Monday, December 24, 2007

ADVENT 4 Sermon

Set apart for the Gospel of God

It is an interesting reading we have from Paul’s letter to the Romans.
There’s not a lot of substance or story to it.
It is more of an introduction.
Paul reminding the community in Rome of whom he is
and why he writes.
It’s like writing a letter to some friends and saying,
Hi there! It’s me, Paul. Remember me?
Apostle, child of God?
Remember God?
Spirit, holiness, obedience, grace.

But there is one line in this brief reading
that was truly illuminated for me this week:
Set apart for the gospel of God.

Set apart for the gospel of God.

Paul may have a lot of questions
but one thing he is sure of:
God has called him
to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.

It may stretch our power of belief
but we, like Paul, are all so called.
We are all set apart for the gospel of God.
We are not alike in the ways we are set apart.
We are each unique.
God blesses each one of us with unique gifts.
We are called to use those gifts in this world.

Our gospel reading from Matthew
attests to that theology as well.
Our gospel reading today gives us a little preview.
We’ve almost made it to Christmas
and our gospel reading teases us—
The birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way…
But before we get to the birth story,
we hear another story.

A story about a young woman named Mary.
She is engaged to a man, most likely many years her senior,
no doubt a marriage arranged by her family,
and this man’s name is Joseph.

Mary discovers she is pregnant—
and she and Joseph are not yet married—
and Mary tells Joseph that he is not the father.
Imagine your fiancée coming to you and saying,
I’m pregnant—but not by you.
By the Holy Spirit.

Cant' you just imagine Joseph--his mouth slightly dropping open,
and then his eyes rolling as he mutters under his breath,
Oh, sure. Right.

Regardless of the century,
this preganancy is not good news.
The typical punishment for an unwed mother like Mary
was death.
Stoning a woman to death
was felt to be the justified punishment.

It is not good news for Joseph either—
such a situation will bring shame on him and his family.
As a man in first century Palestine
he will not suffer physical punishment.
In fact, most people would have felt sorry for Joseph.
As a man, he will not be blamed,
But a scandal is a scandal.

Mary pregnant and Joseph not the father.

The good news is that
God blessed Joseph with the gifts of being gentle and compassionate.

Joseph does not wish to see Mary stoned.
His plan is to send her away quietly.

The village will wake up one day
and Mary will be gone.
What ever happened to Mary? some will ask.
I think there was a family emergency, some will suggest.
What about her engagement?
Oh, I think Joseph changed his mind.
Oh! Poor Mary!

Or perhaps some will be a bit more suspicious
about Mary’s sudden absence.
But regardless,
she will be gone—and safe.
Still pregnant, still without a husband,
but at least, alive.
That was Joseph’s plan.

But God has a different plan.
An angel appears to Joseph
and says, Do not be afraid.

Have you noticed that almost every time an angel appears in the Bible
the first words uttered are,
Do not be afraid.

Perhaps those would be good words for us
to keep on the tip of our tongues
when we are faced with difficulty and despair,
when we wake in the middle of the night
our minds racing with worry and anxiety.

Do not be afraid.

God sends those words to us in many forms,
and often.
Especially when our plans
have been or are about to be disrupted.

Joseph is blessed with a listening heart.
The angel says, you are not to send Mary away.
Take her as your wife.
Have this child and name him Jesus.

A name that derives from the name Joshua
which means “God saves.”

Then Joseph wakes up.
And he obeys.

Joseph is set aside for the gospel of God
and terrifying as it may be, Joseph says yes.
He does not set himself aside—he lets go and lets God.

There is nothing about this situation
that Joseph hoped for or planned.
And there is nothing easy about this situation either.
By listening to God,
Joseph—and Mary—will most likely have to endure
rude, mean-spirited and cruel comments--
from their neighbors, their friends and
even from their families.
But both Joseph and Mary let God’s voice
be the one that guides them.

Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent.
We are standing right on the brink.

Monday evening we will return here and celebrate
the birth of a baby that changed everything.

That birth, that new beginning, is only possible because
ordinary people like Mary, like Joseph
said YES to God.

Ordinary people believed that God is ever at work in this world.
Ordinary people believed that God is with us—always—
in every aspect, every twist and turn of our lives.
Emmanuel—God with us.

Ordinary people believed that God was so extraordinary
that even they could be set aside for the power of the gospel.

We stand on the brink.
God calls us to ponder in our hearts
how we, too, are set aside.
What are the gifts we have been given to change the world and those around us?

Perhaps your gift is music or art or writing.
Perhaps your gift is your gentle spirit or your kind words.
Perhaps your gift is loving and caring for God’s creatures.
Perhaps your gift is understanding the enormous responsibility
of being a loving parent.
The possibilities of our unique gifts are limitless
because God is limitless.

For these four weeks of Advent
we have reflected on how we are to prepare for God’s coming,
for God being born in our own lives.

Today we hear the key words: Do not be afraid.

God has made us ready.
God is always making us ready—over and over and over again.
Trust in the ways that God sets us apart for the power of the gospel.
God has given each of us gifts that the world desperately needs.
Advent is almost over. The time is now.

Time to say YES
And go into the world and be the power of the gospel.
In our own unique ways.

Do not be afraid.
God is with us.

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