Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley


4th Sunday of Advent


Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  Matthew 1:18-25


Mary and Joseph were betrothed.  This was a legal relationship.  It was more binding than an engagement today.  You could only break a betrothal by getting divorced.  Mary and Joseph were betrothed and Mary was pregnant. Joseph knew he was not the father.  Because we know this story and because it’s almost Christmas, we might gloss over that a bit too quickly.  So let’s not.  This is not a planned, welcome pregnancy.  This is a shock to the system, a punch-in-the-gut for Joseph.  If you have ever been in a relationship broken by unfaithfulness, or if you have ever been a close witness to one, you know the raw pain and anguish and sense of betrayal that Joseph must have felt. 


And Mary, for her part, has got to know that Joseph is hurting.  Even though she hasn’t done anything wrong, she feels his pain. She may wonder what their future together will be, if this is how it is to start.  Will he ever fully trust her? 


Matthew describes Joseph as a righteous man.  This means he is a person of faith, a person who is scrupulous about doing the right thing.   He has a personal investment in this situation.  He is hurt and angry.  He might want to make sure that Mary feels that same hurt and anger.  But maybe he still cares for her and doesn’t want to hurt her too much.  Or does he?  Trying to do the right thing is tearing him up. 


Sometimes, when we know we are too close to a situation, too personally invested, we look for some kind of objective advice, some kind of rules that could apply across the board.  In Joseph’s case, those rules would be found in Torah, which was his Bible.  Joseph’s Bible tells him the penalty for this situation.  If his fiancée has been seduced, then she and the father of her child were to be stoned.  If she was raped, then only the rapist would be stoned.  Joseph has been wronged.  When we have been wronged, we want to know exactly who to blame.  We want to know as specifically as possible. Surely Joseph wants to know too. 


But finding that out would require a public inquiry.  Then everyone would know his business, which would be a humiliation for him and shameful and possibly fatal,  for Mary.  It is bad enough that she was unfaithful, does everyone have to know it? 


No, there is another option. Joseph’s Bible says that he can simply divorce her.   This seems to be the right thing to do.  It won’t heal his pain.  It won’t give him the satisfaction of hurting her like she hurt him, but he can wash his hands of her and move on with his life as soon as possible.  She can be her father’s problem. Joseph makes up his mind.  This is the right thing to do and he will do it. 


But then he has the dream.  The dream where the angel tells him that the child that Mary is carrying is from the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit?  What could that mean?


It is often the work of the Spirit to help us change our minds.  It is often the work of the Spirit to encourage our movement from what has been to the new thing that God is doing. 


Walter Bruggemann has a list of examples of this.  He says,


·        It is God’s spirit that hovered in Genesis 1 to greet a new world, a new heave and a new earth where there had been none.

·        It is God’s spirit, God’s wind, that blows the waters back in Egypt and lets our ancestors go free.

·        It is God’s spirit that called apostles and prophets and martyrs beyond themselves to do dangerous acts of obedience.

·         It was God’s spirit that came upon the disciples in the book of Acts and created a new community of faith and power and obedience and mission. 

·        It is God’s spirit that begins something new when the world is exhausted, when our imagination fails, and our lives shut down in silence and despair.[1]


And now the Spirit has come to Joseph and Mary. They are living in the tension between the good and faithful ways they have lived and what God is calling them to do next.


Matthew does not tell us any of Joseph’s thought process.  He doesn’t tell us about any conversations between Mary and Joseph.  He just says “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.”


We know Joseph’s obedience through his actions.  He sets aside his hurt, his indignation, his sense of betrayal, his  right to be right, his wounded manhood. And he marries his pregnant fiancée, which is the right thing to do, but not the easy choice.


Presbyterian minister and scholar Tom Long says [Joseph] learns that being truly righteous does not mean looking up a rule in a book and then doing the right thing; it means wrestling with the complexities of a problem, listening for the voice of God and then doing God’s thing.”[2]


Joseph woke up.  He arose from physical sleep, but more than that.  He perceived reality on a new level.  He sees the whole situation differently. 


There’s a contemporary connotation to “woke” that neither Matthew nor Joseph would have known.  It means being aware of what is really going on.  It began as a call to awareness about racism, but is evolving to include other forms of social injustice.  To be woke is to perceive reality on a deeper level, particularly to be aware of our own participation in oppressive systems.  To stay woke is to be vigilant about not slipping into old patterns. 


