“Saying “YES” to God”
The Gospel story that is set for this Sunday comes from Matthew’s Gospel. It’s a good story for the Sunday before Christmas… a good story about how Jesus was born.
Often, we jump ahead in the story. We remember the journey to Bethlehem, the shepherds in the fields and the angels in the sky announcing the birth of the Christ child. Those are the parts of the story that never get left out of the Christmas pageants. But Joseph can easily become a minor character without a speaking part.
One commentator points out that “Joseph is a peripheral figure in the grand sweep of the Christian tradition. Relative to Mary and the apostles, we do not sing much about him. We rarely see him in art (and when Joseph does appear in a painting, he is rarely alone; he is typically accompanied by Mary and/or Jesus).”
Today’s Gospel reminds us that Joseph was a pretty regular guy… a nice guy, a reasonable guy. When his fiancé got pregnant before the wedding, he dealt with it. He wasn’t going to turn it into a big to-do, but he was just going to dismiss her quietly. No one could have faulted him for that.
But that’s when God got involved in Joseph’s life and decision-making, and nudged him into doing even more than what was reasonable. With every reason to walk away, Joseph chose to stand by Mary, to take her as his wife, and to raise her child as his own. God spoke to him in a dream, and he knew that’s what he had to do. The child was going to be Emmanuel (God-with-us) and Joseph was going to help make that happen.
We don’t often pay much attention to Joseph. We give all the glory to Mary because she was the one who carried the child. She was the one who faced the most danger in having him. And she was the one who so clearly said, “Yes” to God’s unbelievable plan: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord,” she said, “Let it be with me according to your word.”
But they both said “yes,” didn’t they? Mary and Joseph said “yes” to God… and Jesus was born, and lived, and preached, and taught, and healed, and pointed to God, and gave his life so that all of us would be drawn into relationship with our loving God. They both said “yes,” and God came to be with us in Jesus the Christ. They both said “yes,” and the child was born to save us.
But let’s think a little more about what Joseph said “yes” to. “Here he is: Joseph, who, in this annunciation of sorts, joins Abraham and Zechariah in receiving angelic information about impending fatherhood, Joseph, who joins Luke’s Mary in agreeing to do something difficult and strange.”
In the “Connections” series, commentator, Lauren Winner, explains that like the rest of the church, she does not think of Joseph very often, but she thought of him a few months ago when binge watching the BBC show Call the Midwife. It’s an excellent program about life and family in 1960s East End London, centered around the work and ministry of a group of religious sisters who serve as midwives in the working-class neighbourhood.
Winner was moved by the third episode of season one which “depicted an expectant father who was over the moon about his wife’s pregnancy.” What was so poignant was the fact that he “did not bat an eye when the newborn’s skin colour made it clear that the child had, in fact, been conceived in an adulterous liaison. The TV husband took one look at the baby, pronounced him the most beautiful child ever, and took him into his heart and his family without missing a beat.
“This was, in its way, a secularized picture of Joseph; in fact, the TV husband was behaving with even more extravagant generosity than Joseph, because the TV husband did not have reason to believe that his adoptive fathering was key to the salvation of the world.”
Winner suggests that “There is something transfixing about those situations in which a faithful spouse takes into his or her life a child conceived in adultery. Of course, the parallel is not perfect – the Gospels stress that Mary exactly had not committed adultery, but Jesus was, indeed, another father’s child, and Joseph could have spurned Mary and her son.
“When we encounter similarly complex family formations in our own communities, we are captivated by the hint of scandal, and bowled over by the maturity and openheartedness of the adoptive parent: ‘I am amazed that so-and-so was able to take that other woman’s child into her life! I certainly could never do that!’ – but so-and-so did.
“And so did Joseph.
“Few of us will find ourselves in the situation of Joseph or the husband from Call the Midwife – although, in every community, we have opportunities to welcome and help women who are pregnant in unexpected and atypical situations. The church that hosts the baby shower for the pregnant fifteen-year-old, who needs diapers and onesies every bit as much as the pregnant thirty-two-year-old, is acting in imitation of Joseph.
