Sunday, December 18, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Preacher: Pastor Day Hefner
watch this service online (gospel reading starts around 26:44; sermon starts around 28:18 (audio was weird and skippy for some reason this day))
Thomas Anderson was a regular guy, just living his life. He worked in a mid-level job as a computer programmer, and pretty much every day for him was just get up, go to work, come home, go to bed, repeat. The spiciest thing about him was that he enjoyed hacking in his spare time. But one day, in the midst of his mundane life, Thomas is approached by a couple of mysterious people who tell him that basically everything he thinks he knows about the world is a lie – that there is much, much more to the reality of this world than what he has known.
One of the two people he meets, a man named after the Greek god of dreams, offers him a choice – two different pills that he can take: a blue pill that will return him to his life as he’s known it, where he can forget any of this ever happened; or a red pill that will wake him up to see the world around him as it truly is.
Most of you have probably clocked by now that I’m talking about the late 90s hit movie The Matrix. Heh, it’s not at all the most up-to-the-minute pop culture reference, but it’s still a great story. Thomas Anderson – AKA Neo – is pulled out of his ordinary life and “down the rabbit hole.” This choice he makes draws him into this whole epic adventure he could never have imagined.
Nowadays, this whole idea of being “red-pilled” has taken on some really unfortunate associations in popular culture, not intended by the filmmakers. But this is still a powerful scene. And I find that this choice that Neo makes resonates with our gospel reading for this morning in some interesting ways.
The more I contemplate this story, the more I realize what a profoundly powerful and pivotal moment this was for Joseph. He is offered a choice – a choice that has the power to wildly reshape the way that he sees and understands the world and his place in it. Mary is already all in on this weird and wild ride that the Spirit has started her off on, but Joseph had not yet been invited to the party. He is not yet aware of the larger truth of what is happening. All Joseph knows is that this difficult decision has now been placed before him.
Joseph is a righteous, respectable man. He’s a perfectly ordinary man who also happens to be a direct descendant of the royal house of David. He’s someone with a deep respect for both his God and his community. All in all, a pretty good dude. So it is not at all what he planned or expected when his supposedly ‘virgin bride’ suddenly turns up pregnant. This would have been wildly taboo for the time – girls were often married within a few years of hitting puberty, leaving a pretty small window for them to manage to get pregnant out of wedlock. It’s massively disruptive news for how Joseph imagined his life would go. If he goes ahead and marries Mary, he risks exposing them both to scandal and public condemnation – after all, most people know how to count to nine! But if he raises a stink about Mary already being pregnant, he will expose her to public humiliation and probably worse.
Even though the circumstances seem to point toward Mary having broken Joseph’s trust, Joseph still has compassion for her. He doesn’t want to make life difficult for her, so he plans to “dismiss her quietly.” But before he can go through with this plan, Joseph has a dream. A messenger from God comes to Joseph in a dream to say, “Hold up – let me explain.” God fills him in on the nature of the bun currently baking in Mary’s oven. And, as with Mary, God gives Joseph a glimpse of the things that will come into being through this child – this child who will save his people from their sins, this child who will be called Emmanuel: “God is with us.” God encourages Joseph to go ahead with marrying Mary. God invites him to risk the scandal, to embrace this bizarre family dynamic of raising a firstborn son that isn’t his, to join Mary and support her on this weird and holy journey that she’s already all in on.
It’s an undeniably weird way for a marriage or a family to begin – nontraditional, to say the very least! And for this family, starting off on this foot is just a foretaste of the wild and unexpected feast to come. It’s just the preface to Jesus’ actual birth, for instance, when Joseph and Mary unexpectedly find themselves welcoming in this random assortment of unwashed shepherds and angels who turn up to celebrate; or later, when wise and powerful kings from far away lands show up on their doorstep, just to pay homage to their toddler son; or later, when as a child Jesus himself starts quoting Isaiah and saying all these incredibly wise and wild and prophetic things; or later when Jesus gathers a ragtag band of misfits around himself that grows to massive crowds of people who follow their son all over the countryside as he stirs up this new movement and preaches about God’s kingdom; or later when their son’s path leads him to be arrested in a sham trial and executed on a cross. And then later still, when it becomes joyfully clear that death on a cross is not the end of his story.
This is the wild ride that Joseph is being invited into. I honestly don’t think God would have faulted Joseph for saying: “Yeah… pass.” It’s the response his family and community probably would have expected from him as well – the response that many ordinary people probably would have given – to wash his hands of this weirdness and scandal and return to his everyday life and responsibilities.
But instead, Joseph chooses the red pill. Joseph says, “Okay. I’m in.”
There isn’t really much more written about Jospeh in the rest of the gospel witness, so we don’t know exactly how the rest of this whole adventure turned out for him. But given his sense of faithfulness and compassion, I imagine that Joseph was the kind of man who would commit himself to raising and loving Jesus as his own son. I imagine that his heart would swell and ache with those same feelings of pride and awe and grief and wonder as Mary’s – that he would be just as all in as she was.
Joseph and Mary found their lives opened up in wild ways through all these things – Jesus opened them up to a world beyond their imagining, to relationships with people they never imagined, in ways they never imagined. Simply by being God made flesh, come to earth to live among humans, Jesus crossed boundaries and subverted social expectations in order to relate to humans in a new and much deeper way. And throughout his ministry, Jesus continued to pull people together across boundaries of class and social standing and ethnicity and into relationships of radical love.
The early church – the movement he founded – reflected this profoundly, bringing together people from all across the socioeconomic spectrum in a fellowship of siblings and equals in Christ. We get a glimpse of this in our second reading. This is the beginning of Paul’s letter to the community of believers in Rome – and rather than a quick, “Dear siblings in Christ,” Paul devotes seven whole verses to greeting this community, one of the largest and most diverse communities in the early church. Paul’s letters are all full of the challenges and the joys the early church navigated as they came together as women and men, slave and free, wealthy and poor, Judean and Gentile, to form communities founded on radical love and the gospel good news.
At our best, that’s what the church continues to be – what we are called to be: a group of folks from many walks of life, who chose to come together despite our real differences, and embody love for one another; a group of folks who say “Yes” to the wild and wonderful journeys into which the Spirit invites us. At our best, we imitate Christ by choosing to practice radical love for our neighbor, for one another, and for ourselves: to practice love even when we risk scandal or discomfort, to embody love even when it drags us outside our comfort zones, to choose love even when it costs us.
This Christmas, may we do as Mary and Joseph did and say “Yes” to the wild invitation of the Spirit. Let us open our hearts as they did to be enlarged and transformed by the joyous love of Christ. Let us be witnesses and bearers of the same radical love with which Christ first came and loved us.