Monday, December 19, 2016

God With Us as Guide and Liberator (An Advent sermon from Matthew 1:18-25)

They shall call him Emmanuel, which means, God with us. Christians of different traditions may utilize different images and words to talk about how Jesus incarnates the Divine, but all of us see in Jesus a representative of God with us. When I look at Jesus I see a special revelation of the goodness and grace of God, whose life and teachings serve as a guide for my life and as a means of liberation.

Let’s talk first about God as Emmanuel being our guide. Joseph is not a dominant figure in the birth stories, but here, in the way he responds to Mary’s pregnancy Joseph functions as a kind of model for all of us.  

What do I mean? Consider how Joseph responded when he discovered that the wife he was pledged too was pregnant, and of course he assumed she was pregnant by another man. He assumed that she had been unfaithful. The text says that Joseph “being a righteous man (or just man) and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” Matthew says that Joseph was “a righteous or just man.” What does that mean? For the scribes and Pharisees and other devout persons that would have meant that Joseph kept and obeyed the law of God, just as for many Christians today being righteous or just is understood as obeying scripture. Now that sounds good, right? But the deeper issue here is this: Is slavish obedience to the law – or scripture in general – always the right thing to do? Is doing what the Bible says always the will of God?   

What does the law tell Joseph to do? In Deuteronomy 22:21 the law says quite specifically what to do regarding a woman who has been found to be unfaithful: “She shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done a disgraceful thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house.” That’s what the Bible says. The Jews under Roman rule did not have the authority to carry out capital punishment, but Joseph could have made life extremely difficult for Mary. But Matthew says that because Joseph was “a righteous man” he wanted to handle this quietly so as not to bring public shame and disgrace to Mary. In other words, because he was a righteous person he decided not to obey the Scripture that judged and condemned her.

In one of Richard Rohr’s daily meditations he wrote: "God restores rather than punishes, which is a much higher notion of how things are “justified” before God. The full and final Biblical message is restorative justice, but most of history has only been able to understand retributive justice. Now, I know you’re probably thinking of many passages in the Old Testament that sure sound like serious retribution. And I can’t deny there are numerous black and white, vengeful scriptures, which is precisely why we must recognize that all scriptures are not equally inspired or from the same level of consciousness."

A favorite preacher of many preachers is the late Fred Craddock. Dr. Craddock was a New Testament scholar and homiletician who taught aspiring ministers how to both read their New Testaments and preach. In a sermon on this very text Dr. Craddock says: “Joseph is a good man, and he rises to a point that is absolutely remarkable for his day and time. He loves his Bible and knows his Bible and bless his heart for it. But he reads his Bible through a certain kind of lens, the lens of the character and nature of a God who is loving and kind. Therefore he says, ‘I will not harm her, abuse her, expose her, shame her, ridicule her, or demean her value, her dignity, or her worth. I will protect her.’”  Craddock then asks, “Where does it say that, Joseph? In your Bible? I’ll tell you where is says that. It says that in the very nature and character of God.” What is Dr. Craddock suggesting?  He is saying that the Bible doesn’t always give us a reliable picture of the true nature and character of God. Certainly there are texts that are highly enlightened and reflect the highest level of human consciousness, but there are others texts which are more deeply entrenched within the biases of their culture.

Who was Joseph listening to? He was listening to the God who was with him. He was listening to the God he had come to personally know and experience. Joseph decided not to listen to the scripture that said to stone Mary, in order that he could listen to the voice of Divine Mercy and Grace.

Jesus did the same thing. In story after story in the Gospels we see Jesus practicing inclusion, practicing love of neighbor, identifying with and welcoming the marginalized, the poor, and the oppressed. In story after story we see Jesus reaching out to the most vulnerable people in his society, healing the sick and liberating the demonized.

In Nazi Germany a Jewish fugitive fleeing for his life came to a small town. He sought out the house of the Christian pastor, hoping to find refuge. He knocked on the door and when the pastor opened it, he told his story and asked if he could stay a few days until it was safe to travel again. The pastor invited him to step inside and wait. The pastor knew that if this young man was caught hiding there the whole town would be held accountable and suffer greatly. So immediately he withdrew to his prayer room and closed the door. He asked God for guidance and then opened his Bible. He happened to come upon the verse in John’s Gospel that says, “It is better for one man to die, than for the whole people to parish.” He knew he had his answer. So he sent the man away. Later that night an angel appeared and asked, “Where is the fugitive?” The pastor said, “I sent him away as the Holy Book instructed me.” The angel said, “Did you not know that he was the Christ? If you would have looked into his eyes, instead of first running to the Book, you would have known.”

If we will look into the face of Jesus to see what God is like we would realize that God always prefers mercy to judgment, that God is always more interested in inclusion than exclusion, that in God’s world human need always take precedence over some legal code or law.

