Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Our Longing, God's Longing

Scripture for the 4th Sunday in Advent includes Isaiah 7:10-16; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

Christmas (twelve days) and Advent (four weeks), even when combined, are the shortest seasons in the church year. So short… and yet they are all about longing. Our longing, and God’s longing.

What are you longing for? Go ahead: say it out loud!

Light in a dark season? Warmth in the cold? For Christmas Day to come? For Christmas Day to be over? For all the clutter of a material holiday to disappear? For your loved ones to be happy? For you yourself to feel joy?

Are you longing for God?

What is God longing for? If answering that question is central to our experience of Advent and Christmas, the material clutter of the holidays will not reveal the answer. We’ll have to step back from the Christmas tree with hands in the air, leave the crime scene of the kitchen, silence the computer’s siren seductive last-minute shopping opportunities, and go take a walk. If it’s on a star-bedazzled night, we might look up and dare to hear the answer: What God longs for, God whose name is Emmanuel, is to be with us.

How many times have you looked up, looked out a hospital window, raised your eyes from a graveside to see through tears darkly, in your solitude searched the heavens and asked, “God, where are you?”

And to think that simultaneously God yearns to be with us! Such a disconnect just sharpens the edge of the Collect we prayed: daily God visits us to hum near our ear the lovesong of heaven, shaping in us both conscience (the voice of God within) and consciousness (awareness of God, reverence for life), and it is for us to prepare more and more a place for the Christ God sends. Sharpened by this short sweet season is the Prayer Book’s lesson that the mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

Our Christmas observance, in church and at home, should advance this mission. Our Christmas celebration can be the lovesong we sing to God, what we send our children home humming after their pageant is performed, the music of the spheres globally repositioning us, preparing us to slough off the skin of an old year and find ourselves new.

With Jesus Christ at the center of it all, no wonder Matthew’s Gospel, the very first page we meet in the New Testament, is all about who Jesus is and how God comes to be with us in him.

We’re given only the second half of Matthew’s first chapter. Do you recall what’s in the first half? Yes, all the begats. That we don’t get to hear all those generations today suggests that our church elders may have thought there isn’t enough time in Advent for that kind of thing.

But the question of who Jesus is gets answered in part by a genealogy covering forty-two generations in three sections with fourteen generations in each. The first starts with the Hebrew patriarch Abraham and goes fourteen generations to great King David. Then come fourteen generations from Solomon to the time of the disaster, the sixth- century BCE, when Israel’s leading citizens were forced into exile by the Babylonian emperor. In the last section of this genealogy, fourteen generations bring us Joseph “the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.”

This genealogy says that Jesus sums up the longing of God to be with his people in a faithful servant, obedient like Abraham, charismatic like David, wise like Solomon.

This genealogy also says that Jesus sums up the human longing of God’s people, and will carry in his own body the pain and suffering they know in their exile from home.

And this genealogy does a surprising thing. Unusual for a Jewish author of that time, Matthew includes women, a surprising selection of women. Tamar, a Gentile, tricked and seduced her father-in-law, then bore illegitimate twins. Rahab, another Gentile, once worked as a prostitute. Ruth also grew up as a pagan Gentile, and Uriah’s wife Bathsheba committed adultery with charismatic King David. Not a few of the men listed had unsavory pasts. This genealogy says that Jesus had some pretty shady ancestors.

I’m guessing that most of us have a family tree with some dodgey characters in it, and perhaps some births out of wedlock. Guess what? So does Jesus. And who can miss Matthew’s carefully-crafted message? When he says, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way…” he means that God works equally well outside, as well as inside, what we mortals called traditional. God is free to make choices.

A similar point is made when Matthew tells us about Joseph, to whom Mary was betrothed. By tradition, that put them beyond engagement in a formal way that could be dissolved only by divorce. That a betrothed woman was pregnant would be understood as meaning (so long as her betrothed had been behaving himself) that the child did not belong to the husband-to-be. In a strict adherence to tradition, Mary would have been charged with adultery.

But Joseph, being a just man, was not willing to expose her to public disgrace. Or to expose himself? Sure. He must have wanted it all to go away, as in that stage of grief when it hurts so much you lose your imagination, your awareness that you have choices.

Then came the dream. In deep sleep, Emmanuel hums the Christmas message, “Do not be afraid… Do not be afraid to stay the course, to face the world with courage you do not know you have, for there’s something at work here that exceeds all that you long for. But it takes you for it to happen. It takes you making certain very good (and likely very hard) choices.”

What is it about Joseph that is so useful to God? It is that he did not react according to the law when he decided to protect Mary from humiliation and punishment. His sense of justice exceeded the justice of law. This will be the constant message of Jesus in Matthew, that God is shaping in us a higher and finer sense of right and wrong than the standards of the world, the ways of business, and the traditions of culture. God is shaping in us awareness of choices, and the ability to welcome such grace as will show us our best choices.

This higher and finer sense is what we want for Julian, whom we will baptize this morning. We want his senses free and clear to recognize that in the adventure of life there is available to him more than he can desire or pray for, God with him humming in his ear the lovesong of heaven, shaping in him conscience that will seek justice exceeding law, and consciousness that will revere and love and reveal to him his very best choices.