“Bowing to the Courage of Love”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
Matthew 1:18-25
Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A
Holy Habit of Worship, Week 8 of 8

Are any of you fans of the BBC series, “Call the Midwife”?  It was a very popular show in England when it first launched, and while our family was still living there.  Now, we can all stream and binge-watch it on Netflix.  Episode three in Season One depicts an expectant father who’s over the moon about his wife’s pregnancy.  When the baby is born, he doesn’t bat an eye when it’s clear that the child had, in fact, been conceived in an adulterous liaison.  The TV husband takes one look at the baby, pronounces him the most beautiful child he’s ever seen, and takes him into his heart and his family without missing a beat.[1]  He adores his wife, and he adores the infant, accepting both for who and what they are, despite the ridicule, pity, or derision his love may have invited from others.  This TV husband represents a sort of secular Joseph figure set in mid-20th-century East London.

Of course, Mary had not committed adultery.  But Jesus was, indeed, another father’s child, and it would have been understandable if Joseph had spurned Mary and her son.  What on earth could possibly have persuaded – or, more precisely, what apart from some heavenly power could have possessed – Joseph to heed the advice he received in his dream?

Of all the characters in the nativity story, Joseph receives comparatively little attention.  But there’s a sort of profound gravity in the way that he quietly occupies the very margin of the picture, while the spotlight envelops Mary and the baby, the shepherds, the magi, and the angels.  Even the animals seem to demand greater notice than Joseph does in most crèche scenes.

Still, for the short amount of ink spilled in describing him, Joseph is a compelling human character.  That’s because, in what we do read of him, we recognize at some level that the love he exhibits is divine: it goes above and beyond ordinary human love.  It tolerates and anticipates something greater than we, on our best days, think we can.  And yet, Joseph is one of us – which offers us hope for our own potential, if we’re but willing to allow God close enough to guide us into a more beautiful and fulfilling way of being human.  It’s the sort of love we long for.  And, with Advent-like anticipation, it’s the sort of love we should also wait with profound hope and expectation to be revealed among us, even within us, as people of faith.

According to Matthew, Joseph was a good man of high moral character.  In Chapter 1:19-20, we read, “… Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose [Mary] to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.  But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘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.’”

What do you suppose Joseph was afraid of: that Mary had betrayed him?  Or that God had come wonderfully, fearfully close?  Which do you think would make you feel more queasy?  Matthew’s account is open to either interpretation, or a blend of both.  Biblical stories are often written in this kind of spare, open, layered style, making room for us to reflect on our own fears and hopes from multiple perspectives – so that we’re invited to consider what we, ourselves, might have feared if we were Joseph.

Regardless of how we interpret his apprehension, the angel calls Joseph to a “love that doubles as a kind of courage.  Courage to commit – though the neighbors may whisper and scowl.  Courage to nurture – though the child you’re about to raise is from the Holy Spirit.  Courage to love – though the child you love is none other than Love incarnate” [2], indeed none other than Immanuel, ‘God-with-Us.’

And what is the source, the wellspring, of such courage in Joseph – or even in us, when we should discover it today?  It is none other than God’s love.  The love made flesh, the love that came to dwell with us.  The same love that the prophets, including Isaiah and Jeremiah spoke of; the extravagant love of a Creator for the created, utterly determined to demonstrate infinite and unwavering devotion to people completely lacking appreciation for the magnitude of the gift.

Imagine: the Creator of the cosmos was willing to risk coming to humankind in the guise of a needy, defenseless infant; willing to risk rejection from the very outset by the mortals identified to parent him, before submitting to the rejection of so many others, including his own closest friends and disciples; God’s Love was willing to endure unthinkable emotional and physical suffering, and ultimately even submit to a humiliating death rather than part ways with us.  Is there any greater power in all the world?  Certainly, none that are also mighty enough to rise from such devastation and continue by bringing into being still more abundant life!

This is the Love that was at the heart of Joseph’s bearing and being, because Joseph honored the only God worthy of human worship.  This is the love that Mary knew, and that their holy family shared: this is the Love that casts out hate and fear.

How, by our worship of the God who creates all possibilities and makes even the impossible possible, might we embrace and begin living according to the courageous power of such Love?  The sort of courage that doesn’t yield to worldly norms, but instead goes further and risks what feels safe, for the sake of others?

We may never be faced with the occasion to receive a child who’s not our own into our life or family.  But we don’t need to search far to discover opportunities to welcome and help other vulnerable individuals who find themselves in situations of need, people who are (or would be) spurned by the rest of society but are nonetheless children of God and therefore members of our own kin.

As our season of Advent moves toward its climax in the Christmas celebration we will hold in two or three days, and as we in this congregation begin to move our attention from the Holy Habit of Worship to the Holy Habit of Fellowship in the New Year, notice the ways in which God is drawing very near to you (to all of us!) – maybe in a dream, maybe through the words of Scripture or song or some other source, maybe incarnate in a person with a name whose need invites your response.  Then, welcome the arrival of Immanuel, who has come to us, and comes to us, and will come to us again, and again, and again!  Amen.

[1] Connections, Year A, Vol. 1, p. 63.

[2]Paraphrased and partial quotes: https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/12/16/courageous-love-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-advent-week-four

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