“At a subtler, but perhaps more unsettling level, the Joseph story poses a fundamental ethical challenge that goes beyond the specifics of welcoming mothers: the challenge to exceed our culture’s norms of standard-issue ethical behaviour, and pursue a course of action that is excessively good, excessively generous.
“Joseph was poised to behave ethically.” He was ready to do what was reasonable. “Because he wanted to protect Mary’s reputation, he planned to ‘dismiss Mary quietly.’ This was a respectful and upright thing to do.
“But he was called by God to do something even more ‘righteous.’ He was called by God to an abundantly righteous act that required violating his culture’s mores. He was called by God to go beyond his society’s script for righteousness – in a way that risked bringing shame upon himself.
“Joseph thus asks us to consider whether we have the opportunity to become more like him. Are we embracing the culturally appropriate good deed, but not yet undertaking the bolder, riskier, more excessively good deed?”
What would it look like to do more than what was expected, or more than what was reasonable? To say “yes” to God’s call on our lives in such a way that others would look at us and say, “I certainly could never do that!”
Many of us have said “yes” to God at some point. We said “yes” when we professed our faith for the first time and became members of this or another congregation of Christ’s Church. We said “yes” many years ago, or just recently, when we decided (or decided once again) to follow the Way of Jesus with our lives.
And that “yes,” though it may not seem that radical in itself, means that we have decided to open our hearts and our lives to whatever God may call us to do, or be, or give, as we follow Jesus throughout our lives.
Maybe some would say that making a profession of faith is hardly comparable to what Mary and Joseph were committing themselves to. Becoming a Christian, or re-committing our lives to following Jesus will not involve giving birth to the Messiah. It will not involve accepting another man’s child as our own. At most, it will include coming to worship, reading the bible, talking to God about stuff, sharing our gifts, and letting our faith direct our decision-making.
But maybe doing all that stuff, and maybe opening our hearts and minds to whatever God asks us to do next… maybe that “yes” is very much like Mary’s yes and Joseph’s yes. I came across a quote from Meister Eckhart that suggests that God wants something pretty big from our “yes”: “What good is it to me,” Eckhart asks, “for the Creator to give birth to the Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture?”
That’s an interesting concept to consider. Mary gave birth to Jesus many years ago, and Joseph stayed by her and helped the boy to come into the world. But we, as Christians, may also be called to give birth to Christ… to make Christ present in the world where we live and work and play.
Do you remember the apostle Paul’s description of the church as the Body of Christ? As a community of Christians, we can embody Jesus’ presence in the world today. And even as individual Christians, we can make Christ present as much as we follow his way and live like him today. We are invited to be the living face of Jesus in the world… Christ in our families, Christ in our work places, Christ in our friendships, Christ in our neighbourhoods.
Today, I hope that you will take some time to consider how God is calling you to give birth to the Son in your own particular way…. perhaps by participating in a particular ministry in or through the church… perhaps by being the voice of care or the hands of help to someone you know who is struggling… perhaps by sharing the real meaning of Christmas with a child or a young person, or with someone else who needs to hear about the goodness and love of God.
One of the first examples in the Christian Church of someone who was called to a particular ministry was the apostle Paul. Just like Mary, Paul understood that he had been called and set apart by God for a special task. He referred to himself as “a servant of Jesus Christ,” ready and willing to do whatever God asked him to do, no matter how daunting the mission might be.
And Paul’s mission was to be an apostle to the Gentiles. Though he himself was a Jewish Christian, he had come to understand that Jesus was for everyone, and he was bound and determined to share the good news with the world.
Paul said “yes” to a special calling from God… just as Mary and Joseph said “yes.” But Paul also knew that each and every person who turns his or her life to the way of Jesus is called and invited to say “yes” to God and to embrace a special calling as well.
This morning we heard a few verses from the beginning of one of Paul’s letters to the Roman Christians, a church that was made up mostly of Gentile Christians. Paul wrote “to all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints” – who are called to be “set apart,” who are called to be “holy.” And he hoped that, despite the challenges of being Christian, each one of them would say “yes” to God, and participate in making Jesus present in their time and their culture.
Jesus was born many years ago, and God came to be WITH US. But I pray that Jesus will be born again today, and tomorrow, and next week, and next year. As we step forward in faith to say “yes” to God again, may Christ be born in us. Amen.