Or if we would just look into the faces of our sisters and brothers all around us we could see the longing and heart of God. We can look into the faces of the sick and see God’s longing for a world where sickness and disease or some other kind of human suffering cannot snatch away a child or loved one in the prime of life. We can look into the face of the destitute and see God’s longing for a world where everyone has enough to thrive, not just survive, a world where one group is not allowed to lord it over another group or have too much when another group has so little. We can look into the face of someone put down and demeaned and we can see God’s longing for a world that puts an end to all the marginalization and condemnation of other religions and races. We can look into the faces of the impoverished and displaced and those dying from explosions and gun fire and see God’s longing for a world free of poverty and war.

If we will allow it, God is with us as a guide to show us how to use our sacred texts to inspire love and mercy, rather than judgment and condemnation. And sisters and brothers if we just open our eyes to what is buried deep in our own hearts we would see that God longs to save us from our prejudices and greed, from our own fears and frustrations, so that we can be more grace-filled and merciful.

And this brings me to my next point. God is with us as a guide to show us how to love and God is with us as a liberator to set us free to love. According to Matthew’s story the angel instructs Joseph to name the child Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. The kind of salvation many of the Jews in Palestine longed for during Jesus’ day was salvation from the Romans. The Romans were the oppressors. The Jews of Palestine were under the heavy arm of Rome. The Jews were in servitude and were heavily taxed, even though Rome permitted some measure of self-governance, particularly with regard to their religious laws and social customs. But the Jews had no rights. Rome could pretty much do as they wished. So you can see that what many Jews longed for was a Messianic figure who would rescue them from Rome – a kind of rebel leader who would rally the people and forcefully lead them in defiance of and liberation from Rome.

Jesus, of course, was not that kind of liberator, but we would be greatly amiss to think that God’s salvation does not involve liberation from oppression. In fact, later in this very Gospel Jesus offers some very specific examples of how his people might creatively, nonviolently stand up to Roman oppression, though it still carried considerable risk. When Jesus told them to stand their ground when they were slapped and humiliated by a Roman citizen or some Roman authority by offering the other cheek, or when he instructed them to carry a Roman soldier’s bag an extra mile after being pressed into demeaning service, he was giving them a creative strategy for nonviolently standing up to and protesting injustice. Certainly Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God included salvation from all those oppressive forces and systems that stood in the way of creating a just and good world.

Did you know that the word that is translated “save” in the Gospels is most often translated “heal” or “make whole” or “make well?” It’s the same word in the Greek. To be saved is to be healed. To be saved is to be made whole or well. To be saved is to be liberated from destructive powers, whether that’s physical or mental illness, oppressive systems and structures, or one’s own personal demons and sins. Salvation is about being healed, liberated, and made whole spiritually, psychologically, physically, socially, and relationally.

So in light of this broad understanding of salvation, what might the significance be of this saying announced to Joseph by the angel: “He will save his people from their sins.” The Jewish Christians who first read this may have been thinking, “What we need is salvation from Roman oppression?” Maybe the point is this: Just as important as liberation from oppressive forces from without, is liberation from entrapping forces from within.

When there is a change in power, when situations reverse, when the oppressed people come to a place of power, what is to prevent them from oppressing other peoples the same way they were oppressed? Consider how often in history when there has been a change in power, when the people on the bottom have risen up and took control, think how often the new people on top oppress their enemies the same way they were oppressed. So the cycle of hate and violence continues.

Who is mature enough to say, “Enough! No more oppression? No more violence”? Who is spiritual enough to say, “No more hate”? It would have to be those who have been and are in the process of being healed and liberated from their sins. It would have to be those who have been and are being liberated from their inner fears, anxieties, prejudices, and insecurities. Who is morally strong enough and courageous enough to resist the urge to return violence for violence and stop the cycle? It would have to be those who have been and are being freed from their inner demons, from their hate and greed and their hirst for revenge. Only then would Abraham’s seed or, for that matter, any of us be ready and able to be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth.
   
These are the peacemakers who preach and practice forgiveness. These are the pure in heart who embody lives of simplicity and honesty and generosity.  These are those who hunger and thirst after restorative justice, who know that no one is truly free and whole until all people are free and whole. These are the humble and meek of the earth who know that we all need the same things in order to thrive in God’s good creation. These are the faithful and diligent who sense a great responsibility to care for and manage well the creation, because they know that all life is sacred.

What if Christianity in the West had understood and emphasized this broader understanding of salvation that is depicted in the Gospels? What if Christianity in the West had realized that God’s salvation is about God’s healing and liberation of both individuals and whole communities from all these negative, life-diminishing forces within and without? What if Christianity in the West had come to see God’s salvation as peace within and without, in the heart and between persons, communities, and nations? Maybe Western Christianity would have had a greater impact for good and developed a better reputation in the world.  

God is with us sisters and brothers. Always has been, always will be. As Paul says in his letter to the Romans nothing can sever us from God’s love as made known to us in Jesus the Christ. God is with us as a guide into the way of love and peace. God is with us as liberator from all those life-diminishing powers that would oppress us physically, spiritually, socially, and psychologically. God is with us – all of us – to guide us and redeem us.


O God, let us open our minds and hearts and bodies to your healing and liberating presence. May we be led by your loving wisdom and life-affirming Spirit. May we find healing and wholeness. May we be freed of our inner demons and sins. May our lives be witnesses to your healing and transforming grace. Amen  

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