It is too much to expect that Joseph woke from his dream as  a fully formed twenty-first century feminist.  But I wonder.  He took action that was completely at odds with the social norms of his time.  He risked being seen as unrighteous, as unfaithful to God.  He risked being a laughing-stock, being considered a soft-hearted fool by his friends and relatives.  And that action, of marrying Mary, led to making the 90- mile journey with her to Bethlehem from Nazareth.  (You know there’s no donkey in the Bible story, right?  How fast do you think a pregnant woman can walk that distance?)  That led to caring for her and Jesus during his birth, which led to fleeing to Egypt when their lives were in danger and probably all kinds of other events we know nothing about.  I would like to think that all of those experiences continued to raise questions for Joseph.  Questions about the rules regarding women.  Questions about how to join God’s work in the world and how much risk you’re expected to take.  Questions about what to do when what you now believe is right and good is in direct conflict with what you’ve always been taught. 


We may find ourselves living in that same tension.   We’re being woke to the reality of racist systems at work in our country.  We perceive sexism and homophobia and white supremacy on a new level.  We are being woke to the meanness and cruelty and evil that we might have thought was all in the past.  As Nadia Bolz-Weber says, “We live in the same country we did before the election, but the ugliness is just less hidden.”[3] 


If we are woke to that ugliness, perhaps it is the work of God’s Spirit  -- calling us to change our minds, to look for the new thing that God is doing and to join God in it. 


Like the woke people in North Carolina this weekend who protested the flagrant power-grab by out-going lawmakers.  They called an emergency session during which they enacted legislation which would limit the power of the newly elected governor, who is a member of the other party.  Law-abiding citizens, righteous people, protested this abuse of office and about 45 of them, including a city council member, were arrested. 


Or the veterans who went to Standing Rock at the beginning of this month.  About 2500 veterans went as human shields, intending to put themselves, unarmed, between law enforcement and the water protectors. Taking that action meant becoming aware of the situation, perceiving the reality of the struggle in a particular way.  It also meant taking on a new role, protecting others without the weapons they are well-trained to use, and it meant being in opposition to American law enforcement, not their usual place. 


I am struck that sometimes, when we set out to help someone else, it becomes a means of our own healing.  We don’t know whether that was true for Joseph, but it seems to have been true for some of these veterans.


While they were there, about 500 veterans participated in a forgiveness ceremony during which they sought the forgiveness of the Lakota/Dakota people for atrocities committed against them throughout history by the U.S. military.   Speaking for himself and others, Army Veteran Wesley Clark Jr said, “Many of us, me particularly, are from the units that have hurt you over the many years. We came. We fought you. We took your land. We signed treaties that we broke. We stole minerals from your sacred hills. We blasted the faces of our presidents onto your sacred mountain. When we took still more land and then we took your children and then we tried to make your language and we tried to eliminate your language that God gave you, and the Creator gave you. We didn’t respect you, we polluted your Earth, we’ve hurt you in so many ways but we’ve come to say that we are sorry. We are at your service and we beg for your forgiveness."


The Native leaders formally granted forgiveness to those who sought it.[4]  I wonder how many of these veterans, suffering from PTSD or moral injury, received that forgiveness as an important step in their own healing.


Sometimes in waking to another’s need, we become aware of our own sin and brokenness.  Then our liberation, our healing, our salvation, gets bound up together.  Many years ago, there was a paraplegic teenager in a rehab center in Chicago.  He became terribly depressed, stopped communicating with anyone, wouldn’t get out of bed, just went into total withdrawal.  But then the staff put another patient in the room with him, a three-year-old boy who had been severely burned.  The teenager turned his back and ignored the little boy at first, but then began to notice and watch and listen to what the nurses and doctors were saying.  And then, miraculously, the teenager started to care about his little roommate.  Before long, he was pressing the call button, telling the nurses to bring pain medicine, nagging them – maybe he needed some water, some food. He started to tell the nurses and doctors what he observed and advising them on treatment and therapy.  Woke to the needs of another, the teenager started to care, to love, and to live, himself. [5]


Sisters and brothers, being woke is hard.  It might seem easier to ignore the needs of those around us, to shut our ears and eyes against God’s call, to cling to what we’ve always thought was right, and just go back to sleep.  But if you are woke, be hopeful, because the Spirit is working in you.  Trust that God’s Spirit is beginning something new again, now, when the world is exhausted and we are tempted to shut down.  And if you are woke, stay woke.  Amen.




[1] Walter Bruggemann, “A New World Birthed” in The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann, Vol 2 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2015), p. 21

[2] Thomas G. Long, Matthew:  The Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997), p. 14.

[3] https://sojo.net/magazine/january-2017/keeping-faith-trumps-america

[4] http://wwwhuffingtonpost.com/entry/forgiveness-ceremony-unites-veterans-and-natives-at-standing-rock-casino_us_5845cdbbe4b055b31398b199 

[5] As told by the Rev. John Buchanan in his sermon “Love” http://www.fourthchurch.org/sermons/2007/122407.html