determinative of teenage identity than baptism ever was. Those kids who struggled or rebelled against their parents’ dreams often found themselves in a war of the home. And now that I will be a parent soon, I often feel more compelled to have my child suffer the training necessary for worldly success, than to raise him or her up in the works of mercy of Christian discipleship. And so, it just may be the case today that a “wanted” child may find life as unwelcoming as any “unwanted” child.
“Oh, precious baby,” we may not have room for you here at the inn of our modern lives. Perhaps there is a manger somewhere else.
Well, thanks be to God for Mary and Joseph, who on this 4th and final Sunday of Advent, teach us what it means to be saints in a time like this, to hospitably receive the gift of a child — particularly a Child who graciously receives us as his children. Here, in this place, we discover what it means to raise faithful and loving families by first gathering as the adopted family of God, the Church. Some of us are married, some of us single, some young, some old; all of us are parents and children, one of another, making room in our lives for Godly hospitality. And in three days time we will welcome again this Child who is the incarnation of the Son of God, Word become flesh, light piercing darkness in the fullness of time. He is the Child who in Matthew 25 identifies himself with all vulnerable people, especially the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, and the homeless.
So, like Mary and Joseph, may we continue to welcome the Christ child who shows up for breakfast every week. May we continue to open our parish hall for him to sleep on a cold winter night. And may we all bear him in our homes with the hospitality of vulnerable friendship. So as we come to our Lord’s table today, let us wait on this precious baby once again by raising our hands and opening our hearts that we may be received into God’s family of hopeful expectation — expectation that is not a curse for God has made each of us children and bearers of Christ, whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light. And let us all recall that most ancient chant, “O come, O come, Emmanuel, God with us.” You are welcome here; you are welcome at St. Joseph’s.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.