Sunday, December 23, 2007

Advent 4 Sermon: Vulnerable Power

Sermon Texts:
Deuteronomy 22: 13-30
Matthew 1: 18-25

I like word games. I sometimes get on the internet and play scrabble with people from all around the world. That’s fun. I also love a game called “Boggle” where you shake up this game-board that has all these dice with letters on each side, an then you try to make words out of the die that are touching each other.
Another of my favorites is called “Balderdash,” where you are given a word that you most likely don’t know, and then you make up a definition that you think will convince other people. You submit your definition for the word along with all the other players in the game, and the real definition is read too. The object is to try and guess for the right definition, and make other people vote for yours.
One game that kind of gets the engine in my mind working for sermon writing is free association. I read a word, and then I write down all the words or images that come to my mind when I hear that word.
When playing “free association” with the word “power,” or even more specifically “the power to conquer sin,” I can’t help myself but think of things like “triumphant,” “strength,” “overwhelming,” “defeating.” I may think of images like a “Mighty Wind,” or “an Empty Tomb,” or the “Fourth Horseman.” In my own mind, the word “Power” may be associated with a million other words and never attract the word “vulnerable.” “The Power to Conquer sin” might take on various costumes without ever reaching the image of a baby’s hand reaching out of a straw filled manger.
So this is how we know this idea comes from the mind of God and not from the mind of mankind. It just doesn’t correlate for us. It isn’t natural. It is non-sense. Power is the ability to have no vulnerability, right? A newborn baby can’t even conquer the art of standing on two feet, much less conquering sin.
Such things just don’t spring out of a creative author’s imagination, they are too counter-cultural and counter intuitive. So, we read this story in Matthew and in Luke with wonder and awe and mystery. Some have discounted the stories as factual accounts of history, but it matters not. Whether or not they are factual, they are true!
Never has such power been so vulnerable at any time in history as what we witness in this passage of scripture. Though it wasn’t what the lectionary prescribed for today, I wanted us to all hear Deuteronomy 22 so that we would all know just how vulnerable the Christ child was!
This Power is so vulnerable, All it would have taken for it to not have come into being would have been for one person to shut her heart to the prompting of the Spirit. It would have only taken one man closing his mind to the possibilities presented to him in a dream. If instead he had thought of those laws prescribed by Deuteronomy and said to himself, “It was only a dream, this is what the law requires.” How many of us act on what comes to us in our dreams, anyway?
This sin conquering power that is embodied in this little child might have not even made it to the world if Joseph had of followed the letter of the law found in Deuteronomy. Our Lord, the conquering Lion of the tribe of Judah, the lamb who takes away the sin of the world, might have been stoned to death in the womb, along with his mother, Mary in the doorway of his grandfather’s house. But this vulnerable power prevailed!
Matthew describes Joseph as a “righteous” man. By “righteous” he means that Joseph lives by the Law. He is a just man. Yet, Matthew shows Joseph balancing the words of the law with what the Spirit stirs in his heart, he portrays Joseph opting for compassion over strict adherence. What does the Lord require of us?
The New Interpreter’s Bible Suggests:
As modern hearers of this story, we’re struck by the similarity between Joseph’s quandary and their own. We want to “do the right thing,” and we believe that somehow it is revealed in the Bible. We may belong to a church that claims to accept the Bible as the norm for its faith and practice and, yet, sense that the “Christian thing to do” does not follow the letter of the Bible.
There are some biblical commands that many churches, in all good conscience and with reverence for the Bible as the Word of God, simply do not obey. This is not only in such matters as the washing of feet (John 13:12-17) and holy kisses (1 Cor 16:20), but in more basic directions concerning divorce (Mark 10:2-12) and household structure and lines of authority (1 Pet 3:1-6).
Matthew writes for the same kind of church. As Jewish Christians who had always reverenced the Law, they sometimes found themselves torn between strict adherence to the letter of the Torah and the supreme demand of love to which their new faith called them (22:39-40). If they neglected the Law, they were accused by others, and perhaps by themselves, of rejecting Bible and tradition as the “unrighteous.”
But Joseph is pictured as “righteous,” even though he had decided to act out of care for another person’s dignity rather than strictly adhere to the Law. As it turned out, Joseph did not have to carry through on his decision, but the point is made: Matthew wants to instruct his church in being “righteous” (just, committed to justice) in a way that respects both the Law of the Bible and the Christian orientation to love, even if it seems to violate the Law.
Thus Joseph stands, at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, as a model of what Matthew hopes for all disciples—indeed, for each reader of the Gospel. Joseph is already facing the “you-have-heard-that-it-was-said- but-I-say-to-you” tension that will be displayed in the Sermon on the Mount (5:21-48)—the tension between the prevailing understanding of God’s commandments and the new thing that God is doing in Jesus.
By Joseph’s decision to obey the startling and unexpected command of God, he is already living the heart of the law and not its letter, already living out the new and higher righteousness of the kingdom (5:20). In a difficult moral situation, he attends to the voice of God, and he is willing to set aside his previous understanding of God’s will in favor of this word from the living and saving God.
Truth be told, the rabbinic tradition had mitigated this portion of the Law by the time Mary and Joseph were faced with their respective decisions. The teachers of Law had decided that Deut. 22 was a bit harsh, and it was already uncommon to find people adhering strictly to these tenants, but still—the Power of God incarnate came into some pretty precarious circumstances, nonetheless.
The mysterious and earth changing power that is brought to life in this story about a boy coming into the world in precarious circumstances is a revelation to us about our God: who show’s forgiveness in a Father’s embrace, who takes flight in something like a gentle dove, in one whose power is through suffering, death, and finally resurrection.
God’s power is shown in our lives when we love our enemies, when we turn the other cheek to those who wrong us, and when we help those who are dire straits. The power of our God takes place in humble human lives and loves, and in this way we are part of this manger story.
Likewise, Joseph’s choice to follow his heart over the letter of the law is an example of power in vulnerability, because he is making himself vulnerable to the possibility is doing a “new thing,” instead of just “sticking to the ‘gameplan.’” The law is solid, it is cornerstone of Joseph’s culture, and yet Joseph opts for another path. He’s going out on the limb that God is communicating to him, an ordinary carpenter. He’s willing to trust the angel’s message in a dream: that the unknown baby his fiancĂ© is carrying will save his people from their sins. And instead of distancing himself from such a crazy circumstance, he embraces that vulnerable power.
The vulnerable power becomes a boy, and Joseph teaches him and raises him. That vulnerable power grows into a man who teaches and loves and forgives his people. He walks up a mountain with a beam on his back and nails that vulnerable power up on a cross. And through this vulnerable power he saves his people from their sins, and lives up to his name: Immanuel, Jesus, God is with Us! This is how God is with us!

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