In addition to the readings given us today, I am going to rely on a poet to help me speak a word. The text is a hymn in The Hymnal 1982, #69 if you wish to look at it. It is a text that attempts to bridge Advent and Christmas, a bridge on which we stand this morning.
What is the crying at Jordan?
Who hears, O God, the prophecy?
Dark is the season, dark our hearts
and shut to mystery.
Of course, the "crying at Jordan" and "the prophecy" refers specifically to John the Baptist. Beyond that, however, for each one of us, the "crying at Jordan" is any attempt for God to get a word in edgewise in our lives. "The prophecy" is the surprising yet hopeful new word God has for each one of us.
The poet recognizes that this word God has for us is not an easy word. It is indeed an astounding word, and a word cloaked in mystery. That means it is a word that can only be heard, a word that can only be understood, with lives open to being surprised, willing to hear the unexpected. It is a word that can only be heard when we let go enough of our own control over our own life to let a free God have his way.
But “dark is the season, dark our hearts,” the poet says. The darkness is so many things: the madness that swirls around us or within us from which we simply want to be rescued, our own firm control of life and our assuredness that we know the way things are supposed to be, even, sometimes our joy, when it is dependent upon anything but the love of God as its source.
Here today we have before us Joseph, a good, honorable, even righteous man of his day, betrothed to a woman named Mary. Suddenly comes the darkness—apocalypse now. She is pregnant. The law requires he reject her. The law gives him the right—perhaps even the duty—to have her stoned to death. Joseph’s whole world is turned upside down in a moment.
The poet goes on,
Who then shall stir in this darkness,
prepare for joy in the winter night?
Mortal in darkness we lie down,
blind-hearted seeing no light.
I suspect it is how Joseph lied down that night, and how millions, even billions, of others, including you and me, have lied down in the darkness, in a winter’s night of the soul, quite incapable of seeing the light.
But then, for Joseph, something different. A dream. An angel. An astounding word.
It is described in this way by the poet:
Lord, give us grace to awake us,
to see the branch that begins to bloom;
in great humility is hid
all heaven in a little room.
An interesting image: all heaven in a little room. Joseph was no doubt asleep in a little room. He was not a rich man. Also, spiritually, emotionally, it must have felt a “little room” as well. He felt “boxed in” we might say. We know the feeling don’t we, when life gets a little crazy, a little out of control, and we begin to feel “boxed in,” cut off from God, from happiness, from love, from one another, even from ourselves, in a little room, now windows, no doors.
But the poet’s surprising word: “all heaven hid in a little room.” An angel in a dream in the little room. A child. God’s child. Name him “Jesus,” God saves. Call him “Emmanuel, God with us.”
Is this possible in the little room? Is this possible in the darkness of our lives? Not abandoned by God but visited? Not God’s death but God’s birth in our lives?
Yes, the poet says,
Now comes the day of salvation,
in joy and terror the Word is born!
God gives himself into our lives;
O let salvation dawn!
“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid . . .” It seems to me that is the new Word spoken to Joseph and through him to all of us in the darkness, in our little rooms. As the poet says, it is a Word born “in joy and terror.” The joy is, of course, the good news that we do not need to be afraid. The terror is, perhaps, that we have been found out, that we are indeed afraid, very afraid, so much of the time, but no one must know. And like so much else with God, we have got to get through the terror of admitting our fear before we can grasp the good news that we have no need of it.
And on what evidence should we not be afraid? For Joseph there was no evidence. There is only a dream. Dreams are easily dismissed or forgotten. There is impossible explanation. Conceived from the Holy Spirit indeed! And shall he risk all—his name, his reputation and honor, his future—on an impossible dream, on something he can never explain, never prove? Can submission to mystery cure his fear?
The story says yes, bids us say yes, and in our own darkness, our own mess, our own little rooms, allow heaven to be hid and God to speak a word of mystery and we to take it in and believe its truth and thus find the light to lead us out and on.
Isn’t it ironic that Christmas has become a kind of public spectacle of cleaning things up, pretending all is well for a day, a world at peace when there is no peace, family members wildly and functionally in love, happiness everywhere, the only mess allowed the torn wrapping paper around the tree, and the whole thing started with God being born in a mess?
Perhaps that is why we have such trouble finding God, because we look for him in the tidy places of our lives. The Christmas story tells us that is not where God is found. The Word comes in the darkness, in a little room, where, if we listen, we can hear, “Do not be afraid . . .”
Then it is our job, like Joseph’s, to claim the scandal of God’s own messiness, God’s own mysterious way of doing business, coming into the world in an illegitimate pregnancy and a dirty cowshed, and give it our name. Could it be, “Jesus,” God saves us, “Emmanuel,” God with us?
God does save. God is with us. But only if we are able to own the mess of our lives, whether it is our making or somebody else’s, and let the Messiah be born in it.