The Rt. Rev. Dr. J. Neil Alexander
In the Name of Jesus I bring you greetings from the Clergy and People
of the Diocese of Atlanta; and from your sister church there, the
Cathedral of Saint Philip. We treasure our relationships with
Episcopalians and fellow Christians across the nation and around the
world. I treasure my relationships with Bishop Chane, Bishop Eastman,
and the other great bishops who serve the Diocese of Washington.
And I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge the delight and
excitement I share with you at the election of Dr. Samuel Lloyd as the
new Dean of this Cathedral. I have known Dr. Lloyd for many years and I
can assure you that there are great days ahead for Washington Cathedral
under his faithful and creative leadership.
In just a few days, season of Advent-waiting will come of a close
and the church in this place will gather here by the thousands to
proclaim as though for the very first time the coming of God among us
enfleshed in Jesus of Nazareth. In spite of the crowds, all of the
hustle and bustle, and the obligations of family and friends, Christmas
is for many people a deeply personal time. It is a time of
introspection; for asking those questions of oneself that perhaps we lay
aside for much of the rest of the year. Today’s gospel from Saint
Matthew the Evangelist can open our hearts and minds to the personal
side of these days as our hearts prepare room for the Christ Child.
Put yourself in Joseph’s shoes. Imagine how you
would feel if you were in his situation. Your about-to-be bride—the
love of your life with whom you have had a traditional courtship and
played everything by the rules—rather casually lets you know that she
is pregnant; and you know, even if no one else does, that you had
nothing whatsoever to do with it! This is a person you thought you knew!
She has some sort of harebrained explanation that sounds to your ears
like something alien, a message from another world. Even though she has
grown up in the same religious tradition as you have, and even though
you know she knows what this is going to mean, she is the picture of
calmness; she seems unflappable about the whole thing, at peace with
herself, and not the least bit outraged or ashamed at what has happened
to her. That alone begins to unnerve you and make you crazy. When you
look at her she seems more confident, more radiant, and more lovely than
You are confused and hurt, puzzled and irritated, all at the same
time. You don’t know what to do. In your mind you know full well that
even though you had nothing to do with it, everyone is going to blame
you. They are going to whisper and gossip and avoid you on the street.
All of your regular customers are going to find another carpenter’s shop
to take their business. You’ve worked hard to build a good reputation as
a good and faithful man, and now this: betrayal: betrayal by the person
you love more than anyone else in the world. You’ll be paying for this
for years to come, and yet you did not do anything wrong.
Seen through the eyes of Joseph, human life is messy. We work and
work to keep things in our lives nice and tidy and respectable and good,
and then something happens we cannot control and we can’t imagine
how we have gotten ourselves into this situation.
One of the principal learnings of this passage from Matthew’s gospel
may have less to do with ourselves and more to do with God. The truth of
this passage is clear: however messy our lives can be, sometimes God
comes along, as he did to Joseph, and we discover to our dismay that the
messiness of our lives just got all the messier.
The conception of Jesus completely
overturns the lives of Mary and Joseph—and in ways they never planned
for, asked for, or could ever have imagined.
Jesus was born at a time
when unmarried parents faced the certainty of social disgrace; and the
unmarried woman could easily have faced death by stoning and the hands
of the religiously righteous. The prospects faced by Mary and Joseph
were grim indeed; and neither of them asked for it, neither was
responsible for it, and neither of them did anything to deserve it.
At one time or another in our lives, I suspect all of us find
ourselves in a position not unlike the one Joseph and Mary found
themselves in. Not in the sense of a mysterious pregnancy, but in a more
profound sense, but in the sense of God beginning a new thing in our
lives; something we did not ask for, something we did nothing to
deserve, something the consequences of which we could never have
I recently spent an hour with a very angry person who
feels betrayed, and put upon; who believes something is being demanded
over which no control is possible. The person is confused and upset
because the spouse believes that God is calling them to give up their
jobs and their security, their home and their lifestyle, to return to
school to prepare themselves to be sent by the church to full-time
ministry in a foreign land. The person is convinced that the spouse’s
call is real; that God really is calling the spouse to this new life;
but the personal cost is far more than was bargained for. A clear and
certain plan for their life together had been carved over time and this
new scheme that God appears to be placing upon the spouse is tearing at
the fabric of their relationship.
When such transformation is
going on in our own life it is a bit easier to manage: it is happening
to us, and we can feel the power of God working deep within us.
But those around us may not understand it. As hard as they may
try and as deeply as they may want to, it is hard for them to understand
what God is doing deep down inside you.
That was Joseph’s
dilemma. No matter how hard he tried he simply couldn’t understand what
God was doing in Mary’s life, not only in her body, but in her heart, in
her soul, in the ground of her being. In his mind, of course, Joseph
knew what he had to do. He was a righteous man. He knew the rules. He
knew that no matter how much he loved her, and wanted to forgive her,
even though he couldn’t imagine she had been unfaithful to him, but that
was still the only explanation he could get his mind around, no matter
what sort of mental or emotional gymnastics he did, he still knew that
he had to do what was right and put Mary out. He hoped he might do it
quietly; perhaps in a way that would keep her from being stoned to
death, but he was still a man of faith and righteousness and he had to
do what he had to do. Joseph had always played his life by the good book
and he was not going to stop now; he was puzzled and confused and
hurting, but still very much in love, but he was still going to play it
by the book.
But then something unexpected happens. An angel of
the Lord comes to Joseph and tells him not to be afraid. (Can you
imagine the look on Joseph’s face when the angel said, do not be
afraid!?) In his heart, Joseph must have replied, “you’ve got to be
kidding!” “Don’t be afraid,” the angel said, “to take Mary as your wife.
The child she is bearing is of the Holy Spirit.” That must have been
unsettling. It was one thing to be engaged to a pregnant woman of whose
child he was not the father, and now he learns from an angel that the
child was conceived by the Holy Spirit. “How will I ever explain that?”
Joseph must have said to himself!
All Joseph wants to do is to
do the right thing. For his whole life, he had been taught over and over
about what it meant to do the right thing and everything about his
personal formation suggested that he was strong enough to carry it off.
But now he discovers that what he had always been taught was no
longer the right thing after all. Now he discovers that God has a new
idea, a different take on the situation, and a new direction for him to
take his life. The old ways were dependable and secure; the new ways
were unpredictable and scary. But deep in his heart Joseph knew that he
had to listen to this angel of God and follow in faith in ways he could
Saint Matthew tells this story of Joseph here at
the beginning of his gospel to make a sure and certain point. A child is
born in Bethlehem, to a virgin engaged to a man whoses name was Joseph.
And the child’s name is Emmanuel, which means God with us. And in the
coming of this child, God is doing a new thing among us. The old ways
are coming to an end; a new day is dawning, and new world is coming, and
everything we have always thought we knew is going to be up for grabs.
So in these deeply personal days, as we continue the frantic,
but gentle wait for Christmas, I invite you to watch and listen for the
angels—and you may be as surprised as Joseph was about what new thing
God is going to do in your life.